Avant-garde film meets the dark history of the United States in Phil Solomon's American Falls.
Beyond the more headline-grabbing feature films this year, the London Film Festival offers up a glittering gem of avant-garde film-making in Phil Solomon's American Falls. Using his trademark combination of photographic techniques to create shimmering emulsifying textures, Solomon combines documentary and cinematic film footage to produce a mesmerising and immersive filmic experience.
Originally commissioned as a large scale installation for the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., American Falls is shown here in a flat triptych. Inspired by one of the Corcoran's collection, Frederic Edwin Church's Niagara, Solomon uses watery sounds and imagery as both a thematic reference point and an artistic device, to frame footage and to create a natural dissolve.
Speaking to the audience at the LFF, Solomon explains his wariness of using iconographic images, to avoid doing as he describes it, "America's greatest hits" or similarly, the "Ken Burns version" of American history. The piece takes the Niagara Falls as an aesthetic inspiration but also a symbolic reference: "The overriding metaphor is people who fell" says Solomon.
Starting with Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to go over the Falls in a barrel (and survive), the falls of America's past are consistently alluded to from Lincoln, FDR, JFK and Martin Luther King to iconic cinematic images - Harold Lloyd swinging from the clock face in Safety Last is brought in repeatedly along with Keaton and Chaplin's slapstick slips, the Great Blondin's wobbles, the Wizard of Oz's spiralling house and King Kong's final, poignant moments before he tumbles from the Chrysler building. There are images of hope - battlefields and the Ku Klux Klan are present - but so too is a sequence of civil rights protestors and memorials, backed by sound designer Wrick Wolff's distorted recording of the ground-breaking African American singer, Marion Anderson.
American iconography aside, it's really Solomon's alchemic process which saturates American Falls' images with such poetic resonance. Beginning with 16mm black and white film, using single-processing techniques and an optical printer to create a "loosening emulsion", cutting in clips and shooting original footage - the screen is filled with burnished gold, inky black and fiery bronze. Bank notes and icons are burned, images of hope emerge and dissolve, wave-like, through the chemicals. Complementing this process, the triptych format is essential to create what Solomon describes as "the dance of the chemistry." The impact the three-part screen has is to instil an intrinsic rhythm into the piece, a beat infused by the natural harmonies of the film in its constant, ephemeral movements.
Solomon maintains a sense of circularity between the past and the present by looping these iconic images in again and again, echoing the continuing sound of the waves. In an opening sequence, the Mayflower and its passengers arrive amid dramatic stormy waters, while an eerily calm, static image of a pre-9/11 New York skyline looms. A flicker in the sky tricks us, momentarily, and intentionally, before we realise it's a bird, flying away. Solomon pans up to the sky, in what he jokingly refers to as his "Terrence Malick moment."
The film has at its heart a darkness, a sense of disillusionment with the American Dream, which is key to Solomon's vision. Explaining why the film's end point is 1968, Solomon says that he made American Falls as a note to his 14 year old self, the age he was (in 1968) when Bobby Kennedy was shot, and in the overriding sense of hopelessness Americans felt, that this was, as Solomon puts it, "the point when everything went over the Falls."
When he started making this film, deep in George W. Bush territory, the baby boomer generation (in which Solomon places himself) was deep out of hope. A true labour of love, watching back the final cuts of American Falls, Solomon and his team would burst into tears with exhaustion, relief and the impact of the film, finally "locking in." Explaining now how he felt when Obama was elected in 2008, Solomon emotionally describes how "a group of us sang God Bless America without irony." To Solomon and his fellow baby boomers, this moment was a sliver of hope amongst this long history of falls.