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Phil Solomon's Historic Film Experiments, From U.S. Presidents to Grand Theft Auto 

The avant-garde director has films at four locations in Los Angeles this week

Thursday, May 16 2013
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As one of today's most acclaimed experimental filmmakers, Phil Solomon's 40-year career spans handmade films to digital art and gallery installations. Thanks to the efforts of several local venues, Los Angeles will host the most comprehensive presentation of Solomon's work to date, beginning May 16.

Commissioned in 2000 for Washington, D.C.'s, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Solomon's magisterial, 55-minute American Falls took more than a decade to create; its original six-screen rotunda space has been transformed into a three-screen, surround-sound installation for Young Projects Gallery at the Pacific Design Center. (It will remain on display there until August.) Inspired by Frederic Church's 1857 Niagara painting in the Corcoran Gallery, Solomon began musing on the idea of the falls as borderland, and, as he tells L.A. Weekly, as a reminder that "what goes up must come down, in capitalism and democracy, and especially between the ideals of America and its actual reality, between the promise and the truth."

American Falls traces the history of this country through events on film — such as the rise and fall of celebrities and presidents — all the while questioning its images through visual processing that swarms with scratches, film grain and craquelure as it fades in and out of view. "The criticism is built into the film chemistry," Solomon explains, "which allows the images to rise up and then fall back into the chemical 'soup.' ... I'm saying I grew up with these images, this iconography, but I no longer know what the truth is."

click to enlarge Phil Solomon's American Falls
  • Phil Solomon's American Falls

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It's not just a "gussied-up History Channel or Ken Burns montage," he asserts.

Solomon teaches film at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he once held Sunday film salons with the legendary experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, his friend and colleague. "I recorded about 150 hours of them," he says. "Right now, I'm working on an essay film, and I'm having them transcribed for a book." Despite their association, however, Solomon cites a tendency (first noted by film scholar Tom Gunning) for his generation to screen works in apartments and living rooms rather than the urban cinematheques of earlier avant-garde pioneers such as Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, Maya Deren and Michael Snow.

In this vein, Solomon and Los Angeles Filmforum host a "Living Room Screening" on May 18 at Velaslavasay Panorama, an intimate theater and garden in the West Adams Historic District. "I'll be showing work that hasn’t been screened in decades," he says, "and talking about my film and life biographies. Also a rare comedy I made about being a student studying avant-garde film in the '70s."

Also on tap is the deeply moving Remains to Be Seen (1989, revised 1994), one of Solomon's most powerful films. Mechanized breathing and the rushing sounds of ocean waves accompany images of someone in a hospital and people frolicking in nature. The rhythmic sounds create a lulling audioscape for the visuals, which reverberate with unusual surface textures.

"In Remains to Be Seen, I'm dealing with the death of my mother," Solomon explains. "Originally, I started to shoot my mother when she was ill, with black-and-white film that was very realistic-looking, but I realized I couldn't use any of it because the referent was too strong. What I do with film texture is not just decorative, it's really trying to emphasize the 'skin' of the film." By accentuating the medium, "The haptic sense of it becomes the emotional touchstone.

"A lot of movies are geared toward inviting you into the window," Solomon says, "especially these days with 3-D and high-definition. But I'm interested in aesthetic distance. For me, the aesthetic experience is about meditation on form, not about being hypnotized."

Solomon's In Memoriam (Mark LaPore, 1952-2005) screens as part of a program at REDCAT on May 20. It's a series of works generated by the video game Grand Theft Auto. Solomon and his high school friend, noted filmmaker Mark LaPore, became intrigued by the game's atmospheric detail and its cheat codes, which enabled them to "create instant surrealism." Slow camera movements, isolated avatars and desolate locations take on a strange poetry of their own.

"The last night I saw Mark in 2005," Solomon says, "we made a piece together. He took his own life soon after that, and I realized that the piece we made together, which is called Crossroads, was his gift to me."

One of the series' entries, Last Days in a Lonely Place (2007), begins with a slow tracking shot toward Griffith Park Observatory, combined with audio from Rebel Without a Cause (1955). "Mark was like James Dean to my Sal Mineo," Solomon says, in reference to the classic film. "The other thing is that I sat in on Rebel director Nicholas Ray's classes at Binghamton, and so did Mark." Audio from Ray's In a Lonely Place (1950) and Gus Van Sant's Kurt Cobain film, Last Days (2005), also can be heard.

"There is subtext there, but what interests me is whatever people bring to it," Solomon says. "I always tell my audience, it's not that you have to guess what I meant, it's more like I did this, and you bring to it whoever you are."

"Phil Solomon: Before and After the Falls" runs May 16-Aug. 2 at Young Projects in the Pacific Design Center (youngprojectsgallery.com). Los Angeles Filmforum hosts "The Dream Machine: A Living Room Screening" May 18 at the Velaslavasay Panorama and "Simply Because You're Near Me: Films by Phil Solomon" at the Egyptian on May 19 (lafilmforum.org). The Elegiac Visions of Phil Solomon screens May 20 at REDCAT (redcat.org).

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