A journal of TMI

My own worst critic: Reflections on Solar Mannequin

Okay so I’ve turned in the Solaris project, now known as Solar Mannequin, and the desk is a little clearer. By ‘turned in’ I mean that I posted it on Youtube and on this blog, and I probably won’t be doing any major edits to it, if any more edits at all. Now it’s finished and free to stand on its own, albeit also with some commentary I am now providing.

Before I say anything else about it I want to make clear that I really like the film, and I’m really proud of it. I want to thank my collaborators who gave their all and also mention that it took a great deal of work to see the project through to the final state that it’s in.

The truth of the matter is, however, that the film failed on a few fronts, and despite its relative charms, it is still in search of an audience. Truthfully no audience was ever really expected, and thus the failure that is in the film is almost pre-designed, and comes out of the context of my whole profile as a film-maker, an amateur that is, an amateur film-maker. Within that personal context the film is a great success, and deserves further consideration, but without that frame, refracting and reflecting the motions on the screen, it’s more of an awkward child, provoking one’s inner bully, or mother to come out and, one way or another, take hold of the situation. I do want the film to be viewed more, I think there are people who will enjoy it, but realistically there’s zero chance of it going viral, becoming a cult classic, inciting a movement, or anything along those lines. I do think some of my present and future friends, at an event like a summer outdoor barbeque screening, might give it a watch, with the outside prospect that a Tarkovsky freak might check it out on YouTube and maybe mention it to a few other such freaks at an annual meeting, or in a newsletter, thereby pumping up the views from the pathetic 54 that they now hover at, to eventually somewhere above, say, 75.

So, what’s wrong with it? This film was my first attempt at narrative, and the goal I stated and my collaborators agreed upon was that we wanted the audience to understand what was supposed to be happening. No one yet has claimed that they have, so I have to face that squarely. There were other goals attached to the film of course, but this one is of particular note, with its complementary corollary, that I wanted to move beyond abstract music video form, which is what I usually have produced- another obvious failure as a goal, considering the two long sequences cut to music, maybe half or more of the film.

The whole decision to re-make this ponderous classic was a bad art-joke from the get-go. I’ll admit, it still makes me chuckle, but that’s probably some character flaw of mine. To take a treasured but obscure foreign film, and translate it into an absurd comedy that isn’t really a comedy, was a small feat, and I guess when I look at it that way, maybe I’ve actually succeeded, but… – is it really worth all that work, the resulting chuckle being very dry indeed? We thought it’d take a night or two of acting, with another week of editing, and out would pop the joke, of 8 to 10 minutes. This actually did happen this way (the tan-suit interrogation), but for various reasons I decided to amp up the whole production, including deciding to get a green screen…In the end I nearly died from exhaustion (and pneumonia) and commandeered night after night of my cast’s time.

I got the green screen to combat a basic flaw of the amateur home-movie auteur, what I call “parents’ house syndrome”. This occurs when you’ve rounded up your volunteers who bravely attempt to dramatize the chosen story-line, in front of-what… whatever situation you happen to be living in, that they so strongly have turned in their minds into the landscapes of the story-line, and yet the camera is not getting these mental projections… For example, there is a vast legacy of such films of some brave thespian in a robe emoting in front of a suburban staircase or bathroom mirror. Who cares, you’re having fun, right? In our first attempt for Solar Mannequin we got something like this- what I believe was an outstanding performance, on a shag carpet in front of a plaster wall etc. a stage set to be ignored. No, it wasn’t our parents’ house, but the intentionality of the setting was insufficient to the cause, in other words, in a quite accidental landscape for our Sci-Fi outing. Adding the green-screen allowed me to include a diverse host of backdrops, from the World Expo in Shanghai, China, to the basement of the seat of the South Vietnamese Republic, to the theaters of the Chemical Heritage Foundation and the Moore College of Art and Design, in Philadelphia, as well as just textured space-junk, such as a vintage tube amplifier, from our personal basement collections. Heck, the green-screen allowed an actor to mount a cat-dragon, and fly above a cityscape, exacting his revenge on the inhabitants. The absurdity of such juxtapositions was of course intentional, and this successfully captured a theme of the film, the absurdity and narcissism of everyday life, which also can be a little spooky at times.

Another intentional aspect of the film, and perhaps something that ends up subverting the main goal of the film was that at a certain point I began to see the film as an opportunity to house collections. I knew I was leaving home soon, for an extended time, and I guess in a way I was thinking “I can bring this world with me after all, or at least show this world to… the Asians, the Solarians, or anybody who just would not otherwise see it”. The film became a place to just put a bunch of stuff, almost as a time capsule, hopefully thematically consistent with the film. For example, we drove through some pretty bad neighborhoods, like Point Breeze in South Philly, and near the waterfront in Camden, New Jersey as a way of showing the degradation that Dr.Spacebo is concerned about, and why he would risk everything to explore a new world, as a way of renewing the current situation on Earth. Collecting such landscapes also makes it almost like a documentary. I also added the Chinatown New Year’s festivities as a way of suggesting a different, possibly strange, possibly invigorating world. The collection of junk and other locales pushes the science fiction aspirations of the film (junk and landscapes of junk = technology affecting the social realm- the sine qua non of sci-fi). This is all good, in my opinion, and independent and possibly all good film should have something of a personal edge. The problem is that it can become the opposite of the “parents’ house syndrome” where instead of just glossing over the familiar, which is carelessly included in what you are presenting, one can intentionally collect everything that is familiar, and present it, and its just this personal collection, you know, for a target audience, ‘come up and see my etchings’, rather than a story that people are following. But what can you really do as a storyteller; you have to stick with stuff that interests you.

I think the real answer to that is just a process answer- because making film is such a time and resource intensive endeavor, and it’s collective, as well, we’re not just talking about wasting your own time or throwing away your own money, one really has to be prepared and organized, which in my case means writing the damn thing first.

We basically were a bunch of friends hanging out, working together, looking after kids, making dinner and so forth, and just rapping a lot. I’m always conspiring to make a film, so when Rob (Dr. Spacebo) began regularly joshing about the things going on around him as if it were an action film (starring himself as some sort of fictional twin brother of actor Stephan Seagal) just as part of a verbal routine to entertain his two daughters, I smelled an opportunity to recruit a new team of film volunteers. Caleb (Pilot Rochester, and his twin, Dr. Holbrooke) was also game, so we started casting about for a plot. We had some ideas about dramatizing various events going on around us, and we were watching a lot of films in the evenings.  I think I latched on to the idea because the 70’s was an era of Sci-Fi that, post Star-Wars, has largely been forgotten. WestWorld, Logan’s Run, Silent Running…. These kinds of films are largely slow-paced and mood-driven, and absorb their contemporary fashions in a way targeted and encompassing enough to present a world seemingly alien in its everydayness, because, of course in the future men will have side-burns… After I came up with the fateful plan to do a 10-minute fast-paced remake while watching the Soviet classic we had a few more conversations and then assembled what gear we had to shoot our first takes.

That brings up another fact about this production- it was a no-budget enterprise, I even pirated the software if you want to get down to it. Sure, I had a computer (bought a year before, not because of the film), and an HD camera, but we’re talking the mac-mini, a powerful little bugger, but the bottom of the line, and an HD flip, and then after that broke, another handheld consumer gadget camera, less powerful than an iPhone. It seems that even a no-budget film shot on digital starts to eat cash immediately however; there were other expenditures as well.

As far as the theory behind the writing of the film, I felt buttressed by two main pillars- firstly, that the film had already been written, and secondly, that digital filmmaking allows for improvisational scene creation without any cost-impact. This allows for a new type of acting/ writing process that I adapted in part from Larry David’s show, Curb your Enthusiasm. The show famously uses a bullet-point skeleton script of basic scenarios. The actors themselves are steeped in the sensibilities of the characters they are portraying, which are likely typecast alter egos, intimate and yet almost independent in their power to create themselves The characters generate the script by interacting; only the set-up is pre-determined, with a general sense of the outcome allowing the next set-up to be plotted. An enormous amount of material must then be edited, which is much easier when you have a team of professional editors waiting. Another filmmaker, Mike Leigh, has a similar method, with a crucial difference. He allows his script to be generated by his actors during rehearsals, later to be solidified after many practices into an ironclad shooting script, a necessity due to his use of film stock during his career beginning in the 70’s.

I think we created some great performances, such as the haunted and defiantly bitter Pilot Rochester, the grand outsider statesman Professor Spacebo, and the worn-out but incisive bureaucrat Professor Enzyme. The scenarios needed to be introduced more carefully to the audience, especially an audience who had never seen the Soviet film, and our conversation about the film really started to get ahead of our ability to capture it adequately during the final days…which is reflected in the post-credits shots, surely incomprehensible to one and all as to how they could fit into any narrative. My fallback explanation here is two-fold, the precedents set by acknowledged classics: 2001, A Space Odyssey, where the resolution implies infinity, death, the possible fate of Spacebo after traveling through a worm-hole to Solaris, and mapped as well in the original movie, when Kelvin encounters his father in a house that is raining on the inside, an imperfect re-generation of his previous life, signifying the finality of those possibilities. Also, I came up with the idea to present my film using inter-titles as episodic chapters, along the lines of the Flash Gordon serials, hoping the audience would allow crazy incomprehensible scenes as a natural enticement to watch the ‘next episode’, which will never come of course. To be honest, many times I considered giving up on the effort to tie the film together. It had become impossible to shoot any more expository or linking shots, which went against our methods anyway, so in the end I faced the choice of only presenting successful scenes as they were, as fragments, or pulling the project together as best I could. Many friends have noted that I have succumbed to one of the fates a filmmaker should avoid, of falling in love with footage. It’s true, and a tighter film would be a better film, but in this case, I will allow myself the indulgence because without the cues a master-hack would have provided, I think it’s better to just wade through the plodding drama, than cut quickly to a plot that’s barely there.

In the end I was able to tie together some loose ends, bejewel it with a few songs that otherwise might have been lost, and like any great project, hint at a psychodrama that was unfolding beneath and is mirrored in the final product. Not a bad job, and yet…

Final thoughts:

The plot, for what it’s worth is as follows:

Professor Spacebo retreats to the holy temple of nature to reflect on his relationship to the Earth, a sacred bond unquestioned until now. He asks himself, “Earth, my home, what will it look like at the end of a telescope?”

Meanwhile, a formal panel has been assembled to examine the testimony of troubled space-pilot Rochester. Rather than being a routine debriefing, the proceedings feel like more of an interrogation to the rattled pilot. His colleagues attempt to calm him, but it is clear they are reluctant to take his statements at face value. In fact he reports nearly unbelievable and almost certainly hallucinatory phenomena, such as a giant baby frolicking in a distant planet’s sentient ocean. A planet where Earth scientists devoted to pure research, and the professionals and politicians devoted to the mineral extraction industry are battling for control. Rochester’s revelations, as they stand, not only ‘lose the battle’ for the scientists posturing for their cause, they also threaten to wipe the slate clean, making the planet irrelevant for all human interests, thus provoking the plant’s abandonment.

Professor Spacebo realizes that he must investigate in person. Overcome with intense feelings for his remaining links, such as his father and friends, he chants out his feelings, freely adapting segments of Walt Whitman’s Blades of Grass in the process. A friend reveals that Spacebo once before had attempted space travel with his own questionable technology, and caused a major disaster in the process. Spacebo blandly manufactures confidence that his adaptations will succeed this second time.

Spacebo’s ‘space-jump’ technology seems to involve capturing travel impetus from trains. On his previous try, it is said that he blew up the underground. This time he’s riding the elevated train, but seemingly with no improvement in outcome- he travels through space, but does he survive?

He arrives somewhere, and meets new and old companions. Perhaps these individuals, like himself, have retreated into their own ruminations, and become phantom wards of a planet with its own intelligence, and agenda. The implication of course, like all good science fiction, is that this is the state of things for us now. We have abandoned active life and exploration in order to play out our mental urges. Some strange planet has diverted us from our purpose of travel by giving us our thoughts, and our wishes.

Or maybe…Spacebo has succeeded in reaching a new world, depicted as a rock party in outer space. Fine conversation, companionship, youth and age aligned, what’s wrong with that? Mere problems can be annihilated from astride a cat dragon in this world of freedom. Let’s go!

What- you didn’t get that? Watch it again!

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