*** (A must-see)

Early in Phil Solomon’s The Secret Garden there’s an image of a large tree. The viewer, looking up toward its branches, notices that the tree is not in sharp focus, and that its leaves appear not green but as multiple vibrating droplets of reddish white flame; the tree is alive, luminescent, ever changing. The same thing might be said of the film itself, and indeed of each of the four Solomon films showing Saturday at Chicago Filmmakers.

These are works that demand a lot of the viewer. Though recent–all were completed in 1988 or 1989–they contain no current references. Two of the four films are silent, a silence that asks the viewer to attend fully to imagery and rhythm. They have no real stories, and much of the imagery is abstract; but a smattering of carefully chosen representational images suggest powerful, possibly traumatic private narratives. Though the film surfaces often look as if they were decaying, breaking up into grain, and though the films’ rhythms, often produced by rapidly shifting abstract shapes, can be jarring, several of these works prove emotionally powerful meditations on imagination and loss.

At a number of points in The Secret Garden we see an image of a small boy, usually in profile, possibly lying propped up in bed; one infers he is ill. An adult speaks to him; a subtitle reads “Once upon a time.” Intercut with these shots are images from several commercial films–The Wizard of Oz is recognizable–and a variety of other material. Through chemical modification of the emulsion and optical printing (the same frame-by-frame rephotography used in creating special effects), Solomon turns this imagery into variegated, unstable, shifting patterns of color and light. Whatever identifiable images appear are often on the point of breaking up, and in any case all the imagery ultimately becomes part of the film’s flickering, pulsating flow.

The images of the boy strongly suggest that the film’s “garden” is the garden of childhood story telling, imagination, dreams, even feverish visions, as if the film were being seen through the boy’s mind’s eye. But the film’s first image is not of the boy–it appears to be from The Wizard of Oz. And the film’s other material takes on a life of its own. Near the end there’s a particularly stunning pattern of black-and-white abstract shapes and lines that rapidly shift and change, so that an area of the screen that had been black suddenly becomes white: the effect is of a great many tiny explosions of light. One possible interpretation of the imagery is that it represents the boy’s vision, but this is not a controlling interpretation. One might also–and only a bit fancifully–read the film as an essay on the decay of celluloid: old films seem to break up on-screen in a manner not unlike the way film decays.

It’s characteristic of Solomon’s work to provide several possible interpretations, none of which is correct alone. This multiplicity goes far beyond traditional literary ambiguity–and indeed, beyond the work of an earlier generation of independent filmmakers. The Secret Garden does not encourage us to ask “Is this a sick child, or is it the filmmaker imagining himself a boy again?” but rather “Should I think about the boy this is an image of, or should I consider only the image itself, merely as new patterns of color and grain?” For the crisis in Solomon’s work is not so much a matter of characters and stories as it is of whether it’s ever possible for anyone, including the filmmaker, to touch, to feel, to know the world we infer exists beyond the film’s surface. The busyness of that surface and the ways in which its patterns seem to refer to celluloid suggest a profound awareness of the limits of imagery.

Among the earlier generation of filmmakers who also worked with film surface the best known and most accomplished is the still-working Stan Brakhage. He has made films as densely abstract as Solomon’s, but in his work and the work of others one always has the sense that the filmmaker is using the film as a kind of window, a passageway to some inner, deeper consciousness. The more deeply one looks, the more one feels oneself traveling inward. Solomon, by contrast, presents us with a surface so dense and alive and unpredictable in the ways it changes that the viewer has no sense of wanting to journey inward, into the image; the physical facts of the imagery itself are what command attention. Solomon appears to have rejected, at least for himself, the earlier notion that a film can tell us something about what it depicts.

In this way The Secret Garden can be seen as a kind of avant-gardist’s answer to The Wizard of Oz. That film appealed to children’s imaginations by depicting a journey to an imaginary land, across space, and from black and white to color–a simple transformation effected through a change in film stocks. Solomon rejects not only the land of Oz but the whole idea of film creating make-believe worlds through illusionistic depictions; he would create his own fevered poetry through direct references to celluloid’s surface, using fundamentally cinematic resources–light, color, shape, rhythm.

But though Solomon seems to assert that his films fundamentally consist of the physical images themselves, and not what those images might represent, he doesn’t abandon representational imagery completely. Indeed, the imagery he chooses is often highly charged, referring to war, sickness, and death. This gives his films a powerfully divided nature, almost as if they were records of a kind of failure, of the filmmaker struggling to express feelings about the world all the while he believes that cinema’s ability to represent such feelings is highly limited at best. Occasionally this ambiguity, which must be precisely balanced in order to succeed, seems to break down. This is the case with the least successful film on this program, Nocturne.

Like the other three films, Nocturne is spectacular to look at, a film poem. It is composed largely of images taken at night, with long exposure times for each frame that render visible things that couldn’t otherwise be photographed. We see a suburban neighborhood, houses, a figure in a lit window, tree branches bleached white by street lights. Time-lapse images show stars moving across the night sky. The imagery has an otherworldly quality, and a slight air of menace as well.

Solomon intercuts war footage at a number of points in Nocturne–and so seamlessly that the lights of the explosions seem to grow directly out of his more “mundane” images. At one point he cuts from a shadowy figure apparently throwing stones into water to the white dots of artillery tracers receding into the depths of the night sky; the movements are matched, as if one leads to the other.

This war imagery is startling and powerful, but on closer examination I found it troubling. The night imagery has a certain objectivity because of the way it’s been filmed–it seems as much a record of the result of time exposures of night scenes on film stock as of the filmmaker’s inner experience. And the war footage, which is even clearer and harder-edged than the scenes Solomon filmed himself, has an even greater impersonality. But if we’re not to understand the war imagery as merely a product of the filmmaker’s imagination, is Solomon then saying that our ordinary suburban lives lead to war? Such a point would be uncharacteristically blunt, and Nocturne does not contain, in either style or content, nearly enough menace to support such a view. The film lacks a precisely balanced ambiguity–in fact it’s in danger of collapsing into simplicity.

What this difficulty in Nocturne underlines is how daring, and risky, Solomon’s overall project is. He wishes to deny that film can provide a visionary passage into a mysterious interior world, whether of a Hollywood or abstract kind, and to assert that what life and meaning a film can have are to be found in its own materials. Yet he doesn’t want to surrender the possibility of film offering a commentary on life; hence at least some of his images are loaded with possible meaning. For his films to succeed, those meanings must be carefully balanced with the ever-vibrating, almost noiselike quality of his broken-up pictures, the meanings rendered always contingent, qualified by the impenetrability of the frames.

All of this and more happens in The Exquisite Hour and Remains to Be Seen. Both films contain images that evoke sickness and dying; both are powerful meditations on loss (Solomon dedicated Remains to Be Seen to the memory of his mother).

The Exquisite Hour pivots around footage of an old woman in a hospital bed, apparently seen through a window. Her almost immobile face looks pained; perhaps she is dying. Intercut with this figure are breathtakingly lush images of the physical world–birds, water, mountains, a leaping animal attacking another. As in The Secret Garden, one is tempted to see these images as contained in the imagination of the central figure–memories of a world no longer accessible, or feverish visions at the moment of death. Yet, as in The Secret Garden, these images have a presence, an autonomy, that makes it impossible to see them as entirely contained in another’s subjectivity.

But in The Exquisite Hour the separation the viewer feels between the images of the sick woman and the spectacular nature shots deepens the film’s emotional impact, for Solomon seems to be acknowledging his own inability to enter into the world of the sick and dying. He can surround the woman with images, but he can never enter into her world and mind. The juxtaposed images may seem to comment on one another, but the comments never have the force of metaphor. The images never seem to fuse, as they would if Solomon had declared–as I believe he mistakenly did in Nocturne–that he understands one image well enough to use another to interpret it.

Later in The Exquisite Hour we see home-movie footage, perhaps of a newlywed couple. The man and woman cavort; the contrast with the old woman is obvious; no further connection needs to be made. It does not matter whether the home movies show the actual bedridden woman when younger; the point is that images of youth affect the way we view old age. Throughout the film, the juxtaposition of different kinds of footage emphasizes difference rather than connection.

In Remains to Be Seen the pivotal image, presumably taken from a medical film, is of an operation. The camera tracks smoothly around a team of doctors and nurses, and Solomon intercuts imagery of travel: a highway seen through a car windshield; views from a moving train; a boat in water; a bicyclist. Travel, like an operation, effects a kind of transformation, but this connection, because of Solomon’s disjunctive editing, is only tenuous. There are also home movies of young, happy faces. Most of the images are seen through a surface that appears to be breaking them apart: the pictures are not only extremely grainy but highly mottled. Each area of color appears to be broken into, or overlaid by, a thickly textured pattern of dark splotches.

Both Remains to Be Seen and The Exquisite Hour have sound tracks that, like the films’ images, are dense collages of recognizable and abstract elements. At times the sound seems to add depth and ambience to the image: shuffling accompanies a landscape, as if feet were treading over it; water sounds follow when the imagery shifts to water. But because this imagery constantly reminds us of its own filmic nature, it can never have the effect of transporting us to the places depicted–there can be no entry, and the ambient sounds simply heighten that impossibility.

At the end of Remains to Be Seen two dark figures stand silhouetted against a deep blue background that suggests the dawn or twilight sky. They stand together, then one slowly walks away from the other, toward the edge of the frame. At this moment the film’s various levels of meaning intersect, as all levels of our experience of it seem to be of disconnection and separation. A dying patient leaves the world; Solomon’s mother leaves him; and we realize that there can be no fusion between the different images of each film, nor of the viewer with the film image. Death, the ultimate extension of illness, is for Solomon the perfect metaphor for that removal of each of us from the others, and of the viewer from the visible world, that his cinema so movingly depicts. For Solomon, being true to the nature of cinema means denying its function as a window; but by making the stuff of his images rather than the illusions they create the raw material of his poetry, he also establishes an emotional vision of life as a series of impossibilities. None of us can ever fully know one another, or the world, or even ourselves: death is the ultimate articulation of that distance. This underlying theme makes Solomon’s visual dances–which one might identify with the sensory experiences and thoughts that give meaning to our lives–seem fragile, illusory, impermanent webs spun over an underlying void. There is, in a way, a kind of modesty in Solomon’s vision. While cinema can refer to the phenomenal world, it can never present it; reality, or a single human life, is always something that “remains to be seen.”