Interview by David Grillo
Images by Phil Solomon
“Well you know she’s a very mixed bag,
—Phil Solomonour ‘Miss America.’ ” — Phil Solomon
Born in New York City in 1954, Solomon is an experimental filmmaker known for his diabolical use of imagery; conjuring the traditional and the poetic with the beautiful and the haunting. His work has been screened in every major venue for experimental film, including 3 one-man shows at the Museum of Modern Art and 2 Whitney Biennials.
Renown, American experimental filmmaker, Phil Solomon has been lauded for his work in film and video. He has received critical acclaim for his series of films that incorporate machinima made using games from the “Grand Theft Auto” video game series
A Guggenheim Fellow and Professor at University of Colorado, Solomon had several retrospectives in the Los Angeles area in 2013 at Red Cat and the Film Forum not including the various showings of American Falls around the city. Phil has promised a return to LA with his next work at some point in the near future and is looking to make Southern California his permanent home one day.
David Grillo: I’ve often called you an alchemist of cinema. I know other people have described your work that way do you ever feel like you work with metaphysical aspects of film?
Phil Solomon: I’m currently teaching a class called Negotiating Rapture: Film and Transcendental Vision and I’m including a lot of my own work, so “yes”, to answer your question.
The metaphysical inklings to be found in my work are not so much about any kind of personified god or any specific kind of religion, but more along the lines of, say, the New England Transcendentalists. For example, the idea of the camera doing a slow tilt and zoom into the trees in “Remains To Be Seen” seems to me to be a kind of model template for a transcendental cinematic trope. So that happens in a few of my films, where either the camera or the images feel almost unmoored from the body and floating in a kind of nether world or spirit world or the Bardo.
In my videogame work, “In Memoriam,” there is very little sense of the body, as the “camera” is often moving weightlessly through the z-axis or floating through the space. My highly textured photo-chemical work like “Walking Distance,” “The Snowman,” and “Night of the Meek” have a kind of haptic sense of texture and touch, but there’s no sense for me of a body actually behind the camera as oppose to lets say Brakhage, where you almost always feel the human physicality behind the camera in his photographed work.
Whenever I watch my work, they feel somehow disembodied and in many ways reflect that part of my existential situation of never quite feeling at home as a corporeal being. I’ve always existed more or less in my head and that’s where music lives for me as well.
DG: Films like “The Snowman” and “What’s Out Tonight?” are personal films but able to project the personal as well as the method. How do you pursue the personal film? How should young filmmakers pursue the personal film?
PS: Well, of course, I can’t speak for young filmmakers or anyone else for that matter, I can really only speak for myself but what drew me to experimental film was, in fact, because they were indeed personal and seemed to me to be a new kind of poetic and formal cinematic language that had been, for the most part, left out of commercial narrative cinema.
“ It just struck me as a typically awkward but well meaning gesture of familial affection, typical of American Jewish families. ” — Phil Solomon
So, in the case of “The Snowman” there was a very specific autobiographical incident that set off the film, which is to say that my father passed away in 1990. On the day that we buried him, it was raining rather heavily and I remember his brother, my uncle Jack, leaning over to me as I was ready to throw the dirt and he said to me something like “It’s a terrible thing to be throwing dirt upon your father,” It just struck me as a typically awkward but well meaning gesture of familial affection, typical of American Jewish families. I couldn’t get that memory out of my head and so “The Snowman” begins with a sound effect of dirt being thrown on a coffin, which is acoustically rhymed with hearing footprints in the snow.
I eventually found Wallace Stevens’ great poem (“The Snow Man”) for my editing inspiration:
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow, And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
It’s really about being and nothingness. “And nothing himself beholds nothing that is not and the nothing that is.” So it’s a rather bleak poem, but in this particular case of “The Snowman,” I used home movie footage that was not of my family, but it was a single water damaged roll of super-8 loaned to me by a one of my students to use on my printer. This one magically damaged roll really limited the material I could work with, but I tried to make the film privately address my own specific biographical incident, but embedded in a kind of allegorical and symbolic form.
So you don’t have to know me, or know the particulars of my story to “get it” – the available meaning resides in its music, in its form, which imitates a kind of blizzard that blows throughout the film between summer and winter. What I’m trying to do is make an uncanny, indelible image that everybody can somehow recognize – that’s my artistic gamble. But I can’t really predict what people see or how they will relate to a particular image or color or sound.
So, I kind of “beat around the bush” in a way by using metaphorical images, found footage stand-ins, so to speak. I am a strong believer in the power of metaphor, but I do think that film metaphor is really ontologically different than literary metaphor. In a way, I believe that it was in my trying to find my way around the personal filmmaking model as established by Stan Brakhage by integrating “treated” found material with my own photographed materials and by employing the optical printer to re-photograph all of my films that led me to evolve my own particular and somewhat unique film language.
I was around when the JK first appeared so I was able to really discover it’s aesthetic possibilities for myself because there was very little personalized optical printing being done in the avant-garde before the ’70s. I was also, as far as I know, more or less on the forefront of really diving into the world of alternative photo-chemical treatments and processes. I can’t recall being influenced by anybody else in this area except for fine art painters. I don’t think very many people were doing radical texture work on film at the time. And now I, along with many others, have had generations of students and there seems to be lots of young people around the world at this moment in time very interested in the so called hand-made film aesthetic, whereas I’m still moving into the digital world now – or moving between both worlds.
DG: Do you ever intentionally search out these fringes of filmmaking?
PS: Well, I put myself in a fortunate position for being able to view new work and to network with filmmakers by becoming a college professor and also by becoming a traveling salesman, a “professional avant-garde filmmaker.” But, truth be told, it’s still a very small group practitioners and even smaller group of critics and appreciators out there. So, yes, sometimes I will actively seek out new work and look for the fringes, as you say, mostly at festivals, or word of mouth, Facebook, and so on, but frankly, as I get older, I find that I’m less and less interested in trying to keep up in seeing the latest avant-garde films that are playing at the annual festivals and more taken by listening to music, or looking at paintings or reading poetry.
It becomes a bit like a Busman’s Holiday after so many years. I’m a little bit weary of the festival scene, and I know all the clichés in my field all too well, so I’m rarely surprised these days and even more rarely moved. And when I’m home relaxing from work, I really prefer to watch high quality television than watch art films. I certainly don’t go home and watch experimental films like I once did with my friends when those kind of films were so very hard to find. I’m very lucky that I get to see a lot of what’s going on every year through my job and by being at a university with a lively visiting artist program. I have taught hundreds of avant-garde films over the years.
I’m now in my 24th year at Boulder, so every year I get to show, rent and participate in the experimental film world by showing the work and teaching it —and when you teach a film you really get to know it. So I don’t really have to seek it out, as you suggest – it seeks me out. When I was younger I wanted to try and take in everything. Now that we live in a time where there is so much work of all kinds and we really can watch or download almost everything, well watch out what you wish for, as they say. It becomes simply impossible to keep up.
As I’m getting older, I also realize that my remaining viewing time is finite, so I’ve given up trying to keep up with everyone else’s online top ten lists. I mostly want to see the work of my friends and the acknowledged great work of any era that I’ve missed or wish to review. I don’t really want to see what everybody else is doing each and every year the way I used to. Frankly, I don’t really draw much inspiration from the work of other filmmakers at this point and I find it often limiting if I see that somebody has done something in an area that I had been thinking about or might think about and I’ve seen they’ve already done it and put it out there, and so on. It can be counterproductive for an artist to be overloaded with intake. And I’m still trying to find my own voice with 16:9 HD and the latest technologies, so I’m more interested these days in shifting the balance of my time toward increasing my output and becoming more selective about my input.
You simply can’t love everything; you can’t take in everything when you’re a maker. — Phil SOLOMON
DG: Would you say it’s a different state of mind when you are watching a film and then when you’re making a film?
PS: I’m not a practicing artist when I’m watching a film or even showing a film to the public. I’m more of a host or teacher and that’s also a problem because I tend to always watch things with a critical voice in my head or I’ll watch it with some degree of utilitarian purpose, like how can I teach or program this in a class, etc. So sometimes it’s a burden under those conditions, especially with the critical faculty constantly in play. I’d like to be more open hearted to receiving other sensibilities, but when you’re a maker you really do have to protect yourself somehow from too many voices or images in your head. You simply can’t love everything; you can’t take in everything when you’re a maker. That parking lot in your mind tends to get awfully full.
So when I’m in the throws of working on my films, all I really have room for are my own audio/visual obsessions. When I’m working, I find that more often than not, I glean inspiration from music and poetry rather than other filmmakers whose sensibilities are more or less similar to my own. Brian Eno once pondered aloud at being perplexed as to why his fans would send him tapes that sounded just like his own work and then assume that he would especially be interested in hearing that. Although its very flattering, it often produces very mixed feelings in an artist.
DG: Do you feel like you draw inspiration from America? Tell us a little about “American Falls” we wanted to feature images for the magazine… tell me about what the film means to you? Just have at it, talk about “American Falls.”
PS: Okay well your first question was do I draw inspiration from America?
PS: Well you know she’s a very mixed bag, our Miss “America.” Tonight I was watching Ken Burns’ film on the Roosevelts and I was moved to tears for many personal and political reasons. My parents were “Roosevelt Democrats,” my father fought in the War, and since 1968 (when “American Falls” ends) I’ve watched the right wing of this country take us from the New Deal to the Raw Deal, and so on. I thought about that whole “greatest generation” thing, the tumultuous and earth shaking times they lived in and what they survived and what they went through is just so incredible and so, so very sad at the same time. I’m very proud of America fighting and winning The War, the last unambiguously justified war. But to contemplate the America of our time is to have a very different vantage point. And in many ways that’s what my one-hour triptych, “American Falls,” is really all about.
“American Falls” came about when an Associate Curator of Photography at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. named Paul Roth attended the NY Film Festival “Views from the Avant-Garde” screenings in 1999. After he saw the premieres of my first two Twilight Psalms, he contacted me soon after the festival and like a dedicated curator, he took it upon himself to visit my studio and see all of my work because it really resonated with him. He subsequently invited me to visit the Corcoran that New Year’s and offered to commission an original work – in this case an installation, something I had never done before – for the museum’s collection. This was the very first commission, as I understand it, in its long history. I had never been to Washington before and the Corcoran is just across the street from the White House. This was at the dawn of the Bush Administration, mind you, so America was going through wrenching changes from what I take to be a stolen election, sanctified by the Supreme Court. I visited all the monuments in Washington while I was there, and I began musing on Washington as the City of the Dead, and that notion began to inspire the idea to do my own memorial—for the country I once knew. Washington as Atlantis, under the falls…
DG: Bush, The first time or the second time? Phil: The first time, the stolen election of 2000.
PS: All of those things are going on and here I am in the political and historical heart of the country, so it was a very interesting and very mixed experience. Paul specifically requested that I do an installation, something I had never done before and hadn’t really given much thought to doing. He showed me current exhibits of two screen and three screen works in several rooms, but nothing seemed especially evocative about those spaces to me, at least at first sight. At the time there was a piece on exhibition called ““Loop”” running on six interlocked projectors in the rotunda by California artist Jennifer Steinkamp. I found her use of that large Capitol dome-like space intriguing and beguiling, especially since you have to walk up these classical marble steps to enter the rotunda, which is one of the primary gateways to the rest of the museum. The Corcoran owns one of the great American paintings exhibited in “wide screen” on the first floor entitled “Niagara”.
This gorgeous painting by Frederic Church of Niagara Falls immediately inspired me to muse on the whole notion of “the falls” in American history. Niagara Falls is also the end of the country on one border and water appears in all of my films. Water is the most cinematic symbol, trope, rhythm and metaphor for me in my work, so it was easy to re-imagine the onrushing pageant of American history as a kind of panoramic waterfall flowing down the walls of the Capitol building, and hence the title of the piece came to me on site at that moment of inception: American Falls. This title also referenced “the fallen” from our seemingly never-ending wars and the various monuments that surround D.C. that memorialize them, including the beautiful golden sculpture of Robert Gould Shaw’s African-American troops in the Civil War at the National Gallery (http://www.nga.gov/feature/shaw/home.shtm) and the haunting images of embedded ghosts in the wall of the Korean War Memorial. I worked on and off for some ten years plus on American Falls, and still feel like it’s been somewhat overlooked in my body of work. I personally think it’s a masterpiece of the multi-screen triptych form, but then again, of course I would think that.
DG: I agree.
PS: It’s still being shown as both a film and as an installation here and there, but still I feel like a lot of people missed it, especially my peers in the avant-garde film world. I believe that many saw it (on first viewing at least) as just being too straight and simplistic. I very consciously did try to make something that was more accessible than my other work. It was a public commission, and in some ways, I wanted to make something my father and his generation could relate to, perhaps not quite so hermetic, obscure, and abstracted as my other work in film.
It can be easily misread as being naively patriotic when in fact every single image has a kind built-in critique that expresses my ambivalences about this country and the contradictions between its lofty democratic ideals and its greedy and bloody history. I grew up loving America. Indeed, I was indoctrinated to do so by the schools, the cinema, television, etc. And I still hold close to my heart the American “idea”, but I am also hyper-aware of its failures to live up to its own dream, primarily because of the uneasy alliance and balancing act between capitalism and so-called democracy.
DG: Obviously, I’m from America and it does do something to you living here and when I saw your film I think you really captured the timeless experience, the timeless inner space of the American experience and I always go back to that Harold Lloyd scene with the clock, tell me about your fixation with that scene?
PS: Thank you. It’s not really about any fixation with Harold Lloyd in particular, but about the obvious metaphorical riches implicit in that iconic image from “Safety Last,” especially after I re-imagined it with photo-chemical treatments and placed it different contexts throughout the Falls. It came out so beautifully and of course it’s such a great, iconic image of a “man about to fall, and holding onto dear life as time is about to run out…” It appears right after the opening Prelude, once again as the intro to the Civil War era, and then he finally lets go of the opened clockworks and falls into the deep dark waters of the Depression. And he is “rhymed” with the other characters in the piece, who also “fall”, including multiple appearances by his comic contemporaries, Chaplin and Keaton.
DG: I think I can say you’re the first person to get inside of it. Literally
PS: What I was trying to do is create an “uncanny” image. One that you could take home with you and remember. I took an iconic image of the cinema and I think I made it live once again, refreshing it by drawing out its metaphorical riches when placed within different contexts of the concept of “falling.” However, if you stop seeing the actual image, the “silver painting” that I’m making with the chemistry and see only a bookmarked reference to the original, then it becomes a very limiting gesture and can easily be misread as being too “simplistic,” especially to film people who recognize the original and can see only Harold Lloyd in “Safety Last” and stop seeing it as a beautifully rich golden painting of a man holding onto the a clock on a skyscraper. I took a huge gamble by working with iconic American images rather than hiding behind obscure or unrecognizable images. I was consciously trying to address our American Dream storehouse of the received mediated images of history and then re-imagine them by first “painting” and then re-contextualizing the referenced materials into a cine-tapestry of our “collective unconscious,” if you will.
DG: As a viewer, I felt there’s an audience that wants that especially a younger audience.
PS: Tell me more about that. What does that younger audience want, in your view?
DG: Well they want to change the perspective I believe. And I go back to Ken Jacobs great film Star Spangled to Death and he shifts our perspective on the past and in doing so, shifts our perspective on the future. I think it’s something we yearn for in our culture, so we yearn for it in our art and it’s something I saw in American Falls and Star Spangled to Death.
PS: Now, David you have to tell me… your peers really watch Star Spangled to Death?? I can’t believe it.
DG: Well, my peers…the guys who follow you on Facebook, some of the younger guys. I know a few cine-philes personally that have and we find each other on the Internet and it’s a shared appreciation for films like that.
PS: That’s wonderful, I mean that makes my heart sing if they actually watch and discuss a work as rigorous and sophisticated as Star Spangled to Death. As you may know, Ken was my first film teacher, my Big Bang. And SSTD is a really demanding work of political film art at 7 plus hours. Whereas I tend to be romantically disappointed in my America in American Falls, Ken is unremittingly indignant and deeply disgusted about America’s failures and hypocrisies. He’s a 30’s guy, closer to a card-carrying socialist and a red diaper baby. And his romance with any kind of popular culture also really comes from the 30’s, an era of social upheaval, rising labor and a real intellectual left in this country.
“And the Beach Boys also has tragedy and Elvis has tragedy built in and Charles Ives music has this undercurrent of despair, under its patriotism there’s a terrible darkness. ” — Solomon
My impressionable years were formed during a much different time, I grew up with rock ‘n’ roll and TV and the idealism of the early 60’s as embodied in the televised image of JFK. I grew up watching Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and Its’ a Wonderful Life on TV. In many ways, I think that Frank Capra’s films bring out my own contradictory feelings. I grew up with Rock‘n’roll, popular culture and TV it’s very different I grew up watching Mr. Smith Goes To Washington on TV and Frank Capra movies Its’ a Wonderful Life is my favorite film “favorite” it’s the one that moves me the deepest because it was a primal seed for me, it gets at something I can’t explain and its very American like Elvis or the Beach Boys are so American. And the Beach Boys also has tragedy and Elvis has tragedy built in and Charles Ives music has this undercurrent of despair, under its patriotism there’s a terrible darkness.
DG: Even our, National Anthem?
PS: Yes. “The rocket’s red glare” indeed. Well, Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question is the national anthem of American Falls and in my view, the question remains unanswered and still being asked, though I fear to know that answer more and more as time goes on. Leonard Bernstein once posited in his Norton Lectures that Ives was essentially asking, at the dawn of the twentieth century, “Whither Music”? I take the question in American Falls to mean “Whither America?”
Ultimately, I know I’m stuck here, for better or for worse. Like Charles Foster Kane once said about himself, “I am, have been, and will be only one thing – an American.” For all of its craziness, I try and believe in an America that can still save its democratic soul and perhaps one day rediscover its original mission statement.
DG: Tell me what you are working on now?
PS: I’m currently doing some “shooting” in Grand Theft Auto V. I don’t know quite yet what it’s going to be, but it’s a beautiful world to enter. Nothing in particular has come out of it so far, but I’m just cruising around and doing location scouting. I don’t have a definite project in mind. There is also a project in the pipeline that I’m in early stages of negotiations with, which may eventually provide a very exciting new context for my work, but I won’t talk about it at this point until I know more.