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AMERICAN FALLS: An interview with Phil Solomon

Interview by Doug Cummings

American Falls, 2000-2012, seven minute unaltered segment from a 56-minute film courtesy of the Artist and Young Projects. Copyright 2013 Phil Solomon. Conception, Direction and Editing – Phil Solomon. Sound Design – Wrick Wolff, with additional sound design by Robert Rich and Phil Solomon. 5.1 and Stereo mixes – Wrick Wolff. Alchemy – Phil Solomon, Jessica Betz, and Katie Konrad. Optical Printing – Phil Solomon and Jessie Marek. Technical Advisor – Christopher Osborn

Phil Solomon’s rare contribution to experimental film spans collaborations with Stan Brakhage all the way to machinima. The Boulder, CO-based artist’s current show through August 2nd at Young Projects includes his acclaimed 2010 three channel video, American Falls (exclusive excerpt below). Doug Cummings recently caught up with the influential filmmaker to discuss American Falls and other works. Below you’ll find the interview along with captivating stills to provide both the Solomon fan and novice a taste of his unique vision.

Doug Cummings: Can you talk about American Falls?

Phil Solomon: The original commission was from the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.; it’s one of the oldest art galleries in the country. Paul Roth was the co-curator of photography and he went to New York and saw my film Walking Distance (1999), and was really impressed. So he came out to Colorado and asked to see all of my work and then flew me to Washington, and said he was interested in me doing an installation. He wanted me to do something outside of my comfort zone. He showed me diptychs and triptychs. I was somewhat interested, but I’d not really thought about doing an installation before, because I come from a pure cinema background.

Then I saw Loop, a 2000 installation by Jennifer Steinkamp where she had six projectors facing the walls of the museum’s rotunda — when you walk into the Corcoran, there’s a big rotunda that’s essentially the gateway to the rest of the museum. It was a digital loop of seven seconds of lines of color. I was interested in how it transformed the space.

Then I saw the painting downstairs called Niagara (1857) by Frederic Church; it’s a great painting, a landscape painting with incredible detail.

So I put together the idea of Niagara and the rotunda, and said, “I’ll do something called American Falls.” I had no idea what I would do, but I thought, “If I’m going to do this, I might as well do it big.” It intrigued me to work with surround sound and do something in the round, especially because of Washington D.C. and its rotunda architecture, like the Capitol building.

I thought about Niagara being the edge of the country, the border of the country, but also “the fallen,” the idea of the fallen. It was the first time I’d been to D.C. and there’s so much art dedicated to the war dead, and that really mixed me up. It was very moving obviously, [but] as a sophisticated intellectual, I have a lot of questions about it. I was particularly moved by Robert Gould Shaw’s Civil War troops in the National Gallery and also the Korean War Veterans Memorial was especially inspiring to me, because of the ghostly images set in stone. It’s one thing to have the names, like Maya Lin’s Vietnam memorial, but it’s another thing to have the images.

So I was thinking about the fallen, and that what goes up must come down in capitalism and democracy, and especially between the ideals of America and the actual reality, between the promise and the truth.

DC: In the parts I’ve seen, the first images look down into the Falls and the last image is the camera tilting up to the sky.

PS: Exactly. And you see the World Trade Center in that tilted shot. I don’t show the World Trade Center disaster but that informed everything. The commission started in 2000 at the dawn of the Bush administration, and 9/11 happened early on, and then we went crazy. And we’re still going crazy. Really it’s about that, it’s asking these questions. Wither America? I go back to that basic contradiction, that the founding fathers, these men of the Enlightenment, these very smart men, owned slaves. That contradiction sits at the very heart of it. It seems to me almost like Original Sin. And before that, of course, the Native American holocaust, which I knew would be difficult to deal with photographically.

I thought about many other things, I worked on it for over ten years. I thought about the rise and fall of celebrities, the rise and fall of presidents. I hit the major events. If you were going to criticize it, you’d say it’s just America’s Great Hits. But I purposefully didn’t pick obscure events because I honored the fact that it was a public commission and a public work. Most of my other work is very private and hermetic.

DC: I wanted to ask you about the various textures in your work. They run the gamut from bubbles to cracks to tendril-like scratches…

PS: I use several techniques but all of them are aspects of optical printing, which is rephotography on a machine. Sometimes, I’m stressing the surface of the film with post-processing. Other times I’m exploiting something that’s already happened, which is to say the footage was molded or in a flood or something like that, it’s footage I found that was ruined and I amplify the textures.

I think the films are very much about luminosity. But it’s all toward a kind of emotional affect that’s not rooted in first person. Stan Brakhage’s cinema is really more about first person, and the more personal he got the more universal he became. For me, I’m doing them more symbolically through found footage and my own footage intermingled. The model I go for is music, I try to orchestrate it as music in terms of timbre, color and rhythm.

DC: The textures complicate the image and make it more difficult to read.

PS: For me, most films are too clear. Brakhage used to call my way of thinking about the limitations of narrative form “Solomon’s Theorem,” which is to say that the first shot of any film is always terribly exciting. Anything could happen. By the second shot, you’ve already reduced your possibilities by 50%, you’ve already deduced how it’s going to end, who the killer is, etc., moving inexorably as the “plot thickens.” This is explored literally in Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967). As the camera zooms in, it’s leaving things out. You’re going toward an inevitable ending, and the same is true with plot. Once you move through the plot, your editing is limited to telling the story.

In my view, what prevents a lot of narrative film from achieving the lasting integrity of an art is because the language is primarily built around identification cues. Who we identify with at any given time and why. This kind of coding and syntax really doesn’t exist in the more formal arts of poetry, music and painting, where you are freed up to concentrate on aesthetics, the beauty of form. It exists when you read Stephen King; you’re not aware of the page, that’s the pleasure of it. I’m not saying that’s lesser or greater, but that’s the pleasure of it. When you read poetry, you’re completely aware of the form. You’re aware of the space between words, you’re aware of capitals, you’re aware of your breath, you’re aware of commas, you’re aware of Emily Dickinson’s dashes. Aesthetics is about meditation on form, and I believe that narrative film syntax often — not always — prohibits that kind of meditation.

DC: Art makes demands of the viewer.

Yes. And once you become a specialist in this field it’s very hard to go back. I’ve devoted my whole life to thinking about it. That’s why I teach for a living, I want to raise the audience up to the level of the work, and I make the work as best as I can and hope for the best. I make it strong enough to last for countless viewings, they don’t wear out. And the best music doesn’t wear out, whereas a lot of narrative film wears out once you get the story. I was a projectionist, I watched everything, and most of the films were worthless after seeing them once except for those I would call works of art. One of Brakhage’s radio shows was called “Standing the Test of Time.” That’s an old-fashioned modernist idea. It’s really old-fashioned, these days no one has time for anything, so you’re seeing a lot of throwaway art in a throwaway time. And I want to make work that lasts.

Phil Solomon : American Falls, 2000-2012.

American Falls, 2000-2012.


Phil Solomon : The Snowman, 1995.

The Snowman, 1995.


Phil Solomon : The Reluctant Vision

The Reluctant Vision


Phil Solomon : American Falls, 2000-2012.

American Falls, 2000-2012.


Phil Solomon : Rehearsals for Retirement, 2007.

Rehearsals for Retirement, 2007.


Phil Solomon : American Falls, 2000-2012.

American Falls, 2000-2012.


Phil Solomon : EMPIRE, 2008-2012.

EMPIRE, 2008-2012.


Phil Solomon : American Falls, 2000-2012.

American Falls, 2000-2012.


Phil Solomon : Remains to be Seen, 1994

Remains to be Seen, 1994

-To learn more about Phil Solomon’s work, visit his website.

-Read a longer conversation between Phil Solomon and Doug Cummings at LA Weekly.

-Go to Young Project’s website for exhibition details.

-Phil Solomon will speak at two San Francisco programs dedicated to his work this October:

The Pacific Film Archive
Wednesday, October 16, 2013
7:00 p.m.
Saturday, October 19, 7:30 p.m.
The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (presented by the SF Cinematheque)
American Falls and other films

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