In April, visionary filmmaker and Binghamton University alumnus Phil Solomon passed away. On Tuesday, Binghamton University’s cinema department held a film retrospective in his memory.
Solomon graduated from BU with his bachelor’s degree in 1975 and quickly began creating his first films. In 1991, he started his teaching career at the University of Colorado Boulder, where he worked alongside fellow filmmaker and collaborator Stan Brakhage, an artist who inspired his early fascination with experimental cinema. Solomon passed away at 65-years-old after dealing with health complications.
According to Daïchi Saïto, a visiting assistant professor of cinema, this year has seen the loss of many great experimental filmmakers.
“2019 came down very heavy,” he said. “In January, Jonas Mekas died and then in March, Carolee Schneemann died. In that same month, Barbara Hammer died. Then in April, Phil Solomon died … It’s quite a strange experience seeing his films now that he’s gone.”
Like many of BU’s cinema students, Solomon inadvertently stumbled upon experimental film, originally intending to study the narrative feature-length works of the new wave movements in Hollywood and Europe. It was through teachers like Ken Jacobs that he eventually came to appreciate an abstract alternative to mainstream commercial cinema.
Even in the dynamic world of experimental film, Solomon’s greatest works stand out as wholly unique. Tuesday’s exhibition showcased five films created over the span of two prolific decades of his career. The selection of films reveal the growth of an artist. The earliest of the five works, “The Passage of the Bride” and “Nocturne,” which were both completed by Solomon in 1980, admittedly bear some resemblances to Brakhage’s work, notably his 1965 film “Fire of Waters.” However, by the third film of the showcase, “Remains to Be Seen,” it is apparent that Solomon had come into his own, creating a work like none other before him.
Many of Solomon’s films are characterized by his experimentation with film emulsion and rephotography. He often worked with found footage, using sources from anonymous home videos to a borrowed 16 mm copy of “The Wizard of Oz,” which he would repurpose via chemical processes and optical printing. The resulting images are entirely different from the source material, which is heavily obscured behind layers of film grain and reticulation.
“The sense of ambiguity [in Solomon’s films] comes from the fact that at times we’re looking at the pure texture of the emulsion,” Saïto said. “To me, what’s really singular about his work with emulsion is the use of light. He does something very unusual. I don’t think anyone had done it before. It’s quite incredible to treat a film strip solely as an object rather than focusing on the image on the film strip.”
Vincent Grenier, a professor of cinema, elaborated on Solomon’s work.
“[He captured] that space between something completely abstract and something recognizable,” he said.
In a 2007 interview with film critic and curator Federico Rossin, Solomon himself noted this quality of his work.
“The innermost rings of my films have references and meanings that are, in some ways, secret and unattainable, but I am banking on creating oneiric visions that tap into our subconscious storehouse of symbolic thinking,” he said. “I am in search of the uncanny and the inevitable. The local and the universal. Images that are charged with wonder and seem to tap into some kind of truth — at least for me.”
The showcase was presented as part of the cinema department’s Visiting Artist’s Series, which hosts free film screenings and discussions. A full schedule of events can be found online on the department’s web page.