TBA: Pop goes the foreign film

Interview with curator Gina Altamura: Holocene's Fin de Cinema comes to TBA, matching live music with Tarkovsky's "The Mirror"

At PICA’s TBA Festival on Monday night, Fin de Cinema drew the largest crowd in its eight years of pairing local pop and experimental musicians with influential foreign cinema. Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror projected on three walls of The Works while four sets of Portland-based musicians took turns performing original work as a soundtrack. Palm Dat and Noah Bernstein of Shy Girls started the show, followed by Brown Calculus (Members of Tribe Mars), and then Dylan Stark. Golden Retriever closed the night, their keening, ambient music filling the spacious hall as Tarkovksy’s dreamy meditation on war and memory faded out.

The series has been running at Holocene since 2009, serving a wide selection of films as creative and collaborative prompts for a healthy cross-section of Portland’s avant garde and pop music scene. The film listing includes Holy Mountain, Hausu, Svankmajer’s Alice, Blow-Up, Daisies, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, The Cassandra Cat, Mala Morska Vila (The Little Mermaid), Stalker, The Mirror, Fantastic Planet, The Color of Pomegranates, and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. These were re-scored by artists including Typhoon, Tu Fawning, Brainstorm, Nurses, AU, Why I Must Be Careful, Grouper, Visible Cloaks, WL, Valet, Wampire, Soft Metals, Wooden Indian Burial Ground, and many more. Gina Altamura, who has been booking acts and curating shows for Holocene for nearly a decade, is the creator and curator of the series. I sat down with Ms. Altamura to discuss the genesis and history of this mainstay of the Portland film and music scenes now that it’s made it into the billing at TBA.

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Andrei Tarkovsky’s “The Mirror.”

Oregon ArtsWatch: So when did Fin de Cinema start?

Altamura: It started in ’09 with [Alejandro Jodorowsky’s] Holy Mountain, which is like the quintessential one to choose. That was an epic one. It was in the days of (the group) Why I Must be Careful. Jon Niekrasz actually composed a bunch of poetry for it. So that was our first one. We initially had the audience sitting on stage, with the live performers behind the audience.

OAW: So that was more like a live score rather than a performance.

Altamura: Yeah, for a while we thought it would be really cool, like you’d just have this magical experience. You wouldn’t even see what the performers were doing, like orchestra-pit style. But at a certain point we started tweaking it, thinking, “Oh it’d be really cool to see what wizardry the performers were doing on stage.” So we started doing it the way we do now, with the projection screen above the performers.

Yeah, we did Holy Mountain, and Stalker actually was our first Tarkovsky, way back in 2010. That one we did as one continuous score.

OAW: Oh wow…

Altamura: Actually the Golden Retriever guys, who did this most recent one, did that one years ago. It was a group jam between them and Liz from Grouper. It was like a three-hour zone-out with no breaks.

OAW: Besides Tarkovsky epics, what are some of your favorites from the past?

Altamura: We did a whole Czech New Wave series – Cassandra Cat, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, we did Daisies. The Czech live action Little Mermaid was really awesome. A Bunch of really psychedelic stuff for the most part.

OAW: Has the format always been a non-English movie with subtitles with the sound off, and all the audio is provided by the performers?

Altamura: Yeah, yes. I basically leave it up to the performers’ creative control. Some of them do pipe in bits of the dialogue, like Akila (Palm Dat) did last night. Sometimes they manipulate it – like when we did Hausu, when it was freshly released on Criterion. The sound design in that movie is so insane – I mean everything about that is insane – but the sound is really important. A lot of the artists that night piped in actual sound effects and elements of the sound design because it was so crazy and genius.

OAW: So your role has been to gather the artists, pick the movie and the theme, but after that do you just facilitate?

Altamura: Yeah, I think of it as like a teacherly endeavor, like I’m giving them assignments. I assign out sections of the movie that I think will fit whatever artists I give them to. From then on I just let them do their thing. And it’s always a treat for me – it’s a surprise for me, since I don’t see what they’re going to do until the night-of.

OAW: Do they all work separately or do you ever have full rehearsals with all the acts going through the movie start to finish?

Altamura: Actually no, everyone has their own piece and they go off and work on it on their own. Part of the idea is to present three to four really distinct interpretations of the film in one night.

OAW: Yeah that’s part of the fun, isn’t it? Even if you’re unfamiliar with the movie or don’t understand it, the different takes and styles from each of the performers is another thing to watch.

Altamura: Yeah! Like with last night, we jumped genre-to-genre between acts. You can get playful with interpretations of the movie.

OAW: Fin de Cinema feels like a Portland institution now, but it’s not really a typical event that you’d find in every city. How did you come up with this in the first place?

Altamura: Well, I’ve always been a super movie buff. In high school I literally had lists of every movie from every major director. I’d just go to the library and check out all these DVDs and dutifully cross off movies on the lists. I was gonna get through all the Tarkovsky, all the Fellini. It was like a running list on our fridge. I was educating myself, into college too. I think it came from that. Once I got into the music biz, I found that I had a knack for the booking side. And I’ve always been interested in interdisciplinary events as a curator. Basically how to explode the idea of a three-band rock bill and how to do less of that and do more of something else, whether it’s pairing music with like visual art or dance, or puppetry.

OAW: Which you have a long history of doing at Holocene.

Altamura: Yeah! So that’s it, really. I just think that sort of synchronization is just so poetic, and so much of what I like to do as a curator.

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