Twilight Psalm II: Walking Distance

From: "Philip S. Solomon"
Organization: University of Colorado at Boulder
Date: Sun, Mar 26, 2000, 1:57 AM
Subject: Re: Phil Solomon's

Thanks to Kenny, Sam, Konrad, and Brian for a very interesting discussion in and around my film last week. I really feel that I need some time to reply properly, because the discussion brings up a lot of issues that are obviously important to me. I would like to try to address some specific issues, so forgive my reprinting of the posts.

Kenneth Eisenstein wrote:

         As I have seen many Phil Solomon posts on this list, and since this
 film is in Black Maria and was at the NYFF, I thought it would be a good
 place to start.  It is also a tough place start because this film can be,
 and probably is, read in so many different ways.  In this post, I want to
 raise some questions about how to watch the film, but also to try to pin
 down some "facts" about it.  This term "facts" is somewhat arbitrary and
 problematic (someone please offer another term, or if I think of one as I
 write I will write it), however I want to use it to apply to things like:
  what are the photographic images that are buried under the skin
  what are the sound and image sources etc.
 Here we come to our first question: how important are these "facts." Does
 one imagine the imagery of this film as being made up of emulsion surface,
 or as things depicted photographically in the emulsion surface.  Of course
 it's both.

Of course. I am trying, particularly in this film, to create an organic relationship between the 'photographed image' (and because its optically printed, all of it is really photo-graphed) and the film emulsion. In other words, the real film doesn't exist separately (if I am successful) as a thing underneath something else. I was imagining the Ocean in Solaris, that the film's ocean of emulsion would swirl around the screen and occasionally yield up 'recognizable' shapes, as if the emulsion had a living consciousness that was creating the film in real time, right before your eyes. I don't want to play hide and seek, but I want a living ambiguity that will arrive differently in multiple screenings - Kenny said he has seen it three times and is still interested...this is what I am after, in a sense. Most movies to me are just 'the facts', and I am pretty much done with them after one viewing - they are designed and test marketed to be 'gotten' in one hit and then discarded (unless, perhaps, you want to 'go there' again, revisit that place). I worked as a movie projectionist for almost a decade in a multiplex (11) and saw almost every movie of the 80's on the job - but as I passed by the booth windows during the day, I had absolutely no interest in looking out (except for the weird sensation of existential recurrence) once the narrative (facts) were absorbed...with some great exceptions, like GoodFellas, which always riveted my attention each time I glanced out the port.

In trying to come to terms with an audio/visual mimesis of memory, consciousness, 'yearning for contact' (as Konrad puts it), I am working like an archeologist in reverse - throwing the dirt back on the relic, burying the art-ifacts in order to yield the deeper meanings, the hidden secrets behind the ostensible 'facts' of an image. Kodak and the lens manufacturers are determined to help us with depiction and the denotative image with an emphasis on 'sharpness' and a reduction in grain (in other words, window cleaning...). I am interested in connotation, in meaningful ambiguity, in mystery and the unknowable. I would hope that the meaning of the film has several layers, and is not solely dependent on 'decoding' the image...its a hard habit to fight, and in my work, a delicate balancing act.

Mark McElhatten on the quality of the image in Walking Distance:

"...the molten character or what Brian Fyre referred to as liquid thought I see it as both liquid fire and decoagulated solidity in Walking Distance. The idea of painting a thing from the body and the substance OF the thing rather than a pigment that imitates and represents. Painting with the film's emulsion."

In some parts, this is quite literally true.

Mark calls the type of viewing that the film calls for to be 'alert osmosis'.

Konrad states:

"The most powerful moments, for me, are brought about when the visual intensity of the experience (the flicker, the swirling patterns, the struggle to see) in the present, the 'now' of the screening, invokes the 'now' of memory, rather than the 'past' aspect."

This is where the artistic tension of cinema lies for me. It is, by definition, photographically past, but it seems SO PRESENT when the light hit the screen.

Kenny continues:

 But what I'm trying to get at is, how hard should we try to see
 the photographic /profilmic image.  My approach to the film so far (I have
 seen it 3 times now, twice at Ann Arbor as it was rescreened during a
 morning session run by David Gatten, and once when Black Maria was at the
 School of the Art Institute) has been to dig up and out, the photographic
 imagery the best that I could, thinking of the surface action as acting to
 metaphorize what happens in the photographic/profilmic imagery.  One quick
 and simplified example:  In the last moments of the film when we see the
 tight rope walker most clearly, the emulsion swirls around him like flames
 (a sound like fire at this moment helps this reading).  In this case the
 "fact" is a man on a tightrope, but the whole image we see is man walking
 on tight rope through flames.

yes, exactly, though, as you say, the ring of fire is only suggested by the soundtrack and the way the emulsion moved on that particular day. Experimentation came first, metaphor followed.

 (I am going to try to sketch the film out, but 3 viewings are not enough. I
 am working from notes I took during the screening which sometimes make
 sense and sometimes don't.  All of this to say that there will be things
 that I write that are "wrong," and places where I can give more detail than
 others.  What follows should not be taken as any kind of finished statement
 about the film but a working through of the film, my labeled parts are
 somewhat arbitrary.)

         The film begins with what I have deemed a prologue.

 A white larval
 pod slowly wiggles on the screen.  This pod may in "fact" be a person
 upside down because at one point I thought i saw human legs.  The pod
 wiggles until it splits in half.

you see, if I told you what (or who) this was, it wouldn't be half as interesting as your imaginative reading...

 This split is dramatized by a sync sound
 cue that could read as a distorted moan.

right again. So I will tell you that the moan is the voice of Charles Ives - though that is virtually impossible to read, it was important to me, and it seemed to work. Ives will be an integral character in The Twilight Psalms.

 There is then a shot of a person
 looking out of a building's window which is then cut to what looks like a
 judge or some other distinguished looking fellow.  These two shots
 implicate the viewers as spectators/ judges/ witnesses to the larval pods
fantastic. I never would have dreamed this interpretation and that is why I love this kind of filmmaking. But you are right, the man in the window is indeed looking at this upside down figure (hanging by a...rope) and the other character is a judge.

 Then there is the introduction of a strange character who appears
 throughout the film.  It looks like either a monkey or skeleton puppet
 dangling and slowly dancing.  It is spooky and I read it as a death dance.

me too. The image here comes to us from Mr. Edison, by way of Kubin.

 This figure returns often and acts as a kind of marker, so in this case it
 may mark the end of the prologue.
         Part I: The idea of witness and spectacle is taken up again with
 footage of a parade.  A bicycle and horse drawn carriage pass and there are
 people marching.  We look on.  Solomon's program notes read "a personal
 history of the 20th century at closing time" and although I am not prepared
 to follow this through the whole film, the horse drawn carriage certainly
 recalls the turn of the century and I see it as the beginning of the film
 body proper.

I need to clarify. Ann Arbor printed that description for Walking Distance, but that is really the brief description of the whole feauture-length series, The Twilight Psalms (about 7 films or so; each film in the series, by the way, is titled after Twilight Zone episodes for specific reasons). Walking Distance is much more autobiographical than the others will be. My films come from the 'anxiety of influence' that I faced when I was confronted with Brakhage's work all those years ago. I wanted to work from an auto-biographical place, but I needed to find surrogates (found footage) to stand in while I hid behind the curtain (the JK printer as Emerald City...). My other sources were falling in love with the movies when I was young and my father's 8mm family films.

 After the parade we see a man slowly squirming (in a motion
 like the larval pod and the monkey puppet) trying to free himself, he is
 tied up in a chair. Cut back to the parade, cut to a tracking shot through
 a graveyard, cut to bubbling water/burning lava, cut to struggling man in
 chair, cut to monkey puppet (sound  like king kong or godzilla footsteps).

Funeral drums, but I'll take King Kong...that moment in the film when Fay Wray is waiting, waiting, the trees separate, and Giant Death approaches...Once again, your reading here is most relevant to me and one I could never have predicted.

         Part II begins with the clearest of any frames we have seen.  Not a
 clear image, but clear emulsion with folds and texture.  This begins an
 underwater section.  There is a creaking sound (maybe a boat rocking) and
 there are shots that look like they are swimming/surveying across an ocean
 bottom. We are under for a while and then tense music begins as we rise
 with bubbles (are the bubbles profilmic? emulsional?
Profilmic. Emotional. Visual evidence of breathing. Autobiographical imperative.

 ) and come out of the
 water with a shot of a child

this is where I come in...First time, I believe, that this happens in any of films except Rocket Boy vs Brakhage, where I have a leading role...Stepped outside the curtain for this one.

 , cut to a close up of a head and shoulders of
 something like the tightrope walking man if he was holding his pole up
 above his head (I wish i could draw it here), to mother with baby in arms,
 to a small group of kids playing, to bubble close ups, to tight rope walker
 close up, to a picnic with boy on mothers lap, the screen fades to black
 for an instant.
         Part III we get the first of some close ups of a face ghostly white
 with dark lips and eyes, tight rope walker close up, person stumbling in
 snow (sound like wind), we see hail or snow storm little things falling,
 then a shot of a gate cut to a shot of a tower, person walking funny as if
 on ice
yes. Ice flows.

 cut to ghostly face close up, to tight rope, to image of hands
 outstretched, to fact against blue field frame left, tracking shot through
 graveyard, to person waving goodbye or shielding themself from impact,
 close up of clasped hands, person laying in bed with hands stretching
 upwards, graveyard, person on bed with hands outstretched, time lapse of
 clouds, monkey puppet, man walks a plank

the tightrope walk begins....

 (or diving board), close up of
 someone in uniform (from the parade?) walks towards the camera, shot of the
 ocean, a man on a balcony begins to leap off is cut to hands outstretched
 (to catch him? grieving his fall?), screen fades to black for an instant.
         Part IV  passing clouds

this, I must tell you, is the ocean too, but upside down, and yes, became clouds for me as well...same material that I gave to Ken Jacobs for Bi-temporal Vision: The Sea - shot at Land's End, SF.

 long shot of tightrope walker through
 flames cut to people on the beach cut to kids on amusement park ride, cut
 back to tightrope walker long shot, cut to shot of the ocean.

         Many shots and sounds have been elided in the above and I have not
 even attempted to render in language the expressive qualities of the
 imagery alone, as well as the imagery with the sound (I don't think there
 is a silent moment in the film), but above are some "facts."


         There is a great conflation of hot lava with the ocean made
 possible through sound, as well as profilmic (shots of the ocean) and
 emulsional effects.

You see, my hope is that they are not effects, but absolutely integral and inseparable from the 'facts'. I have been desperate, in all of my work, to use 'treat-meants' expressively, and not just as a decorative signifier of 'experimental'...the way I see some of the proliferation of hand-processing, etc., being used these days.

         The two shots of sky clouds are such breaths from the swirling
 turmoil of earth ocean/earth lava and crystallize an amazing tension between
 the groundstruck figures (or soon to be groundstruck - the diving board
 balcony man, the person in an above ground window in the beginning of the
 film is off of the earthground but still enclosed), and the solitary tight
 rope walker balancing above.

beautifully put and very much of what I had in mind.

         The rope that ties someone to a chair earlier in the film is
 unraveled and pulled taught as the film unravels and is pulled taught.

and becomes the 'tightrope', yes?

>         There are lost figures (person in snowstorm), struggling figures
 (persons on ice), trapped figures (tied to chair), figures reaching to
 hold, and figures holding (mother with baby).  There is a great sense of
 loss in the film, the larval split in the prologue is Lacanian, but the
 final shot of the sea, the ocean, the giant womb, heals this split.
         The monkey/skeleton puppet dangles death dance differently and as
 contrast to man's careful walk across the rope, through flame.

Kenny Eisenstein
The School of the Art Institute
Kenny, this detailed and thoughtful reading is a very generous act, much appreciated. I hope to follow your example in the future and contribute to a body of written responses about films that move me. I hope others will do so too. In the absence of any meaningful (published) writing on the film so far, this level of detail and real enthusiasm is very gratifying, indeed. Thank you.

Phil Solomon
University of Colorado at Boulder

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