Reflections on the Avant-garde Experience:

A Meditation on Phil Solomon's Secret Garden

Dana Anderson

Printed in MFJ No. 39/40 (Winter 2003) Hidden Currents


"Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism: they always result in more or less fortunate misunderstandings. Things aren't all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life."

--Rilke, Letter to a Young Poet (translated by Stephen Mitchell)


The Secret Garden has long been one of my favorite films; complex and generative, it casts it seeds into the minds of its viewers, where they freely grow into flowers and trees subtly changed by their new environment. But writing about it risks violating Rilke's truth: I don't want to tame the garden or fix it in place. Let us, instead, think more openly about resonance, playing with the tracers left dancing in the mind when the film ends--a gift of return, a happy acknowledgement of joy.


In renaissance fashion, gardens perfect the world. Behind the safety of their walls, they nourish and open the soul to a communion with nature that becomes communion with art. Solomon’s film creates this generative environment, images of trees ablaze with perilous light, so flooded with creative power that it becomes a challenge: see with me or lose yourself in the realm of the mundane. The Secret Garden demands that kind of truth, that trust in the quality of one’s own artist’s eye. It never compromises. We never enter Solomon's garden completely, and in this way it remains always secret, never ours to own. Instead we see mere glimpses, and we're left always wondering and grasping for meaning. We can see through the gateway into the garden, but are gently bidden not to fully enter.

What a wonderful metaphor for the art-making process! Bidden to look but not to -own, to see and enjoy but not to fully understand. It denies even the semblance of comprehension. And in this way the avant-garde speaks honestly about the tenuous possibility of understanding, asking us instead to plant parallel gardens, which is what this essay is meant to be, a parallel set of ideas in a different medium, words in a chance encounter and a transformative tarrying. Each viewing of a film like The Secret Garden asks for this kind of very powerful, creative act of sharing. Though one can, of course, simply look at the film and allow it to penetrate the mind, one can’t really walk in a garden in passivity and hope to find rest. Gardens are driven by life and death forces that belie their quietude and stillness, so that while they seem to imply the peace of a perfect balance between motion and stillness, life in death, the essence of film. I never stop wondering at the little miracle of cinematic motion that springs into being in the mind in a room essentially filled with darkness. Film is a metaphor for life itself, a fragile grasping for meaning before the flickering ends.

The world runs in time, flashes always into the future so fast that we have to race to keep up, so our perceptions fail. They operate slightly in the past, so that what we see is always older than what is. Photography attempts to deny this whirlwind, to capture moments of light and shadow, moments of fleeting pastness now still in the general outward motion of time. It has the fragility of the always passing, a constant sense of the retrospective that invades the whole process of the making of photographic and also cinematic art. In the art of looking we seek to preserve, we separate ourselves from the moment of being, and so become, automatically, those who seek a false stillness in the motion of life through our art. This imparts an intensity to the gaze that desperately reduces the motion of the world, holding certain things while forced to let others drift away into oblivion, creating a slice of reality, and a fragile sense of wholeness as well, much like the renaissance garden that seeks to encapsulate and refine the world.

And yet The Secret Garden begins not with the garden itself, but as if reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz, or, for me, those last minutes of the Grimm's fairy tale where the woman dances in fiery red shoes until she dies. When one thinks of the desperation of the body trapped in those dancing shoes, longing to go home again, but so changed that home can only ever be a false garden, barren soil, isn't one also thinking about the whole artistic impulse? The film doesn't give us any answers, and best then to let the mind simple allude rather than always attempting to determine what's going on. Maybe the shoes are also a memento mori, and the nature of art is to dance unto death in the search for home.


Our secrets are keys, each one opens a slightly different door to our souls, the gardens where we truly live. We give these keys perhaps too readily; for artists, each work is a revelation. These are dangerous gifts, but, in the giving we perhaps even create community, the avant-garde world a shared secret garden constructed in many ways---some we love, some we may regret---to shield us from the world at large. And, of course, we sometimes wish the secret weren’t so beautifully kept!

They tell us "Secrets are bad!" and "Beware the Secretive!" as though the natural impulse should always be to reveal rather than to keep private. But for the artist the private is as vital as the consuming public, and art reveals the deepest truths of life while at the same time keeping the secret heart safe. I’ve seen this twofold desire many times, an almost desperate longing to be understood, but to be understood always only partially, so that the revelation can be kept, as much as possible, under one’s own control. Scared but lonely, we bring out truth and mystification. And that is why The Secret Garden helps me to come to grips with my desire to share and hold back, to live in a private place, where one can plant the flowers of art in safety and watch them bloom. Every so often, we bring one or two forth into the world for a viewing, as any artist would, and pray the viewing will be gracious. But are such things possible? Sometimes I even think that the creation can never really lead to understanding as one could wish it to be, in other words total, complete, a kind of rest from the need to communicate, which is always disappointed. One finally learns to say "thank you" for the act of viewing itself, and for the smiles or tears, gasps or shouts of recognition…maybe even for the stony silence of complete bewilderment that the work can also inspire. Even these stony silences imply communication, and at least a small revelation. Boredom, too, can be beautiful.
The Secret Garden says, "it doesn't matter what they say. Be careful, but share the beauty in your heart."


"Mary, I’m so tired…tell me a story…once upon a time…"

The film offers this friendly invitation to narrative and community, one the avant-garde so often ignores, early on and very clearly: then the garden emerges, the light spins through the trees, scintillating, overwhelming, and the narrative arch gets immediately left behind.
One of the wonderful things about being human is our need to tell and receive stories…"Mary tell me a story" a kind of longing for company, and dreaming of being entertained, and "Once upon a time" the perfect door to story. So what does it mean to move from there onto scintillation? That's one of the big questions of the film for me, and of art and of life, that we begin with this promise of community, so sweet, the girl herself a sweet, lonely little thing, then get swept away into another territory altogether. People emerge, but when we see them it's as though we also see birds, with their wings worn away by the light.

For me the scintillations are The Secret Garden's story, a movement into vision, direct and unmitigated by a narrative voice, as though we could open our minds in all their secret splendor, and the story could emerge as a series of profound moments of light. Sight sees something much more interesting than simple reality in this film, the simple reality shrouded over or lit over by an extra sense of the real. Extra real, at the heart of things rather than resting on the surface, on the human subject. Thus the question becomes one of seeing…how do we see, and what does the act of seeing really mean? Maybe we should question the power of the eye to see reality at all. And if that is so, where does the idea of story or narrative, which always interprets vision and grants community, go?

When the light shines through the trees, I want to cry.


"Pitied to see every mirror…"
"I’d die… I’d die…"

"Pitied to see your curse in every mirror…"
What did you lose?
The portrait on the wall, a mother…
A lost mother.

"You've shared my curse…"
Why should I keep it?

"We have dreamed we have found you…"

"Pitied to see your curse in every mirror"
…prying eyes…
Are these our eyes as we gaze?

But then we also have the eyes that can share and understand. That is the blessing and the curse, isn't it?, that it forces one to wish to be understood, to be seen.