“I’ve always been interested in the idea of cinema and loss, the beautiful and poignant conjuring of human presence and its absence. It’s an illusion, we know that, and yet it’s so profoundly vivid and moving. You long for it to be real, and then when it’s over you have to go home and your life isn’t like that, like the dreams that were given to us.”
* * *
Not long before his death, Phil Solomon (1954-2019) was talking to an interviewer about the role grief plays in his art when his oxygen machine suddenly turned off. A high-pitched alarm trilled through the phone, and he was struggling for air. “Fuck!” he gasped. “Oh fuck. Oh fuck.” At last he found what was wrong, got the machine working again, and when he caught his breath, he said, “You caught on tape my current existential crisis. I may want to use that someday. That sound of the alarm going off.”
Then he went right back to talking about grief as if nothing happened: “Grief gives me a reason. It gives me an overarching theme. But I’m not in grief when I’m creating. It’s a very positive act. My sad, elegiac works are also full of creativity and therefore a positive bulwark against dying, or whatever you want to call it.”
Ostensibly retired, suffering from a hereditary disease that had turned his immune system against his own body, waiting to be called in at any moment to undergo a double lung transplant, his artist antennae were still feeling around for means of expression, poised to seize on such uncannily fortuitous moments such as this to make transcendent art.
Solomon’s singular position in the pantheon of cinema is perhaps best evidenced by his own uncertainty as to where his films fit in. “I do think they’re unusual,” he said shortly before his death on April 20, 2019. “I can’t really tell. I don’t know what precedent there is for them. What are they actually?” For his promotional materials, he relied on Manohla Dargis of the New York Times, who was similarly at a loss for comparisons: “Although part of a long avant-garde tradition, Mr. Solomon makes films that look like no others I’ve seen. The conceit of the filmmaker as auteur has rarely been more appropriate or defensible – The liberating effect of Mr. Solomon’s work suggests a rather different realm: Film Meets Vision, Rejoice!”
His close friend Stan Brakhage called him “the greatest filmmaker of his generation.” Accordingly, Solomon’s work has been shown in every major venue for experimental film in the United States and Europe, including three solo shows at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and two Whitney Biennials. He won ten first prize awards at major international film festivals, including six Juror’s Awards from the Black Maria Film and Video Festival. Among his other awards are a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship and a Creative Capital Grant. His films can be found in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Chicago Art Institute, Massachusetts College of Art, Binghamton University, Hampshire College, San Francisco State University, the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, and the Oberhausen Film Collection.
By others, he was most often referred to as an “alchemist of cinema” for his use of optical printing and chemical treatments to immerse his imagery in resonant textures, patterns and rhythms. To the extent that this term referred to the metaphysical and transcendental qualities of his work, he embraced it. “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,” he said in an interview with David Grillo. “Whenever I watch my works, 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.” But he was also wary of the alchemist label: “A lot of the time when I have a show, the first question is usually, ‘How did you do that?’ I always hope that my technique has an expressive purpose and is not just a way of saying, ‘Look, Ma, no hands!’”
A landmark 1989 essay by Tom Gunning, “Towards a Minor Cinema,” hailed Solomon and five other filmmakers as representative of a new generation in avant-grade film who, unlike their predecessors, make works that “assert no vision of conquest, make no claims to hegemony. A minor cinema reshapes our image of the avant-garde, moving away from its image of shock troop battalions.” To Solomon, Gunning’s assessment was “exactly right”: “Our generation didn’t think about working on a grand scale as aesthetic pioneers; our cinema seemed more hermetic and private, in terms of both subject matter and exhibition strategy.”
More narrowly and specifically, it might be said that Solomon made films in a minor key. One of his favorite quotes was from Walter Pater: “All the arts aspire to the condition of music.” And the art Solomon made was like the music he most loved. “The things that moved me the most were the sad songs,” he said. “When I’d get new records, I’d go immediately to the ballads. Minor key, adagios. Give me the adagio, or give me death.”
Adagio: Phil Solomon on His Life as an Artist is a three-part monologue spun from interviews with Solomon conducted by the author in July and August 2018; previously published interviews by Doug Cummings, David Grills, Leo Goldsmith, and Scott McDonald; an oral history of his undergraduate film program by McDonald and J. Hoberman; and Solomon’s own writing. It’s interspersed with videos from his Vimeo page, which are meant to be viewed as they appear, as though part of the text. There are no footnotes; multi-paragraph passages are mixed in with sentences and phrases without denotation of what comes from what. And though woven from his own words, the monologue is not an accurate rendering of how he would actually talk. As he himself observed: “I interrupt myself a lot, and my thoughts are often – you can’t go straight to print and with me. I often have disjointed ways of putting things together.” Here his talk has been scrubbed of ums and you knows, and his thoughts have been untangled to follow a through-line, a more or less straight chronological account of his life as an artist. In some places, words and sentences have been added, and verb tenses changed, to aid the flow, and these are not denoted by parentheses.
In other words, this is a work of creative nonfiction, a collage. It’s not a scholarly work, but rather a movie version of scholarly work yet to come. It’s a long yarn, made freely available online for friends, colleagues, and admirers to reminisce, for new generations of artists and cinephiles to discover, and for Solomon himself to live on, in some small way, and continue expressing, teaching, and inspiring.
Part I: A Possible Artist traces his path to becoming an artist, from his childhood in suburban New York, through his undergrad years at SUNY Binghamton, to grad school in Boston.
Part II: Years with Stan tells the story of his extraordinary friendship with Stan Brakhage.
Part III: After Lives follows his late career, in which grief and a diagnosis of a terminal disease moved his art in unexpected, innovative, and deeply evocative new directions.
* * *
PART I: A POSSIBLE ARTIST
I often wake up saying, “Why am I here? What am I doing in Boulder?” I came here because of Stan, because Stan Brakhage was here. In my undergraduate days I never would have dreamed that we would become close friends, that we’d end up collaborating. I was devastated when he died. I’m still devastated. I still haven’t come to terms with it. I’ve been in mourning since 2003.
I learned the language of film from Stan. He made up that language. Anticipation of the Night almost by itself, really, taught me the language of film. In my first year of college, Fred Camper was visiting my school, and he put Anticipation of the Night on an analytic projector, and we broke it down shot by shot. We couldn’t even get past the first five or ten minutes. There was so much to say. We started with the way the titles were scratched into the first shot and discussed that. And then he pointed out these visual lines and how they make a kind of visual simile – like how the circle of light reflecting off of a rose bowl cuts to the moon, in the same part of the frame, in the same size, shape, and diameter. That opened the door wide open for me, this simple but profound notion that juxtaposing one similar shape next to another, in and of itself, could be a meaningful and articulate, poetic gesture.
I grew up in Monsey, New York, just across the Tappan Zee Bridge, in Rockland County. My father had always dreamed that I would be a doctor – the typical Jewish American paternal fantasy. He brought me home microscopes and books about the history of medicine, not so subtle hints of what he wanted me to do. I never thought I could be a doctor, but I always loved animals, so I thought maybe I’d be a veterinarian. I also loved the movies, and I daydreamed of being a “new Hollywood” film director. I made 8mm films with my friends in high school. In my high school yearbook, people wrote, “Good luck with directing animal films, or Lassie.” So when it came time to look for a college, I was searching for a place with a pre-med and a cinema program. I was admitted into several private colleges, but we really couldn’t afford them. So I had to stay local, and that meant the SUNY system. Binghamton advertised that they had a major in cinema, and they also had a strong pre-med program.
In my application I expressed an interest in the cinema department, which sent me a form letter that emphasized the term “art cinema.” I thought, Bergman, Fellini, European art cinema. I was a semi-hip suburban high school kid. I’d often go to New York to the Thalia and the Bleecker and the Paris – the repertory cinemas showing European art films. I was also interested in the American “art films” of the late sixties and early seventies – Altman, Rafelson, George Roy Hill, Cassavetes. So I thought, “Art cinema” – that sounds fine to me.
My first semester I took calculus, chemistry, and Cinema 101 with Ken Jacobs. This was a general Intro to Film class with about 200 people in the lecture hall. Jacobs was intense, serious, sometimes outrageous, very confrontational, but always challenging and engaging in his approach to teaching. The first day of class, they shut the lights off in this big lecture room and he showed Tony Conrad’s The Flicker (1966). And when the lights came back on, I thought, What the hell was that?! I was actually very angry. I thought it must be a put-on. I had been so indoctrinated with Hollywood film syntax that I simply didn’t have the map with which to find my way through to it. I didn’t know the rules of the game. I didn’t know how to consider the screen as a formal rectangle with two-dimensional spatial tensions, rather than as a window to a daydream. It took me some time to realize that the condition of watching most narrative films was actually antithetical to experiencing the contemplation of form, which in my mind is the essence of artistic perception.
I continued to be kind of suspicious and upset, and about two weeks into the course, I screwed up my nerve – there were probably a hundred or 150 people in this class – raised my hand, and asked Ken, “When are we going to see some major motion pictures in this course?”
For whatever reason Ken, who was notorious for not suffering fools gladly, took the question seriously, without getting offended, and very calmly explained the nature of what he was trying to do. I think he understood where I was coming from, and was rather gentle and reassuring with his answer, pleading for patience. For this I’m most grateful, because I hung in there.
By the end of the first semester I was opening up to avant-garde jazz, and I began to discover marijuana and acid. Then I had a breakthrough with – of all things – Blue Moses (1962), Brakhage’s most didactic work. It’s a polemical film that I would characterize as a “deconstructive” comedy about the absurdity of narrative film syntax and illusion-based cinema. There’s an actor talking about how ridiculous this all is. “There’s a cameraman behind every scene,” etc. It’s very funny and an odd bird in Stan’s oeuvre. But it was didactic enough, entertaining enough, and obvious enough to penetrate my rather naïve framework. I remember going up to Ken after class, as I was in the throes of my revelation, and saying something incredulous like, “You think someone could really learn new ways of seeing and understanding from watching these films repeatedly?” Ken said, with one eyebrow raised, “Well, what do you think I’m doing here??”
I was there at a fortuitous time, from 1971 to 1975, right at the end of the initial huge endowment of SUNY Rockefeller money – so there was a lot going on. Many filmmakers were there while I was a student: Ernie Gehr (Serene Velocity (1970) was made in a SUNY- Binghamton hallway), and Klaus Wyborny, Tony Conrad, Alfons Schilling, Saul Levine, Dan Barnett, and Peter Kubelka. I studied Kubelka’s work for an entire semester, with Kubelka, which was very important for me, especially in learning to think about formal economy. It was a very heady time.
Little by little, as I was becoming disenchanted with pre-med science and math, I found that I was – much to my parents’ dismay – becoming completely committed to this exciting and weird little scene of poetic filmmaking, mostly because of the passion and intelligence of the teachers I had the good fortune to study with. I studied filmmaking primarily with Saul Levine. Saul has a worldview informed by his politically charged disposition, and his egalitarian, open-minded approach to teaching production, his lack of any pretense in his style, his range of hip smarts, and his sincere passion for encouraging creativity and personal expression were all very exciting to so many young filmmakers over the years. What I learned from Saul, especially as a beginning filmmaker, was to appreciate the mundane. Saul was into a certain kind of funky, raw, regular-8mm, non-glorious, from-the-soul filmmaking.
When I was starting out, I would bring in loose, off-the-cuff stuff, and Saul had an ability, rare in a teacher, to find good things to say about almost anything. Like many others, I was going through my imitation-Brakhage phase, and I showed Saul a little out-of-focus roll that I’d shot of my girlfriend, extremely close-up. Saul said it reminded him of Brakhage’s Loving (1956) – only this was better. I don’t know whether that was a put-on or the way he really felt, but I walked out of that class thinking, I can do this!
* * *
My early films? I would say that my student films were somewhat naïve, romantic, and rather imitative. They were clearly simplistic Brakhage imitations. What my friend, the filmmaker Nick Dorsky, refers to as “Ye Olde Avant-Garde Girlfriend by the Window” films, in the grand tradition of every budding film artist finding his own Jane Brakhage in the viewfinder.
When I first got hold of a Bolex, I said, “What’s this little notch with a T?” It was for time exposures. I had a roll of film, and I kept the shutter open for a few seconds on some frames, and then I got the footage back with about a second of footage that looked like it was the middle of the afternoon. That just floored me. It opened up new possibilities for experimentation, and then expression. That’s the way my work often evolves. I’ll bump into a technique and then find a way to use it expressively. I’m one of those filmmakers who doesn’t have a problem with the term “experimental filmmaking,” because that really does describe part of my process, part of it. Which is to say that I experiment, and oftentimes films will arise from a specific technique I’m experimenting with. This was true even early on.
The first fully realized film I made was my senior thesis, Night Light (1975) I was so thrilled by this two seconds of stuff that doing time exposures became an obsession for years, and Night Light was basically an investigation of time exposures, influenced by Brakhage’s Fire of Waters (1965). Everybody seemed to love Night Light, and I snuck out of Binghamton with honors. In fact, after I left school, that film was my very first rental – from Ken. I still have the invoice.
I’m definitely a film artist because of the academy, not despite it. But it wasn’t until I got out of school that I was able to start teaching myself something of the history of the arts, of which I had a rather superficial familiarity. I didn’t study the history and aesthetics of painting in college, or contemporary poetry, and I knew very little about classical music at that time. So it all came together for me after college, in terms of eventually seeing myself in the context of making film art as an individual, and to envision myself in that historical trajectory of art-making, rather than only considering the Hollywood industrial model of making films. And truth be told, I no longer thought about making “avant-garde” films, or “radical cinema,” or “underground” cinema. I simply thought about making films along the same lines of the individual artisan tradition in the other kindred arts of painting, poetry, photography and music. Individual, rather than collaborative filmmaking. Economy of gesture – retaining only the essential images. An emphasis on poetic form, including visual rhymes, metaphor, ellipsis, and ambiguity – reading between the lines, so to speak, and therefore reading between elliptical juxtapositions of non-linear, non-narrative sequenced shots, and so on.
* * *
I chose Massachusetts College of Art in Boston for graduate school because Dan Barnett was there, and later, Saul Levine. The first thing I did was jump on their new JK optical printer. Many filmmakers used optical printing at that time for analysis: they break something down and slow it and freeze-frame it – optically point to it. I was using the optical printer mostly as a means of transforming light or amplifying light, controlling color, and reframing reality. I remember Saul Levine saying, “Optical printing is for people who couldn’t get it together the first time.” In some ways that’s absolutely true for me. I have a primary phase where I shoot in the world, and a secondary phase where I re-see and transform what I’ve shot.
I spent my graduate school years mostly working on The Passage of the Bride (1978). With that film, someone had given me a single roll of a 16mm home movie made in the 1920s or 1930s. It was a wedding film that included imagery from the honeymoon. I became utterly fascinated with a moment in the film when the woman runs across the lawn. I kept watching the roll over and over and finally put it on the printer and started to work with it. I spent a year generating material out of this 100-foot roll and ended up with something like 2,000 feet of material. I did everything I could to it: I bi-packed it with a variety of elemental images; I slowed it down; I sped it up; I went in close; I re-photographed several generations.
For me the optical printer is a way of re-seeing the world two-dimensionally, with another layer of aesthetic distance. I’m something of an archaeologist in reverse: I try to discover truths in these artifacts by throwing the dirt back on them. I bury things rather than excavate them. For me found footage has been a way to unearth lost truths. There’s something about the process of re-photography at the frame level that’s in tune with my personality; it has to do with a kind of artistic introversion, and with the idea of working with a secret magic machine. When I was a child, I was drawn to the idea of making tiny worlds. I played with superhero models and created little movie sets in the landscapes of my bed. Also, as I’ve said, in his push for my “doctorhood,” my father bought me microscopes and chemistry sets. I think looking through those microscopes at the movement of tiny organisms on slide after slide led to, or at least fed, my love of peering down the “corridor” of the optical printer and to my frame-by-frame aesthetic. Instead of doing organic chemistry to help mankind, I decided to use weird science to help myself.
The optical printer has been my way around Brakhage. When I was starting out, Brakhage seemed to have covered so much territory. Optical printing provided an avenue that seemed wide open. From early on, I knew I couldn’t do what Stan did: I couldn’t film my life and make it available for distribution. I was much more private and felt embarrassed about the act of shooting film in the world. I don’t really feel comfortable shooting people, or even filming around people. I’ve taken lots of Super-8 and video home movies but have always kept them as home movies.
My films come out of a longing for the emotional depths that I experience in the great narrative films, but sifted into an economical, poetic form, using allegorical imagery and audio/visual metaphors. So I began to look toward found footage to help me retain some sense of narrative – because I knew immediately that I could not direct people and tell them what to do and say, and then believe the material myself. As a filmmaker, I’ve always identified much more with the experience of the single artist painting or writing a poem or composing music out of some private personal necessity rather than with the collaborative nature of the industrial filmmaking process.
Film is often simply too transparent for me, too denotative. In a conventional movie, the first shot always has this fantastic potential, but then by the second shot, 50 percent of that potential is gone; by the third shot, 75 percent. And five minutes into the film, I know where the whole thing is going. Michael Snow had it right in Wavelength (1967), in terms of the dominant, reductive shape of narrative and time: that inverted cone as we move toward the wall and leave things behind us. I want to keep moving, to the white light of illumination. Even though things in my films are ambiguous, visually and thematically, and you might not be able to decode what’s going on from shot to shot, there should be a feeling, a mood, an overriding consciousness that feels inevitable and right, so that in the long run you stay with it.
* * *
I had a peculiar lens; when you opened it up to a certain f-stop, a certain kind of “unwanted” diffusion would happen. I experimented with that lens on a variety of imagery, and then modified the lens itself in various ways. All of that prismatic imagery early in the film comes from my manipulating the light with a variety of optical techniques. Looking through the Bolex, down the hallway of the optical printer, I started to see interesting things happen, and like a scientist, I would experiment with different materials. I found that certain high-contrast compositions worked best to produce effects that interested me.
And then I discovered that a friend of mine had a beautiful 16mm reduction print of The Wizard of Oz (1939), and he was willing to lend it to me. The Wizard was a primal film for me as a kid, as it is for so many people. It gave me nightmares, but I loved it. Every year I watched it in black-and-white and was shocked when I finally saw it in color.
So I started fooling around with that imagery with this technique, and the footage came back with a diffused, glowing quality, and, along with some imagery of light on water and light through trees, I found myself in the Garden of Eden; then I started to think about The Wizard of Oz as a classic version of the expulsion from the Garden and the search for God.
The story started to come to me after the material came back. When I was making The Secret Garden (1988), my mother was very ill, and there’s a whole theme about the absent mother in the film. When my film gets to the Secret Garden section – where it starts to flicker – all of the material is bi-packed with variations of water, another biblical allusion: first, the Garden, then the Fall, and at the end, the Flood. What looks like cities on fire at the end was just a tiny stream in upstate New York that I filmed and then magnified with my technique until it looked like the end of the world.
In The Secret Garden, I imagined that God (and there is a God character, at least for me: the man in an overcoat who walks away at the end) would actually be too beautiful, too luminous, to see. I wanted to create a film where the light would be so strong that it would come off the screen, along the z-axis, into the room and back toward the projector. This reflects my deep yearning to have, and to create, a spiritual and ecstatic experience with film. For me, film is a surrogate for the religious experience. I do have informed opinions on social issues, but I’m not much interested in dealing with them in my films; but a longing for a transcendental experience, for mystery, is absolutely at the heart of filmmaking for me. And I mean this in the grand American-New England tradition, as absolutely unfashionable as that may be, in these postmodern times of ours.
I don’t have enough distance with direct photography. I wanted to make a film about my mom, because she had a disease, the one that I have. It was five years she went through this fight with this disease, and so I wanted to photograph for the most basic reason: just to preserve her. She hated to be photographed when she didn’t feel well and didn’t look well. And I hated doing it. And when I got the footage back, I couldn’t look at it because it was too much her. It wouldn’t mean anything to anybody else, necessarily. Every time I looked at the Florida footage, the ostensible referent was so strong – it was so much my mother and not film – that I couldn’t work with it. Aesthetics were beside the point. This is when I knew, once and for all, that I couldn’t film my life the way Stan and others have done.
So I ended up making Remains to Be Seen (1989), a much more allegorical or roundabout way of dealing with that, the moment of her passing. And what I did was integrate innocent home movies that I shot like a hunter-gatherer. I would carry a super-8 camera, particularly when traveling and in places like Walden Pond. I shot people’s reflections in the pond. I shot trees in the fall. You know, Boston, New England fall colors, those kinds of things. And they later worked their way into this film. Remains to Be Seen began with the bicycle rider footage: the camera follows the rider across the landscape – outtakes of a Vietnamese peasant from a documentary on Vietnam that I was very taken with. That became the central image that everything else spun around.
My mother died on the operating table, so a lot of Remains to Be Seen is about going under. From the very beginning you hear the sound of the breath machine, which “rhymes” with the windshield wipers. During those shots of driving through the Midwest, you see haystacks, which look to me like coffins – again, I really had no fixed idea what I intended by that imagery when I made the film, but I’ve come to have all kinds of interpretations of it.
Actually, my mother does appear in Remains to Be Seen, but it’s very obscure. In an overhead shot from my dad’s home movies, you see people crossing a footbridge over water – the Ausable Chasm in upstate New York. I’m holding my mother’s hand. In my mind, the water is the river Styx, a bridge to the “Other Side.” I always get choked up at that point when I watch the film.
And then I put in one of the very first camera rolls I ever took as a student at Binghamton. That’s the last shot in Remains to Be Seen – these two people on the horizon that get wiped out by a camera flare. It’s the perfect ending for that film.
I just love when that happens, that feels magical to me. It feels like a crazy gift in my life. And it was a magical private event when I created it. I knew it was great. Like I just couldn’t believe it. Those things didn’t happen all the time because I didn’t, I wasn’t very prolific, you know, I don’t know. I didn’t want to, I couldn’t, I didn’t want to keep repeating the same stuff.
Remains to Be Seen was a long, painstaking process, because of all the chemical treatments and whatnot. Then I made The Exquisite Hour (1989) almost as a release – one of the most magical creative experiences of my life – in a couple of days (all the dissolves were done in-camera). Ordinarily my films are very worked in terms of the editing, but that one was almost completely an in-camera film, and very intuitive.
Both films were made in response to my mother’s death after a long illness. I went to Florida several times to see her and shot a lot of very documentary-like material: wide-angle lens, sharp focus, black-and-white, no chemical interference. I felt terrible shooting her – she hated being filmed – but I had this primal need to preserve her in some way. I’ve never been able to do anything with that footage, which is very telling.
The Exquisite Hour is the one film of mine that feels absolutely right to me from beginning to end. It has an opening prologue of silent movies dissolving into each other, something which I had been experimenting with, years earlier. Originally, the experiment had no rhyme or reason; I was just interested in sewing the pieces together, almost by chance. Later, the results seemed to fit perfectly with The Exquisite Hour, which is an elegy for the dying and for cinema itself.
I ran an eleven-plex in Boston for a living. I was a movie projectionist for almost ten years. I used to look down from the booth and just watch people watching. We created cinema as a mirror. We created it as a way to dream together. You know, what I love about it is that it’s both public and private, you know, in a traditional theater, you’re having a very private experience, but you’re in the public. I also like that you behold it.
I had been off of a serious academic career track for some time, trying to extend my adolescence and keep that ol’ gang of mine intact before we all broke apart and “settled down.” We were all in our 20s, and we hung out a long time in Boston and New York; I was there 13 years. And then it started to break up. My friends were leaving, and I was going crazy in the projection booth, which started out as a good thing, and then it became jail. I’d had enough, and then my parents died within a few years of each other. And after my dad died. I just felt kind of liberated to leave and to start the next part of my life.
When this job came up at CU, I just threw my hat in the ring.
* * *
PART II: YEARS WITH STAN
I think the most beautiful surprise of my artistic life was Stan’s response to me when I met him: he had his arms wide open for a hug. When I came here for the interview, Trey Parker dropped me off at Stan’s house, to have lunch with him and his family, and he greeted me with a bear hug. That’s the Stan that I fell in love with.
How I even got to that point is a whole other story. I had a complicated relationship to one of the faculty on the search committee at CU. We knew each other at Harvard, and we used to argue about Brakhage. She was kind of anti-Brakhage, anti-avant-garde, and I was in the avant-garde camp at Harvard. So I was put into the “no” pile at first. But later my name came up again, and Stan said, “Wait a minute.”
A year earlier, in 1989, there was an experimental film congress in Toronto, and The Secret Garden was shown there in a show called Emerging Artists. Stan and Marilyn went to that show, and Stan was so disgusted, he walked out before my film was shown. And that would’ve been it for me. I would not be talking to you right now were it not for Marilyn Brakhage, who, being a diligent person and a good viewer and a good Canadian, stayed for the whole show. Afterward, Stan said, “Was there anything good?” And she said, The Secret Garden by Phil Solomon. And he remembered that when he heard my name at the job search meeting. And he went that night and he called Steve Anker and he called Ken Jacobs – the exact right people to call – and he said, “What about Phil Solomon?” And they said, “Oh, you must see his film.” So he went back the next day and demanded to see my films.
The night of my campus visit, he was in my hotel room till two in the morning, talking about his whole life, his divorce with Jane. It was amazing that it happened, and it happened so quickly. We took a walk around campus, and then I said to him, “Stan, where are your peers here?” And he said, “You’re my peer.” And I knew that wasn’t true. Obviously. But that’s what he wanted. He wanted me to be his brother, not his son.
Still, I remember being concerned because I had made a film called Rocket Boy vs. Brakhage as a private joke, and it was reviewed in the Village Voice by Jim Hoberman, along with the first Batman. I used footage from when Brakhage visited campus my second year at SUNY, when he’d shown this film called The Women (1973). I think it was a commission, or a favor for a friend who wanted to see naked women or something, and it’s just these naked women in a psychodrama. It’s his worst film, and most problematic politically. I brought a camera and tape recorder to the screening, so I have a tape where we’re all trying to really talk with him about this film, trying to be very measured about it. And he got very paternalistic and defensive. He yelled at me. “Goddamit! Can’t you understand simple English?!” And he had that voice, that Orson Welles kind of stentorian voice that scared the shit out of me.
I never expected it to receive such a big review. So I thought, My god, Stan’s gonna be mad at me because of this. So I broached the subject first. I said, “Stan, did you hear about this film?” And he said, “I heard it was very affectionate.” And I said yes.
He called me a week later to exchange films. He said, “Take whatever you want, and I’d like the Secret Garden.” I chose Star Garden (1974). So you see how that comes full circle. Beautiful, beautiful.
And then later, Stan never told me this, but I came to learn that he voted against me. The department chair was pushing for an inside candidate, and Stan was loyal to him.
* * *
When I got here, Stan hosted Sunday night screening salons at his house. He lived in student housing, a small apartment right down the hill from campus. I was surprised when I got here that a man of this stature wasn’t supported by the university with his own home. The salons were in his living room. His son Anton was a baby then, and his second wife Marilyn would be there, but she was usually too busy to watch the films or discuss them with us. It was mostly me and our colleague Suranjan Ganguly who would attend. There’d be a little table set up like a stand, a pull-down screen, and his Bell and Howell projector. And Stan would just put a film on and project right in the room, just like a home movie.
One night we watched Bruce Elder’s Fool’s Gold (1981), I just had terrible problems with the film and its raining down of references in text over the imagery. It just wasn’t my idea of cinema. And Stan was very close to Bruce. Bruce wrote a book on Stan. He respected Bruce, and I didn’t have any relationship to Bruce, and I just said what I thought, that these citations raining down were just burying the film under this weight of history, completely overriding the imagery.
And he said, “You just want your movies.”
It was like he was hitting me below the belt. I very quietly put my jacket on, and I walked out. It was the fall. And by the time I got home again, there was a long answering machine message of apology from him. That caught it in the bud. From then on we were best friends. I was told that Stan would eventually turn on me. But I was ready for him when I came here. I was fully formed. I wasn’t a kid anymore.
I never would’ve dreamed that I would one day be such close friends with him. To witness his creative joy. He was always excited about the roll he was working on. It’s all he wanted to talk about was what he was working on and it was infectious. We would go to movies together, and the first thing he would do, he would buy the oldest hot dog, the last one rolling, one that had been rolling since the ’60s. And they would wrap it up in a bun and put mustard on it and he would eat it and then belch the stinkiest belch and fart during the movies. You suffered Stan’s hot dogs. We went to Ben-Hur (1959) once, and a splice got caught, Stan and I were in the tenth row at a giant 70-millimeter projection theater in Denver, and a fucking splice got caught and burned right across the frame. He grabbed my arm, and we just gasped. He said, “We’ll never get over that ecstasy.”
And we kept having the Sunday night salons. When Stan’s 60th birthday came up in 1993, Suranjan said, “Why don’t we do it on campus and have a little public screening and call it Stan’s 60th birthday?” From then on we would show in Fine Arts 141, which we had kind of ownership over at night and on the weekends. And it was a nice room to watch cinema. It was his room. Stan would sit in the front row and chew tobacco and laugh. He wouldn’t say anything about what we were going to see. We’d just watch them cold. I was the projectionist.
His archive was there in that building, kept in the refrigerated vaults. He would go upstairs at the beginning of the week and pick out a dozen films or so that he would show the following week. And they could really be mixed up. Stuff people sent him, stuff from his collection that he wanted to check out. He was always checking new prints. So it was very pragmatic. Western Cine would send him a new print, he would want to check it out. Somebody would send a print that he wanted, that they wanted him to see socially.
He mixed it up. He would love to show things like Laurel and Hardy. These were prints from his own collection. He also was very generous to me, showed my work a lot. We’d watch five or six films and then we’d go over to the conference room adjacent to 141. He would say, “We’re going to have a discussion next door, for those of you who’d like to stay. But don’t feel burdened. If anybody would like to take the films out into the night with them, please feel free.” That’s the way he worded it. I thought that was beautiful. Some people didn’t want to sit in on an academic discussion. You know, too harsh. They’re high.
We’d sit at the conference table and Stan would go to the blackboard and write the names of the films in the order they were shown – number one, Wavelength (1967), number two, Window Water Baby (1959). Then he would sit down, usually at the head of the table, and ask if anyone wanted to say anything about any of the films. Or he would have something he wanted to say right away that he’d been thinking about.
I purposely didn’t bring a video camera to do any kind of filming. I didn’t want to be burdened. Once in a while I’d shoot around the room, shoot if he got up to draw something. But otherwise I flopped the camera on the table with no cinema. I didn’t want to make people self-conscious, and I only had his tacit permission, but I brought it in to record the audio and to have him on camera. And so now I have all this footage.
This is Brakhage at home. He was relaxed, in his element. And of course, he’d been doing this all along. He’d been having salon-like gatherings at his house, in the cabin when he was in Rollinsville, with the kids running around. He really wanted to work things out, and he liked being provoked a little bit, or made to be thoughtful. Because they were on Sundays, my day off, I often didn’t really want to go in. But no matter what, every time I went in there thinking, okay, I’m really not in the mood to do this, he would always surprise me. As well as I knew him. He would have a thought or a memory or something.
I considered it, over time, like a long interview. I would try to ask questions. What were you thinking about when you made this film? It almost became like the conversation I dreamed about having with him. What I loved about these the most is when I could get him, or someone else could get him to actually think on his feet. He would start to hold court, which he naturally did, so it was like a master class. And sometimes I would forget, how fucking brilliant this guy is. Nobody. Nobody at our round table was his intellectual peer. So I would try to see if he could be turned toward a direct discussion. Could he be countered and then go one step further?
I went very regularly up until, I would say 1996, ’97. I started to slow down because I met my future wife, and she wanted Sundays, you know, we, we wanted to hang out on our day off. So I eventually just abandoned ship.
The first film I did in Boulder was Clepsydra (1992), which I was sure was going to be a sound film, but I tried it and it simply didn’t work. I showed it silently to Stan and Marilyn, and they said, yes, it was done. Stan convinced me of its silent integrity, but he has always had the courage to remain silent. There are so many particularities of the surface in that film and my initial track had something fairly ambient, like an ethereal haunted house, which got the mood right and the feelings I wanted to convey were made more evident – but I think it did override the particularities of texture and the subtlety of the rhythms. And I think it’s actually more terrifying as a silent film.
In Clepsydra, a lot of the material came from an educational film, How to Tell Time. When I looked at the original film, I couldn’t believe how utterly strange it was, especially in its idea of scale – a little girl and this big clock. So I’m playing with a pack of Freudian cards in that film. For me the inside of the house is fraught with horrors, and when she leaves the house at the end, it’s like leaving the House of Usher. What the film is hinting at is an incest trauma; it’s not direct, but it’s in there.
The Snowman (1995) really surprised me. I thought, as I started to work on it, that it was going to be in the elegiac form of The Exquisite Hour, and it ended up being something of a Tempest. While I was working on it, the imagery called up a kind of “rage against the dying of the light,” to quote Dylan Thomas, perhaps a repressed rage against my father for leaving me an orphan in the storm – hence the sequence where you see the father and son on a diving board, and the little boy jumps into the black and then is seen out in the middle of the storm by himself. A lot of The Snowman is about the inevitable separation from one’s parents.
At some point during the making of Twilight Psalms (2002-2003), I was diagnosed with a serious lung condition, and the film shifted from my thinking about the twentieth century to the personal issue at hand. I began to identify with the images of Houdini, which is to say that I started to think more seriously about my own death and how I might not escape this illness. One story about Houdini that intrigued me – it might be a mythical story – was when they dropped him, inside a safe, into a hole in the ice, and he couldn’t find his way back to the surface. The story is that he breathed through these little pockets of air under the ice, and then heard his mother’s voice, which guided him back to the hole – and his mother died that night.
Now, I don’t remember how much truth there was in that story, but I do know that later on, Houdini became obsessed with the afterlife, and with exposing fakers who claimed they could speak with the dead. In Walking Distance (1999), I felt as if I were trying to be in touch with my mother and father. In a way, the film was a prayer to them, asking for guidance and help. They are both in there, as I am as a child. So that was my subject, like the latent content of a dream, which no one would know about just from seeing the film. But the feeling is all there.
The film begins with a character suspended upside down on a rope, like a cocoon of some kind, and the last image is a tightrope walker on some kind of journey, like Orpheus ascending. So the rope moves from the vertical to the horizontal over the course of the film, from a tether to a trembling ground. What lies between the ropes is up to you.
Technically, in Walking Distance I was, again, trying to get away from the tyranny of the cut. I imagined the emulsion creating the film as you were watching it, as if it were loosened up and molten and flowing down the filmstrip in the projector, and sometimes coagulating into images that then dissolve back into the soup. Like the ocean of memories in Solaris. I think that’s the way consciousness works.
I’m sure it was influenced by 9/11, but the whole “Twilight Psalms” project was planned as a millennial project, as a summing up of some thoughts about the last century. When I mapped out the various Psalms in my head, I knew that Night of the Meek (2002) would be about World War II and the Holocaust. I couldn’t do the twentieth century without dealing with that.
My collaboration with Stan began like two guys in a small town with nothing else to do. He had this film that he was working on, and I said, “Let’s just put it on the printer, so you don’t have to go to Western Cine and pay their rates.” So he came over and I made him dinner. We put it on the printer and let it go. And then we watched a John Woo movie. I turned him on to John Woo that night, downstairs in my TV room.
Suddenly we were working together like two musicians. I added my bag of tricks optically to what he was doing, using little pieces of glass to get a certain effect, all kinds of things. I would add images to it through a bypass – Christopher Walken from Dead Zone (1983), a gorilla. And whereas I much preferred to shoot two-to-one or three-to-one on the printer, he preferred to shoot by hand with the hand on the trigger so that he would go at his own weird rhythm, like one, one, two, two, one, three, one, two, three. He liked to defeat the machine whenever he could, the same as when he did time lapses he would bump the camera to get imperfections. He was against the slick.
After we’d shoot, he’d get his footage back, and we’d pick out the ins and the outs, what works and what doesn’t. And that was the most fascinating part of it because we had to decide what pieces of this footage were articulate. We’d watch it together and we’d almost sing it. We would go, “Du-dum, du-dah, du-dah. Right there. Stop there.” We would go back and forth on the flatbed, and we mostly 99 percent agreed on which shots were articulate. We started to call them “phrases.” What was amazing was how in sync we were about which phrases of moving paint were articulate and which weren’t. The fact that we agreed, that was a beautiful thing for me. The dream come true. We spoke the same language because he invented it, and then I invented my own dialect when I found the optical printer.
Editing abstraction was really a mind fuck for me. Because I had my story, you know. I do this thing next, and this came next, and then I need this. I think of my films very much like narrative film, in a way. I had a hook. I always had a hook with my metaphors and my symbols and my landscapes that I have to come back to, however weird they are. Editing pure abstraction, that had never really appealed to me because I felt it was just reaching the optics, not the heart, and I wanted to make things that moved me. And Stan was very much against continuity in his abstract work because he thought it would veer over into animation, and he didn’t want that. He cut against that. Rhythm, rhythm was everything to Stan. So editing abstraction was really like making music. It would get me out of my mind.
Stan usually works in what he calls a trance, and I have my own version of that – but this was a social kind of making, a duet, and a great deal of the joy and creative energy between us went into that work. We likened it to two guys in an automobile going down a hill and one of them is under the hood and one is driving. At one time, we wanted to do, let’s try to do one film a week, like Bach every Sunday. We did a three-hour work period once and he was sweating like crazy, and then we took a break and went to the movies, as he often did – he liked to reward himself. We went to see Cliffhanger (1993), the Sylvester Stallone about mountain climbing, and we were so exhausted and we’re watching this movie and it was a helicopter shot, a 360 around the mountain. And Stan put his arm around me and he said, “That’s what I want. How do we get that?”
Mostly we agreed on where the hit points were, and where a phrase would end. The big difference was he would often pick something that had a hair in the gate or a slip in the printer. He liked the rhythm of it. And I wanted to take it out because it was an irritant to my eyes. So we’d compromise here and there. I’ve learned to understand Brakhage’s noise. What I call the shots that don’t count.
He discarded very little imagery. He really believed in his unconscious, and he was also somewhat, I don’t know what you would say – frugal? He just found a way to work in everything. He had very few outtakes, for a man who made almost 350 films. You know, he either used everything or he painted over it after. He said he was raised by Germans in Kansas. It was part of his sense of economy and discipline, to use everything. Whereas I have almost nothing but outtakes. I worked single frame, so when we made a film together, that was an interesting issue because I wanted to sit and work with it for months and he was very quick.
In the end I think the work we did is flawed – the first work, Elementary Phrases (1994), because he edited the work and he made it, for me, redundant. There are things I would have taken out. But he wanted to get it all in. He left me a phone message, and he said, “Oh Phil, I’m so excited. I got it all in.” That’s when I learned a lot about him. I’m the opposite. I’m excited if I got most of it out. So with Elementary Phrases, every time I show it, I know there are going to be boring parts. Just like a long symphony, everything can’t be equally interesting. That’s what Stan understood about long work, I think – that not every part is as interesting as others. And that’s a kind of tension.
So I lied to him. I gave in, and signed off on his edit. My friendship with him mattered more than anything.
It ended up being 38 minutes. One of the longest things I’ve ever done. I would have cut out maybe 20 minutes, or 10 minutes of redundancies. I took it to Vienna. I had a solo show, and I had walkouts. I never had walkouts. I remember thinking to myself, Oh my God, I’m outside of Boulder and the Brakhage magic bubble. And here I am in the real world and people aren’t going to be engaged in 38 minutes with this kind of thing. It never gets rented. Never. Almost never. I’ve hardly watched the film myself, or shown it to people. I think it’s a flawed film.
The second film we made together, Concrescence (1996), was an offshoot of the first. It was just a three-minute roll that was an outtake that we optically cropped because it had a hair. And the third one, Seasons (2002), was the one that I made in response to his making Elementary Phrases.
Stan came down with cancer and came to believe, on the basis of the medical information he’d gotten, that the coal-tar dyes in the markers he’d been using may have been a cause. He stopped painting with the markers and began to etch and scratch, carve into film, with dental tools. It was amazing to see him move into this very primal form with so much invention. At one point, I asked Stan if I could have a bit of the material he was scratching, to see if I could edit it. Typical of his generosity, he gave me all of it, and I went to work. I had his painted loops from Elementary Phrases, so I combined them with the scratching. The difficulty was getting all of that together on the logic of the editing. I had to group the material into greens and yellows and like material, and then find a structure. Almost like music, I was trying to make something that flows.
Once I was under way, I showed a roll of the film at our Sunday evening salon, and someone said that a section of it “looks like fall,” and I thought, yes, that’s what it is; it’s a season. That gave me a story, a structure, like Vivaldi, and that sparked my editing. For example, when it got to winter, I could put all of this, what I called icicle material, and create a little storm. A lot of that film is about imagining the outside of the frame, like sunlight is hitting the ice coming in from off-screen.
One day I mentioned to Stan, “I need some summer,” and within two days, a loop showed up in an envelope in my mailbox at school, labeled “Summer, for Phil.” Classic Stan. Only Stan could give me a season in one day.
It was finished in 2002. Stan had already left for Canada. It was one of the last films, if not the last film, that that he was able to go downstairs see. That was one of the great gifts of my life, that he got to see it, and he signed off on it. He loved it. He thought it was perfect. Beautiful.
The funeral was at the Church of Saint Mary, the Virgin, Parish of Oak Bay, which was literally at the end of Stan’s block in Victoria, British Columbia. Milton Street, no less. The day before the funeral, the weather was so rough and the seas so heavy that my ferry from Seattle had to be canceled. It took me ten hours to get from Seattle to Victoria by an alternative route, and the rains and winds remained foreboding throughout the day. But the morning of Stan’s funeral was simply beautiful. The clouds parted to reveal a sun that I had never seen on that island during my last visit at the beginning of February. It was glorious, a spring day, ahead of schedule. The next day was beautiful as well.
It was a simple and moving service. The sun streamed steadily through the stained-glass windows, projecting its own Text of Light (1974) that gradually moved up the wall during the entire service. We listened to a recording of a six-year-old Stan Brakhage, taken from an acetate that was made when he was a chorister at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Denver. I had a copy of this for years, with Stan singing “Ave Maria” so purely in his boy soprano voice, and I managed to clean it up a bit and added a subtle, spatial, church-like depth to the scratchy recording before I arrived – and it resounded throughout the church. There it was, the whole arc of his life, as young Stan reached across time and space to sing a hymn over his own casket, at life’s end – we could hear, once again, his voice, that beautiful instrument, reaching backward in time, helping us, once more, through this difficult moment – it was unbearably poignant and terribly moving.
Marilyn Brakhage had asked me a few days before to give an appreciation of Stan, our friendship, and his contribution to the arts – an impossible task, as she acknowledged, but I did the best I could to speak about Stan in ways that I thought that all might recognize.
As the casket was being led out of the Church, the organist, at Marilyn’s request, played a short Messiaen organ piece that he knew of; this was specifically requested because this was one of Stan’s favorite composers. It was sudden, unexpected, frightening, dissonant, holy, sublime, and utterly appropriate.
* * *
It’s amazing how flat this place feels without him. He did not have a good death, I’m afraid. He was in pain almost to the end. He was heroic. Truly heroic. And a wonderful friend. As I told you, I haven’t really come to terms with Stan in many ways. Because I was inside, and I can see through some of the illusions that people have.
I’m still a little bit mad at him, though. We had an ongoing argument. With a grant from a donor foundation, we were able to buy Stan’s prints, his papers, and give him and Marilyn enough money to buy a house that Stan could die in and the family could live in. So I was so happy about that. That finally, after all these years, he got real money, you know.
Well, he went with Western Cine, which was his lab for his entire career. But they had lost one of their contact printers on one of their processors, so they were processing positive prints with negative chemistry, which essentially yielded a low-contrast image. Almost no black. It was more like a muddy brown. And Stan could have had them send it out to fix it. But he didn’t, and he worked it into his aesthetic, as he often did when he got back scratched footage.
Not all of it. He said I could give him a list of about 30 films that he would send out, for proper black. He likes this soft kind of browny, muddy look. And I kind of understand it. He was anti-slick. I think for someone who was so masterful, mastery came easy for him, I think he really liked a kind of unaesthetic aesthetic. I was frankly surprised that he loved my work as much as he did. I would’ve thought my work was too narrative and slick.
I had all this Brakhage material from the Sunday night salons, and I thought I would transcribe it, and then it might be a useful text, a book. I even had a title: A Snail’s Trail in Moonlight. I have about 100 hours or so of these things recorded, and I transcribed a few. I looked at one and it seemed very flat to me, except for a few passages where Stan just goes on, and he’s sharp. It read just like a script for me, and I hate reading scripts. I thought, My God, this is just one salon and it took this long to get transcribed and I’m never going to go through all these and no one’s ever gonna read anything like that.
And I can hear Stan objecting. And Marilyn kind of didn’t think Stan would want me to do such a thing. He would say to me, “Do your work. You’re a great artist. Don’t dip me in bronze.” So then I thought maybe I would make a film called A Snail’s Trail in Moonlight and gather parts of the salons with my home movies, and maybe even interviews with me, or me talking directly into a microphone or the camera, like I’m talking to you now about my life with Stan. I haven’t given up on that idea, but I had that idea when I was strong enough that I felt okay. I don’t really want to distribute this film, but I would like to have it as a completed work that I go around with and take on the tour. So you could only see it if you see me. I would show works by me, works by Stan, and works by both of us, and then talk about the whole damn thing, including footage that never came out. Bringing original strips. I could do a whole weekend of Stan Brakhage and Solomon.
I’ve heard him say it more than once: “All I ever wanted to do was leave a snail’s trail in the moonlight.” Meaning, Whatever I did, it was just so natural. That’s really the word, natural. It can be slime, like a biological process, but also beautiful. It’s in the moonlight. If it’s glistening in the moonlight, it’s beautiful.
It’s the beholden. Who’s going to notice a snail’s trail in the moonlight? Only very particular people on a very particular evening.
And it’s there. It’s there, whether you notice it or not.
I’ve always thought of it that way. I just want to do what’s the most natural thing, and it’s there for anybody who wants to see it.
* * *
PART III: AFTER LIVES
Okay, I’m just finishing my coffee. Cloudy day in Boulder, which is nice. Refreshing. My voice is a little hoarse, but I’ll just clear it every now and then. I was just looking over Facebook and realizing how alienated I feel just from everything. I think that it’s partly, you know, my, my existential condition, and partly it just feels like I’ve been there, done that. Just so redundant. Because I’m no longer a member of these things. I’m no longer participating, so it’s not really fun. And the idea of liking things, it just feels grotesque to me right now. Or making lists of your favorite things. Or me, me, me, me, mine, mine. I do it too, of course. And it was important to me one time, but right now it just feels. I don’t know. I think since dropping – since retiring, a lot of things have left me. Now I see what death is in terms of experimental films. You make Facebook for the day, people leave condolences and RIPs, and then next day it’s pretty much gone. A few latecomers, and then you’ll maybe get a mention, if you’re lucky, in The New York Times. But that’s only certain people.
In 1999, right before I got married, I caught pneumonia, and that led to further testing, and I was diagnosed with this terrible illness. So it was not an auspicious beginning for my poor wife, and the marriage broke up in 2002. And then Stan died in 2003. I was still teaching, and I wanted to teach a class on postmodernism because I really hadn’t done all of that reading that I was supposed to do. I never had a classical critical studies education, thank God. So I forced myself to at least read a little bit about it, and then kind of work it out with the class – not just to tell the students things, but to work out problems with them, so I can learn on the job. I think that’s one of the best parts of teaching.
Along the way, I went to see Batman, and I remember feeling like, What the fuck is this? I don’t know where the ceiling is, and the floor, let alone the horizon. It was unmoored from gravity. They lost the frame as a stabilizing device, because they can do impossible things with flying and wire work and all that stuff. So I figured, Okay, this has got to be the influence of video games, and I’d better take a look at it. And also I thought it would be fun maybe, like a young boy with a new toy. I thought I could play. Not competitively, because I knew I’d suck and I didn’t want that kind of neurosis. I read about sandbox games, that really interested me, because I didn’t want to have to play where you could only go so far, and then you get blocked, and you’d have to earn your way. I’d played a couple of games, but I just got stuck and I just couldn’t learn my way out, and I felt this deep, existential despair.
I went into Best Buy, got a PlayStation II, and then I said to the geek, the Geek Squad guy, “What’s the best sandbox game you have, where I could look around?” I just wanted to explore without being challenged by dragons. “And don’t give me anything fucking medieval. I have no interest in getting dirty. I want a contemporary setting.”
He told me about Grand Theft Auto, Vice City, so I took it home, and I was immediately both appalled and intrigued. I couldn’t believe the violence, which I also found quite attractive, but I got that out of my system pretty quickly. When you kill enough people, you start to feel bad. I started just driving around. I would get out of the car, and look. I was mobile again. I didn’t have to wear oxygen in that airless world, and I could walk around and not have any problems.
I was in a new territory for myself. It was like going to a new place. What I really loved is that every time I started up the machine, my memory of the place was just like my memory of real places. I knew if I drove around this road, came around this bend, that I would see this thing that I knew was there, just like I do in memory, in real memory. I was amazed at the level of detail that was completely unnecessary to winning. Having beautiful trees didn’t really make a killing any better, but for me it made it kind of fascinating. It was a simulacra beauty even in its failures – the uncanny valley. The thing I love about those early games is they had a kind of sadness, a kind of a simulacrum sadness, that this is clearly not a tree, but it wants to be. And in its not being a tree, it has a mathematical beauty. It’s really abstract, some of the shapes in those films, like the dark forest. They work beautifully as geometric abstractions. And the figures – the figures were limited, but they were evocative.
So I got to kind of love these places. I would explore them, and I started to record hour after hour of gameplay. I wasn’t making anything. I was just recording, and discovering that I can do things with the camera that I was never able to do in the real world, like a tracking shot. That was kind of thrilling.
Then I discovered the world of cheats. You put in a code, and it would make it rain. The rain cheat was atmospheric. It gave it a kind of a filmic texture. It has almost a grain to it, an almost Tri-X quality.
There was another cheat that says when you bump into something, it’ll start to float. So when you hit a car, instead of exploding, it starts to float in the air. I experimented with the laws of physics in that world. I kept spawning cars, because you could just spawn car after car after car, and then I would hit them with my motorcycle and they would start floating. So there you’ve got these cars floating up into the sky and raining, and it was like a Magritte painting. It’s automatically surreal.
I don’t remember exactly how I started, but I think it was by going out to the countryside, away from the urban warfare and bothersome people muttering to me. I noticed that the trees were swaying or that the grass was blowing, and the filmmaker in me immediately wanted to start taking images of these details that are usually ignored in all the designated mayhem. The main problem was getting rid of the avatar in the frame – I just wanted to have a camera and photograph and compose the non-narrative details of these various landscapes. With some games, you had to be in a vehicle to get a POV, and with others I had to find workarounds. And then of course I noticed the light was changing as the day wore on; the light changed, and I said, “That’s pretty beautiful.” I would just stare and record several minutes to see how the light shifted over the course of the game’s version of hours.
Then Mark LaPore came to visit me. He was my best friend in college, and he would visit me every summer. It was like a ritual. I showed him the video game stuff, and he found it absolutely hilarious. Mark was too cool to actually drive himself. He didn’t want to be awkward or go through a learning curve of how to even drive around, so I drove and we discovered a lot of things together. He would read me the cheats and not tell me what was going to happen. One of the cheats would make everybody in town start murdering you. In another, everybody in the world would wear clown suits, or be Elvis impersonators. And this was our kind of humor. And then you could also combine cheats, like you could make it rain, have Elvis impersonators run around, and be in a forest. It really went crazy. You could have the car drive on water and all of a sudden the car would open up its tires and became a boat. We couldn’t stop laughing. We were crying.
Mark was very interested in the game, but he seemed very different to me. He was intense. He and his wife were having marital problems. He just, I don’t know, he seemed hurt. He was taking antidepressants and that made him more depressed because he was playing around with the way he took them, and they knocked off his sexual libido. That was very important to Mark. I remember him saying, “They took away sex, they took away rock and roll, and they took away cigarettes, and what have I got left?”
I asked him, “Are you afraid to be alone?” And he said, “I’m not alone. I have Isabelle” – his beautiful daughter, who was six or seven at the time. I believed him when he said that. And then he asked me another pointed question. He asked me how much longer I expected to live. And I think at that time, 2005, I said five years.
He wanted to make something, on the last night he was here, a film. So he started directing me. He said, “Now I want you to go on the bicycle and ride it like a kid would ride.” He was just being intuitive, feeling his way through. And I did what he asked. I wish I had a tape of him giving me these directions. It was beautiful. We recorded it and then we stayed up until four or five in the morning and then took them right to the airport. We’d never done that before.
After he went home, I made a few fine tunes to the film, and sent them to him to approve. I added the sound, and he had some specific requests for sounds, including a rattlesnake. And that had to do with his own personal demons. He wrote back with an email called “Bleak House,” which is a Dickens book he loved, and he said, “Yesterday, I thought everything was okay. Today, my marriage is falling apart. Something’s got to be good here. Maybe it’s our film.” And then he wrote that he saw Last Days (2005), the film by Gus Van Sant about Kurt Cobain. Mark wrote, “Truly a film about nothing. I loved it.” There’s a nihilist email for you.
Our plan was to get to finish up the piece and show it for David Gatten, our friend and later my colleague here at CU. David had just survived a cancer scare, and then Mark had cancer and they took out his colon, and I had what I was going through, so all three of us were like the walking wounded. We thought we’d make a film that would be like a little get well card for all of us. David was having a show at the New York Film Festival, and we thought we would give him a little gift that would be unannounced, as a surprise.
Well, I couldn’t make it to New York. I was too ill. And Mark hung himself on 9/11, 2005. The show was October 4th, So David did have his show, and we did show this piece, and everybody was of course in tears, and now it was obviously something else. It had a whole new meaning. Mark meant it as a farewell. His visit was a farewell tour, he was leaving me this film as a gift. It was originally called Untitled, for David Gatten, but I changed it after Mark died because I didn’t want David to have the burden of that title. I thought Crossroad (2005) is a much more posthumously meaningful title.
I generated new footage after Mark died. Between 2005 and 2007, I kept generating footage. I must have 30, 40 hours. I was playing. I was having fun. One discovery led to another. First, I found a hearse. You know, there’s all these cars you can steal. One of them was the hearse, so of course I’m going to use a hearse. Then I wanted to see what would happen if I went into the sky, what would it look like. So I cheated a plane, went up in the air. And then I would cheat airplanes and let them drop down to the earth. And then I went down to the earth for the land’s perspective of that shot, and they floated down sequentially. It was amazing. There was a consistency in the physics.
I would take four cars and light a tree, use them as gaffers and put the cars off out of the frame and keep the headlights on. And my God, it would serve as the lighting. I’d block off the streets with my army tanks. I blocked off Hollywood Boulevard to cause a traffic jam to clear the streets, to create that empty world. And sure enough, some cabs that were programmed to be aggressive got through and committed hari-kari, and they would ruin my take. I’d spend hours carefully building a tracking shot, rehearsal after rehearsal with my thumbs just to get it right. And then the fucking cab would explode in my face. I knew that Mark LaPore was fucking with me. I could hear him laughing.
I was looking for Mark, for Mark’s kind of thing. I also had a theme. I was going to make a film that was going to be elegiac, using these incredibly crude cartoons. Most people who work with Machinima, they know irony. It’s all about who can be the smarmiest. Survival of the smarmiest. Irony is exactly the opposite of what I wanted out of art. I wanted Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert. I wanted something you can go back to over and over again, and that would last. And I didn’t know if that would work. I really didn’t know.
I finished the film and sent it off to a programmer who had recently discovered my work and was a big fan – Chris Stults, who programs at the Wexner Center, in Columbus. I told him, “I don’t know what this is.” I gave it every excuse, because I was insecure about it. He wrote back this letter and said he was bowled over, and knocked out by it emotionally. And I was like, Oh really? Because I thought the cartoon aspect of it, it’s not going to work. So his response really single-handedly gave me the green light.
I went through a lot of changes about it. Ultimately I feel good about it. Yeah, you know, I’ve got to love Mark for doing it. It was a really nice gift that opened up a lot of things in my work that I never expected. I hate to say that I was inspired by his death, but I was inspired by his death. As I have been throughout my creative life. I’ve been inspired by these major losses and shifts in my life. It seems I’m most moved to work when I respond to something.
And I made here a very sincere piece, ultra-sincere. People cry when they see it. And I think that’s what shocks the most, that you could do something really moving with these things that weren’t ironic.
I always feel like the Grand Theft Auto films are the closest to who I really am, closest to who I was as a kid. I used to build models when I was a kid, and it’s very much like the art process. I loved being alone. I loved just putting pieces together, editing in a way. I painted them simply and then I wouldn’t fix them to the stand. I would play with them as dolls, and I would make up narratives, on my body, in bed, you know, or in the landscape of my bed. I probably made sound effects. I wish I had movies of it. That’s the kind of the approach I took to the video games.
With Empire (2012), the idea of doing a Warhol re-make, even as a conceptual joke, came to me because I had seen images of “Liberty City” for Grand Theft Auto IV online and knew the Empire State Building would be in there.
I did a great deal of location scouting first. I stole a helicopter, and then tried a few building rooftops that had a vantage point of the Rotterdam Tower, which is what they called the Empire State Building. Most buildings weren’t tall enough to get the big picture vantage point that I wanted. I wasn’t that concerned with precisely imitating Warhol’s composition. I wanted this piece to have its own compositional integrity, based on the light of cosmic events like day moving into night, and I love that they simply eliminated New Jersey and afforded me a view of lower Manhattan with an endless vista of ocean behind it. But the one building I found that worked had all kinds of dangerous scaffolding on the rooftop, and I repeatedly kept dying trying to land the copter or jump out without either leaping to my death down to the streets below or having the crashed copter land on top of me! Well now, this was certainly a new kind of problem for me to have in my filmmaking – something they never taught me in film school! Ultimately, I performed and recorded over 40 takes of 48 minutes each before I had what I considered to be the final take.
I would begin by cheating a storm at the start of the piece, hoping for a lightning strike or two, but once I set it in motion, I could only stand back and watch the full take to see how it played out. I wanted the metaphor of the storm, some kind of a foreboding mood – I’m often drawn to bad weather in my films. So in the very best take of all, the lightning hits right away, then we see beautiful raindrops fall onto the camera lens, which is really the avatar’s cycle helmet, making multiple impressionistic blurs on the cityscape before it gradually clears up, and I swear it feels at that moment like the moistened air after a storm. Little by little, the sun creeps down, creating a dance of light on the waters as we head into dusk. We’re looking at the ocean beyond, the end of the country, and there’s no World Trade Center in sight – just like in Warhol’s 1964 take. And on the horizon line at dusk, this beautiful border of light emerges – what is it called? The green event? The green ray. I’m reminded of that transcendent ending in Rohmer’s film. The sunset at one point looks like a nuclear explosion. And then a sliver of the moon comes out, and I chose to use a take when the moon loop would completely change phase during the middle of the night, back to full when it reappears.
That seemed to be a significant event for me somehow, for its metaphorical implications and its quiet sense of surprise. I had to wait through the equivalent of two weeks of GTA time in order to capture that change of phase when I performed it again recently. I did over 40 takes, and there was only one where I got it to rain again when the clock comes full circle. And so, as it’s approaching 3 o’clock p.m., which is when I started recording, I’m watching apprehensively as I’m recording it, and as it gradually started to rain again, I said to myself, “Oh please, this will be the perfect ending!” – and indeed it was. It’s exactly 48 minutes long to the frame, which is exactly 24 hours GTA time.
So there it is, the first structural film I ever made.
I’d never really thought about doing an installation before, because I come from a pure cinema background. But in 1999, a curator at Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Paul Roth, contacted me after seeing my film Walking Distance. He came out to Colorado and asked to see all of my work and then flew me to Washington, and said he was interested in me doing an installation. He wanted me to do something outside of my comfort zone. I could use any room in the museum that I wished.
As you enter the Corcoran, you walk up the marble steps and there’s a beautiful rotunda area that is the gateway to the rest of the museum. And at the time, there was a surround-sound, six-channel projection installation by Jennifer Steinkamp, a California artist who projects multi-channel videos onto architecture. She had a seven-second loop of candy-colored squiggles accompanied by music. And the people walking through the museum were delighted; it created kind of an amusement park atmosphere for spectator shadow play. So I was kind of charmed by that ambience. And then on the first floor of the Corcoran is Frederick Church’s great painting of Niagara Falls. So I began to imagine the surround possibilities of the rotunda, which of course invokes the nearby Capitol building and whose shape alludes to the metaphorical and imagistic power of Church’s Niagara Falls – and right there and then I said to them, “I’ll make a piece called American Falls (2010), and we’ll do it in here.” I had no idea what I would do, but I thought, If I’m going to do this, I might as well do it big.
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 had never been to Washington before, and it was absolutely frigid that winter. I visited all the monuments 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. Whither America?
I go back to that basic contradiction, that the founding fathers, these men of the Enlightenment, these very smart men, owned slaves. That contradiction sits at the very heart of it. It seems to me almost like Original Sin. And before that, of course, the Native American holocaust. When I began to do some research about the Native American myths surrounding Niagara, I had my primary allegory and central image – the Maid of the Mist who launches herself over Niagara Falls in despair. She would later be joined by The Great Blondin, who walked above the falls on a tightrope, and Annie Edson Taylor, who was the first to go over the falls in a barrel and survive. My American Falls begins and ends with them.
I read up on my Howard Zinn and many other sources. But this was a commission, in my mind, for a more public kind of work. I wanted to make this a piece that my father and mother might have been able to understand and even be moved by. I wanted to tap into our collective unconscious stream of emblematic images for my chemical transformations, and that’s where the Hollywood collective dream factory comes in handy. But it feels more like the memories of paintings than dreams. A temporal, populist mural, a Diego Rivera moving in time. The basic theme is right there in the title: American Falls. The whole idea of the fall, and the rise and fall of the capitalist parabola in particular – what goes up must come down. The uneasy marriage between capitalism and democracy. And the rise and fall of fame; ultimately, the rise and fall of, perhaps, this country. I’ve always been interested in the idea of cinema and loss, the beautiful and poignant conjuring of human presence and its absence. It’s an illusion, we know that, and yet it’s so profoundly vivid and moving. You long for it to be real, and then when it’s over you have to go home and your life isn’t like that, like the dreams that were given to us.
I was making a primer, a revisionist primer of American history. So I worked with iconographic images, essential images from television, newsreel journalism, and the cinema, what I considered to be the primary markers of American history. Where I didn’t have documentary footage, I would rely on Hollywood films and its re-enactments. I worked on it for over ten years. I captured hundreds of digital scenes into timelines, with each scene bordered by fades into and out of black, so the images would emerge out of and submerge back into the chemical treatments I later employed. These Final Cut timelines were then optically transferred, frame-by-frame, to 16mm black-and-white film, which is then processed, printed, treated, dried, and then manually re-photographed again on an optical printer back into jpeg files. I shot over a half million individual photographs of these 16mm treated frames, enough footage for several feature-length films. Digital editing allowed me to finesse the transitions and choreograph events and graphic matches with incredible precision among the three screens. So the huge mural on the wall retains the essential cinematic character of its source material and a particular type of organic photochemical textural beauty, but was only made possible by tweaking, editing, posting, and presenting in the digital medium. American Falls is therefore also a lamentation for the end of cinema, whose lifespan essentially bookended the twentieth century.
I gave myself over to art. I don’t have a family. I chose the road less traveled. But I was able to be an artist and to live a normal life. At least that’s what I tell myself. And my job and title at CU is something my dad would have understood. When I told him once, many years ago, that I had a solo show of my work coming up at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, he replied, “Well … maybe this will lead to something.…” This is where it led, Dad.
I think part of me always wanted to be loved for my work. You know, like the old romantic idea that you would show the work and it would bare your soul and someone would see you, how beautiful you are, and fall in love with you. I don’t have a sense of how quote unquote famous I am. I’m always surprised when I show my work and people tell me they’re moved. Sometimes I’ve seen people in tears after my shows and that’s meaningful to me, but I also don’t know what to do with it. It’s like when I hung out with Brian Wilson – what can I say to him?
Lately I’ve been getting a lot of requests – “Can I see this film? Can I see this stuff?” And they’re not programmers, they just want to see my films. They’re in South America or somewhere. And it depends on my mood. Mostly I don’t really want to share my films until I get the master onto HD, which I’m going to do. My films are made as films, and I don’t really want you to watch these little boxes online.
I got a letter from a kid in Chile, a very nice letter. He wants to see my work. Do I want to send him links to little Quicktimes, isn’t it better than nothing? And then when he tells me the bootlegs that he’s gotten, it really angers me. It’s a completely hypocritical stance for me, because I’ve bootlegged forever. I have 30,000 movies bootlegged. So it’s not bad, it’s just that I don’t know what it means for him to see my work. I don’t know. I don’t know what good it does, and this is a real dilemma I’m facing. Do I let it go? I just let everybody have it while I’m still on earth to have conversations about it? Or, or do I just hold onto it as cinematic experience where it really will lift? Is something better than nothing?
I’ve tried a little bit. I’ve let go of a few things, put them online, and the feedback I’ve gotten was almost nothing, you know? No, I don’t really know what the prize would be, because I’m sitting here, as we say in Yiddish, Elaine via schtein. A lump like a dog. Unlike Stan, who simply had to work. It was a neurotic thing for him. He would have gone crazy. He had to have that. And I don’t. I really don’t. I can go without working, as I’m discovering in my retirement. And now it’s of course concerning me because I’m not sure if I have anything left. Because I’m stuck. My creative thing is completely stuck.
I am number four on the organ transplant list. If some poor bastard gets hit by a car, and their lungs are still intact but they’re brain dead, I’ll get the call. It’s like going to your doom. Every time the phone rings, I look at it and pray that it’s not. On the other hand, as time goes by, pretty soon I’ll be praying that it is. So this could be my last day on earth. I could get the call, go down to Denver, and not wake up. How do you face that? I’m just closing my eyes every night, trying to get better.
But talking with you, I’m kinda waking up intellectually. And I just had a visitor here, a guy from Ecuador, and we had a show in my basement. I showed him a couple of films, and he was posing questions to get me talking like I am with you. He brought a woman with him, his girlfriend, and she asked me, so beautifully, “Have you ever had an out of the body experience?” And so that’s her way of saying that that’s what she had watching my films, and that’s really what I strive for in those works.
This visit from these kids was pretty nice. I hope I can start watching films downstairs again. If I ever get better, I could have graduate students come over, or form my own coffee club. I think I can be useful holding little master classes too if I have the energy to do it.
A title came to me the other day, and that’s given me a little spark.
* * *
Cummings, Doug. “American Falls: An interview with Phil Solomon.” MOH. Moholy Ground Project, Inc., December 25, 2014.
Goldsmith, Leo. “Chemical Sundowns: Phil Solomon with Leo Goldsmith.” Brooklyn Rail, November 2012.
Grillo, David. “Phil Solomon interviewed by David Grillo.” Issue Magazine.
MacDonald, Scott. A Critical Cinema 5: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers. University of California Press, 2006.
MacDonald, Scott M., and J. Hoberman. Binghamton Babylon: Voices from the Cinema Department, 1967-1977. State University of New York Press, 2015.
“Phil Solomon.” Cinemad. December, 2006.
Solomon, Phil. “Account of Brakhage’s Funeral.” March 16, 2003.
Solomon, Phil. “A Remembrance for Stan Brakhage.” March 14, 2003.
Solomon, Phil, telephone interviews by Joe Miller. July 25, August 3, 11, 17, 22 and 31, 2018. Audio files at Academy Film Archives.