Celebrating Scarcity and the Question of Rejection in the Works of Luther Price

in 59th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen

by Tara Judah

In a discussion podium titled What Was Cinema?, academics Maeve Connolly and Thomas Elsaesser examined the where, when and why of ‘cinema after cinema’ or ‘cinema after installation art’. Elsaesser kept coming back to scarcity as a motivator for cinema attendance. Thinking about cinema as a collective experience as well as a space requiring dedicated engagement are imperatives to understanding the space as distinct from the museum and are necessary conditions for its persistence.

Thinking about scarcity is also important in relation to the short film festival at Oberhausen, itself a kind of festival of scarcity. If the city of Oberhausen is the physical place accommodating Kurzfilmtage, then Kurzfilmtage, an ambitious and impressive short film festival, is what creates the discursive space within it. Perhaps most impressive is that within this space of celebration, scarcity never becomes universal. Instead, each unique example of scarcity creates its own limits. One significant question surrounding limits is the point at which confrontation might outweigh celebration, leading to what Elsaesser calls, “a gesture of rejection” — the act of leaving the cinema.

For a festival where traditional modes of linear, narrative cinema are anomalous, and the audience includes some 1100 accredited guests, anticipated cinema walkouts are low. However, there were several films in both the international competition as well as the curated retrospectives that elicited these gestures of rejection. I wish to address this notion in the context of the Luther Price retrospective, an artist whose work has always elicited controversy.

To say that Price identifies as gay is a loaded statement as the question of identity is not only a primary concern for his work but also for the persona(s) he presents to the public. Constantly reinvented and rebirthed with new pseudonyms, his ‘given’ name remains publicly unknown. But whether or not we call it identification, factions of the gay community still reject Price; most notably suggesting his dual projection film Sodom (1994) perpetuates homophobia. The violent images often melancholic with pain and suffering could certainly beread as an exploitation of sexual excess on the one hand, but they can also be read as bold and progressive in the same ways that Stan Brakhage’s and Kenneth Anger’s works are often read, on the other. Like many of Price’s works the imagery in Sodom is accompanied by a strong, almost heartbeat aural quality that pulses throughout; creating a visceral affect that implicates the viewer in the rhythmic assault on the celluloid. This effect is achieved through blending the imagery with the materiality of the film itself and through the use of optical sound.

Recurring in many of his films is this jarring, abrasive soundtrack, simultaneously melodic in its rhythmic control. The result is a disturbing synthesis of calmness and violence. Many of his earlier Super8 works, made under the pseudonym Tom Rhoads; perhaps his best known persona; focus on identity through performativity and question the role and relationship of (m)other. His films Green (1988), Mr. Wonderful (1988) and Warm Broth (1988), all credited to Tom Rhoads feel equally as dark and explorative of the notion of the self in his later works Home (1999) and Mother (1988, revised 2002), credited to Luther Price.

The most challenging of his films screened during the festival however was the film shown outside of the official programme, at a publicly announced “secret screening”. The screening took place at midnight in a gallery bar annexed to the train station at Oberhausen. The small pull-up screen and intimate guise of crowding around a projector felt somehow more appropriate for such independent film art, again questioning how we understand the cinematic space and its relationship to scarcity. Although the title was never announced, I believe the film shown to be Clown #1 (2001), another Tom Rhoads’ short that brings into question the notion of the self and role of performativity in constructing identity. Although this film is equally as confronting and challenging as others amongst Price’s works, somehow fewer walkouts occurred. Perhaps the cinema space as opposed to the gallery space creates the opportunity for the gesture of rejection, owing to the dedicated engagement cinematic conditions necessarily demand.

The film that elicited the greatest number of walkouts was Fancy (2006), a film that repeats ad nauseam medical footage of skin being removed, cut, clamped, stitched and bled. Fancy is a film that makes Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (1971) feel tame in comparison, and the comparison comes easily and immediately to mind. But whether or not we could think about these gestures of rejection as a condemnation of scarcity, considering their broader context within a festival celebrating the very notion, becomes a moot point. What we might think about however is the increasing scarcity of experimental film art exhibited under the conditions of the cinematic space. Perhaps then the true item up for rejection is the collective experience and dedicated engagement required of the cinematic space.

Tara Judah