FILM

Watching (and talking) movies in McMinnville

Local filmmakers involved with the McMinnville Short Film Festival discuss the role of video stores, film festivals, and "This Is Spinal Tap" in their work

The 8th Annual McMinnville Short Film Festival was too big a meal to consume entirely last weekend, but I did get to a screening in the largest auditorium at Coming Attractions’ multiplex, which was pretty full Sunday afternoon. Between that and watching a few online, I caught about 15 of the record 50 films shown over two days. Only a few left me cold; most films — none longer than 20 minutes and many no more than 10 — were very good, and a few were excellent.

A complete list of this year’s films, nominations and winners can be found
here.

Festival organizers Dan and Nancy Morrow are friends, but I feel like I’m on solid ground in saying that the McMinnville Short Film Festival is a polished affair, organized by serious film-lovers who know what they’re doing. I hadn’t attended a film festival before (having a kid puts a damper on extracurricular stuff like that), but I was impressed with both the quality of the work on the screen and the informal, yet professional presentation. It is also encouraging to see a mainstream movie theater chain (Southern Oregon-based Coming Attractions, which runs many small-town theaters in Oregon and several other states) work with locals like this, handing over its largest screen for two days for a homegrown show. I hope to scoop up a bigger helping in 2020.

One of the weekend’s big crowd-pleasers was Sac de Merde. A barely 14-minute comedy about a young New York woman’s dating woes, it includes what is possibly the funniest and most outrageous sex scene I’ve ever seen in a film. Sac de Merde came from California, directed by Greg Chwerchak of Los Angeles. The film was nominated in five categories and received the festival’s top honor, the Grand Jury award, along with awards for directing and original short story, which was written by the trio of Chwerchak, Arielle Haller-Silverstone (who was also nominated for her acting in the film), and Gabrielle Berberich.

Arielle Haller-Silverstone was nominated for a Best Actress award for her work in the McMinnville audience favorite, “Sac de Merde,” which she also co-wrote.

He Calls Them All By Name, directed by Chad Sogas (who splits his time between Portland and Brooklyn, N.Y.) also impressed this year’s judges, garnering six nominations and winning in four categories, including: Best Actor (Ted Rooney), Best Sound Mixing (Noah Woodburn) and Best Editing (Katie Turinski). (The festival named two Best Actors; the second was Moussa Sylla in La Rage.)

Sogas’ film is an eerie piece centered on an intense confrontation between a tenant farmer and his drunk, gun-toting neighbor. Shot entirely outdoors at night, it was inspired in part by Flannery O’Connor’s Southern gothic short stories and films such as In Cold Blood and A Face in the Crowd. The story is pretty thin gruel that falls just short of being a complete enigma, but it clearly spoke to the political unease of the times. The technical skill on display, direction, and acting were outstanding. Greg Schmitt’s cinematography was extraordinary, and the film deservedly won for that as well.

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McMinnville Short Film Festival is long on innovation

This weekend's eighth annual event includes 50 films from around the world

On any given day, Coming Attractions Theatres’ multiplex in McMinnville screens 10 films. But this Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 9 and 10, in the theater’s 208-seat auditorium, you can see 50 – and you don’t have to sit for 18 hours straight to do it.

This weekend’s 8th Annual McMinnville Short Film Festival is a considerably larger and more polished affair than when it began with a single screening that included “movies” clearly shot on iPhones. This year’s crop comprises high-quality shorts shot by professionals on high-end equipment with full production crews. Portland is represented well, obviously, but an impressive international showing includes movies from Israel, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, Canada, and Germany. Each of the four screenings runs from 80 to 110 minutes, no film runs more than 20, and you can talk to many of the filmmakers at the end of each show.

A common thread that emerges from talking with both filmmakers and festival attendees is that once they go, they’re likely to return. “I have been to the McMinnville festival, and I’m a fan,” said Tim Williams, who heads the state agency Oregon Film. “I love that they get so many filmmakers there, I very much enjoy their keynote speakers, and I love that it is in the middle of wine country, which means there’s good food and drink in your free time.”

Nancy and Dan Morrow spent years running a successful and eclectic video store in McMinnville. Today, they’re helping keep film alive by hosting the McMinnville Short Film Festival.

How did this happen? Why did it happen here?

The festival is the brainchild of Dan and Nancy Morrow, who until a few years ago owned the coolest video store in Oregon outside Movie Madness in Portland. Operating out of a house built in 1908 across Oregon 99W from Linfield College, the Morrows over 15 years built Movietime Video into an essential resource for hard-core film buffs. Sure, they had the latest Hollywood blockbusters and mainstream fare, but they also packed the shelves with foreign and art films, cult classics, Americana gems from the TCM Vault, and manga.

The TV wall alone was astonishing and offered the same breadth and variety available in every other section. Not only could you get Game of Thrones or The Sopranos, but you also could find throwbacks like Adam-12, Perry Mason, or even Tenspeed and Brownshoe. (Full disclosure: For a couple of years, I did some freelance writing for the store.) When Movietime shut its doors in April 2016, joining the nationwide wave of locally owned indie video-store closures, it felt like a funeral. (They have since converted the building into The Gallery at Ten Oaks, which features work by Oregon artists.)

The Morrows started the festival in 2011, building on the experience of a film competition they’d sponsored earlier that year for McMinnville’s UFO Festival. One screening was held in the local community center. Year by year, the event grew. Submissions started to climb and the films kept getting better. They partnered with Coming Attractions so audiences could see the work on a big screen. Screenings were added. The festival also booked speakers; in 2015, filmmaker Will Vinton gave the keynote address.

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McMinnville’s gallery scene primed to expand

An old house gets new life as a destination for arts immersion; plus, on the arts calendar: gallery shows, arts walk, a film festival, and poetry on the radio

There’s a buzz in McMinnville concerning an 84-year-old house on the corner of Baker and Northeast Seventh Streets, which marks almost the exact center of town. In the last decade or so, it’s functioned as a florist, a salon and a home-goods store. Now, there’s great news for art fans. Come spring, it will reopen as the McMinnville Event Center for the Arts.

Holli and Mick Wagner will open the McMinnville Event Center for the Arts at 636 N.E. Baker St. in March. Photo by: David Bates

MECA is owned by Holli and Mick Wagner, who also run nearby vacation rentals. They will open the gallery at 636 N.E. Baker St., a few blocks north of the city’s downtown district, as a home for visual art, as well as readings, live music, and classes. I got a sneak peek behind the papered-over windows last week as they prepare 2,500 square feet of space for a stage and works from more than two dozen artists.

“The mission here is really to create a destination space for people to come and immerse themselves in the arts,” Holli Wagner told me. In recent years, Yamhill County’s wine industry has exploded, with one result being a downtown district that is thick with restaurants and tasting rooms. Wagner sees a future with an equally active gallery scene. Already, more than a dozen can be found just in McMinnville.

“Not only are we a destination for agriculture and wine,” she said, “but now we have an opportunity to set ourselves another goal and become a destination for art.”

They’ve set a March 9 opening date, and they’re dishing out teasers on the usual social media. Check them out here.

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‘Amazing landscape’ inspires Sitka Center resident artists

The five new residents, who will introduce themselves Wednesday, include an underwater photographer and an artist whose work is linked to animals

Artists Isabelle Hayeur and Felix Prater, who began residencies at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology this week, both journeyed from afar to practice their craft at the retreat dedicated to fostering creativity, curiosity, and education.

They are among five new residents who will stay through May 1. Others are whale researcher Fred Sharpe, writer Matt Jones, and mixed-media artist Brenda Mallory. On Wednesday, Jan. 23, the group will share a bit about themselves at the Resident Show & Tell at 6 p.m. in the Boyden Center.

Residents spend from 2 weeks to 3-1/2 months making art, composing music, writing, or conducting research without the limitation of a product-driven residency, program coordinator Sara Haug said. “Residents are given the time and space to explore creative pursuits that are enhanced by the Sitka Center’s mission of existing in space dedicated to the intellectual pursuits of art, ecology, and the fusion of both.”

Isabelle Hayeur often works in waders in her quest to photograph life underwater.

Residents do not receive a stipend but are provided a private, fully furnished cabin and a studio or workspace for the duration of their residency.

If you can’t make Wednesday’s gathering — apologies for the short notice — you’ll have another chance when residents do final presentations April 27 in the Boyden Studio. In the meantime, here’s a look at two of the artists visiting our coast.

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Seeing with fresh eyes

ArtsWatch’s Coast correspondent reflects on what she learned covering the arts in 2018

An editor once told me the best way to learn anything is to write about it. That lesson was driven home this year as I took on the beat covering arts on the Oregon Coast. Prior to that, I would have told you that, yes, the arts are alive and well on the edge of the Pacific. At other times, I could have been heard grumbling that there was nothing to do here. Then admitting, grudgingly, that even when there was, I didn’t do it. I might have said it was a case of “been there, done that.”

In truth, after so many years of covering breaking — often tragic — news, lightened by the occasional feature, and even then hamstrung by the rules of conventional journalism, I kind of forgot about art and just how much it encompasses. I forgot that art unites us, teaches us, makes us better people. That art brightens the world.

Newport’s Nye Beach neighborhood once hosted more rats than visitors.

And so, when the offer came to write this weekly column, I was sorely tempted to say no. Other than living here, I didn’t think I had the connections. But I thought about it and I wavered — yes, no, maybe, well OK, at least for now. I had this idea that it could be a chance to broaden my horizons, to move from that place of stagnation, and start growing again. It was an enticing thought, but really, I had no idea what I’d happened upon.

I soon learned that you can’t write about the arts in a place like the Oregon Coast — a place where one of the largest cities has roughly nine traffic lights — and not come away inspired. Again and again, I have been awed by what people in these small towns accomplish through sheer will, generosity of time and spirit, and the absolute refusal to give up.

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Imagining a different world with Ursula K. Le Guin

Arwen Curry, whose documentary about Le Guin will play in Nehalem, says she wanted to share the experience of being with the Oregon author

As Oregon authors go, few are better known or beloved than the late Ursula K. Le Guin. A list of her awards alone would probably fill the space of this column. Most famous for her fantasy and science fiction works, including A Wizard of Earthsea and The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin died last January at age 88, only months before a documentary on her life, 10 years in the making, was finished.  

Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin will show at the North County Recreation District theater in Nehalem — presented by Hoffman Center for the Arts’ Manzanita Film Series — at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 21. Tickets will be available at the door for $5.

I spoke with film director and producer Arwen Curry about the documentary and her relationship with Le Guin.

Filmmaker Arwen Curry (left) worked with author Ursula K. Le Guin over a period of 10 years to
make the documentary “Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin.” It will be shown Dec. 21 in Nehalem.

Where does this begin? How did you decide you would take on the subject of a celebrated, world-renowned author?

AC:  I read the books for children or young adults and then I read the grown-up novels. She was a known voice to me. She was a figure in my internal bookshelf from my childhood. Seeing writers talk and the experience of seeing them in person can be so powerful and tell you so much more about the experience of being a writer. Who it is that became Ursula K. Le Guin? I wanted to share that experience of being in a room with her.

When I first decided to do that I didn’t know how to make films at all. I was writing for a magazine. I enrolled in a class on making documentaries at Berkeley with this project in mind. That was kind of a crapshoot.

Was it difficult to get Le Guin on board with you to make the film?

It wasn’t till after I finished and made one dissertation film that I came to her. I wanted to have one film under my belt. First, we had a correspondence asking to let me do this. She sort of agreed tentatively. Then, she sort of backed off. I convinced her to let me come and meet her. She invited me to her house. We talked about my vision for the film. After that point, she agreed to do it with me and stayed with me the entire time.

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River and Elliott: Remembering two troubled princes of 1990s Portland

River Phoenix and Elliott Smith brushed Portland and maybe Portland brushed them

There’s a name you keep repeating
You’ve got nothing better to do

— Elliott Smith, “Alphabet Town”

From James Dean to Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain to Heath Ledger, we have immortalized a constellation of famous artists—especially musicians and actors—who died young and, then, through a combination of their talent and the public’s grief, lived on. Robbed of the futures we imagined for them, yet frozen in time and thus never to suffer the indignities of aging or late-career artistic mediocrity, their luminosity—and our love for them—intensifies as if in proportion to the tragedy.

Portland and Oregon haven’t traditionally produced a lot of bold-type names that have endured in the international pop zeitgeist. Far from America’s entertainment capitols, this is arguably a place where talents are nurtured, not where one becomes a full-fledged star. The most high-profile artists, such as the great abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko or Simpsons creator Matt Groening, have tended to move on and live their career-defining creative moments elsewhere. Yet even if their time here is fleeting, sometimes these artists don’t just remain culturally relevant long after their deaths but also come to represent something essential about a particular time in the city.

Last month brought reminders of two such one-time Oregonians and what they left behind. October 21 was the 15th anniversary of musician Elliott Smith’s death, at the age of 34 in 2003, while Halloween brought the 25th anniversary of actor River Phoenix’s death, at the age of 23 in 1993. They died a decade apart, but each moment of mortality came in Los Angeles, and the two sites are less than nine miles away from each other: Phoenix outside West Hollywood’s Viper Room club after an accidental overdose, and Smith by stabbing at his home in Silver Lake (a presumed suicide but never officially determined).

Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho

The coincidences don’t end there. River Phoenix and Elliott Smith were born within a year of each other: Smith in Nebraska (he was raised until age 14 in Texas) and Phoenix in Madras, Oregon (raised mostly in Florida). Each arguably made his most famous work in collaboration with director Gus Van Sant. Phoenix co-starred (along with Keanu Reeves) in Van Sant’s 1991 film My Own Private Idaho and Smith was nominated for an Academy Award for the song “Miss Misery,” on the soundtrack to Van Sant’s 1998 film Good Will Hunting. Each struggled with drug abuse, which in different ways led to each artist’s untimely death. River Phoenix and Elliott Smith presumably never met, yet each is a kind of fleeting prince of ’90s Portland, and their work acts as time capsule and talisman for the days many locals now look to longingly: a grittier, more affordable and off-the-radar city that predated Portlandia, a succession of swooning New York Times stories, and an ensuing wave of tourism and gentrification.

Like Rothko, neither stayed here for good. But also like Rothko and many of the city’s other most famous sons and daughters, Phoenix and Smith were transplants to the city who saw Portland with fresh eyes. Like rain clouds that give way to bright sunlight almost daily for much of the year, each artist’s Portland-based work is personal and often deeply melancholic, yet also joyful, lyrical and instinctual. It’s not always pretty, yet we are drawn to their work again and again.

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