Phil Solomon Visits San Andreas and Escapes, Not Unscathed: Notes on Two Recent Works

[reprinted from Cinema Scope #30]

“Had I known the end would end in laughter / I tell my daughter it doesn’t matter”

—Phil Ochs, “Rehearsals for Retirement”

In his two most recent works, Phil Solomon explores the field of digital cinema from an odd, unnerving entry point. These pieces—2005’s Untitled (for David Gatten) (made with the late Mark LaPore) and 2007’s Rehearsals for Retirement – are generated from material drawn entirely from the landmark videogame Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Solomon has worked in video before, but 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. While many established experimental filmmakers have turned to digital imagemaking in recent years, for any number of reasons, too few have been willing to dive headlong into the specific, often strange aesthetic character of their adopted medium. But Untitled and Rehearsals are so thoroughly immersed in the texture and atmosphere of digital gaming that I wasn’t initially certain how to access them. Unlike Solomon’s previous films, works that engaged in abstraction but were nevertheless tied to the concrete indexical character of photography, these new pieces explore the possibilities of a very dark, very foreign world

Knowing next to nothing about contemporary gaming, I’m mostly unqualified to assess Solomon’s place within (and differences from) the “machinima” genre, that subsection of homemade video work that takes videogames as its primary basis. (A basic YouTube search will lead you to most of machinima’s greatest hits.) Moreover, I suspect that an experienced gamer would have more to say about these pieces with respect to their specific recoding of the phenomenological experience of first- vs. third-person gaming, or their formal exploration of game design and hack codes. Nevertheless, Untitled and especially Rehearsals bring those issues (and many others) so squarely into the realm of experimental cinema, as well as the philosophical inquiry into human action, that I hope approaching them from the standpoint of avant-garde aesthetics will prove productive. Although other avant-gardists have incorporated videogame material into their work as found footage (most notably Peggy Ahwesh in her 2001 video She Puppet, in which Lara Croft is put through her paces as a sad, exploited post-feminist laborer), Solomon is allowing the aesthetic parameters of the game program to organize his works to a far greater extent. Inevitably, some of these nuances will escape me.

This disclaimer seems like a good starting point partly because one of the most striking aspects of Solomon’s new work is its engagement with the environments, the spatial marginalia, of GTA:SA. It seems likely that gamers and avant-garde aficionados may experience Solomon’s treatment of landscape and images of the natural world in radically opposite ways. Within the context of contemporary gaming, the Rockstar Games company’s GTA:SA represents a benchmark for complexity, verisimilitude, attention to detail and overall success in rendering a rich, full diegetic world in which to lose oneself in play. Essentially a narrative of loss and the reassertion of masculine power, the game follows “C.J.” as he attempts to solve his mother’s murder and reestablish the dominion of his gang, the Grove Street Families. The game is noteworthy not only in its highly evolved diegetic world – for example, C.J. has to take time to eat, he can engage with random passersby, or he may go on tangential errands as the player wishes. But even beyond this unique hyper-textual narrative construction, GTA:SA’s designers have lavished their attention upon details whose experiential fidelity outstrips their narrative function, thereby allowing Solomon to explore their limits, their ability to generate mood and meaning in relative isolation.

However, these works provoked in me an unsettling, even uncanny psychological response.  Despite the intense level of detail within the source material, I nevertheless saw a fully digitized world, chilly and geometric -- shadows of life at multiple, unbridgeable removes. I expect that my biases in favor of celluloid hardly make me Solomon’s ideal viewer: how COULD one look at these images and see anything but loss, the very absence of the phenomenal world and its variegated textures? Yet I also suspect that this chasm – the raw physicality of 19th and 20th century photographic imagemaking versus the fragile volumes of 21st century digital; a material world that compels belief versus an untouchable abstract code that the eye’s imagination must will into shape – is at the heart of Solomon’s achievement, and why these works simply won’t leave me alone.

Solomon has called Untitled (for David Gatten), the short work he made with LaPore, “a prayer, an offering, a ‘get well soon’ card... for all three of us.” It is nearly impossible to view Untitled in separation from certain extra-textual knowledge – that Solomon and LaPore made the film for Gatten, who at that time was in very poor health; that it is Solomon’s only filmic collaboration with LaPore; and that it was probably LaPore’s last completed work prior to his death in September of 2005, a work made during his last visit with Solomon. There is no good reason to attempt to bracket any of this knowledge out. But Untitled all on its own is a work that veers between aching stillness and an all-encompassing engulfment, using its highly stylized digital means to provide fleeting images of a body assailed, a subjectivity under siege.

In the film, we only ever see one human figure, a man in the rain, usually from the back, wearing a white t-shirt and jeans. This figure’s opposite number is a swirling bouquet of flowers, sometimes small and seen in his hands, sometimes a giant rotating talisman, a challenger for supremacy over physical space. An aggregate of forms suspended between planar geometry and organic ruffle, the bouquet is highly abstract and draws attention to its own failure to cohere. It is both flat and bulbous, severing the Y- and Z-axes and extending haphazardly into the conic surface area described by petals and leaves. Solomon and LaPore set up an ambiguous relationship between the man and the flowers, one that underscores the apparent solidity and possible imperviousness of the silent, muscular protagonist. However, the bouquet’s ambiguity provides a hint of the perils that await our avatar.

The man runs away from the “camera,” bouquet in hand, delving into an indistinct, unglued forest landscape, sending dripping, elongated textures and blotches of green hurtling towards the screen. But these blades of grass, even as they become mere paint-pixels, are shifted and rotated, sometimes becoming the shafts of trees, other times mere planar forms which intersect with one another and the figure himself. We are in a dense thicket of interpenetrating fields and illegible perspectives. Every videogame design has a boundary, at which point the character cannot move any further. In a conversation about the piece, Chris Stults of the Wexner Center (where Rehearsals premiered), who has more experience with GTA:SA than I do, hypothesized that LaPore and Solomon may have achieved this cataclysmic effect by taking the game character to the preprogrammed limits of the game’s spatial world. (We could compare this to Jim Carrey in The Truman Show, sailing his boat into the flat ocean backdrop.) Whether or not this is the case, in this second movement of Untitled we witness a digitized liquidation of the discrete relationships of figure and ground. The landscape pierces our ambassador, and a navigable world gives way to the flux of slicing planes and ghosted forms, recalling Engels’ dialectics of science (so important to Eisenstein), which posited human existence as a series of ongoing inter-particle clashes, a Heisenbergian demolition derby quelled only on the surface by illusory glimpses of stability.

This treatment of the visual realm as a field forever in process relates directly to Solomon’s film work. Works such as the Twilight Psalms (1999-2003), Remains to Be Seen (1994), and The Snowman (1995) are composed of photographic imagery in varying states of aggravated decay, with recognizable figures and objects emerging and resubmerging into bubbling cauldrons of film grain, thick chemical impasto, and an almost sculptural build-up and breakdown of emulsions. 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--individual identity becoming an unstable isotope. This could be called “hyporealism,” since Solomon’s alchemy provides a poetic, even operatic glimpse of certain molecular truths about our fragile existence. The skin’s surface is a porous envelope, endlessly exchanging atoms with the spaces through which we move. The agitated skins of Solomon’s films recall Merleau-Ponty’s description of “the flesh of the world,” the palpable character of perception and our bodies’ total immersion in the space that engulfs us. As we watch these films, we become as enveloped in the deformation of their turmoil as those representational images manifesting and slipping away on the screen. Vision cannot be used to possess the entities Solomon presents, partly because these entities struggle to remain discrete figures, more often succumbing to the undertow of Solomon’s alchemical magma. But it is also because these dense physical forms touch us from the screen, encroaching on the space of our bodies. Solomon’s cinema is overpowering and often frightening, since it asserts by demonstration that we too are transient pockets of energy, and entropy is always hot on our heels.

And yet for me, these earlier works are not nearly as disturbing as Untitled and Rehearsals. Yes, they thrust our eyes into fragility and dissipation, but there is a brute materiality at work. The celluloid, the shadows of a photographed world, even the thick, pulsing seas of decay that threaten to overtake them – these are all elements of the tangible universe. The new works, in part, replace chemistry with code, and in the process they seem to slip further away from us. The middle section of Untitled provides a picture of an uncharted, unmoored new playing field – San Andreas, yes (and how apposite – a fictional geographical mash-up of California and Nevada, named not for a place but the fissure between places, one that will one day reclaim everything adjacent to it), but more importantly, in Stults’ words, “the digital sublime.” Untitled’s final movement pulls us back from this abyss somewhat, as we watch our man standing, winded and twitching, before a far more stationary landscape. It is nighttime, a farmhouse breaks slightly into the left of the frame, and a distant tree sways on the right. The bouquet hovers in the middle-left. We’re left in near-silent contemplation of this empty space. It is possible that our protagonist is changed by his previous ordeal, because his “action” subverts traditional game logic. He simply stands there, waiting, against this digitized de Chirico horizon. He is whole again, but his heaving chest betrays his awareness that the next trial will arrive before he knows it. And perhaps just as importantly, the physical ambiance of film has given way to that digital Nowheresville, making the respite beautiful, cold, and for those of us still emotionally cathected to the 19th and 20th century image-worlds, evocative of a new brand of fear.

If the middle section of Untitled is pure Solomon, this final section is completely indebted to the film work of LaPore. It is a long take that, in the holding, in the discomfort of its fixed attention, allows time for its subject to reveal itself. This final, tenuous tie to the Bazinian universe is further obliterated in Rehearsals for Retirement. This is odd, because the construction of Rehearsals seems on the surface to owe more to traditional filmic decoupage. It is comprised of single-take passages that at first conclude in blackout, but eventually begin fading into one another, sometimes resulting in semi-invisible melds of material. (I counted 22 “shots,” but these complex fades make this determination tentative at best.) In the opening sequence, we find ourselves reverse-tracking away from a wood-rail fence in a forest clearing. Patches of the ground beneath us fall away into fractal-like black holes; patchy blue-green mists form rotating, 3-D volumes of gas. The trunk of a tree becomes a waterfall in the distance. Like the middle section of Untitled, this is a space of indeterminate legibility, comprised of planes upon planes, yet the tracking shot also hints at a certain level of spatial control, a touchstone of the cinema of old.

In the second shot, Rehearsals introduces us to its protagonist. He is a black, nearly featureless figure, a virtual silhouette cut out against the sky in low angle. If the opening shot sets out the terms for Rehearsals’ spatial complexity, this shot hits us with the film’s central dialectic. This figure will remain our key locus for stable identification and orientation. He is typically shown at a low angle from the waist up, implying heroic strength against those elements that challenge him. And yet, he is largely comprised of void and continually verges on subsumption--a life as negative space. Likewise, the soundtrack for Rehearsals envelops the listener in a set of sounds that become more resonant and body-rattling as their abstraction hurtles toward an algorithmic endpoint of pure sound. Solomon has digitally processed a choral loop with layered pitch changes, resulting in a low, steadily building drone that enfolds both film and viewer in radical Adornian negativity. (This differs significantly from the Untitled soundtrack, which is a subtle mix of evocative sound effects and GTA game sounds--sort of Cage or Feldman as compared to Rehearsals’ Ligeti or Xenakis.)

In both sound and image, Rehearsals for Retirement takes the sense of beings we find in earlier Solomon films – placeholders for shifting energies, boundaries that, like Merleau-Ponty’s “chiasmus” are tremulous and provisional – and makes it even more absolute. In Solomon’s version of GTA:SA’s digital world, it isn’t just that he moves through the marginalia of the game space – its empty skies, its abandoned landscapes – and brings their plangent potential to the foreground. Instead of playing Grand Theft Auto in productively “wrong” ways, Solomon tackles the game on an ontological level, treating mere existence as the most arduous, most daunting task of all. If videogames implicitly ask us to subscribe to a pragmatic theory of action (a centered subject evaluates his world, then unproblematically acts), Solomon uses them as a medium with which to explore uncertainty, doubt, and the ever-present threat of non-being. The third shot dramatizes this problem by removing the all-black figure and returning us to a first-person perspective, but an impossible one. We are in a train tunnel, and we see banded light moving towards us but the tracks beneath us remain still. That is, light – that fundamental category of the first century of cinema, as well as our default metaphor for hope – moves toward us illusorily, in waves of stalled progression.

And when the tracks finally do move, it’s too late. The promise of secure human action and uncompromised aesthetic response has already been consumed by this irrational, uncharted realm. In subsequent shots, the end of the tunnel is blocked by a hearse, and yet that absolute finality also gives way to shifting fields of “sea,” “clouds,” swirls of green digitized mist. Our “camera” floats through blades of grass that resemble vertical sea-green paint pours by Morris Louis; they part like curtains as we wander through, up and over city skyscrapers. Before us, the same wooden fence from the opening shot breaks apart, slowly and unconvincingly, not as if hit by a moving vehicle, but as though entropy were always already struggling to release the fence from its confining shape.  Against pea-green house fires, blazing orange skies, and midnight blue horizons, our figure remains, silhouetted and not exactly sturdy but nevertheless resistant. He is never completely overtaken by the painterly geometry around him. Most of the time he holds still, as if bearing witness. (Is he Klee and Benjamin’s Angel of History, watching helplessly as the tragedy of human history piles up at his feet?) His corporeal reality in the face of San Andreas’s waveform pulsions hits its height in the 15th shot, wherein he stands amidst a fiery orange expanse, an airplane exploding above him in the sky. He shudders, as if this semi-solid netherworld and its violent forces were etching themselves into his body, as both victim and mourner.

His uncertain status, and by extension ours, is evoked most dramatically by the recurring image of the hearse. Near the midpoint of Rehearsals, we are taken inside the vehicle, gazing across a foreshortened coffin. Is the car moving? Or are foliage and atmosphere moving through it? We then see a shot from the windshield, traveling down the road at night, which is immediately interrupted by a return to the back of the hearse, this time with a shattered back window. After burning at the end of the tunnel, the hearse eventually flies, taking off from a road that morphs into gray-blue wisps, then a gaseous sky, and finally a thick slate-gray sea. The car sinks, only to rear up from the oceanic field like a whale, triumphantly breaking water. In the last shot, we see our dark, volumetric man-void, swimming alongside birds in a dank digital stew of sea and sky. The hearse appears one last time, as a ghostly presence in the sky before him. Has the figure escaped death? Is he transfigured? Or have we actually been watching a condensed-temporality death dream, an analogue to the white sitting room at the end of 2001, but in the only form permissible after cinema as we know it has, to all intents and purposes, “died”?

Rehearsals for Retirement and Untitled (for David Gatten) are components of what will eventually be a trilogy of works dedicated to the memory of Mark LaPore. Rehearsals also conjures the memory of folksinger Phil Ochs, from whom Solomon borrows the title. What do these men have in common? Not having known LaPore (or, of course, Ochs) personally, this is not for me to say, But it is clear that both men’s creative curiosities made them intrepid travelers and citizens of the world, and that both men left this world far too early. Perhaps they form the void that is our hero through the illuminated terrain of San Andreas, palpable both in their absence and in the inextinguishable power of what they left behind. And in mapping this landscape of loss, Solomon distills the pain, the fear, and possibly the hope that after LaPore, and even after the tangibility of cinema itself, a new horizon emerges, and with it, the space in which to move forward. Untitled left us suspended, waiting. Rehearsals for Retirement finds Solomon in motion, but toward a destination as yet unknown.