CULTURE

Film Review: A Bosnian War epic emerges from “Underground”

Director Emir Kusturica's 1995 Cannes award-winner resurfaces in a restored edition

One of the most fascinating films of the 1990s returns to the big screen this week in Portland when Cinema 21 hosts a restored version of director Emir Kusturica’s 1995 historical fantasia “Underground.” The movie was a cinematic event when it won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival 23 years ago, and it remains one today, both on its own terms and as a reminder of the conflict that shook the Balkan region during the first half of the decade.

The Bosnian War that raged from 1992 to 1995 claimed somewhere around 100,000 lives and resulted in the displacement of over two million people, and saw genocide practiced in Europe on a scale not seen since World War II. It was precipitated by the breakup of Yugoslavia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the existential re-evaluation of national and ethnic identities it laid bare was one of the most significant immediate consequence of the end of the Cold War.

It’s only natural, then, that more than a few memorable, harrowing films emerged from the region in the years during and following the strife. Bosnian director Danis Tanović’s “No Man’s Land” won the 2001 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, while Serbian filmmaker Srđan Dragojević crafted pitch-black comedy from the horror in 1996’s “Pretty Village, Pretty Flame.” Hollywood’s efforts included Angelina Jolie’s feature directing debut, “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” as well as Michael Winterbottom’s “Welcome to Sarajevo.”

But the most epic, memorable and problematic screen treatment of the dissolution of Yugoslavia was “Underground,” which may have been more appropriately titled in its five-episode television cut, “Once Upon a Time There Was a Country.” The version that won at Cannes and cemented Kusturica’s status as a global auteur is less than three hours, but it’s still a sprawling piece of quasi-nationalist mythmaking that follows the fates of two friends over five decades on a surreal historical roller coaster.

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A visit with: Shalonda Menefee

With her SISTAS network, a Portland artist and entrepreneur crafts a creative world of dolls and design, cloth and community

Shalonda Menefee, creator and talent behind SISTAS Dolled Up, finds herself between events on a recent Saturday afternoon. She’s just come home from hosting a brunch for women in the community and has a couple of weeks (and a whole lot of fabric beckoning to her) before the next extravaganza: a dance, theater, fashion experience and panel discussion on Tuesday, April 10, called “VISIBLY INVISIBLE, Honoring Our Unsung Sheroes.”

Shalonda will produce Tuesday’s event, which aims to explore the complex roles of black women in communities and pay tribute to their journey. “As women of color,” she says, “we carry a lot of weight. We are kind of the backbone of the country and everyone’s kids, but we get the least amount of credit sometimes.” The event, which incorporates many facets of her work and displays her commitment to both art and community, will run 7-9 p.m. at The Old Church Concert Hall downtown. Amid her preparations she has kindly eked out some time to chat with me in her Northeast Portland home while her two tuxedo cats mosey about the house and her teenagers occasionally make an appearance and then disappear again.

Shalonda Menefee, in one of her head wraps: art and community.

A lot of people know Shalonda for her colorful small fabric figures, which she describes as “similar to paper dolls except with cloth and hair,” and which seem comfortably at home with African traditional apparel and the communal tradition of African American quiltmaking. But her interests go far beyond making art for art’s sake. With three bachelor degrees, a certificate in project management, and a host of intense life experiences, she calls herself a “healer in the background,” and she seems to embody the aphorism that a rising tide lifts all boats. She runs creative workshops for women to make their own “healing dolls,” and creates clothing, jewelry, purses, hats, head wraps, and other fashion accessories.

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Aaron Katz on his new thriller “Gemini” and popcorn problematics

Katz's fifth feature stars Lola Kirke and Zoe Kravitz in a Hollywood-set mystery

“Gemini” is a sleek, entertaining new thriller set in the glamorous world of Hollywood and drenched in celebrity culture. It’s also directed by Portland-raised Aaron Katz, and for anyone familiar with Katz’s previous work, that synopsis might come as a shock. “Sleek,” “glamorous,” and “celebrity” are not words one would typically associate with Katz’s films, which include the “mumblecore” (more on that loaded term later) landmarks “Dance Party USA” (2005) and “Quiet City” (2006) and the quirky Iceland-set buddy film “Land Ho” (2014, co-directed with Martha Stephens).

Katz experimented with the thriller form, sort of, in 2010’s “Cold Weather,” a reserved, Sherlock Holmes-inspired mystery that was also the last film Katz shot in Portland. Relocated to Los Angeles, he’s made the city, as so many filmmakers do, a major character in “Gemini.” Without giving too much away, “Gemini” centers on Jill (Lola Kirke), the devoted personal assistant to movie star Heather Anderson (Zoe Kravitz). After Heather backs out of a big role at the last minute, she suddenly has plenty of enemies. It’s Jill, though, who becomes the prime suspect after stumbling upon a violent crime scene at Heather’s mansion. It’s up to the intrepid but somewhat hapless Jill to clear her own name and dodge the suspicions of a detective (John Cho) full of wry insinuation.

Lola Kirke in “Gemini”

I interviewed Katz at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival when “Land Ho” screened there, but I didn’t have to go nearly as far when he returned to his hometown for “Gemini”’s screenings during February’s Portland International Film Festival. We chatted at a Southeast Portland coffee shop about the evolution of his filmmaking, life in L.A., and the evils of movie snacks.

You’ve been in Los Angeles for five years now. Is it mandatory for a director to make an “L.A. movie” and address the city as a subject once they’ve lived there for a certain amount of time?

I felt that way, for sure. I didn’t know what I’d think of the city when I moved there. Once we’d been there for about three years, it began to feel like I was going to write something about Los Angeles.

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Dispatches from the podcast revolution

Audio Drama PDX, Part Two: Loose-knit, raw and independent, a fledgling industry is perched eagerly where radio was in the 1920s

People get into podcasting for some very stupid reasons. On reflection, mine might have been one of the stupidest.

Four years ago I was meeting with my friend Ron, a co-producer on the film BRASS: Lair of the Red Widow that we were hoping to shoot. Developed as a potential TV pitch, it featured a family of Victorian science geniuses involved in a war with a criminal mastermind in an alternative history London.

The problem was, making a film takes a lot of money, even when your proposed film is only fifteen minutes long. (In this case, the eventual budget was about $13,000.) Another problem was the time between writing and final production, as I’d become deeply attached to my clan of 19th century good-doers. Three months in, they’d begun to knock on my mental door at odd times to propose other adventures I should write for them.

“We could always do it as a podcast,” Ron said.

At that time podcasts were still a somewhat exotic-sounding proposition, though Ron’s girlfriend had been running a successful one (about polyamory, if you must know) for some time. She admitted it was a lot of work, but it generated a pleasant little income via downloads and merchandise, so we were inclined to think it could be done—and for a lot less expense and hassle than making a film.

“Much easier!” I agreed. Wrongly, as it turns out. There’s a big difference, expense and production-wise, between your typical podcast and a full-fledged audio drama.

Portland podcast pioneer Eric L. Busby plays on SF themes.

We are in the midst of a full-throated podcast revolution. Twenty-four percent of Americans listen to at least one podcast a month, while 44 percent of the country have at least listened to one, up 4 percent since last year. (That’s 143 million people.) In an age of increasing social fragmentation, podcasts are perfect for commuters with long drives, as well as those in the gig economy who have sporadic downtime. Available whenever and via smart phones wherever, podcasts give us extra content to spackle into lives already plastered by other on-demand media.

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Austin Granger’s commonplace miracles

When things go right, "I have the uncanny sense that the photographs were already there, just waiting for me. They feel predestined."

STORY by ANGELA ALLEN

PHOTOGRAPHS by AUSTIN GRANGER

Portland photographer Austin Granger, who grew up in northern California and studied philosophy at the University of California, Santa Cruz, prefers to load film into his Fuji GF670 or Deardorff 5 by 7 instead of pushing a card into a digital camera. Sticking to the old rituals, he’d also rather shoot in black and white than in color. Sixty of his images are on display through April 10 at LightBox Photographic Gallery in Astoria.

Granger calls photography “at once commonplace and utterly miraculous.” Among his landscape and nature images, the influence of Group f/64 photographers Ansel Adams and Edward Weston is apparent, Granger readily acknowledges. Adams is one of his heroes, and sharp-focused, meticulously framed photos are among his images’ hallmarks, as they are of his mid-century California predecessors.

“Self, Alvord Desert, Oregon,” self-portrait, 2016.

The 76-page catalog for Granger’s LightBox exhibition is titled Correspondence. “When I’m photographing well, I have the most uncanny feeling that the pictures are predestined,” Granger said. “I recognize them. They echo the feelings inside myself. They correspond.”

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Bill Bulick, arts agency architect, has died

Bill Bulick built the Regional Arts & Culture Council into a model arts agency, imitated around the country

Bill Bulick, the architect of the Regional Arts and Culture Council, the primary way government supports the art in the tri-county area, died yesterday in Portland. He had lived with Parkinson’s Disease for many years. He was 65.

When I first met Bulick in the late 1970s, he was affiliated with Artichoke Music, the great folk music center, attempting to get coverage for Artichoke shows. He was so earnest and so affable that his pitches were impossible to resist: He made me feel that I was doing a great service to the culture at large by helping to spread the word, and to this day, I think he was right.

By then, he had attended Reed College, the University of Chicago and Portland State, worked as a studio potter, and spent a couple of years in Ireland studying Celtic music. In 1983 he helped organize Wildgeese, the leading proponent of Celtic music in the Northwest, and he became the first program director at Pioneer Courthouse Square.

Bill Bulick, here making a presentation in Bradenton, Florida, spread the arts plan behind RACC across the country.

The culture at large: Bill switched gears and careers, moving from the folk music niche into arts administration. His sense of fairness, his calm demeanor and his determination were a perfect fit in this role, and he quickly became a crucial figure at the old Metropolitan Arts Commission, Portland’s city arts bureau, which he joined in 1987. By 1989, he had become executive director, succeeding Selina Ottum, who had professionalized the arts commission before moving to the National Endowment for the Arts as Deputy Chair.

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The Oscars are dying: So what?

To remain relevant, the Academy Awards need to re-examine what it is they're celebrating

The Oscars are dying. So what?On March 4, the Motion Picture Association of America held the 90th Academy Awards ceremony. You may not have heard about it, since reportedly nobody really cares about the Oscars anymore. As someone who religiously watches, and even generally enjoys, Tinseltown’s annual festival of self-love, I find myself, perhaps surprisingly, not the least bit perturbed.

This year’s telecast drew record low ratings, down a whopping 20% from last year’s already dismal numbers. Since the Nielsen people began tracking viewership in 1974, this was the first time that fewer than 30 million people tuned in. That’s right, more people saw a naked man streak past host David Niven (and, in an even worse crime, “The Sting” top “The Exorcist” for Best Picture) than saw Frances McDormand’s stirring call for gender equity in Hollywood or Helen Mirren ride a Jet-Ski.

The proffered explanations for this phenomenon are legion. Televised events, from the Super Bowl to the Grammys, don’t capture eyeballs the way they used to. (This may be partially because of the difficulty cord-cutters have in actually watching plain old over-the-air television broadcasts.) The nominated movies these days don’t have the box office appeal of stuff like “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” or “Titanic” (which was the winner at the most-watched Oscar broadcast). Regular folks are turned off by liberal, America-bashing, rape-culture-critiquing, non-cis-white-male movie stars, according to some.

While the executives at ABC and the various movie studios fret about the increasing irrelevance of this once-iconic pop-culture ritual, the proper response from anyone who cares about film as art should be a hearty, “Who cares?” It’s not so much that I wouldn’t care if the Oscar completely vanished from the face of the Earth—that would be a genuine loss. But if “The Oscars,” as in the globally notorious spectacle, as long and glitzy as a limo with a hot tub, were to shrink back down to a life-size event, that would be a good thing, even if it ended up being shown on some third-tier streaming service instead of a broadcast network owned by the world’s most powerful media conglomerate.

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