Phil Solomon (1954-2019)

I have only just minutes ago learned that filmmaker Phil Solomon has passed away. Phil had been in poor health for many years, having periods of greater or lesser infirmity. But I was unaware that he had surgery a few months ago, from which he never recovered.

Phil studied with Ken Jacobs at Binghamton University, and began teaching filmmaking at the University of Colorado, Boulder in 1991. He was a colleague of Stan Brakhage at Boulder, collaborated with Brakhage on a number of films, such as the wonderful Seasons... (2002), and was one of only a handful of experimental filmmakers to whose work Brakhage gave unqualified praise. This is particularly notable since, early in his career, Phil saw Brakhage as the great aesthetic dragon to slay, the embodiment of Harold Bloom's "anxiety of influence." Solomon even made a film called Rocket Boy Vs. Brakhage (1971).

He needn't have worried, since he absolutely found his own unique voice in filmmaking. Working with found footage or other photographed materials, Phil would subject the images to dense chemical treatments that he never entirely explained, at least not to me. The effect of this mature cinematic style -- seen in classic works such as The Passage of the Bride (1979), Remains to Be Seen (1989), and The Snowman (1995), among many others -- was a kind of molten image field, with recognizable figures and scenes emerging unexpectedly from the swirling color and grain, only to be subsumed again by the primordial soup. His works in this idiom generated a unique temporality for the viewer, in that each representational figure was just slightly out of reach. You tended to recognize its presence just as it was breaking apart again, making the experience of watching Phil's films a bit like chasing after something in a dream and always being just moments too late.

Although Phil continued to work in this mode, perhaps most impressively in his three-paneled historical montage American Falls (2012), the artist took an unexpected turn toward video in 2005. Inspired by his memories of playing "Grand Theft Auto" with the late filmmaker Mark LaPore, Solomon began recording himself playing the game "wrong," going to the limits of the created world in order to explore textures of light and atmosphere. Ultimately creating a suite of four GTA video works, Phil set aside the style he had completely mastered to adopt a wholly different approach, and ended up making some of the most evocative, emotionally direct films of his career.

The last time I was in contact with Phil was around ten months ago. I was preparing an avant-garde group show, and checked in with him to see if he had any new work he'd be interested in sharing. He told me that he had essentially retired from filmmaking, having more or less accomplished what he wanted to do. To what extent this retirement was precipitated by external factors, I cannot say. But it is some comfort, in the face of the loss of Phil, to think that he looked back over his career with satisfaction and peace. He had every reason to feel that way.

One final note: one time I was with Phil, he shared a skill that he seemed to only deploy in certain circumstances. As I'm sure others of you know, he had an uncanny ability to produce spot-on impressions of a great many experimental filmmakers. It was a stand-up act for the smallest possible niche. And it was hilarious.

Rest in peace, Phil.

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