FILM

Will Vinton, 1947-2018: An Appreciation

A look back at the career of the Oscar-winning Oregonian filmmaker and master of stop-motion animation, who has died at 70.

The innovative Portland filmmaker Will Vinton, best known for his iconic work with stop-motion animation, died on Thursday, October 5, at the age of 70, following a 12-year battle with multiple myeloma. Vinton was the first Oregonian to win an Oscar, and his company, Will Vinton Studios, served as a laboratory, training ground, and creativity magnet for a generation of Portland artists. His legacy survives today in the form of Laika Studios, which has taken stop-motion work to new technological and commercial heights, though not without some controversy along the way. I never had a chance to meet Vinton more than in passing, but if the testimonials and condolences that have emerged over the last few days are anything to go by, his was a genuinely generous soul. His bald head, bushy handlebar mustache, and twinkling eyes denoted a spirit that was independent, mischievous, and bold, even while working in the potentially stifling world of corporate advertising.

Will Vinton in 2017. Photo: K.B. Dixon.

The individual personalities of each of the California Raisins, the in-your-face anarchy of The Noid, and the wistful moments of confused awe experienced by the drunk museum-goer in “Closed Mondays” all seem to stem from an aspect of Vinton himself. Even after his creations became nationwide obsessions, and when his company’s landmark headquarters in Northwest Portland buzzed with activity, there was always the feeling that the work that emerged sprang, at its core, from one especially fertile brain. Needless to say, that’s not the impression one gets, for better or for worse, from the vast majority of the animation on movie screens today. (Television may be another matter.)

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Zombies rising at Linfield Theatre

Night of the Living Dead opens a "monstrous" season tying into a campus-wide focus on political and social revolution

George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead turns 50 on Oct. 1. This Thursday, the Linfield College drama team raises the curtain on Lori Allen Ohm’s stage version of the 98-minute black-and-white horror flick shot on a shoestring outside Pittsburgh in 1968. While it’s easy to make too much of it, Night of the Living Dead was, as one writer observed in Cineaste a few years ago, “Patient Zero” in a virtual epidemic of zombies in popular culture in the ensuing decades. As much as the genre obviously panders to audiences that, to paraphrase torture-porn king Eli Roth, “want to see people gettin’ messed up — bad,” it’s undeniable that the films occasionally offer flashes of insight into American life.

Therein lies the appeal of Night of the Living Dead to Linfield’s play selection committee. Plays at the McMinnville college traditionally grapple with a campus-wide PLACE theme. PLACE stands for Program for Liberal Arts and Civic Engagement. Piloted in the fall of 2012, PLACE highlights a theme or issue selected by a curriculum committee and voted on by faculty that is intended to serve as a sort of academic muse. Faculty are encouraged to incorporate it into studies and class discussions. This year, it’s political and social revolution.

Barbara (McMinnville’s Elise Martin) and her brother Johnny (Samuel Hannigan of Hood River) are the first victims of the living dead in Linfield Theatre’s production of “Night of the Living Dead.” Photo by: Hanna Trailer

Since the inception of PLACE, the theater department has tried to have at least one show that ties into the theme, said Brenda DeVore Marshall, a professor who chairs the Department of Theatre and Communications Arts. “It’s a way for us to contribute to that ongoing college dialogue through the arts,” she said.

The most striking recent example I recall was a 2015 production of The Tempest. The PLACE theme was Air, Water, Earth and Fire: The ancient elements on a changing planet. In the production directed by Professor Janet Gupton and designed by Professor Ty Marshall (who retired last year after 31 years), Prospero used his magic to harness the elements for himself and daughter Miranda, leaving Caliban and Ariel to fend for themselves on an island strewn with garbage.

In November 2015, Janet Gupton incorporated Linfield College’s PLACE theme of “Air, Water, Earth and Fire: The ancient elements on a changing planet” by setting “The Tempest” on a man-made island of trash. The scenic design was by then-Professor Ty Marshall. Photo by: Ty Marshall

The theater’s 2018-19 season (the 99th at Linfield College) is headlined Monsters and the Monstrous. After a single-weekend run of Night of the Living Dead, Marshall Theatre will dish up two weekends of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel. In the spring, we’ll see Qui Nguyen’s She Kills Monsters, and the season closes with the alarmingly appropriate choice of Cabaret, with music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb.

Night of the Living Dead is directed by Melory Mirashrafi, a Hillsboro theater arts major in her senior year at Linfield. I was treated to a peek at the set last week, a monochrome ramshackle of an isolated farmhouse (to capture the look of Romero’s use of black-and-white) where seven people find themselves besieged by zombies. Visiting Professor Derek Lane handled the scenic and lighting design, and Gupton is mentoring Mirashrafi. Part of the production includes video, which was shot and edited by sophomores Alexandria Hunter and Hannah Curry.

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Connecting art to activism

Besides Whitney Jayne's mixed-media show, Yamhill County eases toward fall with poetry readings, Footloose, and a film about minority winemakers

Something about autumn makes the arts seem an integral part of the season. I’m not sure how or why that happened, but I do know my calendar through November is packed with opportunities — theater, concerts, readings, shows, films. In coming weeks, we’ll get to author Reese Kwon in McMinnville; Metropolis at the Elsinore Theater in Salem; not one, but two, Yamhill County art harvest tours; and a live theater scene that includes Miss Julie, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Night of the Living Dead. Let’s go.

This week, I want to spotlight a young artist who caught the attention of McMinnville’s Dan and Nancy Morrow of The Gallery at Ten Oaks a while back and who has her first show there. Whitney Jayne’s mixed media is on display in the gallery on Oregon 99W across from Linfield College. A reception will be from 3 to 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 8, with the exhibit continuing through Nov. 4.

Whitney Jayne

I had coffee with Jayne last month, but before her story, a quick entry from my Department of Full Disclosure (the third in as many weeks): I’ve known the Morrows for many years, and I wrote weekly film reviews for them when they owned and operated a terrific video store, the closest thing to Movie Madness a small town can have. After closing the store in April 2016, they remodeled the 110-year-old, two-story house at 801 S.W. Baker St., and within two months transformed the video store into an art gallery, showcasing both locally produced art and wine.

Jayne’s roots are in the Pacific Northwest. She was born in Seattle, but spent most of her life from age 9 in Utah, where she considered several areas of study that had little to do with art before finally embracing what she loved. She received her Bachelor’s in Fine Art in 2010 with a minor in Women and Gender studies and Psychology from Utah State University, where she had one of those incredible discoveries that artists make when something goes wrong.

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Manzanita’s Dave Dillon curates Northwest film series

The former Hollywood liaison for the Navy screens regional films and leads monthly post-show discussions

Nosferatu, a 1922 classic horror film based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, might seem an unlikely start for a film series that prides itself on being all Pacific Northwest, all the time. The silent movie was the first offering, eight years ago, in the monthly Manzanita Film Series led by a local resident who has ties to another unlikely horror classic. More on that later.

Dave Dillon finds many of the films shown at the Hoffman Center for the Arts by searching the NW Film Center and paying attention to what other film festivals around the state are showing. “If it’s of, by and/or about the Pacific Northwest, we’re all for it,” he said. When he finds a film he likes, he pays the $100 screening fee and puts the film on the schedule.

Dave Dillon leads the film series at Manzanita’s Hoffman Center for the Arts. Photo courtesy: Hoffman Center for the Arts

“It’s just another little artistic cultural thing,” he said. “We get a good variety of locals, a bunch of steady customers. Twenty is a good crowd.”

The most popular evenings among local film fans are nights that showcase six or eight short films, Dillon said.

“They can be one minute, eight minutes, two. They can be features, documentaries, animated,” he said, adding that the biggest hits come from the Northwest Filmmakers’ Festival in Portland. “From that they put together a DVD of eight to 12 shorts. When they bring that out, everybody loves it. It’s fascinating to see what filmmakers come up with showing off their passion.”

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FilmWatch Weekly: Isabelle Huppert is “Mrs. Hyde,” plus “Custody” and “Generation Wealth”

A pair of French films and a documentary about American plutocracy hit Portland theaters this week

There’s nothing absolutely earth-shattering splashing onto Portland’s arthouse screens this week (hey, it must be August), but that doesn’t mean there’s not an array of interesting titles worth keeping in mind. In fact, there is exactly that, including the latest from the always noteworthy Isabelle Huppert, a shattering French drama about marital discord, and a documentary look at the real price of being rich.

“Mrs. Hyde”: French director Serge Bozon worked with the iconic Huppert on his last feature, 2013’s “Tip Top,” a quirky, dark farce that was barely seen in this country. Their new collaboration, “Mrs. Hyde,” may face the same fate, but doesn’t deserve it. In an obvious nod to the Robert Louis Stevenson classic, Huppert plays Madame Géquil, a meek science teacher in a suburban Parisian high school whose id gets freed after a freak laboratory accident. Huppert is almost too perfectly cast as the initially meek, eventually dangerous protagonist, who finds herself supernaturally empowered to deal with her disrespectful, multiracial students as well as her supercilious principal.

However, she never really gets to dig into the implications and contradictions of this divided character, at least not as much as she has in such films as “The Piano Teacher” or “Elle.” “Mrs. Hyde” feels, at times, as if it can’t decide if it wants to be a commentary on the French educational system, a feminist parable, or an arty genre piece. It ends up being a less that totally satisfying mix of the three, with at least the unforced mastery of Huppert on its side. (playing at the Northwest Film Center, Aug. 3-5)

“Custody”: The ultimate child custody battle movie of all time remains, no doubt, “Kramer vs. Kramer,” but this directorial debut from French actor Xavier Legrand gives that one a run for its money. (Insert alimony joke here?)

The film opens with a fifteen-minute court hearing between estranged couple Miriam (Léa Drucker) and Antoine (Denis Ménochet), their lawyers, and a family court judge. It’s probably less notable in France that it would be in America that Antoine is the only male in the room. It’s a gripping encounter, filmed and acted with a restraint that ratchets up the emotional tension instantly, and you may wonder if the entire film will unfold as a series of legal encounters. It doesn’t, as Antoine is granted weekend visits with his young son Julien despite some indications of past violent behavior. (The couple also have an older teenage daughter, whom Antoine doesn’t seem to care much about.)

From there, “Custody” proceeds like a slightly slicker version of the kitchen-sink dramas made by the Belgian filmmaking brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (“The Son,” “The Kid with the Bike”), until it succumbs to suspense-movie tropes in its final scenes. Ménochet in particular recalls the meaty, morally ambiguous male characters of several Dardenne films, and Thomas Gioria, who plays Julien, is reminiscent of the powerful juvenile performances in the brothers’ work.

Legrand, though, doesn’t quite yet have the easy mastery of form and emotional realism needed to make “Custody” a true standout. This is his first feature, a continuation and expansion of the story he told (using Drucker and Ménochet) in his Oscar-winning live-action short from 2013, “Just Before Losing Everything.” The acting is first-rate, as is the filmmaking craft, and once this director figures out how to infuse his work with a little more soul, he could be capable of great things. (currently playing at Living Room Theaters)

“Generation Wealth”: Photographer and documentarian Lauren Greenfield has been chronicling the lives of the super-rich for over twenty years, most notably in 2012’s “The Queen of Versailles,” which followed the quixotic efforts of Jacqueline and David Siegel to build the largest private residence in the United States. The Siegels (at least Jacqueline) pop up again in Greenfield’s new movie, which serves as a summation and revisiting of her life’s work. Some of the most fascinating scenes contrast footage Greenfield shot of students at an exclusive Los Angeles private school in the early 1990s with their now middle-aged selves. Some have moved beyond the shallow hedonism of their privileged teen years, others demonstrably have not.

Other subjects include the Oregon-raised porn star who gained infamy as one of Charlie Sheen’s paramours, a woman who travels to Brazil to undergo extreme plastic surgery, and a female Wall Street banker whose obsession with her income level is only matched by her obsession with her appearance. As those examples attest, “Generation Wealth” takes a long, fascinating, and disturbing detour into the ways in which hyper-capitalism has turned sexual appeal into just another marketable commodity.

Greenfield also turns the camera, both metaphorically and literally, on herself and her own family, in a way that seems unintentionally ironic considering the movie’s otherwise heartfelt condemnation of narcissism. Despite feeling at times like a promotional tool on behalf of Greenfield’s similarly-themed gallery show and coffee table book, and despite lacking the compelling singular focus of “The Queen of Versailles,” “Generation Wealth” still offers a degree of insight (often in the form of cynical commentary from writer Chris Hedges) on the societal sickness that contributed to the emergence of the Trump Era. (currently playing at Regal Fox Tower)

 

Repertory happenings of note, August 3-9:

“Polyester”: The Hollywood Theatre screens John Waters’ 1981 ode to bad taste, complete with scratch-and-sniff Odorama cards, as a tribute to the late Tab Hunter, the Hollywood Golden Age golden boy who reinvented his career with this campy role. (Friday, Aug 3)

“The Planet of the Apes”: The Hollywood also kicks off its “Marathon of the Planet of the Apes” series, which will include every film from both the original 1970s series as well as the more recent cycle of simian cinema (but not the terrible Tim Burton remake or, to my knowledge, the animated TV series). (Saturday, Aug. 4, followed by “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” on Sunday, “Escape from the POTA” on Monday, “Conquest of the POTA” on Thursday, and more in coming weeks…)

“3 Women”: The last great film Robert Altman made before the long creative and commercial drought that ended with 1991’s “The Player” was this enigmatic 1977 masterpiece starring Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek as co-workers at a health spa for the elderly in a small California desert town and Janice Rule as their landlord’s wife. It was inspired by a dream Altman had and owes a certain debt to Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona,” and if that doesn’t make you want to see it, I don’t know what will. (Northwest Film Center, Monday, Aug. 6)

“Night of the Hunter”: The best film ever made by someone who never directed another film. Robert Mitchum, Lilian Gish, Shelley Winters. (Hollywood Theatre, Saturday & Sunday, Aug. 4 & 5)

FilmWatch Weekly: Brazil nuts rejoice

A pair of distinctive Brazilian efforts, "Araby" and "Good Manners" play at the Northwest Film Center

The Northwest Film Center has just wrapped up its epic, weeks-long centenary tribute to Ingmar Bergman. I was going to write “iconic Swedish director Ingmar Bergman” or “canonical philosopher of cinema Ingmar Bergman” but, you know, if you’re reading this column and need to have Ingmar Bergman identified for you, you might be in the wrong place.

Anyway, having concluded this remarkable service on behalf of Portland’s cinephiles, the Film Center is returning to its (ir)regular programming. Up this weekend, by chance or design, are a pair of Brazilian films with distinctly different vibes but some interesting commonalities.

“Araby” (no apparent relationship to the James Joyce story in “Dubliners”) is an intimate, class-conscious story about a working-class stiff for whom very little goes right, at least for very long. Co-directors Joao Dumans and Affonso Uchoa have constructed a two-tiered, bifurcated narrative, the first act of which focuses on teenaged Andre (Murilo Caliari). Under the opening credits, Andre steadily bicycles up a steep mountain road towards the ramshackle dwelling he shares with his younger brother and his aunt. As he does, the haunting lyrics of Jackson T. Frank’s “Blues Run the Game” play behind him: “Wherever I’ve gone, the blues are all the same…”

That sentiment dominates the film. Andre, a few scenes later, happens upon the victim of an unspecified accident at a nearby factory. Told to fetch the man’s handwritten journal, Andre ends up sitting down to read it. And, twenty minutes in, we’re presented a title card for “Araby” as its main story begins. The journal’s author, Cristiano (Aristides de Sousa), talks us in flashback through his journey across southern Brazil, working (mostly as a fruit picker), loving, singing, and frequently suffering. It’s never clear whether what we are seeing is a “real” flashback or simply Andre’s imagination, prompted by the increasingly lyrical diary entries he reads.

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Fragmentation in motion: An interview with Jaleesa Johnston

A free screening and animation workshop for black femmes, women, and non-men in Portland, hosted by the first and the last

This past April, I had the pleasure of interviewing artists kiki nicole (they/them) and ariella tai (they/them) about their work through the first and the last—an experimental film/video and new media arts project. This endeavor offers a platform to amplify and support the artistic work of black femmes, women, and non-men through screenings, skillshares, and workshops based in Portland. During our discussion, nicole cited the influence of another Portland-based black femme artist, Jaleesa Johnston (she/her), whom they were excited to curate into their year of programming.

Johnston will be facilitating a screening and workshop as part of the first and the last’s programming this weekend, July 28 and 29. I had the opportunity speak with her about her incisive body of work and conceptual process, and how all of the above will inform these upcoming events.

Lesson #1: Fractioning Gaze(s)” by Jaleesa Johnston

Johnston describes her artist practice as interdisciplinary: The ideas and concepts come first, followed by mediums for their expression. “If I don’t know that medium, I just find a way to learn it or teach it to myself,” she said, reflecting back a sense of determination that nicole and tai emphasized when I spoke to them earlier this year about the work of various self-taught black femme artists.

“Pretty much all of the themes and ideas that I deal with have to do with black female subjectivity and understanding what it means to stand within this in-between space of being both the subject and object in my work, and historically being seen as both subject and object,” Johnston explained. She described how blackness becomes a “liminal space” that can be defined, in certain senses, but also remains undefined. “That actually can be very beneficial and very freeing,” she continued. “I can use that to harness and activate a radical space that allows me to expand beyond the confines of what blackness has conventionally meant or historically meant.”

On July 28, Johnston will screen an excerpt of the video “Compared to What” (2017) by Ayana V. Jackson. A US-born photographer and filmmaker, Jackson often references 19th and early 20th century presentations of black bodies through her self-portraiture. Her performative and photographic work calls into question the ways the camera has historically been used to construct identities.

“It’s an animated video piece, but through photography, stitching together different photos,” described Johnston, who first encountered the film when she was teaching a photography class at Pacific Northwest College of Art. That same semester, Jackson visited the school and came to speak to Johnston’s students.

“It was through seeing her piece that I started really thinking about what’s not said,” she remembered.

The film piqued Johnston’s interest in the difference between live performance and performance that is mediated by photography or video. “Watching her video piece, I just was thinking about the body…the body in fragments caught through snapshots,” she said. As she encountered the film, Johnston considered how live performative work is often presented comprehensively, from beginning to end in real time for an audience, while performative video or photography can sometimes allow for more discretion and choice-making around what is revealed and what is obscured.

In this sense, for Johnston, what is is not said and what is not seen becomes paramount.

“There’s this fragmented piece of body that is actually still finding a way to function and interact and come alive on the screen,” Johnston reflected of the film.

Following the screening, on July 29, Johnston will facilitate an animation workshop seeded by the notion of fragmentation, a concept that shows up in her own work as well, in pieces such as “Lesson #1: Fractioning Gaze(s)” and her collage work, Between Contact. In this skill-building workshop, participants will have the opportunity to learn how to create a .gif through Photoshop and an animation through PowerPoint.

“Antique White and Flesh” by Jaleesa Johnston

Johnston expounded on the phrase “Fragments from the (W)hole,” her choice of title for this offering. “As people, we break off little bits of ourselves, and that’s what people get to see and interact with, but they all tie back to this part of us that is a larger, whole person,” she said. “There are moments where I feel whole, and then there are other times where I feel like a void, like an actual hole.”

Johnston spoke to the notion of fragmentation as a mode of moving through the world, the act of sharing pieces of oneself that connect back to a unique and complex human identity—yet, without revealing its wholeness. For her, there are a range of affective states evoked by this fragmentation, experiences of “feeling fully present and alive, and then moments of feeling like you’re not really here, not really there.” It is critical to consider, as she articulated, “what that means in terms of blackness, and what that means for how we [black folx] have constructed our identity, especially given the history of blackness as its constructed through photography.”

“My rat race of a mind has wired all these things together that I hope to communicate during the workshop,” said Johnston, musing over the marriage of concept with practical skill-building.

Ultimately, she hopes to give others, especially black femmes, opportunities to work with the camera and to create a kind of narrative—one that “allows for this complicated sense of being to exist.”

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Join the first and the last for a screening of Ayana V. Jackson’s work with Johnston on July 28 at 6 pm and an introductory animation workshop on July 29 at 6 pm. These events will be hosted at Alberta Abbey with the Black Life Experiential Research Group (BLERG). Both events are free and open to the public, and the animation workshop will be catered by Platanorising.

the first and the last is accepting donations for their projects and artists via Venmo @firstandlast. Follow @firstandthelast.blk on Instagram to learn more.