Songs of Solomon

CU filmmaker works in the medium of visual music

A still from Crossroad (2005)
Courtesy of Phil Solomon

For whatever reason, avant-garde art films have never gained the pop-culture cachet achieved by other realms of the art world.

University of Colorado Boulder professor and acclaimed experimental filmmaker Phil Solomon, after decades spent making and teaching art films for an ever-small audience, hasn’t seen much growth over the years.

“Lots of filmmakers are trying to cross over into the [non-film] art world, because the experimental film world is kind of dead,” Solomon says. “[After] all these years of teaching and showing and great work, it’s about the same amount of people at these shows. It’s 30, or 40, maybe 10, 20 that are interested. Even though every filmmaker I know is interested in photography and painting and poetry, very few people from the other arts know about experimental film.”

Despite this, an organization called United States Artists recognized Solomon’s work this month when it awarded him a $50,000 grant. The organization, formed in 2005 with money from major philanthropic foundations such as Ford, Rockefeller, Prudential and Rasmuson, honors artists from all sorts of disciplines and awards 50 grants each year. Solomon recently attended the organization’s gala at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, and Tim Robbins introduced a clip from a Solomon film to an audience of well-to-do patrons, including Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt.

“Tall drink of water, he is,” Solomon says of Robbins. “He actually said to me that he wanted to see the rest of it. He did me a nice turn.”

The award is much-deserved. Solomon first arrived at CU in 1991. Wooed partially by the prospect of working with Stan Brakhage, the experimental filmmaking legend and distinguished CU professor who died in 2003, Solomon had studied Brakhage’s work in college and been deeply influenced by it. His first encounter with the man went poorly. While Solomon was in school, Brakhage, 20 years Solomon’s senior, came to give a lecture and screen films. Brakhage in his younger days was a fiery and defensive advocate of experimental film, Solomon says, and Brakhage mistook a question of Solomon’s as an attack.

“He just basically slammed his hand on the desk and said, ‘Can’t you understand even simple street language?’” Solomon recalls, laughing. “He scared the hell out of me.”

The encounter shook Solomon and inspired him to make a film, “Rocketboy vs Brakhage,” about tearing down your heroes. When he later accepted the job at CU, the first thing he did was meet the man who had shouted at him from the lectern so many years ago. A star student, South Park co-founder Trey Parker, dropped him off for a lunch meeting with the man Solomon had studied, built a golden idol of and subsequently torn down. It was love at first sight, he says.

“Stan was waiting for me with a big bear hug, and we went out to lunch with his wife and his child,” Solomon says. “I think he was looking for a best friend. I was warned that he was going to burn through me like he did so many other people. It came close early on — we had a little tiff — but once we passed that, it never happened again.”

Solomon is best known for his work with celluloid. His painstaking process involves chemically manipulating the film stock and using an optical printer to re-photograph every frame. The resulting aesthetic stands alone in the experimental filmmaking world.

A triptych from “American Falls” (2000-2012) | Courtesy of Phil Solomon

Watching his films is like gazing into the mouth of a volcano and glimpsing images bubbling up through the churning magma below. Faces and recognizable places briefly appear, only to be subsequently swallowed by the experimental emulsions for which he is known.

“A figure in a Solomon film never entirely vanishes into the primordial soup, but is instead subjected to an oscillation between presence and absence, wherein his or her physical boundaries and the surrounding space become intertwined,” wrote film scholar Michael Sicinski.

A feature filmmaker Solomon is not. His filmic works mostly range between 10 and 40 minutes and contain no dialogue. Some films have a dark, menacing soundtrack, while others contain recognizable, popular songs; others still have no sound at all. The levels of abstraction — that is, the ease with which you can recognize the images he is manipulating with his emulsions — vary.

“My works are for the most part quite serious,” Solomon says. “Call them elegiac. I think that cinema is uniquely suited to express loss, because of the uncanny feeling that it’s happening as you’re watching it, by definition it’s lost. You’re already watching something that’s gone, including people who are dead. It’s an apparition machine. It’s ghosts; it’s a conjuring machine.”

Solomon uses a mixture of his own footage and found footage to construct his images, and he blends the two almost imperceptibly. You get the feeling the camerawork is not the focus of his films.

Instead, Solomon creates meaning from pacing, from editing, the chemical processing of the film, and the images he selects for his emulsion experiments.

A still from “Empire” (2010) | Courtesy of Phil Solomon

Though he makes abstract films, he grew up watching narrative films. He knew of Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman, and he loved American films such as Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy and The Graduate. He says his films contain narratives, and his work, though incredibly abstract and lacking anything resembling a traditional story, is filled with intent and meaning.

“I do think my films are narrative,” Solomon says. “They have figures in them. They’re not just abstractions; they’re more allegorical. One of the reasons I didn’t make those kinds of films is that I never would have believed them. I would have seen the actors … I would have remembered the arguments on set. I would remember it’s fake.”

But using other people’s footage doesn’t feel fake to him.

“I found found-footage as a way of substituting, because I found a truth value in it,” Solomon says. “If I had contrived myself it would have not felt true. I have that one extra layer of distance.”

The effect, film scholar Sicinski tells Boulder Weekly, is that Solomon’s films require an emotional investment from the audience.

A triptych from “American Falls” (2000-2012) | Courtesy of Phil Solomon

“He creates works that I think pull us in psychologically at the same time they’re getting us to think about the structure of what’s going on the screen,” Sicinski says. “They’re works that get us emotionally invested, and I think that’s something that avant-garde for many years has been suspicious of. … I think Phil is one of the few avant-garde filmmakers that has made challenging, intellectual work that can call on all those emotional elements without sacrificing formalist [elements].”

• • • •

“I don’t have kids of my own, and it’s great to get them fully diapered, smart and respectful,” Solomon says of his students.

His students have gone on to fill all types of roles in the film world, from Hollywood directors to experimental filmmakers. Solomon calls Trey Parker his “first friend” at the University of Colorado, though he doesn’t keep in touch with him. Alexis Martin Woodall is the producer of Fox’s Glee. Dominic Aluisi has worked as the first associate cameraman for many Hollywood directors, including Ron Howard and Oliver Stone.

One former student that Solomon keeps in close touch with is Derek Cianfrance, the director of the acclaimed Blue Valentine and the upcoming The Place Beyond The Pines. Cianfrance, a Colorado native, grew up with a library of VHS tapes instead of books, and he was dying to go to a film school on one of the coasts that produced one of his idols. The costs proved prohibitive, though, and he ended up at CU.

“I was a little bummed out, and I was a little disappointed,” Cianfrance says. “That all changed … when I started taking the courses, and one of the most influential teachers that I had was Phil.”

Cianfrance’s 2010 film, Blue Valentine, took him 12 years to make, partially because the script seemed daunting to those in Hollywood, who didn’t know if a film without a happy ending could be successful. The film ended up making $12 million at the box office worldwide. Without Solomon’s guidance, Cianfrance doesn’t know what kind of films he would have made.

“My third semester there, I was making my first 16 mm student film,” Cianfrance says.

“I went into his office and told him what it was going to be about. I tried to make a vampire film and was going to call it ‘Suck.’ He was so disappointed in me and so put off by my title, that he told me that he refused to support anything I made that had the title ‘Suck.’”

So Cianfrance hounded Solomon’s office hours, and the two morphed the initial idea into an Oedipal tale about a man’s relationship with his mother. The final product had a level of depth that was practically nonexistent in the original version, Cianfrance says.

“All of a sudden Phil had me doing something that if I had worked on it on my own it would have been naïve, misogynistic, just embarrassing,” he says. “He helped lead me, and he taught me firsthand how to think about things and how to respect your ideas and respect people and not put garbage out into the world. I’ve never said anything about this movie ‘Suck’ because I’m so embarrassed that I actually wanted to do that. And I can only imagine what kind of films I would be making had I not gone to film school and met Phil. If I had, without his tutelage, without his guidance, I would have made a film called ‘Suck’ and I would have had to live with that for the rest of my life. And thank God he never let me do that.”

• • • •

Solomon’s work underwent a drastic change in the early 2000s. Having established himself as a master manipulator of celluloid, he, like many of his peers, delved into video. The switch to video wasn’t as shocking as the source material: violent video games.

“I taught a class in post-modernism and was watching films like The Matrix, and I just felt like the space was so crazy,” Solomon says. “And I thought, this has to be video games. People who are making these know video games. So I thought I would check it out and teach it.”

A Best Buy employee recommended Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. It’s a controversial game that allows the player to commit a wide array of extremely violent acts, from beating up old ladies to mowing down innocent civilians with a machine gun to picking up hookers. But the game also offers a gorgeously rendered, fully immersive world in which to explore, full of secret beauty and endless possibilities. The “sandbox” element of the game is what caught Solomon’s eye.

“What amazed me about the video games was how beautiful they were,” Solomon says. “There would be things like grass blowing. That’s not going to help you murder anybody better or make it more fun to murder; it’s just there, out of creativity and art direction. They had something unique. They wanted to make a world that you can play in, which is every kid’s fantasy, to make up an entire world. … I went in there and looked around, just as I would in the real world. I sat by a tree and watched the sunset, things like that.”

He and his friend, filmmaker Mark Lapore, would sit on Solomon’s couch for hours as Solomon controlled the character, and Lapore would give him directions — “go over here, look at the train, walk around the tracks.” They ended up recording several scenes and stitching them together. They added a soundtrack, and the piece became 2005’s “Crossroad,” a five-minute piece.

Lapore took his own life shortly after the two completed the film. Devastated by the loss of his friend, Solomon went on to make a trilogy in memoriam, all using found footage he concocted from Grand Theft Auto. The three videos, “Rehearsals for Retirement,” “Last Days in a Lonely Place,” and “Still Raining, Still Dreaming,” made waves in the academic world for their dark beauty, as well as how they marked a jarring departure from Solomon’s previous work.

A still from “Last Days in a Lonely Place” (2008) | Courtesy of Phil Solomon

“The works that established his reputation — as both an image alchemist and a master conjurer of plangent, all-enveloping moods — are so intimately bound to the specific properties of celluloid and emulsion that the shock upon seeing these new works cannot be overstated,” a surprised Sicinski wrote in an essay titled, “Phil Solomon Visits San Andreas and Escapes, Not Unscathed.”

“Phil was probably the last avant-garde filmmaker who I would have expected to start making digital work,” Sicinski told Boulder Weekly. “His work was so informed by the physical properties of cinema, how images kind of pulse and thrive and come to life in celluloid through light and grain.”

The movies are dark works full of images of haunting beauty. Shadow envelops the storefronts and streets of a digital city; ghostly figures speed around a park. A hearse flies through a rainstorm and crashes into the ocean. The specter of 9/11 — Lapore took his life on Sept. 11, 2005 — runs through the videos. Though they appropriate a form that art critics have denigrated for years as “not art” (most prominently by Roger Ebert), the works are deadly serious and, most importantly, unironic.

“The key to my work is that it’s using this built-in ironic form to make something that’s utterly sincere. I think that’s what people are picking up on and are surprised by,” Solomon says.

The ambition of the videos show a restless artist intent on exploring new territories, not content to be stuck in his ways.

“It’s so rare that you can find someone, especially in filmmaking … who gets better with age,” says Cianfrance, saying that Solomon’s ability to grow artistically is inspirational. “Phil has never gotten soft. I loved to see this transformation that is happening in his work. It lets you know that you can grow as an artist, that all your best work doesn’t have to happen in your 30s.”

Solomon’s video game phase is not over yet, he says. His house is filled with dozens of two-terabyte hard drives full of HD footage from various video games that he wants to work into another piece. He recently completed “Empire,” an homage to Andy Warhol’s eight-hour art film of the same name. Warhol filmed the Empire State Building for eight hours for his work; Solomon found a similar perspective for Grand Theft Auto’s version of the tower and recorded one day in video-game time, exactly 48 minutes.

He recently finished what is likely to be his last film work, called “American Falls.” It is a triptych, juxtaposing three images side-by-side, requiring three HD projectors to properly screen. Solomon says it’s his criticism of the crucial points in American history.

“It’s the best thing — well, most ambitious thing — I’ve ever done,” Solomon says.

Solomon is currently on a one-year sabbatical that has him on half-pay, and he says he will use the grant money in part to cover living expenses. The rest he’ll use for travel and research and equipment for future projects, he says. He might invest in printing Blu-Rays of his work and start circulating it for public consumption.

Looking back on his work, Solomon cites a reactionary element present in all avant-garde films that has driven him to make more thoughtful, deliberately paced pieces.

“My films are also gentle these days, not so much when I was younger,” Solomon says. “But they are softer. They use dissolves. They’re slow. They move slow. Fast cutting belongs to … commercials and TV. Speed was once the province of the avant garde, but now it’s the ultimate capitalist tool.”