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Phil Solomon's American Falls

Hood Quarterly, autumn 2013
Mark Williams, Associate Professor, Film and Media Studies

Phil Solomon is one of the most acclaimed and enduring figures in experimental film and media. An acolyte, friend, and colleague of Stan Brakhage, he has worked in many media and pioneered numerous visionary inter-medial processes of moving-image production. His interest in visual culture was sparked during his childhood, when his father gave him a microscope. His artistic work over the past forty years has ingeniously elaborated upon the significance of seeing the world anew via technologies of representation.

A faculty member at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Solomon is perhaps best known for his transformations of the film medium. This often entails altering the photo-chemical processes by which film prints are produced, and then manipulating the results via optical printer to reimagine the goals and processes of vision and mediation. There is also a documentary impulse in Solomon’s work, but one rooted in process, apparatus, and poetry.

Solomon’s film American Falls is a project commissioned by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., inspired by the museum’s iconic painting Niagara (1857) by Frederick Church. Ten years in the making, American Falls begins with footage from an 1896 film that literally and figuratively introduces the American falls at Niagara. From this apparently quotidian passage, Solomon initiates a complex flow of images, ideas, and experiences that comprise a contemporary masterwork of experimental cinema.

Solomon articulates the fleeting indexicality of our knowledge of the visible world in relation to broader historical contexts that are in turn directly related to cinema as history. The surface mystery of the film is introduced by our initial encounter with its physical format and conditions: a triptych of frames that feature Solomon’s signature image and sound processing. Why are the frames multiple? Is the image track literally decomposing? Is it perhaps electrified? Could it be somehow breathing itself aflame (a common fate of historical nitrate film)? Something fugitive and profound is at work, engaging the very properties of materializing light and shadow that are constitutive of cinema and beckoning further reflection about our experience of visual culture.

Solomon evokes themes of the individual, the quest for identity, and the stakes of personal and public memory. There is a palpable sense of fate and providence, risk and chance, destruction and catastrophe—all according to a dreamlike procession of historical condensation and displacement. The title is also symbolic via its iconicity: this is American Falls, a cascade of imagery both strange and immediately recognizable. Just as the eponymous location is situated at the border, this is a meditation on popular memory that disturbs comfortable assumptions about the relation of the United States to the modern age, to the Americas more broadly, and to the rest of the world. It is replete with references to historic milestones, but also to wounds, scars, nightmares, and trauma. There is considerable power and force in the candor of representing such a torrent of currents and undercurrents.

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