Portland movie fundamentalists gather at the Church Of Film

Meet Portland’s most alternative alternative Cinema

By LILY HUDSON

Every Wednesday evening, as the sun goes down, a small but loyal congregation gathers in North Portland. They’re acolytes of the Church of Film, and they’ve come to worship at this altar of cinema…

Church of Film is an unorthodox movie theatre, staged weekly at 635 N. Killingsworth Court. That’s the address of the North Star Ballroom, a former Odd Fellows hall that now daylights as an event space for parties and wedding receptions. On Wednesday nights it’s taken over by film. Attendees sit in wooden pews (it is recommended to bring your own lumbar support) and sip wine as they settle in for an evening of cinema reverence. (Celluloid purists take note: you’ll find no actual film at Church of Film. Features are projected digitally from a humble laptop.)

photo courtesy of Church of Films Facebook page

It’s an understatement to say Church of Film is an alternative to the monotheism of the multiplex. The two-person operation is so bare bones, it makes homey alt-film venues like the Hollywood seem slick and commercial. The crowd here is young, and the selections are edgy. Sometimes, during quiet points in the movie, mechanical grinding noises can be heard from the industrial kitchen downstairs.

Launched in August of 2013, this guerrilla-style gathering is an act of purebred film fanaticism. It has no yearly budget and charges no entry fee. Operating funds are raised solely through patron donations and the sale of drinks, candy and popcorn at the concession window. Church of Film fits right into the cozy North Portland cultural scene with a community-minded, love-over-gold ethos that’s shared by neighboring endeavors like Mississippi Records and the Portland Museum of Modern Art.

Church of Film is the creation of friends Matthew Lucas and Leslie Napoles, a pair of film buffs who share stewardship of the event. “Leslie manages this space, and we had talked for a while about using it for other things,” says Lucas. “We realized that all we needed was a screen and projector and we could start a film night. … It’s really become what I hoped it would become. When we started, we weren’t sure how long we could sustain it, but now it’s a real underground film night.

“Leslie and I work hard to do everything ourselves and keep this running. But we wouldn’t have gotten anywhere if there hadn’t been such a great response from organizations like the Hollywood, Cinema Project, PMOMA and S1 gallery, who have all been really supportive. Portland really nurtures collaborative potential.”

Pastoral: To Die in the Country

Pastoral: To Die in the Country

From a programming perspective, Church of Film unites the sacred and the profane, with a predilection for the darker, weirder facets of film history. In their mission statement, they vow to bring patrons “the long lost, forgotten, overlooked, obscure or unavailable.” In the process, they have screened some truly bizarre artifacts, like the hallucinogenic, disturbing Pastoral: To Die in the Country by Shuji Terayama.

“I’m a huge film nerd, and I’m always reading, researching, and searching for new material,” says Lucas. “Occasionally you come across a film that blows you away, that makes you want to run into the park, throw up some bedsheets between trees, and show to everyone who will watch.”

An emphasis on Slavic cinema is apparent. In the past they have shown unusual, satisfying work by such  little-known directors as Elo Havetta and Yuri Ilyenko, and presented a series honoring Czech New Wave auteur Vera Chytilova, who passed away earlier this year. (Lucas created his own original subtitles in order to show one of the more obscure Chytilova films.) “Some really radical cinema came out of places like the Ukraine or Yugoslavia, but because of political obstruction, or perceived unmarketability, or because they’re smaller industries, much of their film history is unknown in the US. And then there are places like the former Czechoslovakia, where even a good amount of exposure has not yet illuminated even a fraction of their cinematic treasures.”

In celebration of Halloween, they just wrapped an October program of art-inflected horror that included Nicholas Roeg’s psychological thriller Don’t Look Now, Alan Parker’s erotic horror/noir fusion Angel Heart, and Juraj Herz’ dark, pithy The Cremator, about a creepy mortuary director who’s equally interested in Nazi eugenics and the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

“Our tastes are different and our selections balance each other out, so it’s a good partnership. Leslie is a writer and her tastes tend to reflect that. My tastes are usually concerned with the design of the film.”

Lucas and Napoles take turns giving a short introduction before each film. Their mutual cine-obsession shines through in these opening talks, which are enthusiastic, detailed and impeccably researched, adding historical context to the experience of the film.

But despite the arthouse pedigrees and sometimes challenging nature of the material that’s being shown, Church of Film’s atmosphere isn’t solemn or academic. The dominant feeling is of the pleasure of sharing a movie with friends: patrons laugh and chatter before the show, then whisper and pass boxes of Raisinets back and forth in the dark. For Lucas and Napoles, this is the heart of the experience.

“Cinema is communal. We forget, in the age of Netflix, laptops and home theaters, that a movie used to be about sharing [the experience] with other people and engaging together. We wanted to foster an environment where people could share reactions to what they were seeing and have fun.”

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Matthew Lucas (right, dressed as a character from “Daisies”) and Leslie Napoles (left). Photo by: Jason Traeger

Lucas’ pick for the November schedule is a screening of Malpertuis on the 19th. “This film encapsulates, for me, the absolute insanity and lack of parameters in ‘70s Euro arthouse. Harry Kumel was a gifted Belgian director who had come up with an unexpected hit, a vampire film called Daughters of Darkness. With that credit, he was able to pull together quite a bit of money for Malpertuis. It’s basically kitchen-sink arty-ness. Orson Welles cameo? Check. Yé-yé girl Sylvie Vartan? We’ll find a way to pencil in a song! Elaborate surrealist set pieces? Susan Hampshire playing three different roles? Sure, why not! The plot is somewhere between a fairy-tale and surrealist pulp, about Greek gods and goddesses trapped inside a crumbling and labyrinthine mansion.

“It had an enormous impact at Cannes but predictably was impossible to market, so it disappeared almost immediately after the festival,” Lucas said. It’s exactly the kind of forgotten film we love to play!”

December is a quiet month at Church of Film, with hiatuses for the holidays. But on the 10th you can catch The Draughtsman’s Contract, Peter Greenaway’s 1982 drama of eroticism and conspiracy in Jacobean England.

“I love films that are puzzles,” Lucas says. “This is Peter Greenaway’s first theatrical feature, and he really establishes himself as the sinister, anal-retentive cousin of filmmakers like Jacques Rivette and Raoul Ruiz. It starts as a sharp period piece, but it goes places you would never dream! There’s a scandal that builds into a conspiracy and then snowballs into really far out metaphysical territory. And along the way it has some of the wittiest, most hyper-literate writing and impeccable design you’ll ever find. The film is set in the 17th century, but probably most of us can relate entirely with Greenaway’s hapless anti-hero, who is in way over his head and can’t admit it until it may be too late.”

Features are Wednesday nights at 9 pm, with an occasional pre-screening shorts program beginning at 8. You can visit them at www.churchoffilm.org, and follow them on Tumblr and Facebook for updates.

Photo courtesy of Church of Film Facebook page

One Response.

  1. trackofalljades says:

    Thanks for informing people about yet another amazing treasure for cinephiles in this city. I’m curious, do you know if small time get togethers like this ever have to worry about running afoul of IP licensing? I know at least in some states when you want to present a well known blockbuster or classic Hollywood film to an “event” audience (like, say, for a school fundraiser or something) you have to rent distribution rights from a special kind of DVD/streaming company…or else run the risk of getting a nasty lawyer letter if someone finds out down the line. I know it’s highly unlikely, but the issue has often come up when I’ve planned such events in the past. Is this kind of thing more relaxed in Oregon, particularly for rare or obscure stuff that’s hard to legitimately find distribution of? I’ve often wondered the same thing about the old cartoons and other oddities that the Hollywood shows.

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