Bennett Campbell Ferguson


Portland’s arthouse movie theaters haven’t given up

In a mutating media landscape,the Hollywood, NW Film Center and Clinton St. Theater are learning to adapt

When Lani Jo Leigh bought the Clinton Street Theater in 2012, she considered ending the theater’s decades-long run of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a movie that is far from her personal cinematic tastes. (“I like foreign films that are all very intellectual and nothing really happens and people just sort of talk,” she says.)

Then Leigh realized that Rocky Horror wasn’t just a cult craze. It was also a haven for Portland’s LGBTQ community.

“I started meeting all these people—these amazing people—and heard them tell me, ‘Rocky Horror saved my life. I used to cut myself or I used to harm myself in this way. I had thoughts of suicide because I didn’t fit in. But I came here and I was fine, I was safe, I could be me,’” Leigh says. “I understood that it was a gift that the theater was giving to the LGBTQ community.”

The Clinton St. Theater has a long history of resistance.
These days, it’s also fighting for its own survival.

But that was another life. The Clinton Street Theater is just one of many Portland arthouse movie theaters faced with a choice: evolve or die. As COVID-19 continues to rage throughout Oregon, theaters have been forced to abandon traditions like Rocky Horror in favor of streaming films or (if they have the space) hosting drive-in screenings.

As I began speaking to stalwarts of Portland’s arthouse cinema scene for this article, I braced for bad news. I was heartened to hear less of it then I expected. “It’s amazing—we’ve all still been really busy, even though the theater’s closed,” says Dan Halsted, the head programmer at the Hollywood Theater. “So I think that’s helped with keeping morale up. It’s not just doom and gloom.”

But not every theater is the Hollywood. Here’s what I learned about the state of some of the city’s most beloved arthouse theaters—what they have become and what they’re doing to survive long enough to see a post-COVID Portland.

Return of the drive-in.

Amy Dotson was sitting on the back of her grandfather’s 1970s blue Ford pickup truck when the tornado struck. It was 1996 and she was seeing Twister at the Cinema 69 Drive-In in Oklahoma. The arrival of an actual twister cut the screening short, but it didn’t diminish her enthusiasm for drive-in theaters—as the director of the NW Film Center, she’s overseeing the Drive-In at Zidell Yards (which is a collaboration between the Film Center and the Portland Art Museum and will be open on and off through September 27).

“We’ve sold about 800 tickets to date,” Dotson says. “We hope that that’s a good sign and people will continue to come out and enjoy some popcorn and a night under the stars.”

Drive-in theaters are often associated with blockbusters like Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg’s devilish dinos topped the box office once again in June), but the Film Center is offering edgier options as part of its Cinema Unbound series. Obvious summer fare like E.T. and Fast Times at Ridgemont High will be shown, but so will Sofia Coppola’s transcendent Tokyo odyssey Lost in Translation (two of the series’ finest offerings, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, have already sold out).

“Our litmus test was people who refuse to let their creativity be bound by convention…from people like the late Lynn Shelton to Creature from the Black Lagoon,” Dotson says (the theater is showing Sword of Trust, the final film directed by Shelton, a brilliant mumblecore auteur who died in May).

Drive-In at Zidell Yards gets beyond traditional drive-in movie fare.

After facing controversy over a planned opening screening of Kindergarten Cop (it was replaced by the documentary John Lewis: Good Trouble, which has sold out), the Drive-In at Zidell Yards opens tonight—and will be observing strict social distancing protocols. Popcorn will be served to the hoods of cars and moviegoers will hear the film using a limited FM radio frequency.

“Everything is not foolproof,” Dotson says. “So we just want to make sure whether it’s the Drive-In or whether it’s other things that we’re doing that it’s safety first and then backing up from there.”

The evolution will be digitized.

If film fandom is a polytheistic religion, physical media is one of its gods. I should know—I’m one of the cine-snobs who insisted on seeing Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, a Netflix film, on the big screen in 2018. This may sound like deluded romanticism to nonbelievers, but I’ve never liked the intangibility of streaming services. A movie isn’t fully real to me until I hold either a ticket, a DVD or a Blu-Ray in my hand.

That attitude is one of the pandemic’s more trivial casualties. “I’ve been a projectionist and film programmer my entire life, so all of this has been such a huge change in gears,” Dan Halsted says. “All of a sudden, I’m thrust into streaming and everything online, and the tech side is really complicated and I’m trying to figure all that out. It’s very bizarre.”

Thanks to its inventive virtual programming, the Hollywood has become a model for pandemic-era cinematic success. By offering moviegoers online classes and original films, the theater has given its fans a reason to watch (and will have drive-in screenings of its own, which will take place at the Expo Center beginning August 13).

After closing in March, the Hollywood announced an April 18 reopening date, which executive director Doug Whyte swiftly realized was a mistake. “We put it on our marquee I think the first night, and I think already by the second day we were like, ‘Let’s get that day off the marquee,’” he says. Eventually, the theater did reopen, but only for rental screenings (Whyte says that they have been popular, but that no customer has paid the $900-$1,200 necessary for a live pipe-organ score).

The Hollywood’s classes (which are offered through its Movie Madness University program) have spotlighted everything from A Hard Day’s Night to Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Suspiria—and they actually expanded during the pandemic. “We were about to launch those education classes before the pandemic, and they could have had 16 people per class,” Whyte says. “Now we’re doing them online and we’ve had like 100-plus people per class.”

Gremlins: A Puppet Story, available on the theater’s website,
is an example of Hollywood Theatre’sprogramming creativity.

Other Hollywood Theatre triumphs include Gremlins: A Puppet Story (a new behind-the-scenes documentary about Joe Dante’s 1984 horror classic Gremlins), which features rare photos and videos from special-effects master Chris Walas’ personal archive. Available on the theater’s website, it’s the kind of offering that is emblematic of the institution’s impressive reinvention.

“We are in a lucky position,” Whyte says. “We’re a nonprofit organization, we have a big base of members and donors, we own our building outright, we don’t have any debts on it and we have a pretty healthy reserve.”

Not every theater has been so fortunate.

Twilight for the Clinton?

Founded in 1915, the Clinton Street Theater has endured its share of crises. “The theater’s been there for the community since it opened and it’s never stopped operating,” says Lani Jo Leigh. “Through the Spanish flu, and through World War I and World War II, it’s survived.”

Can the Clinton survive Covid-19, too? Leigh isn’t sure, but she’s fighting for the theater. She’s offering Clinton lovers films and videos to stream, popcorn to go (on Fridays and Saturdays) and theater merchandise (including facemasks and Unfit, her memoir about being forced to give up her son Bo when she was a teenager).

Leigh also needs $4,000 a month to pay the theater’s bills—and its miniscule lobby means it won’t be able to reopen until social distancing is no longer necessary. “Everywhere you look, there’s a problem,” Leigh says. “If I went down to 25 percent capacity, I could have people arranged in the auditorium itself, but it’s just getting there and getting out or getting concessions or getting to a bathroom that’s impossible.”

In other words, the Clinton is a reminder that when it comes to arthouse cinema, the NW Film Center and the Hollywood are arguably the exception, not the rule.

“It’s important to remember that these businesses are now hurt through no fault of their own,” says Phil Contrino, director of media and research at the National Association of Theater Owners. “They were robust businesses, especially independent theaters, which are an essential part of the communities they’re in—a gathering place. They can be that again.”

How? Contrino points to the RESTART Act—which, if passed by Congress, could give movie theaters access to partially forgivable seven-year loans covering six months of expenses (NATO is promoting it using the #SaveYourCinema campaign). But people may have to act soon if they want to save theaters like the Clinton.

“I know I can’t open safely until there’s a vaccine or there’s a treatment,” Leigh says. “I kind of vacillate between being super, super sad because I’m losing something I’ve built up over eight years…and being angry at the messed-up way we are in our country and how we’ve had not little, but no leadership on this.”

Clinging to cinema.

Phil Contrino is a seasoned movie buff (the last film he saw in a theater was the Oscar-nominated obscurity Corpus Cristi)—and he was one of the most chipper people I spoke to for this article (“Independent theatres are so resourceful,” he declared). His optimism isn’t surprising—he has a personal stake in the survival of theaters.

I do, too. In 2012, I worked at the Joy Cinema and Pub (which is owned by my lifelong friend, Jeff Martin), a gig that paved the way for me to work part-time at Cinema 21—an experience that taught me that a movie theater isn’t just a place to watch movies. It can also be an arena of conversation and connection.

Which is why, even though I miss my job, I miss my colleagues more. I miss the fanboy frenzies that I share with Erik when we geek out about Christopher Nolan. I miss Riley’s mouthwatering rhapsodies about the ice cream at Mike’s Drive-In. I miss having zany political debates with Ward. I miss Agnieszka’s toughness, kindness and peerless sense of style (I’m biased because like me, she’s into berets).

There are times when I wonder if I should stop torturing myself with those memories, but clinging to them has become an act of defiance, and defiance feels right. I know that and I think Leigh knows it—she hasn’t fully closed the curtains on The Rocky Horror Picture Show. “My manager—I’m not paying him, he’s doing it voluntarily—every week, he still goes over and he runs that print and he plays Rocky Horror,” she told me.

You can call that a symbolic gesture, and it is. It’s a symbol of the ideals that are sustaining arthouse cinemas: resilience and hope.

Cat videos to the rescue

Can a collection of cat videos help save independent movie houses from the economic ravages of the pandemic?

Do cats know that there is a pandemic? Cat lover, filmmaker and movie theatre owner Brian Mendelssohn isn’t sure, but he is struck by the feline capacity for empathy.

“My wife is pregnant now and our cat Oliver has literally been sleeping on her every night, protecting her and the kid,” Mendelssohn says. “So they definitely sense what we’re feeling and what we’re doing.”

Mendelssohn’s fascination with cats is felt in every frame of the Quarantine Cat Film Fest, an 84-minute movie he directed that features cat videos from across America. The film is filled with feasting, lounging and adventuring cats—and it’s raising money for independent theatres affected by the pandemic (including several in Oregon). “‘Funny’ and ‘cute’—those things that we need during a pandemic,” Mendelssohn says. “We just needed a boost right now.”


The Cabin (and the Music) in the Woods

"Aberdeen," Matt Sheehy’s musical memoir of grief and rebirth, is livestreaming this weekend

By the time I was done watching the new, live-streaming performance of Aberdeen, a surreal and soulful album from the Portland indie-rock band Lost Lander, I felt like an expert on its star, Matt Sheehy. I wasn’t, of course—Aberdeen is just one 75-minute fragment of Sheehy’s psyche—but the performance was so intimate that I felt like I was.

Part concert, part confessional and part woozy fantasy, this rendition of Aberdeen may seem like old news to people familiar with Sheehy’s nakedly emotional, gently yearning songs. Those who aren’t acquainted with his work are about to discover a brilliant and bizarre plunge into the mind of a singular artist.

Matt Sheehy, in a screen shot from the promo video for “Aberdeen.”

Aberdeen begins with Sheehy standing alone in a forest (the performances are being streamed from Corbett, Oregon). With disarming frankness, he begins telling us about some of the most anguished moments of his life, including the death of his mother. In one of the show’s many flashbacks, his girlfriend Sarah (bandmate Sarah Fennell) asks him, “Did your mom dying make you want to have kids?”


… And the show goes on

With joy and poignance, the PAMTA musical-theater awards show went virtual on Thursday night. The winners, and the moments to remember.

“You can have all the bells and whistles or you can have none of them and you can still move an audience. You can still reach an audience and make them laugh and cry. It’s what the actors are saying and doing that really makes theater theater.”

Those are the words of Corey Brunish—and they perfectly capture the thirteenth edition of the Portland Area Musical Theatre Awards,known as the PAMTAs. While the show, which Brunish founded and produces, drew more than 300 people to the Winningstad Theatre in 2019, this year’s audience had to experience the ceremony via YouTube. And it didn’t feel unplugged.

Triangle Productions’ “That’s No Lady,” based on the life of legendary drag queen Darcelle XV, was a multiple award-winner at the PAMTAs.


Under ‘Suspiria’s’ spell

A new online course from Movie Madness University, led by Anthony Hudson, probes a horror remake.

A new online course from Movie Madness University probes a horror remake.

In a sickening scene from director Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 remake of the Dario Argento horror classic Suspiria, a dancer is literally torn apart. Her gruesome final moments—punctuated by contorted flesh and cracking bones—were notorious even before the film was released.

Yet after seeing Suspiria with friends on Halloween in 2018, film programmer Anthony Hudson was both shocked and entranced. “Honestly, we were all silent and in a state of rapture,” says Hudson, also known as the drag clown Carla Rossi. “I think the first thing I said after seeing it was, ‘I can’t believe that was a great horror movie and it summed up all of my politics.’”

Hudson will share the rapture this Thursday in an online Suspiria course (offered by Movie Madness University, the Hollywood Theatre’s film education program) that spotlights the movie’s progressive politics, queer love stories and moral ambiguities. “It’s not easily read as black and white,” Hudson says of Suspiria. “Even the protagonist, this goddess, is still a primordial witch deity who has to sacrifice people for her magic, and I think that just speaks to the complications of the world we live in.”

Anthony Hudson will teach an online course on the remake of Suspiria through Movie Madness University and the Hollywood Theatre

Set in 1977 (the year that the original film was released), Suspiria stars Dakota Johnson as Susie Bannion, the American star of a West Berlin dance company that is also a coven of witches. The film is filled with supernatural shenanigans, which are juxtaposed with the German Autumn, when the Red Army Faction was involved in a series of kidnappings and other violent incidents. 


Cuddles at CoHo

Fear, intimacy and absurdity collide in the CoHo Productions staging of "The Found Dog Ribbon Dance."

I first heard about Cuddle Con — the Portland cuddling convention — shortly before it debuted in 2015. A classmate in an audio storytelling class was doing a project about the event, and I remember thinking that it sounded glorious. As a single 24-year-old with only a couple close friends and no career, I found the prospect of physical intimacy with even a stranger inviting.

As it turned out, I never attended Cuddle Con, but I have remained fascinated by the concept of professional cuddling. What, I have found myself wondering, does it say about our society that people are literally paying for platonic closeness? Has the numbing isolation induced by social media sundered society that badly? Or does professional cuddling simply represent a solution to the age-old agony of loneliness?

Those questions aren’t answered in CoHo’s production of Dominic Finocchiaro’s The Found Dog Ribbon Dance, which I can safely say is the first play I’ve seen about a professional cuddler. Yet the play is a moving and entertaining meditation on the joy of physical intimacy and the awfulness (for some people) of its absence. Watching it may bring up painful memories of isolation (it did for me). But it also delivers a satisfying brew of truth, wit and catharsis.

Faraway, so close: Clifton Holznagel (from left), Beth Thompson and Tom Mounsey test the boundaries of togetherness in The Found Dog Ribbon Dance, a play by Reed College alum Dominic Finocchiaro. Photo: Owen Carey.

Directed by Connery MacRae, The Found Dog Ribbon Dance stars Beth Thompson as Norma, a woman who has started a successful cuddling business in her home. Her clients include an emotionally and physically scarred young woman (Deborah Jensen) and an elderly man (Marty Baeudet) who doesn’t speak a word until near the story’s end.

While the play could have worked as a series of vignettes about Norma’s clients, Finocchiaro chooses other narrative paths. He shows us the evolution of Norma’s romance with Norm (Tom Mounsey), a minor YouTube celebrity who works in a coffee shop, and her ongoing quest to find out who owns the dog she recently found (the pooch is played by Clifton Holznagel, who eschews a tail in favor of a black T-shirt that identifies him as a canine).

Norma’s cuddling technique is exemplary — her voice is so soothing that even her trite insistence that her home “is a safe space” becomes seductive. Achieving intimacy in her personal life proves more difficult for her, an irony that becomes a catalyst for a love-work crisis that causes her to question everything that she has devoted her life to.

It’s disappointing that the explanation for Norma’s fear of closeness with anyone besides her clients turns out to be fairly straightforward. In fact, it’s disappointing that the play offers an explanation at all. Making the story of what cuddling means and why it matters about one person’s inner strife distracts from the fascinating question of why human beings are so starved for connection that cuddling has become a viable job.

That oversight bothered me without diminishing my appreciation for the production’s numerous successes, especially Thompson’s performance. Found Dog chronicles the crumbling of Norma’s romance with Norm, which makes her doubt not just whether she’s capable of being part of a relationship but the value of physical intimacy itself. It’s haunting to watch Thompson take Norma on a journey from preaching the gospel of cuddling (“There’s nothing wrong with asking for what you need”) to all but renouncing her faith (“I want to believe. But I don’t know anymore”).

Tom Mounsey gets all in a whirl in The Found Dog Ribbon Dance. Photo: Owen Carey.

The play suggests that while professional cuddling has value, mediated affection has its limits, an idea that Norm embodies. His fame is the result of a peculiar fetish—he films himself dancing to the music of Whitney Houston while wearing a luchador mask and waving a ribbon through the air. He is willing to look ridiculous in front of anonymous internet users, but he refuses to let Norma see him dance, which underlines the inability of both characters to experience togetherness beyond confines of their respective pursuits.

The beauty of The Found Dog Ribbon Dance lies in its portrait of Norma and Norm gradually bumbling beyond those restrictions. In a show-stopping scene, Norm dances to Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” waving his crimson ribbon in a series of dizzying spirals and swirls. It’s a jubilant spectacle, but it’s just the beginning. Because above all, Found Dog is about how for both Norma and Norm, “I want” becomes “I will.”

Heroes and Villains

Review: Broadway Rose's "Up and Away" is an affectionate yet subversive musical superhero parody

Why superheroes? As films like The Avengers and The Dark Knight have elevated the profiles of comic-book characters, that question has reverberated through American pop culture. In an age when Star Wars takes a back seat to even B-list Marvel icons like Iron Man, it’s hard not to wonder what stories of costumed do-gooders have that other modern mythologies don’t.

If you want an answer, go see Broadway Rose’s production of Up and Away, a musical that mocks superheroes even as it burrows to the core of their unflagging appeal. It’s an imperfect play with a few poorly aimed satirical jabs, but it is also moving and subversive in ways that few superhero films are. By remixing elements from Superman lore (including an alien hero and a journalist love interest), it manages to excavate some of the reasons why superheroes matter to so many.

Colin Stephen Kane (left), Paul Rona, and Malia Tippets. Photo: Sam Ortega

Like Richard Donner’s 1978 film Superman, Up and Away shows us a doomed and distant planet from which a baby is sent to Earth. One time jump later, we’re in Farmtown, USA, where the brothers Joe (Paul Wrona) and Jerry Jessup (Colin Stephen Kane) discover a pair of mysterious crimson gloves. When Joe dons them, he can fly and see five seconds into the future (when he touches his head, that is). Invigorated by his newfound abilities, he sets off for Big City, where he becomes a crimefighter named Super Saver.