Film In Conversation
PHIL SOLOMON with Leo Goldsmith
This fall has seen two New York premieres of recent works by experimental filmmaker Phil Solomon.“EMPIRE,” which screened at this year’s Views from the Avant-Garde, wittily recreates Andy Warhol’s film of the same name, documenting the Empire State Building in the virtual New York City (a k a Liberty City) of Grand Theft Auto IV for 24 hours of game-time (that’s 48 minutes to you and me). And ongoing at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, is Solomon’s epic, three-channel installation piece, American Falls, which offers a richly allegorical account of America’s rise and fall through a torrent of intricately distressed celluloid sourced from a disparate array of films and newsreels, and featuring everyone from Amelia Earhart to King Kong to Robert Oppenheimer to Charlie Chaplin. Through these distorted icons of the past, and amid waves of exquisitely mixed found sounds, Solomon locates a critical meta-history of the American mythos at the intersection of film’s decay and digital media’s ascendancy.
Leo Goldsmith (Rail): While watching “EMPIRE,” I was struck by how cinematic it is, which made me think, by contrast, how digital American Falls is. The latter is very much about the properties and textures of celluloid, but it’s also about the manner in which you capture it, and the way you combine all of these elements in the installation space, which would really only be possible digitally.
Phil Solomon: American Falls really straddles the borders between film and digital media throughout the entire process of its making. I began with a kind of needle in a haystack search through an extensive 16mm newsreel collection to little avail, because ultimately I realized that I needed to use fairly recognizable figures and specific events. I had to begin with iconographic images, essential images from television, newsreel journalism, and the cinema. So I scoured through hundreds of DVDs in search of what I considered to be the primary markers of American history. I captured hundreds of digital scenes into timelines, with each scene bordered by fades into and out of black, which essentially translates to the images emerging out of and submerging back into the chemical treatments I employed. I also digitally enhanced the gamma and contrast for every scene because the overall effect of my post-processing treatments is primarily based on the density and location of black in every scene. 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 16 mm 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 you are finally seeing on the wall at MOMI 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. And American Falls is therefore also a lamentation for the end of cinema, whose lifespan essentially bookended the 20th century, which is the primary locus of the photographed events in the work.
Rail: So why was the triptych structure important for you? Falls was originally commissioned by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., so it probably had something to do with the dimensions of that space?
Solomon: I care deeply for the triptychs of Van Eyck and Bosch, but I was fairly naïve in the area of multi-screen video installation art. I’d seen a few of Christian Marclay’s and some of Bill Viola’s pieces and so on, but really very few overall. So thinking about cinema horizontally as well as vertically was a new and fascinating learning process for me. It felt very akin to a composer working along a musical staff, creating melodies that evolve in time, with simultaneous harmonic events above and below the main through-line and orchestrating timbres of color that work in concert together in a total dance of articulated light and rhythm. But I quickly realized there are lots of potential traps when you work horizontally. Two cherries and a lemon will show up, and you can easily create unintended mixed metaphors with content and context. I was terrified of that, working with historical footage, because the potential for mis-readings of the complex issues of social, historical, and political juxtapositions and contexts within the montage now became tripled.
In 1999, an Associate Curator of Photography and Media at the Corcoran, Paul Roth, came to the New York Film Festival and saw a film of mine called Walking Distance, which uses the same kind of technique and has something of the same look as the Falls. He came out to Colorado and asked to see all of my films and was very excited by them and subsequently invited me to the Corcoran and offered that I could use any room in the museum that I wished to do their first commissioned installation. I had never been to Washington before, and it was absolutely frigid that winter. This was New Year’s 2000, the dawn of the Bush era. And of course, D.C. is a complicated city, but the first thing that comes to mind is that it’s a city of the dead. Everywhere you look, you are surrounded by monuments to the dead. From all of my elementary school education and indoctrination, I was at once moved by them, but also aware of the essential contradiction of these monuments existing as memorial gravestones within the very heart of the city that declared these wars and sent these men and women to their graves. Washington is such a culturally impressive but politically and economically disgusting city in so many ways. It was the Korean War memorial, of all things, that inspired me the most. I wasn’t aware that it even existed before. You are looking at this wall of granite with a collage of ghostlike images embedded in the stone staring back at you, and it’s really haunting.
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, and we’ll do it in here.” I thought about the shape of the famous Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side and how that particular body of water is one of the upper the limits of our country. I had a sense that the piece would be about American divisions and contradictions, which is perfect for the triptych format, where the panels could metaphorically comment on each other in various configurations. And it would also be my monument to the American fallen, in every sense I could think of. 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 in a barrel and survive. My American Falls begins and ends with them.
I wanted to make something that was completely outsized and grand, and that flew in the face of what I think of as the minimal, one-liner installation. I often find that, when I attend multi-projection installations, I will consciously or subconsciously look for the quickest reason to leave each piece. In the cinema, I sit in the dark; there’s a high visual and audio signal-to-noise ratio, and I give myself over to the intensity and authority of the screen. With installations, I often find myself smugly resistant because, you know, they often don’t have any kind of aura, a particular ambience that invites you to give yourself over to it. I’m perfectly aware that there’s a kind of postmodern conscious resistance to cinematic aura and its semi-fascistic control over the senses, but something is also lost when we left the darkened rooms of cinema. I wanted to make something that was rich, complex, and orchestral because I’m so deeply involved with music. Brakhage used to quote Walter Pater who said, “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” For Stan, I think that essentially meant abstraction. For me, I wanted to make something ambiguous, structurally intricate, extremely ambitious and fairly impossible to fully absorb on one visit. But something that would invite the viewer to stay and to behold. Something that would mesmerize.
Rail: And there was a single-channel version of the piece at one point?
Solomon: I made a reduced version that we showed at Views a couple of years ago. A single-channel, 16:9 HD triptych. And I thought—because it does have a narrative arc, it actually has a specific beginning and a climactic ending and postlude—that it could work as a movie. But now, having seen this installation, I’m no longer interested in showing the reduced version because something interesting happened when it was finally mounted at MOMI. When I showed the reduced—the single-channel version—some people watched it almost as if denuded of its photochemical texture. They responded as if it was a straight History Channel montage, more or less ignoring what the extraordinarily choreographed treatments were expressing and implying. Just reading it for the recognizable content made it seem like a second-grade history primer, or worse, that it was merely reiterating the received grammar school great white men version of history and all that. My whole gamble was that the roiling chemical soup, which yields up and then swallows back the temporary iconographic molds, would provide the built-in critique and be expressive of the contradictory nature of my romance and inevitable disbelief in all of these myths through the physical anxiety of the form itself. If I made these people and events into gold-plated monuments, well they would also become rust, or be set on molten fire, or liquefied, and they would all eventually fall back into the constantly running waters of disbelief, blood and tears. The proof at the exhibit at MOMI is that I think there, finally, the form supersedes or at least is married to the content. You can’t simply reduce it to simple meanings on that scale of presentation.
Rail: You mention the orchestral quality, and one of the first things that struck me was the presence of Charles Ives. “The Unanswered Question,” yes, but also the whole section of the film you devote to him. Even the processes he used, like the relationship between chance processes and the way that he would compose music by incorporating motifs and melodies from other musical sources—
Solomon: That’s right, he was in many ways a found footage collagist, so we are essentially doing the same thing. He was a key inspiration for me, and I wanted to acknowledge that with his own little section, right before World War I. He asks “The Unanswered Question” at the dawn of the new century, and as patriotic as he was, there’s a deep underlying anxiety in all of his music, and “The Unanswered Question” is the perfect example of that. You have these beautiful, silky strings descending from the heavens, and then the trumpet asking the transcendental questions, and the woodwinds undercutting those lofty aspirations with discontent, arguments, chaos and whatnot. In the Fourth Symphony, for example, there’s also this sense of polyphonic chaos that really grew out of his father’s marching band experiments. Sound Designer Wrick Wolff and I imitated what George Ives used to do, which was to have two orchestras playing in different keys, marching against each other in the town square because he wanted to hear what it would sound like. So for me there’s always an underlying anxiety, an undercurrent of dissonance and doubt always there undercutting the patriotism. Often with Ives, after everything clears out, you will hear that dark undertone, that bed of anxiety that lay just below the surface. So I find him a fascinating character because he was a New England transcendentalist but also a crank, and his music has a typically American kind of anxiety to it.
Rail: Did you have a guiding principle for how you balanced the different elements you used—Hollywood and newsreel and even film as documentation, as evidence, like the Zapruder film?
Solomon: It was really just done chapter by chapter, based on key historical markers and what imagery would best serve to illustrate it. We start from the basic theme, which is right there in the title: American Falls. I started to think about what that meant, and 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 made a list of historical persons I considered to be among the fallen: celebrities, cultural people, political people, etc. Then I listed the key events that created ruptures in the historical timeline. But I decided, for the most part, to play it straight. 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 and I wanted to make this a piece that my father and mother might have been able to understand and even be moved by. There was a conscious effort to make the images as legible as possible within my abstracting techniques. So to some degree I was making a primer, a revisionist primer of American history. D.W. Griffith’s takes on American history were perfect for that kind of primer illustration look at the beginning of our story—I used Griffith’s America and I think Birth of a Nation and Abraham Lincoln for the Civil War. A Corner in Wheat for its great metaphorical image of the comeuppance of the greedy. Where I didn’t have documentary footage, I would rely on Hollywood films and its re-enactments. If I went to newsreels, I still needed uncanny, poetically resonant images; it wasn’t enough to just recite the information and checklists. With the Zapruder film section, I found the demonstrations and the diagrams and images of the 8mm camera, film, labeled leader and the coldly numbered frames more symbolically moving than just showing the events of Dealy Plaza, etc. It points to the ephemerality of what that moment in history was, and that this great accidental amateur recording became the most famous film in history.
My primary goal throughout was to create indelible images, images that you could take home with you, and I’m not certain of exactly what that means except I know it when I see it, as they say. I heard a commercial for Doritos recently that described them as being “comletely surprising, yet somehow inevitable!” Well, that’s precisely what I’m after! 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.
Rail: I was thinking of paintings because of not only the knowledge of the Niagara painting, which I knew was an inspiration, but even this sort of texture, or this sort of graven image. This image that sort of impresses itself on, or comes out at you in a way. It has a depth to it.
Solomon: It’s almost sculptural. It literally has depth. The chemistry is caked on top of the film surface, and I’m lighting it with the optical printer to enhance the bas relief and the three-dimensional surface. So, it looks like gold leaf at times. The depth is palpable—haptic, as they say, the sense of touch. And when it’s that big, and the textural details have remained, the painterly aspects of this piece are amplified. And that’s what I’ve learned by doing it as a huge, outsized mural, essentially: you’re able to contemplate it and behold it, especially because it’s presented in the dark, without other distractions.
Rail: I also wanted to talk about “EMPIRE.” I assume you were working on them at more or less the same time?
Solomon: That’s right. In fact, early versions of both pieces were shown at the Wexner in 2008. At the Wexner, we let the PlayStation 3 run constantly in real time over the course of two weeks, thanks to the curator, Chris Stults, who committed his own player and monitor. I literally phoned it in, and he set it up according to my exact specifications. We also showed an interesting, if much more elliptical early sketch version of American Falls as a small installation on a plasma screen.
Rail: We’ve talked about the idea of film as evidence in the Zapruder film, and it had me thinking of Warhol’s work. He wasn’t trying to do direct cinema per se, but his film is a kind of document of a moment in time, an act of just simply looking at the Empire State Building, and it struck me actually that game space is similar to the idea of the long take, in a way, in that it offers the spectator an agency in simply looking around the frame.
Solomon: Bazin gone wild!
Rail: Exactly. Or even the Wellesian long take. There’s a similar desire for interactivity, even if it’s still offered to you in a very circumscribed way.
Solomon: That’s right. It’s very much like the basic trope of narrative filmmaking in the sense that the camera and the camera movements are literally attached to the actor, the avatar, and trail them like puppy dogs. As the avatar moves through space, the camera effortlessly glides with it and stays attached. So I loved finding these so-called ‘sandbox games’ because I could just drive around and roam freely and just look around without having to kill anyone or go to work and do missions. As soon as I entered those worlds, I was so charmed and amazed because I was able to jump right in and wander around and inspect the world as I found it. I was stunned by the level of unnecessary detail and even beauty, particularly in the landscapes. And as I got to know the map and the particular spaces, in memory they felt in the mind just like real spaces. I knew that if I go around this building and then I go around this building that I’m going to arrive at this place, even though the place is quickly making itself up and appearing just as I’m moving. 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.
And as I’ve said publicly, I’m a person who has trouble shooting in the real world. Physically, I have some limitations of where I can easily go these days, and as I get older, working with bulky cameras has become heavy and clumsy. Socially, I’m ordinarily very self-conscious when I’m shooting out in the world. I don’t like to be talked to or looked at when I’m shooting; I’d prefer to be invisible. Yet, I could never contrive things before the camera, like directing an actor or actress to pretend to do something. I simply would never believe it, and it’s important for me to believe what I do, to believe in the image as having some kind of poetic and essential truth. But in the game world, I liked having the avatars perform minimal Robert Wilson-like gestures or mostly just stand there, existentially posing in the frame. For someone like me, working with these sandbox games became so liberating. I also find that the lack of verisimilitude—these swaying trees so want to be real—to be a bit sad but also quite artistically poignant and surprisingly moving if I compose the shot just so.
With “EMPIRE,” of course, the idea of doing a Warhol re-make, even as a conceptual joke, came to me even before the game came out, because I had seen images of “Liberty City” for GTA IV online and knew the Empire State Building would be in there. But I was amazed when I actually put aside the controller for 48 minutes to see what would happen. Somebody at Views asked me the other night about the particular geography and the vantage point. I did a great deal of location scouting first. I stole a helicopter [Laughs.] 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.
Rail: You made your own game within the game. You ignored the game that they wanted you to play and made a better one.
Solomon: For my trilogy In Memoriam, whenever I needed a tracking shot, I would grab a bat that was intended for murder and used it instead to smash out the headlights of my car camera, and then I moved my thumb on the controller ever so gingerly in order to get a smooth tracking shot—and if I just jerked it a little bit, the entire take was blown. Ultimately, with take after take and all these issues of live performance involved, it took as much work as my films do. It wasn’t an easy thing—it took hours and hours of gameplay to get usable footage. With "EMPIRE”, I could 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 new 2012 version, which has 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?
Rail: The green ray.
Solomon: The green ray. Exactly. 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 re-appears. 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 of “EMPIRE,” but this most recent 2012 take was the only time that I ever 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, and 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.