Both LA shows were epic, with large audiences and a complete hush through the silent pieces. People somehow didn't even cough or move. Or maybe I was too transfixed by the imagery, a fluid mix of found and created footage exploring family, memory and general beauty.
CINEMAD: How did you get involved with making avant-garde films?
PHIL SOLOMON: When I first saw [avant-garde] film 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. I didn’t have an informed understanding of what we might call, for lack of a better term, the “aesthetic” experience, as opposed to the semi-hypnotic trance state induced by the lull of complex identification cues that literally entrances us when we experience narrative film – and how different this was than the contemplative experience of looking at any painting or listening to music. 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 apperception. And 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 (which has now, ironically, come to be “ground-under”). 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 find the analogy of most narrative film as akin to popular literature to be a useful one. My films seem much closer in their temperament, ideas and tendencies to the form and content of certain - somewhat hermetic - poets like Emily Dickinson, John Ashbery, Wallace Stevens, and Jorie Graham. Or textural narrative painters like Albert Pinkham Ryder, Francis Bacon and Anselm Kiefer. Or the polyphonic re-imagined, and re-remembered aural American narratives of Charles Ives. Or the ambiguous, lush, and mysterious ambient landscapes in the organic electronic music of Brian Eno.
But to answer your question directly, I really became involved with this area of filmmaking because I discovered it in college quite by mistaken identity – and I encountered a variety of committed, passionate teachers there and studied at a time when there was a cultural openness to new forms “in the air”, an integral part of the intellectual climate of the day. There was such a thing at that time of a “liberal arts education” for its own sake, as a normal and legitimate part of a (fortunate) young person’s life-cycle, a time set aside for the development of the life of the mind and the spirit, and not just seeing college as a utilitarian job training/technical school – which is what it mostly has become. My students often feel like they simply cannot afford the luxury of time and money to “expand their consciousness” if it doesn’t involve a career track in some way.
They are now global competitors, living in a country completely and unashamedly controlled by a small, super-rich elite, who have run amuck with the world without even any pretense of “democratic” checks and balances, and all of the role models for young folks seem to be about making it, becoming famous, living out Warhol’s supreme prediction of the idea of fame and its transient nature. The entire notion of the development of the life of the mind, of the private, thoughtful, contemplative and self-aware individual – and the encouragement of the relaxed state one has to achieve, in my view, in order to even begin to receive an aesthetic experience - has given way to the worker bee mentality of the ever busy, ever connected, ever wired and jacked-in-from-morning-till-night electronic buzz seeker, complete with a round the clock, round the world false sense of (cyber) community and the false reassurance of an instant, ersatz intimacy in front of their screens or on their portable phones. Many students I see on campus can’t seem to stand to be alone with themselves in thought for even 10 seconds after class – they have to be immediately “in touch”, and get hooked up on their cell phones. Jabbering on – about anything, as long as they are not faced with the terror of being alone with their own thoughts. And the silent, hushed, communal aesthetics of a darkened movie theater has given way to the size and depth of an I-pod screen, and human expression is now reduced to the clipped telegram jargon of non-stop text messaging, which then carries over into the one-liner shopping mall aesthetics that I see in the plastic arts, etc. Everything now seems to have been reduced to the ceaseless chatter of disposable “small talk” in all of its various forms. Screaming, bellowing, small talk and disposable chatter coming at us from every possible portal. But I digress…
People think that if you are making this type of work you aren’t really making “movies” and have no idea what’s going on in Hollywood, and that’s not true.
No, in fact I came to film art because I loved many American narrative films, particularly from the so-called golden era (for me, the 40s-early 70s), and I think there is something in my work that very much references these films, which remain so vivid in my consciousness, my daydreams and – most unfortunately – my romantic ideals.
Again, I point to the difference between reading Stephen King or Grisham –“page-turners”, where you literally are not even aware of the words on the page as you mind-swim through the books. Its just the human lust for narrative, simply wanting to know what’s going to happen next – versus, say, reading Emily Dickinson, where you are hyper-aware of the form – the words, how they look, how they sound in one’s inner ear… the distance between the words, the formation of lines on the page and reading “between them”, the imaginary leaps and unpredictable collision quotient per capita. We are hyper-aware of both the form on the page as well as the residual meanings and resonance in lived experience beyond. Interestingly enough, my films in particular often exploit the rather abstract qualities of narrative film syntax, as it has come down to us from Porter and Griffith – particularly the elliptical assumptions we make in decoding the classic POV/insert shot, parallel editing and so forth. And, by the way, my films move through the gate at the same rate as the “movies”…neither of which really move at all…
Incidentally, you know that no one saw and cared for more Hollywood movies than did my dearly missed friend, Stan Brakhage. He was the most generous of moviegoers. They relaxed him. But he didn’t confuse them with art.
Psalm III: Night of the Meek (2002).
Before you screened the TWILIGHT PSALMS series you said they were influenced by the Twilight Zones you grew up with.
First of all, it was on reasonably late at night, Fridays, at 9:30 p.m. on the east coast, if memory serves. I remember it was on right after Perry Mason (I always get a bit of a chill hearing the Perry Mason theme because I know that something wicked this way comes…). My sister and I would often watch it together (as an older sister, her duty was to always try to terrify me). These were really frightening for us, starting right from the first notes of the unforgettable Maurice Constant theme - though a lot of them now seem somewhat thin or a bit goofy from a contemporary perspective. Rod Serling burned bright, fast and then out.
I came to realize that they were not so much about horror or fear, but about the strangeness of life, the coincident, twists of fate, karma…the Zone between reality and the imagination, which Thomas Pynchon really picked up on in Gravity’s Rainbow years later. They were psychodramas, which is at the very heart of much of avant-garde film history. And I find now that these shows were prescient moral tales with a resonant sense of right and wrong, some kind of cosmic comeuppance, cosmic balance at tale’s end. There was always a moral payoff at the tag, and Rod Serling gave us an abbreviated sermon as the camera tilts toward the sky, the heavens, where we are left to ponder our peculiar fate as self-aware mortals – time beings - on earth. When I was a kid, I was always drawn to fantasy and science fiction, to “alt.” worlds. My imagination was sparked by comic books, rock and roll, and television. I really was a child of television, perhaps really the first or second generation to be so hooked.
And many [Twilight Zone episodes] are about children. They weren’t about aliens and monsters, like say The Outer Limits, they were about real life…with a twist. I later came to see Serling as a serious writer. I studied his work in live television, including Patterns and Requiem for a Heavyweight, and I was aware of his taught script for Frankenheimer’s SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (1964). He worked best, however, in short-form narrative, as opposed to his film scripts, or the hour-long episodes of the fourth season. And to top it all off, Serling hailed from Binghamton. That was his source, his fount, the Binghamton of another time, not the rather dark, cloudy, vacated and foreclosed place that its become, but the Binghamton of the town square and carousel in high summer – the Ivesian Binghamton of Serling’s Walking Distance. But that’s another story.
In regards to Binghamton, how did you find the school?
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 - and Binghamton advertised that they had a major in cinema major (no other NY State school had one at that time – though SUNY Purchase was just starting up their film program). Harpur (as it was known then) also had a strong pre-med program. 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.
But I always loved the movies and I kind of daydreamed of being a “new Hollywood” film director. I made regular 8mm films with my friends in high school, and even some proto music video -like pieces, based on A HARD DAY'S NIGHT (1964) kind of non-sync energy and the music montage sequences that were starting to permeate everything. The film department sent me a form letter that emphasized the term “art cinema.” Well, at that time, 1971, we were right in the middle of the so-called American Film School Renaissance and the flowering of the directors from the live television era - the great run of American feature films from late 60s and early 70s. I used to bus into Manhattan from the suburbs to see “foreign” films. I knew some of the French new wave and Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, DeSica. I was fairly informed with the notion of “art cinema”, or so I thought. I was actually very angry when Ken Jacobs started the first class by showing Tony Conrad’s THE FLICKER (1965).
That’s the first thing you saw?
That must be to weed people out…
To some extent. This was a general Intro to Film class with about 200 people in the lecture hall. But it was also my introduction to Ken Jacobs – he was intense, serious, sometimes outrageous, very confrontational - but always challenging and engaging in his approach to teaching. I was perplexed, but mostly frustrated and suspicious. As I said, I simply had no context. I didn't really understand modern art at all, had no conception of formalism and abstraction, so it took me a while – I needed to understand the whole complex notion of the idea of modernism in general. I remember publicly voicing my annoyance about two weeks in: “When are we going to see major motion pictures in this class?” I wanted my movies.
For whatever reason Ken, who was notorious for not suffering fools gladly – well, 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 – and he remains one my dearest friends and most important influences to this day - and in some ways, he will always be my teacher, the source of all of it, the big bang for me. A great, great artist, and my life was completely changed in encountering him. It took me about a year and a half to really warm up to [avant film.]
I had a breakthrough with - of all things – Stan Brakhage’s most didactic work. It was a film called BLUE MOSES (1962). It’s a polemical film, a reflexive narrative comedy about the absurdity of narrative film syntax and illusion-based cinema. There’s an actor (Robert Benson) 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 and young people seem to always be terribly excited by their first encounter with ideas of reflexivity. I still find this to be true. I would characterize BLUE MOSES as a “deconstructive” comedy. 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??”
Remains to be Seen (1989).
Also, at that time, the noted writer and scholar of film, Fred Camper (check out his utterly thorough and authoritative website on Brakhage and others sometime - www.fredcamper.com) was visiting the school. He put ANTICIPATION OF THE NIGHT (1959) up on the analytic projector [with which you can control the speed and go frame by frame without burning film] and really analyzed it, broke it down shot by shot. That really opened the door wide open for me. Especially to the formal ideas that I simply wasn’t picking up on, like cutting on shape-rhymes. I was presented with the simple but profound notion that juxtaposing one similar shape next another, in and of itself, could be a meaningful and articulate, poetic gesture. In other words, we see how the circle of light reflecting off of a bowl cuts to the moon, in relatively the same part of the frame, containing the same size, shape and diameter, etc. A formal gesture, but also a resonant idea. That was really important to me. In fact, if you look at my work you can see a lot of that going on, sometimes barely perceptible, but shape analogies are an integral part of my editing logic in almost every film. But I needed to have someone first point to it, legitimize it, and prove it to me like a lawyer. Using these analytic tools, my teachers gave me a primer for understanding formal film aesthetics and for learning how to rethink my assumptions about cinematic language. I could now consider the frame with a different set of glasses.
Studying with Peter Kubelka further reinforced many of these ideas within a highly detailed formal presentation over the course of a semester looking at his work, with an emphasis on sound/sync relationships, right down to the frame level, which is really where my work resides. So in my classes, I don't just talk abstractly about aesthetics. I’ll often analyze the films, shot by shot, or frame by frame, and reveal the deep formal structures not immediately apparent on just one viewing. By demonstrating the aesthetic coherence and penetrating the deep structures and logic of the work, I try to legitimize the richness and value of these films for my students. Shifting from professor to lawyer and back again. Then they start to get it. But frankly most leave school and never make or go to see these kinds of films again. They, well…they go to work.
Are the classes you teach theory based or more production, how to make a film?
I do both - one each per semester. I think I’m rather privileged in that respect because I only have a Masters degree. But I’ve always taught critical studies classes, ever since those years teaching night school at Mass College of Art throughout the 80s after getting my MFA there. At Harvard, I was a teaching assistant and they gave me a Distinction in Teaching Award, even though I didn't actually go to Harvard – I was the projectionist.
When I applied to Boulder, to be able to teach critical studies courses was one of the main features that I was attracted to. Stan had set that precedent here, as artist-teacher of critical studies and theory- indeed, he never taught production, didn’t believe in it (for himself). It was a newly formed degree program at the time I arrived in 1991. There had been a non-degree program here for years, an offshoot of the English department. So I kind of snuck in with both camps, critical studies and production (where I now just teach the advanced classes) – but I probably wouldn’t be able to do this here if I was hired today. Critical studies teaching now strictly requires a PhD, at least in our program.
I teach very much like my teachers did, highly influenced by the charisma and vitality of Ken Jacobs – I teach very eclectic, interesting critical studies courses that are quite rigorous, but perhaps are not as formally academic as those of my colleagues. I don’t have to publish my writings, though I have done some work in that area and hope to do more. In fact, I am slowly starting a book about Brakhage and his Sunday salons. But I teach, when I’m at my best, primarily from what I would characterize as a kind of prepared spontaneity, and I have curricular freedom, a generous budget and an excellent film library to work with here.
We still show film on film, as much as possible. We actually have movie projectors in a film program, can you believe it?
In terms of teaching production, I am always inspired by the example of Saul Levine. Saul Levine was one of my teachers midway through college and later at grad school. My very first production teacher. A brilliant 8mm/super-8 sound filmmaker, now making digital videos. Saul has a world view 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. The foundation of my aesthetic was truly formed at Binghamton. And refined afterwards – matured by my own studies and filmmaking apart from schools. I took off between college and grad school for three years. And made some films that form the foundation of my work.
How do you like your early films now?
My early films? (laughs) There’s some that I’ve destroyed or don’t distribute – well that’s probably too strong, as I actually I almost never destroy or discard anything I’ve done. A terrible packrat, awaiting, like all of us, for some imagined graduate student of my dreams to pick through and preserve for posterity all of my “stuff”. I would say that my student films were somewhat naïve, romantic, and rather imitative. But something of the essence of what I’ve always been doing ever since is in there. Those very first films 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…
I do think that students naturally tend to go through imitative stages. I used to have this wacky theory about art and evolution (though I really don’t believe in the evolution in the arts in the same way – can we make the case that today’s composers more highly “evolved” than Bach, for example?). In biology, there’s a notion called ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. Which roughly means that the development of the zygote mimics the evolution of the species as it continues to develop. The notion that the development of individuals is a progression through adult ancestral form. We go through our fish stage, etc. Evolution is “mimicked” in our own individual development. Similarly, budding filmmakers might go through their Lumiere period (turning the camera on, shooting what’s in front of you, home movies, etc.), their Meliés surrealist/magic tricks stage, then their Deren-esque psychodramatic stage, then perhaps their lyrical/metaphorical Brakhage stage, and so forth…These patterns have obviously changed and accelerated with changing technologies and aesthetics, particularly with the advent of music videos.
For me, psychodrama was initially the most compelling form for the angst-ridden, hormonal spewing disposition of troubled youth. The oneiric, primal cinema of the tortured young man or woman…slow motion/black and white/murky images of running naked through graveyards and the hallways of the school at night, and so on (laughs). Then there were all of these soft focus domestic observational films, kind of imitating Brakhage’s small gauge SONGS series. P. Adams Sitney articulates this shift quite in student filmmaking accurately in the BRAKHAGE (1998) documentary by Jim Shedden that we both appear in. So I learned the rules like most do, by first imitating what I saw, trying to make films that were like those that were already considered by others to be “legitimate”.
Then I really started out on my own when I took a Bolex out into the night and found this button that no one had shown me how to use. The T/I time exposure button. I started to do these time exposures quite accidentally, not quite knowing what I was doing. I got back this roll of film shot at night, 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 the technique expressively, essentially.
One of the problems that I am seeing now with many filmmakers is a kind of fetishization of technique for technique’s sake. Like using hand processing just to give their films an avant-aura, an anti-digital, funky, handmade, lo-fi patina. Easy-baked “artful” meaningless facades. They must have by now a broken shutter program for video (laughs). I’ve heard they have 35mm cameras that have switches to give it that broken shutter look, where all highlights vertically streak.
I saw an outrageous little piece recently that was tacked on as the tail credits of a very mediocre film called THE JACKET (2005). Check out the ending some time. I think the director copped to it and said it was an ‘homage” to Brakhage. But it’s virtually a direct, un-credited rip of MOTHLIGHT (1963).
By the way, I had an opportunity to work on a Hollywood film myself. Through the auspices of my friend, the filmmaker Lew Klahr, who made music videos with some of these folks who work in the business. It was actually a very wonderful experience. The director of the project, Mark Pellington, is very familiar with Lew’s work and some other avant-garde films and made some highly respected music videos as well as personal films. He’s a very smart guy, a good guy. He was making THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES (2002) and wanted to do something different from the usual horror/sci-fi fare. He invited me to show WALKING DISTANCE (1999) to his technical and pre-production crew at Paramount, so I flew out to LA and showed my work in one of those famous preview rooms on the lot. Mark was very interested in the unusual techniques and the crew was respectful, curious and intellectual in their approach to me and the work - which really surprised me. Smart, hard-working folks, mostly from academic backgrounds.
What type of crew members?
The preproduction crew, the special effects people, the cinematographer, and the overall design people. Mark was really into a fully aesthetic idea of pre-production and incredibly meticulous and comprehensive preparation. But as we proceeded in the discussions and analysis of the script, he began, in his excitement to do something fresh, to think of using me as a kind of ‘alt. special effect”. Eventually, I realized I couldn’t work like that. My magic didn't quite work that way. My techniques aren’t digital or programmable. The chemical treatments I do are based on too many serendipitous things. Like the amount of black or contrast in a shot, and so on.
What I wanted to do for them was a self-contained, creative credit sequence. I essentially had a misguided dream of attaching a 3-minute avant-garde film to a feature as a fully realized opening credit sequence, a la Saul Bass or Maurice Binder. That's what I pitched, a little film abstractly linking moths and disasters (the core theme of the film) but they weren’t really interested in that idea (laughs).
In post, Mark’s budget became tighter and tighter and hence the storytelling had to commence immediately, so we dropped the whole idea of a title sequence. But, all told, it was certainly a relatively benign experience, in terms of all of the Hollywood horror stories you hear about. Stan congratulated me on getting out alive with my filmmaking soul intact. He was worried about me, himself having walked out on an opportunity of working with Hitchcock when he was a young man.
I actually learned quite a bit during those few days on the Paramount lot that was very useful in my teaching about the industry, and they were all very kind to me. And I made a little money for my own work to continue. Even the producer, who was acting just like the hard-nosed cliché of the suit (“we don’t pay for tests”), turned out to be a decent guy, a very intelligent man who knew a great deal about art, studied at Brown. What I learned was that these people in the industry don’t really set out to make these bad films that we all loathe when they start out. They were - all - deeply into this project, with real enthusiasm and lots of collaborative ideas. No industry jaded cynicism apparent, at least not yet. Money wasn’t mentioned at these meetings – they were all being paid very well, but they were in it for the action, the creative buzz.
But eventually the money pressures came down and the suits get involved. The creative people are dead serious and full of excited comradeship – at least in pre-production, before the compromises are made, day-by-day, and the thing is eaten alive - and they truly work their asses off. I was exhausted after just two days of pre-production. My students have no idea how hard these people actually work for their good wages, and how different the day to day business is from the seamless pleasures and fantasies we glean from the finished piece. So I gained a little insight into that world, and was definitely reassured that I wasn’t cut out for it, both temperamentally and physically.
Psalm III: Night of the Meek (2002).
Is there at some point that you became comfortable with rhythm and then you started to explore your own type of narrative?
I made a film, for example, called NIGHT LIGHT in 1975. Which was really kicked off from my little time exposure experiment. NIGHT LIGHT was a very simple thing - just clouds going by the moon, things on the street. It's a rather unformed but beautiful film. Really like a sketch. That was a pre-curser to my film NOCTURNE (1980), which took several years to make. There I really found the core of my aesthetic.
I experimented with the idea of using a certain amount of found footage material integrated with my own original, which seemed to broaden the scope of my own material. In lieu of actors, found footage gave me allegorical images to work with that could speak to what I thought were larger concerns than just a formal assembly of my technical experiments. I’m very taken with that idea, to using found footage as something that is archeologically “true”. I’m drawn, for example, to the later Bruce Conner films as my template, including TAKE THE 5:10 TO DREAMLAND (1976) and VALSE TRISTE (1977), where he uses it sincerely, nostalgically, poetically, rather than A MOVIE (1958) or REPORT (1963-67), which I find brilliant, but bitterly ironic, and which is the common mode of almost everything these days, and altogether too easy now. It’s much harder to be – sincere - without falling into sentimentality. The ironic mode has really dominated found footage filmmaking. Taken to its end game perhaps by Craig Baldwin, whom I have great respect for.
But now you have meta-ironies piling atop each other, ad-infinitum. Enough. The most difficult challenge for young artists today is to achieve any kind of earned sincerity or a true sense of the authentic in this horribly cynical, maddening time of multi-layered facades, remakes, and ever present duplicity on a global scale. And what do we call the Grand Canyon when kids refer to their lunch as “awesome”?
Have you found things that you are comfortable using over and over again? Or does every film contain lessons being learned?
It’s amusing to me that in the field of painting you can have your “blue period”, you can do repeated motifs over a period of time and that’s even expected. But even in the marginal world of avant-garde film there is a different attitude toward technique, especially if you acquire some degree of mastery. There is unspoken sense of: “What else can you show us?” “Can you top this?” Etc. I would like to be able to explore certain techniques over the course of several films.
Avant-garde filmmaking, what little there is left of it, seems to now revolve around its yearly cycle for programmers and festivals. And I too play that game with myself sometimes. But I start to worry when I see people making films specifically tailored for the film festival circuit. I’ve done pretty well and have little to complain about, but there is always the possibility of the implied “Hmm well we’ve seen this before…” or “This is not quite as good your last one.” There is this unacknowledged expectation of endless artistic progress (laughs). That’s why I really appreciate artists like Ken Jacobs, who go deep into what they are doing, and mine those caves for every nugget, finding new treasures by using the same tools with imaginative variations. And there are endless variations to be mined.
But to answer your questions, yes, I have re-used certain shots, and certainly techniques and tropes again and again. Water, in all of its various forms, for example, seems to appear in every one of my films. That old adage about essentially making one big film may be especially true for me.
Are you referring to Ken Jacobs’ Magic Lantern works?
Yes. And the Nervous System. And now the digital realizations of these live performance pieces into finished, definitive, edited works. I’m still exploring variations on things I’ve been working on for years. For example, this so-called “stressing” of the image. I’m still interested in that, though seeing so many other people indulging in this area rather superficially - entire generations of students who have seen my work and the work of several others – and it makes me now somewhat self-conscious of the potential clichéd use of certain techniques.
Innocence and Despair (2002).
I find that many of these people end up trying to make an effect, going for the “wow factor”, rather using the stuff of film towards a deeper expression. Well, part of me now just wants to play it straight. Part of me just wants to shoot the side of a barn, in color, on a tripod, for an hour. You know? (laughs) But I don’t feel that way very often. Again, this field is so marginal, that you have to remind yourself that very few people really care what you do at all. And your audience is comprised of mostly other makers. In many ways, perhaps it's the “survival of the sincerest” (for filmmakers that is - the low cost and accessibility of digital has added a different set of complex motivations).
There is no other reason to make films at this point. You’ve got to be nuts. I’ve been teaching for 30 years or so. And very few sustained film artists have come out of all those years of teaching this. Same is true for Ken. But I notice now, on You Tube and MySpace that everyone is an artist and everyone is – or they assume they are – interesting to everyone else. Hmm. As James Joyce predicted HERE COMES EVERYBODY. And Warhol might add AT LEAST FOR THEIR 15 MINUTES (what we might now call their “quick time”).
Well, wish I had more time to check everyone out in the worldwide open screening, the Everybody Film Festival (where they now only project on video, by the way). Sorry, I’m out. Carry on, boys and girls. I’m going fishing.
On the surface it appears the University of Colorado has been very supportive of yourself and Stan Brakhage.
Yes. My work wouldn’t exist without all the grants that I’ve received from my school, and the support and academic freedom that my dept. has given me. It’s actually been a very good gig here over the years. And in terms of providing, for the most part, a “safe house” for Stan Brakhage, Film Studies has a right to be proud.
Virgil Grillo founded the department, along with fellow English professors who loved and wrote about film. Virgil didn’t really get this kind of cinema in his heart of hearts, but he respected it. And he managed to get Stan Brakhage a job after years of trying (while Stan was commuting from the mountains to Chicago), and he knew and respected what Stan had accomplished and particularly how he was considered in the world. And the University eventually made him a Distinguished Professor, one of the very few in the arts at CU.
Do my colleagues show up at every avant-garde program? No. But they do show some of it in their various film classes. Then again, I certainly don’t go to see every film that aligns with their interests and specialties. However, we now have a new chair – Dan Boord, who is very smart, incredibly wide-ranging in his taste in the arts, an established video maker, and really pro-active in taking the program into the future. We just started a graduate program and are defining the terms of that degree as one of “fine art” motion picture making- that is, personal, poetic moving picture visual thinking, as Stan used to say. So we are not confused in our mission or too eclectic in what we can offer at the graduate level, and that we strongly affirm to all those interested that we are not USC or UCLA. We don’t have the means to be that anyway. Here, we will carry on the enormous legacy of Stan Brakhage, who lived and worked and taught among us. It is his light that we hope will illuminate the future of our department in terms of media production at the graduate level.
I have also been heading up a project tentatively called The Brakhage Center. The University library now has the complete film works of Brakhage and about 80 boxes of his papers. We’d like to make the space in our new building (called ATLAS - http://www.colorado.edu/ATLAS/home.html) into a major archive and scholarship resource center for the study of poetic film. Not only for Stan’s work, but eventually for experimental film and media in general. Kind of an Anthology [Film Archives] West. We’ll have a beautiful theater, opening this year (which I helped to design) with state of the art 16mm, 35m film and HD video projection. We now have an annual symposium in Stan’s name that we will hold every year (check the Film Studies website at http://www.colorado.edu/FilmStudies) and I hope that this will eventually become an international event – a kind of limited version of the Flaherty, over a long weekend, with an distinct emphasis on poetics and aesthetics, rather than politics. The TIE Film Festival (www.experimentalcinema.com/) will take place at CU in the fall of 06. We’re keeping the legacy going.
It’s perfect for the Wild West.
Although I must say that I’m saddened by the fact that the last people who ever had the great privilege to have taken a class with Stan Brakhage have now graduated. Every year now, it seems, a new generational shift shows up. I’m convinced that last year I taught the most intense, rigorous and sophisticated class on Brakhage ever offered (the syllabus can be found on Fred camper’s website here: http://www.fredcamper.com/Brakhage/Solomon1.html).
I don’t think that I could get away with the singular intensity and the sense of necessity of that kind of class commitment now. This generation, this past year’s crop of students was different than last years. It seems, at least in my thoughts right now, that a moment has passed, and something else is happening for these kids. But you know, over the years, the percentage of people who are really interested in this kind of film has always been about the same. It’s never really grown, to all of our befuddlement, even with all the marvelous work and great teaching that has gone on in the last 30 years.
The recent LA show was very refreshing for me because it was a partly a new audience for me. An excellent audience, some of the very best Q and A I’ve ever had. The films had the room. It was so encouraging to me, topped off with a wonderful New York Times review (November 18, 2005 - http://www.hi-beam.net/fw/fw30/1872.html) by Los Angeles resident Manohla Dargis, who wrote so perceptively on the work and the evening at REDCAT. She has always been such an insightful and passionate reader of my films when she wrote for the Village Voice back in the late 80s. I was so happy to have come full circle and to see her again in LA, some fifteen years later, and still have retained her respect for the older work and sparked her appreciation of the new work. It reaffirmed everything I’ve done, and encouraged me to keep going. At least a little while longer…
Psalm II: Walking Distance (1999).
Sound vs. silent – at what point in making a film do you know when it will have sound or not?
Depends. Usually, as I go along, at some point in the editing process, I’ll just hear…the silence. Or I’ll start to imagine the sound – in other words, I will begin to feel the absence of sound as a negative space, a place that needs to be attended to and realized. There was one film in particular, 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.
And, as it turned out, its one of my least popular films. That's a mystery to me, but I’ve always wondered if it’s partly because of the absence of sound.
How do you know it’s not popular?
It’s almost never rented. No one ever talks about it in the conversations at or after the screenings. I myself had to finally write an article about it! I published an article analyzing it, shot by shot, in an issue Millennium Film Journal (issue 35/36). It’s an extrapolation of an article someone asked me to write for a European journal meditating on the idea of a single frame. The article, without the 26 photos that accompanied the analysis, can be found here: mfj-online.org/journalPages/MFJ35/SolomonFrame.html
That's a great article, talking about when you see a still for a film it's a photo taken on the set, it is never a frame from the actual film. It's a staged representation of the film, not the movie itself.
The other side of that is that it might be impossible to make an art of the freeze framed still that's part of a movie continuum.
Yet for experimental film, isn’t it almost always an actual still of the film printed on a poster or in an ad or book?
Well, that’s right, but rarely do those stills carry the full aesthetic integrity of a formal photograph for me. With hand-painted/direct cinema films, you probably stand a better chance, and many of Stan’s frames are indeed gorgeous and fully realized unto themselves. I posited in that article that static frames culled from a film always exist in a “state of potentia”. Whereas still photography deals with the aesthetics of the considered frozen moment, etc. Forms in stasis versus forms becoming…
That article shows the important relationship between filmmakers and the lab. Which may be lost now to video.
In the old days, labs used to joke about, purposely undermine, and disparage filmmakers. Even Western Cine used to make fun of Stan when he first started. He learned how in order to get them to do what he wanted – like print glued moth wings – he learned how to play the fool. And eventually that lab came to be inseparable from his artistic identity. A completely unique lifelong personal relationship between a filmmaker and a lab – which existed in synchronicity for exactly fifty years (John Newell died just a few months before Stan).
Western Cine – now The Cinemalab – has been trying once again to appeal to individual filmmakers. I recommend them. They are also getting a lot of film industry and archival work, including nitrate preservation. So they have really becoming specialists in order to survive, and they are good at what they do. And they’re here, a real boon for us. Also Forde Lab in Seattle is a terrific lab. But one by one, these labs are fading away. I just learned that Kodachrome 16mm, my stock for virtually my entire career, has been discontinued. So I will either have to adapt somehow or turn to other media. The end of 16mm filmmaking, in many ways, is finally here.
I do all my own timing in the optical printer, so I’ve always had fairly straightforward printing done in the lab. Unlike my friend Nathaniel Dorsky who spends thousands of dollars correcting .5 magenta here, etc…. Now there’s a lost art. His work is really about the actual sensual experience of the print. Nick’s films often live or die by the color temperature of the projector bulb…
Many avant filmmakers refuse to release their work on DVD, or don’t want it seen on a small television. Are you in that camp?
I’m experimenting with it. I do make DVDs for press and festival purposes. But, like most of the people who state this position, my work simply doesn't really translate very well to that medium, particularly in terms of the complexities and the particularities of texture in the films, the quality of reflected light in the room, and the subtleties of color. It just kind slides off your eyes on video, particularly when you are staring into the aquarium tank of a TV set. Flat screens are better, and HD will be better still. Projection is getting much better. The sound is fantastic, and I’m very interested in exploring surround sound in my work.
HD does hold a lot of promise, but I’m still going to make films or originate on film as a long as I can. I simply have never felt the video aesthetic below my neck – it’s hard for me to grab hold of the image and breathe the air. It seems much more conceptual and “heady” in feel to me. Much closer to the sense of a recording – even to audiotape - than an emblazoned silvered stencil. The texture of film, the shutter, the true black, the reflected light, the intermittency all swing somehow with my deepest impulses. Not just nostalgia, but in terms of my physiology and perception.
Filmmaker James Benning doesn’t like the philosophy of watching stuff at home. Getting up, phone rings, a million distractions.
As Stan used to note, how can you be a colorist when every TV set is tuned differently (which is usually more radical than color temperature differences between film projectors)? If I’m going to make works for HD in the near future or for the internet, which I’m thinking of doing, I think I will need to make original works specifically for that medium. Keep my films on film as long as possible. Pip Chodorov (see Flicker/Frameworks at http://www.hi-beam.net/fw/index.html and Re:voir video editions http://www.re-voir.com/) just asked me to participate in a new (Blue Ray) DVD box set of selected avant-garde films. I’ll try that, and see how it comes out and how it feels.
When a film has obviously reached its shelf life of distribution, part of me is curious now to send out notes in a bottle to the world at large, to make the work more accessible, despite the loss of “aura” of film projection. In fact, I just got an email from a kid in Michigan whose teacher showed an academic DVD that I’m on from the University Film Journal and he said that seeing my film changed his life. Can’t argue with that kind of access and chance encounters.
I’m sad for the loss of 16mm projection around the world and at so-called “film” festivals. They aren’t making portable projectors anymore at all. What they’ve done at REDCAT is like building a glorious new church for cinema. Magnificent projection. Hallelujah! Amen! I heard things in my soundtracks that I hadn’t heard before on the optical track – things I’d forgotten that I had put in. And the reflected light was so strong, so dynamic. Glorious.
Have you found more acceptance from the art world than the film world?
The art world…. (long pause). Well I’m about to flirt with it myself in a major way, with a very ambitious installation commissioned by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC come September (www.corcoran.org/exhibitions/advance_exhib_sched.htm). Certainly video makers and particularly installation artists are taken much more seriously by the art world. Gallery representation seems to provide the keys to the door and there is real money to be made that could sustain an artist, which filmmakers have never been able to do without a “day job”. So many filmmakers are learning to go the route of limited editions in order to generate a unique aura (in the Walter Benjamin sense) from the immaterial conditions of motion picture film presentation. Installations now give it a (saleable) sense of “thing-ness”.
The avant-garde briefly had its flirtation with the art world back in the 60’s when Artforum had TOM, TOM, THE PIPER’S SON (1969) on the cover – articles on Stan and Eisenstein, on Michael Snow and Structuralism. This was published in about in 1970 I think. That was the last time, it seems to me, that avant-garde film proper was embraced by the art world (with notable exceptions, like Warhol and Snow and so-called “artist films” like Richard Serra’s work or more recently, Matthew Barney).
Then video art had gallery cache. Video in the box or installed in a room looked more like an art object than vaporous film did. There is simply no object value [in film]. Video at least looked like it had object value. There is some sense that this is changing, though it is more about installation than film rentals and screenings. The kind of intense communal receptivity and the sustained commitment of a “captured audience” in the dark seems now to be utterly passé.
It's the same misconception at work when Brakhage is thought of as a filmmaker and not as a painter.
Well he was a filmmaker who painted on film. But he talked about that a lot. He was very proud of the evolution of his painting over the years. Thousands upon thousands of individually painted frames, a monumental career in painting. And why didn’t painters accept or engage in what he was doing? Ironically, he knew more about and cared for the work of painters than anyone else I ever knew. This has always been a real puzzle for me, in terms of the reception of film from the other arts, by the way. Every filmmaker I know has books of poetry, a vast record collection, photo books… But I almost never see other artists from other disciplines really interested in avant-garde film. “They want their movies”, as Stan used to say.
I don’t know - when you go to poetry readings, I suppose its mostly other poets there. Same situation. Avant-garde music does have some popular crossover audience, viz. John Zorn. Distribution and availability is the key there. The biggest disappointment for me is that when I show my work, especially in New York, its mostly other filmmakers in attendance. And they have their own baggage, just like I do when I attend their shows. So I often get fairly uninteresting technique-oriented questions at those shows. I do love showing my work to non-filmmakers. Especially those informed by the other arts. A fresh perspective and un-jaded takes. We need to reach a more diverse group, and that’s been one of my sustaining motivations I’ve been in teaching all these years.
I confess that I’m continually perplexed by the utter lack of current scholarship on avant-garde film (save for Scott MacDonald’s A Critical Cinema series - I’m included in the just published last volume, number 5). P. Adams Sitney did groundbreaking work in this area, and is still writing about and engaged with film, but very few have followed in his wake. There is an entire history of film that’s simply been, for the most part, left out of academic publishing outside of small journals and magazines - the last thirty years or so of some great, great work. Indeed, Stan believed that there was more generally fine work being done these days, by more people, than in the heyday of the sixties.
Honestly, I don’t get it – why all this intellectual power in film criticism is still so utterly devoted to American popular film. It’s all so fucking obvious most of the time. Most American popular narrative films simply don’t stand the test of time and are not worthy of deeper analysis or serious thinking (I know this from being a projectionist for many years – most simply do not bear any repeated screenings). I know they are writing about it mostly for careerist/academic pressure reasons. Because someone will actually publish it in a certified academic press and they can add it to their resume. Or because its easier and probably more fun. More people will read them.
You want to talk about film theory in schools? Good ol’ WAVELENGTH (1967) is chock-full of (still) interesting ideas – it sits at the very core of the concept of narrative, of time and space. And all of these professors are talking about the use of the color red in fucking MARNIE (1964)? Or whatever it is. Why aren’t film theorists more interested in this kind of work? They think that it’s all so hermetic and marginal.
Or they simply don’t get it and haven’t bothered to go out of their way to see it. Martin Arnold’s films present fascinating theoretical issues in terms of both narrative and ideas about the medium. The work of Arthur Lipsett could take up a lifetime of study, but he is virtually ignored. Janie Geiser, Lew Klahr, Matthias Mueller, Peter Tcherkassky, Eve Heller, Luther Price, Leslie Thornton, Abigail Child, Nathaniel Dorsky, Mark Lapore, Ken Jacobs, Stan Brakhage, Vincent Grenier, Peggy Ahwesh, Nick Dorsky, Ernie Gehr, Nina Fonoroff, Jennifer Reeves, David Gatten, on and on, incredibly fertile grounds for thinking about every aspect and every genre of cinematic thinking.
But most academics still write about the likes of Hitchcock, as if there something else new to say. There’s certainly no payoff for writing about this kind of work, which has such a limited market, so there ends up being a kind of self-fulfilling cycle of marginality. The fact remains that very few people have seen this kind of work, and that severely limits your potential readership.
[Avant] work is open and alive. Resistant to this kind of limited thinking. It’s very, very challenging to talk about. How do you talk about the ineffable? It’s going to, I believe, require a kind of creative, poetic writing, not dry academic writing. Great living criticism has been invaluable to me in understanding the other arts. Helen Vendler’s work on poets, Harold Bloom, John Berger, Leonard B. Meyer or Charles Rosen or Leonard Bernstein’s books on music, Sontag and Barthes on photography, on and on, the dozens of great art catalogues in my collection – invaluable teachers, my helpful guides into the infinite complexities of the other arts. And we still end up in the academic film world with more psycho-babbling nonsense on Hitchcock’s simplistic and perfectly transparent films (well, VERTIGO (1958) is another story….)
I dream of a new kind of criticism that approaches film as a poet would. More lyrical, more emotionally resonant responses to the work. There have been two such examples of this on my own work from Lee Ann Brown in The Chicago Review and Dana Anderson in the Millennium Film Journal. Or let’s call for even more formal, thoroughly analytical writings. I would love to see some experimental/poetic films broken down shot-by shot, just like they do with CITIZEN KANE (1941), and so on.
As a teacher I would love to see that and have that made available for students as study guides. A shot by shot breakdown and analysis, say, of ANTICIPATION OF THE NIGHT (1959). David Bordwell does a fine job on Conner’s A MOVIE in his Introduction to Film Art book, in my opinion, that might serve as a good example. James Peterson is quite detailed in his book Images of Chaos, Dreams of Order as well.
I’m happy to hear that a filmmaker a generation before me is not put off by a new technology (ProTools) while still embracing the original tools (film).
I’m certainly not a Luddite. I was onto ProTools very early, starting in the late 80s when it was called Sound Tools. 2 tracks for like $1,500.00. I now have a substantial HD home studio with all the attendant software for digital imaging and sound. I had one of the first digital synthesizers, a Yamaha DX-9 and the first commercially available (post-Fairlight) samplers. I’ve always been interested in electronic music and sound designing and recording. I know you get some resistance from filmmakers because technology is changing and the medium is now, finally, after years of town crying in the squares, really disappearing underneath our feet.
I have tried to keep up with some contemporary pop music and pop culture, but I’m just not interested in hip-hop music. My students have tried to break me down on this. They hear what I’ve played them in class, like Steve Reich’s early tape loop pieces, and they find affinities with the plasticity of sampling in hip-hop and electronica. But the loss of the uncanny and unforgettable (vertical) melody in American culture is as telling as the loss of film. A sign of the times. They also have tried to convince me about the import of The Simpsons, which I know is smart (I prefer the quick referential wit of Family Guy), but I find it –and I’m supposed to find it– too, let’s say, acoustically annoying (like the relentless mind-numbing beat and the lack of vertical movement and development in most hip-hop that I’ve heard). I am out, I know…
The South Park guys were your students at Colorado, right?
Well, Trey was, but he was a completely self-directed and self-motivated student, even then. He was my first T.A. and my first friend on campus. Trey, in fact, was the person who first took me to Stan’s house when I came here to be interviewed. He was a great guy, very helpful to me during my first few years here, and we all (well, most of us) loved him – he actually slept in the attic above the office for a time. And Matt and Trey have subsequently helped us out with their good fortune with donations for our animation equipment.
I saw Trey on Letterman recently and he said, “Yeah, we took a few film classes.” Well, that’s somewhat revisionist – he was King of the Hill here for a few years and so were his crew. They made CANNIBAL! THE MUSICAL (1996) during school and most of the faculty appear in it and some financially supported it. South Park started here with their student animation projects, which were the big hits of the annual student shows.
But going back to what you were saying, I really do appreciate the crisis that’s upon the generations after mine. I suspect that the Brakhage model of individual artists going around like Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman with their films in tow, singing for their supper or making their pitch, is no longer a valid working model for my students. They are envisioning something else, a completely different way of relating to the mediated world. They want something much more integrated with the popular culture, without the apparent separation between the high and the low, etc. Some variation of video DJs, or web streaming of their Digi-Indies, some kind of crossover. Not the hermetic, marginal, solitary artist model that shows to such a limited audience with the obligatory (and sometimes deadly) Q and A, when you can reach the world instantly on the web without leaving your home. The artist/teacher/touring model is clearly no longer a viable one. They all seem to want to belong to something, these children of divorce, for better or for worse. Hence the recent rise of collectives that’s being talked about after this year’s Whitney Biennial. And maybe that’s a good thing. But I’ve always been drawn to the idiosyncratic consciousness and the utter privacy of deeply informed thought and feeling left to us by individual artists. Emily D up in her tower…
Whether it’s the Internet or crossing over into pop culture – I hear the term “experimental narratives” used by students in expressing their aspirations a lot. We’ll have to see about the future of distribution and the conditions of reception. I’m rather cynical. I find the Internet sometimes fascinating in its potential and – mostly - not. Primarily because, as deToqueville observed in Democracy in America, with all the benefits of “democracy” and now of media access, you also have what we might call the Ascendancy of the Mediocre. Everybody now has a website or a MySpace window display. Who is going to determine where the art is? How do we determine quality or what is essential in the culture, when one only has a limited time on earth to give one’s self over to any given work. Or is this idea simply no longer an issue? When there is any lack of editorial criteria, or consensus, and standing “the test of time” becomes an absurdly glacial idea in the light of contemporary ZAP, etc.… you know what I’m saying.
Of course I realize how absurd and effete my position must seem. I’m glad to be outside of all of it, frankly. It’s really not my problem anymore, except as a teacher. And, as I said, I’m having a website built for my own work and musings, so perhaps I’ll feel differently once that’s up. I’ll be curious to see if I can make any real connections to my work from it. But it will soon be just another jip-joint, another roadside stand on the bitted superhighway…
On the other hand, of course, it certainly is possible to find something wonderful by chance. Created by someone who would never have otherwise had access to these means of distribution, to the entire webbed world at large. And when its delivered in HD on a big screen it could be a wonderful thing.
But I’ll tell you, I suspect that that the reception for works distributed across the wires will still be rather superficial in nature, and much of the work being created will reflect that condition. There will always be a surfing element to the on-line experience, skimming the surface, a momentary buzz on the screen while you’re searching for the next thing, with five other things going on at the same time.... It won’t be the kind of – dare I say spiritual - communion we had on Monday night [at his REDCAT screening]. Maybe the work will be addressing those very issues. Will people be able to watch this work and have an epiphany, a revelation that shakes them to the very foundation of their being? Like Ms. Mitchell says, you gain something and you lose something, seems to me.
Did your Dad get over you not being a doctor?
One of the saddest aspects of my life is that my father did not get to see me as a full professor and a Guggenheim fellow at a major University, with the words “Professor Philip Solomon” on the door. I got this job just after his death, and 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”. He would have been tickled to see my current success, such as it is, even if he never did really understand the nature of what I was doing or how and why I was being acknowledged for it. And it would have been fascinating to see him hang out with Stan, who might have convinced him.
Brakhage and Solomon at Telluride.
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 NY, he replied, “Well…maybe this will lead to something…” That was my father, right there. And my job and title at CU is something he would have understood. That is where it led, Dad. So it was a bittersweet irony for me that after he passed away, I suddenly arrived in Boulder, into the welcoming arms and emphatic bear hug of Stan Brakhage, who knew and loved and understood everything about my work - indeed, he eventually owned all of it. And in some ways, I was now freed up to leave the east and to follow the sun, to light out for the western territories... Ready and fated for my 13-year close encounter with Stan Brakhage, the memory of which will sustain me for the rest of my life.