Ballet Diary 8-9: Curtain Call

ArtsWatch's ballet spy presents closing thoughts on a 9-week learning experience...and flowers


Note: This is the final installment of a multi-part summer series, wherein ArtsWatch writer A.L. Adams bravely broaches beginner ballet classes with Northwest Dance Project and keeps a Ballet Diary for our amusement and edification.

Our ballet teacher Renee Meiffren is such a B4L (Ballerina 4 Lyfe) that as she makes a sad announcement, she habitually flutters her fingers in front of her face like Stravinsky’s Firebird crying. During our eighth lesson, she informed us that our ninth week of class would be her last; she was dipping out early due to family emergency. After that, she’d leave NW Dance Project to give private lessons.


These final two classes have been”crunch time”; time to stretch our necks up and our shoulders down one extra centimeter, time to balance in sous-sus for two extra seconds, time to perk up and point the limp tondues with which I’ve been closing my ronde du jembes en l’air. My battements have also gotten a crash course in follow-through force, with Meiffren crouching in front of me and holding her hand where my foot should kick. “I don’t want to kick you!” I exclaim. “Go ahead!” she says. “I didn’t know it was THAT kind of class,” I quip. “Maybe YOU should be paying ME.” (The class laughs because we’re all adults here, and ballet processes are still painful enough for some of us that S&M humor is oddly appropriate.)

You know the secret of a Hollywood high-five?


What does it feel like to not be the star in your own story? To sense that you’re a peripheral and ill-informed character in someone else’s much-more-profound mystery?

That’s a circumstance that we all—I mean, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—face, and Anon It Moves has spent the last month putting it across as eloquently as Tom Stoppard penned it, fittingly in rep with the company’s female-fronted Hamlet. This weekend (starting tonight) is your last chances to catch the show(s).

Stoppard’s R&G is to rhetoric, reasoning and inflection what one of Bach’s etudes is to music. It’s practice for its own sake, playfulness with the difficulty of the medium that usually resolves by finishing where it started. Why are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern here? They can’t decide, so they depart. Why are they alive? They can’t figure that out, so they die. Stoppard’s comments on Israel, redistribution of wealth, and “love, blood, and rhetoric” all boiling down to blood bring further immediacy, discomfort, and inconclusive scrutiny to the story. Heads/tails. Pros/cons. Actors/…whores? If R&G leaves you satisfied, you’ve misconstrued it. But happily, Anon It Moves shows mastery at the rhetorical recital.



Joel Patrick Durham as Rosencrantz is a big baby in the best way, wide-eyed and shruggingly trusting. Caitlin Fisher-Draeger is equally convincing as the pair’s self-appointed philosopher and protector Guildenstern. Just like Hamlet, Draeger plays the role female rather than posturing its written gender, which lends her a big-sister, babysitter authority. While she’s wagging an index finger, testing the direction of the real and metaphorical wind, he’s gazing on in resigned wonder. The pairing makes a welcome variation on the Lenny-George dynamic that happens when both roles are played by men, and in a script which mocks the two characters’ interchangeability, this version quite thoroughly distinguishes one from the other. (Note: another existential bro-sis play on now at Coho is The Sweatermakers. Read a review.)


The troupe of players-within-the-play, bit parts in Hamlet, get a lot more spotlight in R&G, and Paul Susi, their spokesman, gets to expound on the charisma and versatility he shows in Hamlet as the sandwich-waving, tragicomic grave digger. Here, he’s even more humorous, and even more ominous. In life, Susi is also a playwright (Read a review of his play about single adult housemates, All at Sea, at Bodyvox last season.), and an at-risk youth advocate. His characters’ comments comparing theater and sex trafficking/survival have a chilling immediacy, exuding what seems like legitimate real-life insight both topics. He’s an excellent focal point for the (almost line-less) other players to mug and mime against, and they rise to the darkly comic challenge.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead shows Thursday and Saturday at 7:30 at Zoomtopia on SE 8th and Morrison.





LISTEN: Interview with ‘Land Ho!’ writer/director Aaron Katz

The indie filmmaker and Portland native talks about his new film, buddy road comedies, The Simpsons, living in LA, and more


Land Ho! director Aaron Katz (red cap, next to his co-director Martha Stephens) on set in Iceland.

Writer/director Aaron Katz has a new film opening in his hometown of Portland today at Cinema 21. Land Ho! is a simple, low-key story about two old friends (Earl Lynn Nelson, Paul Eenhoorn) with near polar opposite personalities who go on a vacation to Iceland. The locations are beautiful, the character dynamics deeply empathetic and well-developed, and the humor consistent through this charming trifle’s 96 minute runtime. Katz was generous enough to talk with us over the phone about the film and much more, so we hope you give a listen and like what you hear.

Land Ho! profile

Earl Lynn Nelson and Paul Eenhoorn in “Land Ho!”

Follow Erik McClanahan’s work on Facebook. Or you can check out his film podcast Adjust Your Tracking on Twitter, and subscribe via iTunes or Stitcher. Stream the interview with Katz on the embedded player or download the MP3 below. We’d love to hear your feedback in the comments section. Thanks for listening. [Music by Marius Libman].

Acting in Yosemite 3: People

In his latest letter from paradise, Portland actor Phillips J. Berns considers the oddity of being surrounded by people while you get away from it all

[Editors' note: Portland actor Phillip J. Berns has been spending the summer at Yosemite National Park, playing the title role in Ranger Ned's Big Adventure, a kids' show for visitors produced for the park by Portland-based Traveling Lantern Theater Company. He's been filing reports to ArtsWatch on the astonishments of performing in one of the most beautiful spots on Earth. This is his third letter home. Read Part One and Part Two as well.]


Photo courtesy of Yosemite National Park.




“People are strange when you’re a stranger.” – The Doors

It’s an amazing juxtaposition, when you take the time to think about it, that this place that has been here for time unfathomable is constantly being swarmed by tourists who will be here for a few short days, or employees (like me), who will be here for a few shorter months. Like tides, people come and go to certain spots daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly. And The Park, it remains more or less the same, changing imperceptibly with each tide of individual lives, just as those individual lives are changed ever so subtly by the intrinsic influence it carries.

The people of Yosemite fascinate me almost as much as the place itself. The tourists range from the entitled rich who have everything planned to the minute, guided tours each day (not too far, mind you), and dinner at the Ahwahnee Hotel each night. To the families who have been coming here for years, always camping at the same site, and creating or continuing traditions that have lasted, and will last, generations. To the visitors from other countries, possibly visiting the United States for the first time, and choosing (wisely) to see its most beautiful parts. To the transient climbers and through-hikers, not truly guests of  The Park, but easygoing enough to make friends with employees equally transient in their lifestyles to let them crash in their tent for a few nights in exchange for some weed or a six-pack of beer.

The employees are equally varied in everything but age and feelings toward the tourists. For some reason, about half of the employees here are 24. Not 24-ish, 24. I suppose 24 is that sweet spot when you’ve been out of college for a few years, still restless and eager to explore the world, but not yet settled into a job that expects or even promises fidelity, so you think “I’m going to go to Yosemite for a while, see how that is.” Either that, or it’s just a weird coincidence. In any case, it takes a certain type of mindset to choose to work here. I’m in a fairly charmed position where I know where I’m coming from, and I know what I’ll be doing when I return there. Most of the people I’ve met, when asked, “How long you here?” will anwer, “Not sure.” Some have been here for years and will never leave, saying, “Not sure,” as in, “Not sure when I’m going to die so I can’t answer that silly question.” Some are running away from an unhealthy life, and are hoping to start anew. Some are simply trying to find themselves in Yosemite’s wilderness. And some are just true wanderers, never at home except on the road.

When you really think about it, it must take a certain type of personality to come to a place like Yosemite to work. Miles and miles from anything like a city, yet constantly being surrounded by strangers. I mean, most of the employees here serve (in some aspect or another) hundreds of people a day, thousands a week, and they will (almost) all tell you they are not here for the job, they are here to spend time away from people. It’s being surrounded by people who hate people being forced to work with people on a massive scale.

This is all, obviously, some enormous generalizing I’ve been doing here. I have met some really remarkable people and great friends who do not fit this mold in the least. Still, the most overheard conversation in employee common spaces is, by far, how awful the tourists are.

I, however, have no complaints. I’ve said often since I’ve been here and will tell you, dear reader, the same: I have the best job in The Park. I get to do what I love and make kids laugh in the most beautiful place I have ever been, or will likely ever be again. What an awesome experience. What a marvelous opportunity.

I will end this post on a rather sad note. I was informed today that Greg Tankersly, who played Bob in the Ranger Ned show for years, recently passed away. Although I never got to meet him in person, his enthusiasm and lust for life shone though over the phone, and is even more apparent in the lives he touched. Sleep well, Greg. The loss is being felt deeply here in Yosemite.



CHILD (4 yrs.): When I was little, my dad had a beard, but now he doesn’t. I still like him though.

FILM: For director, ‘Boyhood’ was an all-encompassing life project

The latest film by Richard Linklater should send him to the next level

For a film to work, the viewer must, in some way, believe what they are seeing is true. That doesn’t mean they all must be realistic, but for fantasy, science-fiction, biopics, comedies, documentaries—whatever—we just need to buy in to the reality conjured on the screen to get lost in the story. Director Richard Linklater, whose films typically take place in the real world, or a facsimile of the real world as we know it, is a master at this.


His latest film, Boyhood, plays like a grand statement on this idea. Normal everyday life unfolds so furiously, with such care and precision, it’s easy to take for granted that it’s a brilliantly cinematic and well-crafted piece of art. Yet I imagine there will be little doubt that the film is anything but a modern masterpiece befitting a confident craftsman who has grown into one of America’s greatest living filmmakers. Having said that, Linklater still seems under appreciated by most film fans.

That’s likely to change as Boyhood is poised to be a huge crossover hit, a shoo-in for loads of Oscar nominations, and it just might make Linklater a household name. He’s always deserved to have that rarified status as a director whose name alone can sell a movie, alongside contemporaries like the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson. Now it may actually happen.



Heaps of attention has already been paid to Boyhood’s unique, admittedly high-concept structure. In almost three incredibly brisk hours, the audience experiences 12 years in the life of a boy (played by newcomer Ellar Coltrane) and his family (the sister is played by Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei; the mother and father by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, returning for his eighth go-round with the director). No embarrassingly cheesy makeup effects were used, though, to age the characters. Linklater and his crew made the film over 12 years, a few weeks every year.

“[Audiences, critics] are interested because it’s just something they haven’t seen before,” Linklater said when I interviewed him last week. “If it works at all and isn’t a gimmick and touches people it’s even more compelling. Whenever you connect and it’s being interpreted the way it was put forth in the world and taken in the spirit that it was made…it’s wonderful when that happens.”

He’s never lit up the box office, save for School of Rock, a charming little 2003 studio picture he made with Jack Black which is by leaps and bounds his most commercially successful work (earning more than $130 million worldwide on a $35 million budget). Boyhood should also deliver commercially, and it’s further proof that Linklater can work in the mainstream and still retain his voice.

“You don’t have any control how your movies meet the world,” he said. “Sometimes the planets line up that people want to see it, sometimes they don’t.” His 1998 based-in-truth bank robbers tale, Newton Boys (another rare studio picture in his eclectic and odd oeuvre), starring Hawke and Matthew McConaughey, is a case in point. To Linklater, it never gained the audience he thought it deserved, going so far as to say that were the movie released today, people might  react more warmly to it. Perhaps the unstoppable McConaughey’s fresh Oscar-gold reputation can breathe new life into the mostly forgotten Newton Boys?


For all the critical adulation and relative success of his most famous and revered films (the Before trilogy, Dazed and Confused; all of them near-perfect) it wouldn’t be that surprising to learn there’s yet another hidden gem worthy of a larger audience. My nominee would be A Scanner Darkly—subversive, funny, stylish and hallucinogenic.

“There’s only so much you can do about it,” Linklater said. “I feel fortunate that my films have had a chance, that they exist at all. I’m grateful, beyond that I can’t complain.”



There was time in the second half of the ‘90s when things weren’t going as well. Financing projects was getting tougher, a few films underperformed. Maybe he was out of vogue. His output suffered (only two films in five years, subUrbia and Newton Boys). Linklater remembers that time as a struggle. “You just get sick of it, and there’s nothing more dangerous than the artist out of work,” he said.

“I’ve seen younger filmmakers go through that, too. You establish your voice or what’s different about you a few films in. Then by about that fourth or fifth film they’re kinda like, eh, this is getting old [laughs]. It happens, your time is up, people are sick of you. The culture just kind of agrees you’re on the outs for a little while. You don’t get the memo, no one tells you explicitly.”

The year before Boyhood went into production (shooting began in 2002), there was a spark that ignited an explosion of projects for Linklater, his most fertile and prolific period, 13 movies in 14 years. As he recalls, it was as simple as deciding to take things into his own hands.

“For me, that was making Waking Life and Tape back-to-back, for so little money,” he said. “If I had to draw a before and after moment I would say everything before Waking Life and everything after. To me, that just ends up this century versus last century. I’ve had a pretty good century.”


Though it’s filtered through the constraints and inherent lie that is cinema, Boyhood is truth on screen. It’s a hybrid type of movie, combining reality with a narrative construct in a way that’s weird and fresh. I could point you to analogous ideas in movie history: as recent as the 1950s section of The Tree of Life and Shane Carruth’s brilliant Upstream Color or as far back as Michael Apted’s Up series or Francois Truffaut’s Adventures of Antoine Doinel.

Yet none of these titles are quite like Boyhood. Linklater’s biggest latest gift to moviegoers is the most rare of things, real-deal originality. Its closest analog can be found in the opening scene of the director’s 2004 sequel Before Sunset, during which Ethan Hawke’s author character, Jesse, so beautifully describes an idea for another book:

The way Jesse describes this hypothetical character’s experience—in an instance, “all his life is just folding into itself and it’s obvious to him that time is a lie… that it’s all happening all the time and inside every moment is another moment… all happening simultaneously”—is akin to how Boyhood is structured, flowing seamlessly from moment to moment. It also articulates the experience of watching the film. Recalling your own experiences as you watch, you occupy “both moments simultaneously,” your life and the lives onscreen linked by the power of cinema and the filmmaker’s gift for finding big things in the common, the every day.

“It is so conceptual, isn’t it,” Linklater mused. It’s easy to link the two films together, as they both deal with the idea of time—manifesting viscerally for the audience its effects on the characters physically, emotionally and psychologically—and how people evolve (or devolve) through it.

How did Linklater come up with the approach to Boyhood? He talked about it a lot in our interview:

“I think of storytelling as there’s all these great stories in the world or things you’re trying to express, but for me the key is always the formal qualities. How to tell the story, not what the story is, but how you tell it. I’m trying to make a film about growing up and I hit a wall because my ideas are spread out over the whole process. A novelist can just cover all of it, but a filmmaker can’t. You’ve got this limitation with the age of the young actor in it. After two years of mulling it and hitting a wall this idea came to me. It solved my problem of how to tell this story.

“I’m often in the margins, thinking about time in cinema and narrative. It created a cinematic canvas on this idea. That’s all it was. I think all of my ideas have to do with time as structure device in lieu of plot. I’ve largely replaced plot with structure and time, which is more innate to the human psyche, if you think about it. How we process this thing called life and time, we do find a lot of structure and patterns. A lot of the films I’ve done that have a lot of these time structures actually contribute to the realism that I’m trying to communicate.

Boyhood is made up almost entirely of these intimate moments that have no place in a well-plotted story because they’re not moving the story forward quick enough and not revealing enough in themselves about character. It’s a different pace. This is a movie that would be cut out of all other movies, the entire movie. It doesn’t fit any traditional rules yet it’s as common as life itself.”

Boyhood was essentially a 12-year side project (“an all-encompassing life project”) for everybody involved. It never hit the back burner, according to Linklater, even during his most productive span of his career. “Any memory from my own childhood I would write down over the years and work into a scene, or anything I would hear anyone talk about. It’s not a bad way to go through life. You gotta pick your subject matter carefully in this world. This was ultimately something very life affirming, deepening and made me more life-aware. I was lucky. Even if I was busy with other things I always knew it was coming, it was always on my mind. It was very cool.”


Nearly 23 years ago, a story about the director’s sophomore feature, Slacker, the film that jump-started his career, was published in a late summer midweek edition of the New York Times, featuring a picture of a young, long-haired Linklater under the Cinema 21 marquee.


Picture by Brian Drake for the New York Times (Aug 7, 1991)

He remembers it as a weird time, when Slacker was growing bigger. “It was clear it was becoming a cult film, something else. We broke through at that point and I just happened to be in Portland for that picture when it happened. That film rolled out slowly, so it was kinda cool when it hit that bigger place.”

It was a different time for indie movies then. “They don’t really occupy a place in our culture [anymore], the film out of nowhere from nobody,” Linklater said. “It’s kinda sad. A film like that which only grossed $1.3 million had a big cultural impact. Now I don’t think anyone would take it very serious because that’s not quite big enough. We live in very inflated times. I like films about ideas rather than box office. Or a film that’s different and breaking some new ground. That should be the story rather than how well it’s doing.”

He was hoping to make it back Portland to take a new picture for the release of Boyhood, which, appropriately, opens Friday at Cinema 21, the place where Portlanders first learned what a Richard Linklater film was. Alas, he couldn’t fit it into his busy schedule. Making a movie that’s got everybody talking (and wanting to talk to its maker) will fill your calendar fast.

But, he promised: “I’ll be back there some day and we can take that picture.”

If he does, it would be just another moment within a moment, happening simultaneously. Anyway, that’s kind of the idea…

Re-Examining ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’

Why the newly restored 1974 shocker is even more relevant today

By critical acclamation The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is unquestionably a masterpiece. That much, after 40 years of existing in the world, seems to be a simple undeniable fact. Though I wonder…do you love its pulpy horror or does the thought of watching it make you recoil? Either reaction is understandable and, maybe, even both at the same time.

For many cinephiles, critics and scary movie fans, the original 1974 Massacre, directed by Tobe Hooper (who went on to make Poltergeist under Steven Spielberg’s supervision but never achieved these heights again) is the ne plus ultra of horror cinema. Yet it long ago transcended its genre. So, a print has been enshrined in the permanent collection at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and in the most recent Sight & Sound critics poll, it was voted one of the 250 greatest films ever made.


But I want to argue that it deserves even more respect—and dare I say, your respect. If you’ve never had the stomach to watch it, you really should. You owe it to yourself to see what the best of the genre looks like. If nothing else, take it as a challenge, but not as some of kind of crude test to see what levels of cinematic extremity you can handle. It deserves to be wrestled with, thought about, discussed. It should scare the living crap out of you, but leave you nourished after its vise of terror loosens its hold on your psyche.

The sole intention of a typical, good horror film is to scare an audience. When this happens, fans of this kind of cinema—often unfairly marginalized and seen as bloodthirsty gorehounds, much to their (our!) chagrin—delight in the sheer visceral experience. That is, more often than not, enough, and by that measure, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is great cinema.

Titles don’t get much more bluntly evocative than those five words, stitched together like one of Leatherface’s freaky masks made of human flesh and yet able to roll off the tongue with an ease befitting some sadistic poet’s best work. They promise the audience scares, buckets of blood and a relentless, inescapable nightmare. That the film not only delivers on that vow, perhaps even more so today, is one of its many enduring strengths.


“When I was 14 I saw The Texas Chain Saw Massacre… I saw that film was an art form, meaning that I saw subliminal images. That’s when I realized the power of art: it’s not what you see, it’s what you think you see… That’s when it penetrates an audience. That’s when it goes deep. On the surface you watch like a brain, [and] you understand. But with subliminal images, or the thought of subliminal images, [that’s] when it has penetrated and the art has taken over your body.”

-Nicolas Winding Refn (The Treatment,Oct. 14, 2009)

Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives) speaks often of his love for the film. In the above video clip from this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it’s hard not to find his admiration for the film, and its director, Tobe Hooper, endearing as all hell. Look beyond his palpable enthusiasm, though, and you’ll find an insightful, rich reading of the film. “Subliminal images” do abound in Texas Chain Saw Massacre. See it and you’ll you swear you witnessed graphic, gory violence. But did you?

At the beginning of the second act, a character is impaled on a large meat hook, left to suffer and dangle like a helpless fish snatched from the river. While this is happening, the film’s main villain, Leatherface, begins cutting up another victim. You think you see all of this happening; gore, blood and viscera splattering. You’re sure you saw it. Look closer at the scene, though, and it’s quite remarkable how little is violence is explicitly shown. It’s a sublimely constructed sequence, and not the only one. In fact, the titular cutting tool is never shown touching a person, save for Leatherface’s accident at the climax. Hooper mentions in the DVD commentary that he’s argued with countless people over the actual content of the film, to no avail.

TCM hook

This is evidence of the way Refn says those images “penetrate an audience” and the art takes over your body. There is real power in Hooper’s skill as an image maker. He grabs the audience by the throat, never relents and forces the audience to experience his vision, for better or ill. Whether or not you enjoy the act of watching the film is purely subjective, but it’s hard to argue against the objectively effective craft on display from Hooper and his entire cast and crew.

In his 1974 two-star review, Roger Ebert attempted such an argument, stating that it’s “without any apparent purpose, unless the creation of disgust and fright is a purpose.” And yet, several times he grudgingly acknowledges that it’s well-made: “In its own way, the movie is some kind of weird, off-the-wall achievement. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to make a movie like this, and yet it’s well-made, well-acted, and all too effective… All of this material, as you can imagine, is scary and unpalatable. But the movie is good technically and with its special effects, and we have to give it grudging admiration on that level, despite all the waving of the chain saw.”

Laughably, Hooper was actually attempting for a PG-rating for the film, even asking the MPAA film board how he could attain that rating  AND still portray a woman hanging on a meat hook. As absurd as this sounds, it does explain the film’s lack of explicit violence. The horror and murder is obscured and mostly bloodless. Classy is not the right word, but compared to most horror movies, it’s pretty damn close.

There are other techniques worth mentioning. The editing by Larry Carroll and Sallye Richardson plays a big part in sustaining the growing sense of fear and anxiety. It’s all about misdirection. Cuts often happen in the middle of an action, not the norm, giving the viewer a subconscious feeling of discomfort. The raw, grimy beauty of Daniel Pearl’s cinematography was born from his naiveté and inexperience (he was still a college student when the film was made). The most gorgeous shot in the film comes when the camera tracks behind soon-to-be victim Teri McMinn as she approaches Leatherface’s house, going under a bench to follow her as the house gets larger in the frame. The shot was improvised on set.

TexasChainsawMassacre house track


 Though TheTexas Chain Saw Massacre is probably best appreciated as a sensory experience that takes advantages of cinema’s many unique tools, arguments have been made for various thematic and intellectual readings. What’s remarkable is how many of these particular readings by various scholars and critics are even more relevant today than when the film was released in 1974.

For example, Hooper apparently stopped eating meat while making the film and saw the crux of the film as being about meat. There’s something to be said for it as a pro-vegetarian film. There’s the sense that Leatherface’s murderous, cannibalistic clan is a scathing parody of modern American families gone awry. Existentially, it’s hard to escape the notion that the film is about the absurdity of life, random and seemingly without meaning. And it resonates politically: America was in a dark place during the film’s initial release, with racial tensions, a struggling economy, Vietnam and Watergate, and the apparent passing of the counter-culture, to name but a few issues. It’s fair to say things have only gotten more complicated and confusing, yet no horror filmmaker today has been able to capture so much of this complexity and fear as well as Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

The best evidence of this may be the odd sense of sympathy for the film’s killers you have as the film unwinds.. After all, their piece of the American dream was taken away when their jobs at a slaughterhouse were rendered obsolete by technological advances. Who in this modern age of high unemployment and an intimidatingly fast devolving/evolving job landscape can’t understand that? There’s political satire buried in the subtext, where it belongs in a horror movie, and it makes for a rich experience beyond simply being scared.



Citizen Kane is perhaps the one American talking picture that seems as fresh now as the day it opened. It may seem even fresher.”

-Pauline Kael (Raising Kane, 1971)

Is it crazy that Refn (again, from the Cannes clip above) mentions The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in the same breath as Orson Welles’ masterpiece? Both films, in their way, have endured through so much cultural, political, moral and cinematic change yet still remain fresh as ever. The years have been kind to both.

Why did Ebert feel he had to grudgingly admit his admiration for the film in that original review? As he stated, there’s “no motivation, no background, no speculation on causes is evident anywhere in the film. It’s simply an exercise in terror… What we’re left with, though, is an effective production in the service of an unnecessary movie.” Films by Lars von Trier, Harmony Korine and Gaspar Noe, to name a few, often receive this kind of half-hearted, faux-praise. There’s something dishonest about it. I’d rather the critic just toughen up and say they hate the damn thing. After all, how can a film be unnecessary if it’s well-made and effective? And for that matter, “unnecessary” to whom?

Ebert grew into a critic who appreciated a film for what it was doing compared to others of its type. But many mainstream critics fall into this trap all too easily. Pauline Kael, in her wonderful 1969 piece for the New Yorker entitled Trash, Art and the Movies, put it perfectly: “When you clean them up, when you make movies respectable, you kill them. The wellspring of their art, their greatness, is in not being respectable.”

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre fits neatly into a throughline of the best and/or most shocking horror films in film history. Start with Hitchcock’s Psycho, move to Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead and Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, then it’s on to Craven’s Last House on the Left and Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Once you arrive at Hooper’s film, you see the influence of those forebears had on him. Yet it’s undeniable how influential and copied Massacre has become.

The idea of the slasher movie as we still know it today truly started here, as did the idea of the final girl. Without it, we wouldn’t have Alien, Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street, and so many others, not as we know them today. Its documentary rawness gave it a realism which in turn led to a new sub-genre known as found footage. During the opening credits of Massacre, a narrator claims the film was based on a true story (it wasn’t, though like Psycho and Silence of the Lambs, it was inspired by serial killer Ed Gein). In 1996, the Coen Brothers received a lot of press (and a screenplay Oscar) for their similar, “original idea” regarding Fargo. Sorry Coens, I love you, but Hooper did it first.

Back to that Ebert review: in his closing paragraph, he writes,  “Horror and exploitation films… provide a good starting place for ambitious would-be filmmakers who can’t get more conventional projects off the ground. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre belongs in a select company of films that are really a lot better than the genre requires. Not, however, that you’d necessarily enjoy seeing it.” He’s right that it’s much better than the genre requires, but he’s wrong that nobody would enjoy watching it. The only proof of that needed is the reason this article was written, because the film is still showing at movie theaters in 2014. That’s worth celebrating, and experiencing the terror all over again.


The new 4K digital restoration of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre screens for a weeklong run at The Hollywood Theatre starting today. For more information, check the Web site.

Puppet film ‘Lessons Learned’ – what now?

The Hillsboro son of the creators of 'The Dark Crystal' strides into his own animated adventure

A line down the block? Present.

Cos-players in elf ears? Check.

A Portland Mercury preview, hastily echoed by a near-identical Portland Monthly post? Copy that.

We may have overhyped it, but who could blame us? Hollywood Theatre’s premiere of Lessons Learned was practically Nerd Christmas.

The entire puppet cast from Toby Froud's "Lessons Learned" greeted fans in the Hollywood Theatre lobby Saturday. L to R: Digby, Boy, Grandfather, Time, Fate

The entire puppet cast from Toby Froud’s “Lessons Learned” greeted fans in the Hollywood Theatre lobby Saturday.
L to R: Digby, Boy, Grandfather, Time, Fate

This was our first glimpse of the first movie from Toby Froud, the son of Brian and Wendy Froud, co-creators of the cult puppet classic The Dark Crystal. Already long-famous for his infant role beside David Bowie in another of his parents’ projects, Jim Henson’s The Labyrinth, Toby now lives in Hillsboro, sculpting for LAIKA’s BoxTrolls. But last year, Heather Henson—Jim Henson’s daughter—approached him with a question: Would he like to make his own puppet movie?

“I said ‘yes!'” quipped Froud at a post-film talkback, “then realized I’d said ‘yes…'”

But for anyone wishing a new Dark Crystal would materialize out of practically nowhere (more specifically, the warehouse Froud’s crew rented on Columbia Boulevard) … in retrospect, the numbers never promised any such wonder. Only three months of building and shooting, $53,000 in Kickstarter funds, and five puppets yielded just 15 minutes of footage. Compare that to The Dark Crystal, whose hero Jen doesn’t even embark on his quest until the 14-minute mark, after we’ve already seen at least seven sets and nearly 30 puppets (including insects and birds) … and clearly, Crystal-caliber storytelling wasn’t in the stars …

… or at least not yet.

“I’d like this to be the first in a series,” explained Froud, thrilled by the turnout. “And yes, I hope to do a feature film again some day.”

The good news is, if someone brings the money, Froud’s already got the magic. Even in its short runtime, Lessons manages to show the next-gen puppeteer’s grasp of his parents’ style, which he attributes to “being a huge fan of his parents” and “Growing up in England … in a house with granite walls three feet thick that were knobbly and dusty. There’s a history that’s there, and you can feel it. It’s become ingrained.” Froud even has a secret weapon for the worn-in look: “I like to have four buckets of brown, blue, green, and milky water on hand, to just throw on everything! Once it looks like a piece of moldy bread, it’s all good.”

Slapdash as that sounds, Lessons‘ craft is brilliantly acute. Close-ups of character faces are at least on par with, and possibly surpass, those in Crystal. The grandfather’s wrinkles are convincingly humanoid yet fit his gnomish face; the boy is more elfish yet resembles the old man; the puppets’ twitching ears, agile brows and blinking shiny black eyes move as naturally and intricately as their mouths, timed on a dime by the dream team of puppeteers who bring them to life. Veteran puppeteer William Todd-Jones, who reportedly dangled the infant Toby on a wire on Labyrinth‘s “Escher set,” maneuvered Lessons‘ boy puppet. Muppets alum David Skelly hammed it up with bumbling servant character Digby (“We couldn’t use a lot of what he did because it was too funny,” admitted Froud), and local LAIKA/Tears of Joy long-timer Lance Woolen handled Grandfather.

The music, too, complements the story; it’s ghostly, Gregorian and Celtic, with rumbles of bodhran and eerie harmonic ahhs. But Froud seems to already be questioning one of his sound-editing choices: purposely distorting the Fate and Time characters’ voices so their words can’t be deciphered by the viewer. “I’ll post what they say,” he promised bewildered fans Saturday, explaining that the inaudibility was a plot point: “The boy’s not supposed to be able to understand them yet; he’s too young.” However, since Grandfather never quite clarifies that fact for his grandson, audiences may be left wondering whether their hearing has failed them. Hopefully in future edits, the otherworldly characters will remain a little difficult to understand, but not impossible.

Lessons‘ sets are naturally less epic than Labyrinth or Crystal … but not by the margin you might expect. Details don’t abound, but Froud’s attention to them is fastidious: Grandfather’s shelves are stocked with intriguing knicknacks; the Lessons Learned “fileroom” is rich with texture and variety. In a particularly inspired shot, a puddle on the floor swallows up a tiny galleon. When the boy enters the disorienting dream-world where he confronts the characters of Time and Fate, the goblinish king and elaborate, scary spider perch atop wonderfully ancient, crumbling pillars rising out of a bank of gray fog. A likely a compromise where more architecture wasn’t feasible, the fog and pillars manage to uphold an elegant scene. The much-beloved “Froudian” aesthetic is in place; now Froud just needs the freedom to further embellish and elaborate.

Time is money, and puppet magic requires both, but Froud phrases his challenge another way: “I want to keep the momentum and the standard of it going.”

Momentum? Great turnout.

Standard? Great short.

It would seem all systems are go.

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