Last year’s Cinema Unbound Awards honored Portlandia’s Carrie Brownstein, master animators Peter Lord and Chris Miller, and the director who helped get Will Smith his unforgettable Oscar moment, Reinaldo Marcus Green, among others. It also concluded with the announcement that the Northwest Film Center was no more, to be replaced by the Portland Art Museum’s Center for an Untold Tomorrow.
What did this novel nomenclature portend? Without the word “film” in there (not to mention that unfortunate acronym CUT), was this the end of a five-decade commitment to cinema that had inspired so many local filmmakers, including Gus Van Sant, and sated the appetites of countless international film aficionados?
PAM CUT director Amy Dotson strove to make clear that the seventh art would remain a part of PAM CUT’s mission, but it’s been hard to tell over the last year. The Whitsell Auditorium has remained largely shuttered, as the focus has been on virtual reality and other technologically-enabled sensory immersion.
For what it’s worth, however, the recipients of 2023’s Cinema Unbound Awards, to be presented on Thursday, June 22, indicate that PAM CUT, regardless of its other plans, continues to recognize a diverse definition of excellence that includes filmmakers, writers, scholars, and even a movie star. (Plus a drummer-turned-comic and a newly anointed culinary mastermind.)
What all the boldfaced names below have in common, says Dotson, is that “they’re playing with form and function, they’re messing with the canon, they’re giving agency to a lot of artists coming up that you don’t have to be just one thing.” The most prominent one, it’s safe to say, is Guillermo del Toro, two-time Oscar winner whose Portland-made animated masterpiece Pinocchio is, not coincidentally, the subject of a new exhibit at the Portland Art Museum and a six-film retrospective at the Whitsell Auditorium June 23-25. “This is a man who does children’s television shows, wins Academy Awards at every level, and started his career as a makeup artist,” says Dotson. Acrobatic actor Doug Jones, a regular (usually silent) member of del Toro’s troupe, is scheduled to introduce the maestro.
The others are no slouches, though. Multi-hyphenate Fred Armisen won’t have to be jealous of his Portlandia co-conspirator Carrie Brownstein’s award from last year. Sorry to Bother You star Tessa Thompson (you may also know her from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and HBO’s Westworld) contributes a dose of whip-smart celebrity. Chef Gregory Gourdet, whose restaurant Kann was named the best new American restaurant at this month’s James Beard Awards, and who will be serving up banana upside-down cake, will also be recognized.
All are worthy, but the two recipients who piqued my interest the most were novelist and screenwriter Jon Raymond and Jacqueline Stewart, Director of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures and the chair of the National Film Preservation Board. Coincidentally, they are the two I was able to speak with. (Which is not to say I would have turned down a chance to chat with any of the others—Guillermo, you know where to find me…)
JACQUELINE STEWART: PRESERVING THE PAST AND EXPANDING THE FUTURE
The recognition of Stewart, in particular, demonstrates PAM CUT’s desire to reach beyond the actors, writers, and directors of the film world to encompass the sometimes overlooked heroes who keep cinema’s history alive and accessible, while deepening our appreciation of it. Stewart curated the revelatory 2015 Blu-ray boxed set, Pioneers of African-American Cinema, which collected and provided context for over 25 hours of independently made Black movies from the first half of the 20th century. She took time from her surely insane schedule to answer a few questions via e-mail.
OREGON ARTSWATCH: As a fellow silent-film lover, it’s wonderful to see someone who champions the art form recognized and celebrated for helping to preserve and expand access to it. What makes that task so vital today and going forward, both in terms of cinema history and a broader appreciation of cultural and historical progress (or the lack thereof)?
STEWART: I’ve long been fascinated by the cultural significance and history of silent films, and it’s a privilege to share that interest with audiences through my work with the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures and TCM. For instance, at the Academy Museum, we currently have a groundbreaking exhibition called Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971 on view. It’s a great example of how historical context motivates audiences to have conversations, to think more deeply about histories that have long been sidelined, and to think about the future through key learnings of the past.
OAW: The Cinema Unbound awards make an effort to honor individuals who promote cinematic storytelling in a variety of ways, beyond the familiar roles of actors, directors, etc. It’s no MacArthur Fellowship, but it must be gratifying to see work that so often goes on behind the scenes have a chance to share in the glitter and glow of an awards banquet.
STEWART: What a wonderful honor to receive this award. To be recognized alongside such powerful storytellers is truly a gift. Studying film history and bringing it to light for the public have been my life’s work, and to have that work held in the same esteem as some of my fellow awardees whose careers have been far more public is a touching surprise.
OAW: You have been instrumental in fostering greater diversity within the field of film preservation as well as the diversity of the works and artists being preserved. Obviously those two things are linked, but can you speak briefly to how far we’ve come in that area, and how much work remains to be done?
STEWART: It’s heartening to see the continuously increasing appetite for inclusivity on and off the screen, yet there is always more work to be done and there are always more stories to unearth. Not only will this expand understandings of history, but it also allows more people to see themselves reflected in films and filmmaking.
OAW: What projects are taking up your time today and what are you looking forward to in the near future?
STEWART: Just this week we launched the second season of The Academy Museum Podcast, which looks at the unsung importance of casting directors. There’s an essential casting story behind every Oscar winner, and we’ll be shedding light on the history of this profession. I’m also extremely excited about our fall lineup of exhibitions, which includes John Waters: Pope of Trash, an exhibition dedicated to vertical cinema, and our inaugural permanent exhibition Hollywoodland, which will explore how the largely Jewish founders of the movie industry transformed Los Angeles into an entertainment capital.
OAW: What does the term Cinema Unbound mean to you?
STEWART: What a great question. Though film has always been a playground for innovation, in many ways, the rules of cinema have indeed been tightly bound. It’s exciting to see how those rules continue to unravel – that the same expansive thinking that goes into advancing what we see onscreen can also be applied to activity offscreen: how and what we research; who has access to opportunity; the stories we decide to tell; and how we tap into histories to think through the future. It’s a fascinating time and I’m grateful to be honored by an organization that champions those values.
JON RAYMOND: LOCAL BOY MAKES GOOD—REAL GOOD
Raymond is a familiar figure in the Portland literary scene and a sign of quality to indie film fans, due largely to his collaborations with director Kelly Reichardt. (Their latest, Showing Up, is another quiet triumph.) He’s also, by my count, the only Portland-born-and-raised awardee other than costume designer Ashley Needham in 2020. (Folks sometimes forget that Gus Van Sant was raised a Kentuckian.)
I talked with Raymond over a beer on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard about his history with the Northwest Film Center, his current projects, and his plans for a show-stopping acceptance speech.
OREGON ARTSWATCH: You’ve written novels, short stories, and screenplays—some of them adaptations of your own prose. How are those experiences different?
RAYMOND: Writing paragraphs is gratifying in its own auto-sadomasochistic way, but scripts are fun because you’re on a team. There are people who depend on you and care. It may sometimes be an audience of one, but at least it’s an audience. So that’s a very distinct pleasure.
OAW: Given that you’ve adapted your own work in the past [Old Joy, Wendy & Lucy, and First Cow were all adapted by Raymond and Reichardt from Raymond’s prose], is it a challenge to keep the script brain from interfering with the prose brain when you’re writing?
RAYMOND: Because the writing I do is conventionally naturalistic in a lot of ways, and does obey some of the basic 19th-century laws of narrative, they have a lot in common. But while I’m writing a novel, I wouldn’t stop and think “Wow, this scene seems really cinematic.” That’s not the way I would think about it. But I might think, “How would a movie get through this particular sequence. How would Robert Bresson handle this?”
OAW: How does one learn that one has been selected as the recipient of a Cinema Unbound award?
RAYMOND: I have no idea how they make the determination. But I actually got to know Amy Dotson because her kid was in a newspaper club I help run at Abernathy Elementary School. So I knew her kid before I knew her. And we were having coffee one day when she informed me that I had been selected as one of these people, which was a wonderful surprise.
OAW: One of PAM CUT’s goals with these awards, it seems, is to acknowledge original talents on a national and even global scale, but also to keep a foot planted in the Northwest, and Oregon in particular. Does the award have special significance as a hometown honor?
RAYMOND: Well, among the people being honored, I’m the only one who saw Out of the Past really stoned at the Film Center when I was in high school. The Berg-Swann was such a beautiful theater. So it definitely has some sentimental meaning for me. Seeing my first film noir movies there with my friend James was really formative…I remember seeing a Q&A with Paul Morrissey [the director of several Andy Warhol-produced films] in, I think, the late ’80s. For one thing, I realized Andy Warhol didn’t make those movies! I vividly remember what an imperious, slightly intimidating presence he was…And in the late ’90s, I went with Todd [Haynes] to see Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle. I’d been reading about it for years, and those films are really hard to see. So, I had a lot of memorable experiences there.
OAW: There certainly was a sense of community around the Northwest Film Center, and PAM CUT is trying to create its own identity and community, one that’s diverse and forward-thinking. And the selection of honorees this year reflects that.
RAYMOND: Yeah, well Guillermo Del Toro is obviously a genius. He’s a Spielberg-level creator, and a deep cinephile. I’ve met Fred [Armisen] a few times in passing, and while I know there are the Portlandia haters in the world, I think it’s great. The more romanticism, the more weird versions of Portland that are created, the more like a city we become. And I think Portlandia did a really excellent job of sort of clearing the deck of the mythologies that had built up around Portland. Tessa Thompson is great—I loved Sorry to Bother You.
OAW: What are you working on currently?
RAYMOND: Well, at the moment I’m on [WGA] strike, so I’m not working on any screenplays. I am in the middle of a novel, which has been taking a lot of time, but I’ve reached a brief pause point in that. I can say, since Todd Haynes talked about it at Cannes, that I’m co-writing his next film, which is going to star Joaquin Phoenix and be an NC-17 gay love story set in 1930s Los Angeles.
OAW: Do you have a speech written for the Cinema Unbound ceremony?
RAYMOND: No one has really told me what my duties are. I guess there’s some expectation that I’ll say something…
OAW: Most of the recipients at the past ceremonies have given these incredibly moving, profound calls to harness artistic creativity in the service of a most just and equitable world. So, no pressure.
RAYMOND: (laughs) Yeah, mine will probably clock in at about twenty-five, thirty minutes. I hope I can use flash pots.
(The 2024 Cinema Unbound Awards take place on Thursday, June 22, at the Portland Art Museum.)