Piecing it together: films by Solange and Garrett Bradley

By Shotgun CinemaPublished on 08/07/2019

There isn’t much information out about Solange’s film When I Get Home, which has showtimes at the Broad Theater through Thursday. Most Internet searches are focused on the album of the same name, and music reviewers tend to describe the film using politely distanced terms like “challenging” and noting that while some things work great, others don’t. The film hasn’t gotten a wide release and seems not to be intended for one.

But whatever its plan is, the film is mesmerizing, accompanying and smoothing out a 33-minute album that’s also very good, but far more jagged-edged. Shot mostly on analog film, When I Get Home creates from its very first shot a dreamy mindscape that integrates music video tropes, modern dance, the performance of fashion, historical documentary, Internet culture, and even Second Life-style animation. Moving through fragmentary vignettes that accompany each song, the film is often extremely beautiful, showing a deep commitment to the beauty possible in each frame. It comments on questions of selfhood, family, and community that Solange has discussed in recent interviews.

In the past few years, Solange has pursued many directions at once, including music, film, dance, site-specific performance, and fashion. In the film of When I Get Home, it feels like all these interests coalesce while moving toward the same point. Coupled with its nontraditional sense of narrative and character, it feels very much like an artist film, with Solange conveying a deeply personal vision – regardless of the presumably significant budget, bevy of locations, and eminent filmmaking talents like Terence Nance lending a hand.

I tend to bundle the terms “experimental film” and “artist film,” and if Solange has made an experimental film, it’s yet another way in which she’s emerged as a significant modern auteur, synergizing many creative forms into a whole vision. If she’s brought an experimental film into the cinema for an actual theatrical release, it’s also a potent symbol of the importance of the cinema in the digital age. Seeing the film late in its run at the Broad, I noted several groups of people passionately unpacking it afterward.

Unlike a piece like Beyoncé’s Lemonade, which made strong use of imagery in opposition, Solange’s film doesn’t have antagonists and only obliquely struggles against. There’s a charge in the symbolism of some sequences and in Solange’s composed, deeply focused gaze. But it’s taken as a given that everyone onscreen is a positive force, which sets When I Get Home apart from more narrative-driven films and makes the viewer’s experience far more personal.

In this sense, When I Get Home reminded me strongly of Garrett Bradley’s America, which screens in an installation at the New Orleans Museum of Art as part of the stellar Bodies of Knowledge exhibition. America is inspired by the scantly documented history of black film in the silent era up to the late 1920s, most of which has been lost. The film proposes an alternate history of black cinema that sees black achievement as a continuous occurrence, instead of a series of milestones. Made up of short vignettes shot on black-and-white 35mm film with a soundtrack of shifting drones, America breathtakingly illustrates realities that, while documented, aren’t often truly seen. Bradley’s film premiered in the cinema at Sundance, and its success as a gallery installation is the inverse of Solange’s interest in bridging the gallery with less rarified settings. Both use the cinema – filmmaking style and the actual room itself – as a fulcrum around which to orbit.

Another term sometimes included with artist and experimental film is personal film, and that’s more where these fit to me. Artist Donald Judd wrote that the role of the artist is to ask questions, not provide answers. By balancing on the knife-edges of style, these two projects deliver multitudes of questions asked in fresh ways. It’s a rare treat for New Orleans to have not one but two exclusive film events in town of this quality.

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