Towards a Minor-Key Cinema: Phil Solomon at Melwood
As a child I would listen to oldies radio stations, and certain songs would draw me in. Songs by girl groups were often hard to tell apart: bright instrumentation, sunny harmonies, always about love. But some girl group songs added something indelibly sad to that sound that I couldn’t place. The way the background singers would turn their notes downward in the chorus of “Be My Baby” just before the main vocal came in and the melodic line in “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” made the songs rich and full of longing. Some years later, taking music lessons, I surmised that these and other songs that had made me feel the same way (like “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”) used minor-mode variations: minor chords, changes, and keys that flattened the third and gained a romantic depth borne of some prelinguistic pain. The recent work of Phil Solomon, screened at Pittsburgh Filmmakers’ Melwood Screening Room on April 4th, seems to be after something of a piece with these episodes in popular music, looking for a combination of image and sound that will overpower with epic, aching beauty. (Given his acknowledged debts to 60s artists like the Beach Boys and the Beatles, who learned a great deal from Spectorized pop, this is hardly surprising.) Solomon’s Grand Theft Auto Works and his Corcoran-commissioned American Falls, though widely divergent in subject matter, share this basic sensibility. They feel too familiar to seem properly avant-garde. This isn’t because he deals with popular materials, but because he recalls and continues familiar experiences with popular culture. Taking the cinematic qualities of Grand Theft Auto to their logical (yet unexpectedly moving) conclusions and boiling American iconography into a liquid monument of loss are as roughly familiar to New Sincerity as they are to the experimental film tradition. (And both carry on the concerns of Romanticism, albeit in different ways.)Still Raining, Still Dreaming (2008) is part of a trilogy dedicated to filmmaker Mark LaPore (who committed suicide in 2005), made entirely within the parameters of the Grand Theft Auto series. There is a potentially perverse quality to playing a video game as a love letter to a friend, but the films are deadly serious in their intent: for Solomon, Grand Theft Auto’s programmed spaces are locations to be scouted and shot like the movies. Still Raining cuts together compositions of mostly-empty cityscapes in rough synchronization with the soundtrack from Basil Wright’s GPO documentary Song of Ceylon. The aged crackles and hisses of that film make a chilling kind of sense in Grand Theft Auto’s vector-space. Flattened-out analog sound and logarithmic depth combine to yield a new sense of space and time that suggests an ethnographic film crew studying an urban apocalypse. If the trilogy’s earlier films concerned private fantasies of bodily liberation after death (through a magical floating hearse in Rehearsals for Retirement (2007)) and film-noirish impending doom of a central character and possibly the world (in Last Days in a Lonely Place (2008)), Still Raining feels like a survey of tranquil wreckage after the end. All of the Grand Theft Auto films spend far more time exploring places than people, but there is something both nostalgic and sinister about the near-total absence of human figures here. The slow pans across storefronts and static takes of sunlight creeping across buildings seem to be looking for people who aren’t there. We see a glimpse of a magician and his assistant performing, but they are so divorced from the rest of the film (faded in and out, depicted in an uncharacteristically flashy circling camera movement) that they feel like a world’s memory. A lone man in an empty field and a woman huddled in a corner seem to be escaping some unseen tragedy. As the film progresses, we see fewer and fewer signs of life. Complementing this emptying-out is a shift in style from conventional-length cuts (often matching sound cues from Ceylon) to three hauntingly long takes of dead spaces. A pan across an underlit closet begins on a crouching woman; by the time the shot ends on a strange patch of light (presumably from the car from which Solomon is “filming” to get the shot), it’s hard to remember that anyone is in there. A warehouse interior strewn with stray papers presents a slow play of light, from a harsh overhead fluorescent to a soft glow from a window; the stillness is heightened by a long stretch of bare optical soundtrack scratch, like an old record circling the same inner groove after its final song is played out. The final shot is of a rainy park in perfect symmetry, traversed by superimposed ghosts. The stifling cacophony of Ceylon bells that accompanies the weathered emptiness of the shot creates a near-suffocating dread. There is no irony or winking showmanship in any of these moments. We are not allowed to forget that these images are from a video game, simply because their graphic qualities are unmistakeable (flat, patchy, or too-perfectly-angular shapes often compete with naturalistic depth in the same shot); but we are not allowed to view them like a video game, either. Somewhat like Brian Eno’s forays into self-regulating music, the overtly synthetic nature of the presentation doesn’t preclude a fullness of experience. Rather, it gives that fullness a peculiarly ambivalent character.
That same ambivalence runs through American Falls, Solomon’s retelling of America’s canonical history through an hour-long monochrome triptych. Highly recognizable pieces of Americana – portraits of the founding fathers, historical footage (like the Zapruder film), Hollywood films – are processed into a metallic finish and manipulated by chemical degradation. The result resembles someone trying (and failing) to etch history into melting bronze. In liquefying his subjects, Solomon is putting cinema to use in a fairly obvious metaphor that unites the ephemerality of film with the passage of time more generally. (Some moments betray a similar rush to the obvious, like a buffalo in the center panel with trains from flanking panels that seem to be rushing into it.) And if this were all there were to the film, it would be a heavy-handed failure. But Solomon puts a staggering number of resources towards making the idea work, and the triptych compositions, references, and visual and sonic textures fill out a complex accumulation of historic episodes into a black-hole singularity of crushing emotional weight. That weight depends partly on the quasi-narrative force of the imagery, which runs from the discovery and founding of the country through the turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement. Like the tableaux of some early cinema, American Falls relies on a heavy amount of extratextual knowledge. For this reason, most of the film trades in ready-made iconography and clichés. Falls has consequently been called a “second-grader’s version of history,” a history that can’t tell us anything we don’t already know. This criticism implies that Falls boils down its politics to an extended Mr. Smith Goes to Washington montage of infantile tourism, but Solomon allows us enough distance from the image for reflection. (It seems appropriate that Solomon even incorporates footage from Smith’s monument montage; Capra’s innocent corniness allowed him to get away with some profoundly dark explorations of American ideals, and Falls achieves a similar combination of innocence and darkness.) The distance is partly achieved through the difference between the commandingly immersive sound design and the faraway look of the triptych, awash with details we cannot get close to (projected in a theater, the triptych leaves almost half the screen black). The rumblings of multichannel effects like water and wind refer to something not quite like the waterfalls and windstorms onscreen. Solomon’s famous image alchemy adds to the effect. Sometimes the emulsion boils figures into a bubbly soup; sometimes characters lose their material base and shine like mercury; sometimes bodies crack and peel like paint. These alterations often apply to only the people, leaving backgrounds more or less intact and maintaining figure/ground distinctions. Like Francis Bacon’s middle-way modernism, in which figures remained central to give his wild paint streaks a violent physicality, Solomon’s formal intrusions function less as abstracted techniques than as “confused sensations” (Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, 82). Figural movements are arrested into a viscous slowness, and the materiality of the film is constantly outpacing them in a way that corporeally warps the figures themselves (rather than sitting above or apart from the figures, as formal intrusions tend to do). Even as they distance us from the content of what we see, the manipulations of sound and image remain resolutely visceral. As with the Grand Theft Auto works, an ambivalence arises between intense physical involvement and the fact that we’ve seen all this before. Several extended moments play on this ambivalence. The tornado sequence in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Charles Reisner, 1928) is re-purposed to fit the Dust Bowl, and Buster Keaton must keep a house grounded against wind, poverty, and the corrosive cruelty of the film itself. The sequence goes on for what feels like several minutes, dizzying in its sad futility. Preparing us for World War II is Charlie Chaplin toying with the inflatable globe in The Great Dictator (Chaplin, 1940), slowed down and nearly dematerialized into a pas de deux between a roiling supernatural body and a glowing white orb. Solomon dissolves the sequence into Loie Fuller’s serpentine dance before the globe bursts; in the process, Chaplin’s deflation of Hitler’s myth-making effectively becomes mythic, akin to the orbital dances in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968). These moments, which draw pathos from images that have either had all their pathos worn away by overuse or never had any pathos to begin with, force a creeping realization that much of the mythic power of American imagery comes from the same sleights-of-hand. This itself is not a new insight, but by arriving at it without irony, we are made sensually aware of it. Experimental filmmaking is still largely defined by a spirit of heroic individualism, a do-it-yourself spirit upheld over and against impersonal industry and conventions. Stan Brakhage (following Maya Deren) chose the amateur (“one who loves”) as his emblem for such work: crafting a personal style by using cheap equipment unconventionally, expressing love by shooting and editing the things he loved most directly. Solomon, though closer in age to Brakhage than to myself, seems, in his recent work, intent on exploring the contradictions of the “prosumer” as artist: expressing his loves through the mediations of participatory popular culture. Finding ghosts in Grand Theft Auto or turning Harold Lloyd’s comic slip from a high-rise clock into a national fall from grace diverges greatly in execution and object of affection from the culture of, say, Bronies, but the similarity of attitude – earnestness – should be taken seriously. The ease with which Solomon can slip from film equipment to video games demonstrates that amateur notions of individuality have always been enmeshed in a complicated relation of production to consumption. The central challenge of Solomon’s high-stakes engagements with popular culture banality demands that we acknowledge how parasitically our own sincerities often depend on the very cultural materials we often want to dismiss. We do love banal things, and we often love other people through banal things. This might mean that our current sense of love is inescapably banal, or it may mean that love can lift us above the banality of anything. The ambiguity of this condition may only be approachable in a minor key: testing out notational combinations that bring sadness out of sound and image with the mystery of a god making a world from nothing. *** More on Phil Solomon: official website; Tom Gunning, “Towards a Minor Cinema“; Brooklyn Rail interview (with Leo Goldsmith); World Picture interview (with Brian Price and Meghan Sutherland) Related: Jordan Schonig, “New Sincerity and Its Discontents“; rhizome.org, “After the Amateur” Also by the author: Roger Ebert and the Joyful Necessity of Criticism; SCMS Dispatches: “Defining Experimental Animation”; Méliès in Stereopsis