The Digital Aesthetic: Celluloid Twilight, Digital Dawn?
Posted Aug 1, 2003

Philip Solomon teaches film history, aesthetics, and production at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Well-respected—beloved, even—Solomon is counted among the finest avant-garde filmmakers of the last 50 years, and currently is at work on a feature-length trilogy of short films entitled The Twilight Psalms, described as a "cine-poem to the 20th Century."

As we meet over omelettes, I discover we agree on pretty much everything: that "avant-garde" is an ugly phrase ("It's a war term," says Solomon); that the world is better for Naomi Watts; that we are susceptible to influence; that collaboration is less collective labor than an extension of conversation and mutual imagination.

All those shared interests, and we end up talking mainly about digital video, on-record, anyway. That's what I'm here for: to talk with a filmmaker—in the strictest sense of the term—about something that isn't materially film. Nonetheless, we stumble on a couple things common to celluloid and its digital analogue, particularly in the area of what Solomon will call "the denotative"—that is, this odd will to enable an implied objectivity, perhaps even authority, of the camera.

"Let's put it this way," Solomon says, "everything in film, technically, has been designed to make the picture window more and more seductive; in other words, the film grain has gotten finer and finer, the lenses have gotten sharper and sharper, to give you Renaissance perspective…everything is to create the illusion of the window you could walk into. And they keep talking about more and more resolution, same thing with digital.

"For me, film is too ostensible; it's an easy machine designed to automatically depict, and digital video even more so. I turn it on, it sucks up everything in sight so easily. So, how do you become expressive with a medium that is so determined by economics, by supply and demand—in other words Kodak, which has no other competition, and ultimately determines your entire palette. How do you get your hands in there?"

Solomon's work actively resists the "denotative" nature of what we've come to know as "the movies": this objective camera relating a story that can typically be deciphered immediately. He's found a way around the concrete, and the standard.

"I muck film up, often with chemical treatments, so that the image is not so easily read. It becomes an aesthetic Rorschach for people—they get all kinds of readings—and yet the treatments I perform are, I hope, expressive, and not just a decorative gesture. I try to make the emulsion itself have as much expression as anything else. That's been the challenge of my work, to make the look of the film expressive of what I'm saying." A century into the evolution of film, the conversation between filmmaker and medium, medium and audience, continues to play itself out in long-established terms.

"We're still doing Griffith, essentially. Narrative film language has not changed substantially since Griffith. It's a little more sophisticated," he continues. "You have ellipsis now, and you have jump cuts—but essentially, it's still master shot, shot, counter shot, POV. It's still based on that original concept that makes perfect, logical sense. Every picture tells a story, and—especially in a time-based art—one thing follows another. But that's not the only way you can use film, even though it's very compelling."

Solomon continues, a propos, "For many of us," destruction of narrative film language "has already been done." Solomon's friend, colleague, and occasional collaborator, the late, lamented Stan Brakhage "and many others did break that," according to Solomon, "and made a kind of film that had nothing to do with narrative, but is much closer, say, to the aesthetics of music. As [19th-century English cultural critic Walter] Pater would have it, ‘All the arts aspire to the condition of music.' I take that as an affirmation of modernist abstraction."

In these early years of digital video, we encounter something similar, this phenomenon by which a medium arranges our minds and our works according to its own inherent laws. "How can you be creative when your aesthetic choices are often determined by the software?" He cites Photoshop as an example, conceding that it's "a terrific thing," but maintaining that its users' creativity is circumscribed by the creative limitations of its programmers. A preset effects palette, however rich and varied, has the same shortcoming Picasso ascribed to computers in general: all answers, no questions. "Same thing with The Matrix," he continues. "Once you've seen that 3D thing a few times, it quickly becomes schtick. The question is, with digital, how can you really tweak it so I can make a Solomon digital thing that's not like anybody else's, without having to write software?"

Presumably, however, there will come—if they're not already here—the avant-garde digital video artists. "I do think that people who were raised with the digital aesthetic of video games and home video recording will have a better sense of it than my generation, who were raised with cinematography. When I compose an image, it's really for a film image, and I think my students have a better handle on what a digital image means, so I'm at a certain disadvantage. It's not film, it's something different, and it has to be treated as something different, not just as a cheaper way to do film. Just like people who use film for its peculiar ‘filmic' qualities, I think digital should explore exactly what digital is. It's not painting; it's not theater. And then, what is it?"

Aloud, I note an apocalyptic pall descending on our conversation. With a smile, Solomon concludes the on-record, "Hey, you know, if this is the end of film, it's going out with an aesthetic roar, and a celebration of just what film is."