Erik McClanahan

Film critic, podcaster and writer residing in Portland, OR. I co-host and edit the film podcast Adjust Your Tracking. Lead film critic for Oregon Arts Watch. Columnist/podcast editor for The Playlist (on Indiewire). Co-host Over/Under Movies. Other work includes duties as projectionist, print traffic coordinator and manager for The Northwest Film Center and Cinema 21. My writing has also appeared on indiewire, Willamette Week, The Star Tribune, Vita.mn, Toledo City Paper and Pulse of the Twin Cities.

 

FILM REVIEW: “Mountains May Depart” and “A Guy from Fenyang”

The latest film from Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke plays along with a documentary about him by Brazilian director Walter Salles

In late 2012, I interviewed Brazilian director Walter Salles for the release of his film adaptation of “On The Road.” Salles, A gregarious and thoughtful conversationalist, mentioned near the end of our chat, that he loves and misses books that filmmakers write about other filmmakers, and that he planned to write one about Chinese director Jia Zhangke (“Still Life,” “A Touch Of Sin”). “For me,” he said, “he’s the most important filmmaker alive.” Only a few years later, Salles made good on that promise. Sort of.

While there’s no sign yet of a book, we do have “Jia Zhangke, A Guy From Fenyang,” a documentary portrait by Salles of the revered filmmaker, screening this weekend along with Jia’s latest film, “Mountains May Depart,” at The Northwest Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium. For anyone who follows contemporary world cinema, or who appreciates entertaining, moving, and beautiful films, it’s the highlight of the weekend.

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Top Down: Making It Happen Every Week

Projectionist Erik McClanahan provides a glimpse at the hard work that makes Rooftop Cinema a reality

The act of showing a movie today is almost embarrassingly easy. Push a button and voilà, movie time! Digital magic, you know? All you have to do is press that button and the show will go on.

Now, put all that equipment outside and things get a little more complicated.

It can be a magical way to experience a movie, under the stars of a gorgeous Summer evening in Portland. That’s the appeal of Top Down, at least for the audience. For projectionists like me and my co-workers, it’s a whole different story.

The annual rooftop movie series put on by The Northwest Film Center is back and ready to kick off Thursday. The makeshift outdoor cinema will be built, as always, atop the Hotel deLuxe parking structure in downtown Portland, once per week through the end of August. The Film Center staff is a small but devoted clan of film lovers, and it takes nearly all of us every Thursday to pull off this event.

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The projectionists’ view from behind the screen at Top Down

For sound, we have six speakers and two large sub-woofers shaped liked giant ice cubes, all run through a mixing board which is set up behind the massive 16′ x 9′ inflatable screen. Keeping that screen erect is a small machine that simply shoots a non-stop funnel of air through it all night long. If the power goes out, or some hapless child decides to pull the plug (which has happened before), it will deflate almost instantly, and we have to scramble to solve the problem.

Setting up projection, though, is the most laborious and time-consuming part of the process. We opt for rear projection up there, so the portable digital projector is setup behind the screen. This arrangement is akin to a great special effect: when it’s done well, with plenty of advance preparation and testing, the audience won’t even notice all the hard work it took to make it happen.

Portland is spoiled rotten with outdoor screenings during these hot Summer months. Most of them are free, relatively low-key community-based events at parks across town. Not Top Down, where your ticket gets you a seat to the movie (or at least a place to put the lawn chair you bring), a live band or DJ performance preceding it, and a stunning 360 degree panorama of our lovely city. If you’re lucky, a gorgeous sunset will not only fill the sky with more sparkling yellows, oranges and purples than a Terrence Malick film projected through black lights, but also signal the movie is about to begin.

Once the sun goes down, the real magic hour begins. After the film ends, the audience departs, almost certainly tired and maybe a little tipsy, but also (ideally) buzzing with the joy of a special cinematic experience. For the staffers on site, breakdown begins and we reverse all the set-up from the day, packing up the equipment, tents, and hundreds of chairs. If we’ve done our job correctly, there’s nary a trace that a movie was shown here, or that 500 people sat atop and watched it. We won’t be done working until 1:00 am, if we’re lucky. Working Top Down is a right of passage for the staff, something we all have to do at some point, and even though it’s exhausting and stressful as hell, it’s all worth it.

attack-the-blockThe seven films programmed for the series this year—can’t miss highlights include “Attack The Block,” “Raising Arizona” and “Key Largo”—include something for everyone. As always, it’s an eclectic mix of titles. Where else could you see Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It” one week and then John Waters’ musical “Hairspray” only a few weeks later, all projected on a big screen? (If it’s windy up top, the screen will bulge in and out as though you’re watching a 3-D movie without glasses, which is a special treat, believe it or not). Talking Heads frontman David Byrne’s 1986 film “True Stories,” less a musical than an art film inspired by that decade’s music video aesthetics, closes out the series on August 25. But first, this week, there’s Ed Wood’s infamous shitshow “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” which you have to see to believe.

Now’s your chance to see them all, under the stars with friends and a bunch of like-minded strangers. I can’t think of any better reason to work so hard for one screening. There’s plenty more to this story, but at least now you know that simply pushing a button is only 1% of this event.

Erik McClanahan is a projectionist for The Northwest Film Center. If you see him and/or any other crew members at Top Down, make sure to say hi. Advance tickets are highly recommended for this event. You can purchase tickets for each film here.

FILM REVIEW: “Tickled” is no laughing matter

This unpredictable documentary follows a New Zealand journalist as he investigates a bizarre tickling-video subculture

It’s hard to think of a more thrilling cinematic experience than watching a movie narrative constantly evolve and change shape. That’s even more true in nonfiction, where a filmmaker may start with a simple premise or subject, then realize, typically through sheer coincidence and dumb luck, that they’ve stumbled onto a much larger or weirder tale than they could ever have imagined. “The Imposter,” “Exit Through The Gift Shop,” “My Kid Could Paint That,” “Capturing The Friedmans” are a few great examples of truth being far stranger than fiction; they start as one thing and became something else entirely by the end.

A similar mutation occurs in “Tickled,” a new documentary opening at Hollywood Theatre on Friday, July 8, and if these kinds of movies are your cup of tea, look no further. Surely you won’t see what’s coming.

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INTERVIEW: Anna Rose Holmer, director of “The Fits”

The talented new voice talks about her poetic, immersive portrait of an 11-year-old girl who joins a Cincinnati dance team

Director Anna Rose Holmer is no stranger to Portland. When I got her on the line recently to talk about her new film, “The Fits,” she mentioned her time in 2008 living here finishing her first film, a documentary called “Twelve Ways To Sunday,” and also working at The Northwest Film Center’s equipment room.

“The Fits” is a distinctively cinematic coming of age story about a pre-teen girl’s transition from tomboy boxer to competitive dancer, but really, describing the plot does the film no justice. “I’ve started to describe it more sparsely,” Holmer laughed, “But I describe it as genre-blending film that brings the audience into the singular perspective of an 11-year-old girl named Toni.” Toni is played by newcomer Royalty Hightower, an incredibly gifted young actress who carries most the film on her broad, youthful shoulders. Holmer and her small, mostly female crew set out to find an existing dance team that could fill the role of the one in the film. After discovering Q-Kidz, a group based in Cincinnati, on YouTube, the rest of the film fell into place, and they shot on location (Hightower was already a part of the team).

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Provocateur Nicolas Winding Refn is back with “The Neon Demon”

The divisive, Danish-born auteur's latest provocation is set in the glamorous, dangerous world of high fashion models.

“Great cinema is really all about what you don’t see.”

Director Nicolas Winding Refn told me this last year when I interviewed him for the release of The Act Of Seeing, a collection of more than 300 posters, curated by Refn, of exploitation rarities, mostly from the ’60s and ’70s, all featured in a heavy, gorgeously-rendered hardcover tome. Or as he gleefully admits, “a very expensive book, but about trash.”

His love of artsy trash cinema and subliminal imagery continues with “The Neon Demon,” a new film that could fit right alongside the aged, forgotten titles from his book. Elle Fanning stars as an aspiring model who moves to Los Angeles, where her youth and vitality are devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will take any means necessary to get what she has. The film, though it was initially touted as his first real foray into horror, is, of course, anything but a traditional entry in the genre. “Don’t believe everything you read. Traditional… come on man. My films are like Christmas, you can’t wait to open it,” he elaborated. “And one thing’s for sure, what you expect I’m not going to give you. That’s what makes life so much more fun.”

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INTERVIEW: Yorgos Lanthimos, Writer/Director of ‘The Lobster’

This deadpan, dystopian satire of romantic conventions marks a memorable English-language debut for the Greek filmmaker.

There’s never been a film like “The Lobster.” The latest bizarre, high-concept work from Yorgos Lanthimos, the truly unique filmmaker behind the Oscar-nominated “Dogtooth” and “Alps,” carries with it not just a clever idea but a wholly original premise: in an alternate-reality dystopian universe, single folks are forced to find a new mate in 45 days or become an animal of their choosing.

You did read that last sentence correctly, I assure you. Like Lanthimos’ previous two features, “The Lobster” is set in a world that’s been twisted ever so slightly into a Bizzaro version of our mundane reality. But what makes it work isn’t the clever concept—it’s the execution. It’s one rare enough thing to come up with a new idea, but here the follow-through, the filmmaking and performances, they’re all in sync. It’s the kind of film that may be considered a masterpiece, in due time. For now, I’m comfortable enough calling it one of the best films of the year.

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Innocence at 5th Ave Cinema

The first feature from French director Lucile Hadžihalilović screens this weekend at PSU's 5th Avenue Cinema

It’s okay if you’ve never heard of Lucile Hadžihalilović. She’s a great filmmaker who rarely makes movies. (If you do know her, well then, I already like you.)

Her first feature film, 2004’s “Innocence,” is screening at PSU’s 5th Ave Cinema this weekend. You should see it if you care about film. And if you don’t, hell, you should still consider catching the 35mm print the student-run theater will be showing. Telling an opaque female coming of age tale set in a gorgeous but quietly nightmarish boarding school, “Innocence” is a rare specimen in the film world. An auteur-driven female story told by an actual woman. Nearly all levels of the industry hierarchy are sadly still dominated by men. But that hasn’t stopped Hadžihalilović from making her own completely unique stamp in world cinema. Just in small doses.

The Internet tells us she’s in a relationship with Gaspar Noe, the highly transgressive French filmmaker behind such gloriously stylized provocations like “Irreversible,” “Enter The Void” (which Hadžihalilović co-scripted) and last year’s limp, goofy but occasionally engaging 3D porn “Love.” Beyond whatever her personal connection is to Noe, the two have been important collaborators since the early 90s, when they started a production company called Les Cinémas de la Zone and she was his editor on his first two breakout films “Carne” and “I Stand Alone.”

Before succumbing to the typical issue at hand with her work—that she’s almost always discussed in film circles as Noe’s wife first and a filmmaker second—I should make clear that she’s a wonderfully gifted visual stylist in her own right. With two features (her excellent new film, “Evolution,” screened at PIFF this year and should arrive back in theaters by the fall) and several long-ish shorts under her belt, her slow-burn style of quietly escalating moodiness is already honed and recognizable. And though she’s worked with Noe a lot, her style is nothing like his, favoring the subtle, considered and more deeply haunting effects of tone and atmosphere over his visceral punch of camera movement and style. You don’t have to like one more than the other, but if you hate Noe’s work, I’d be willing to bet big you’d love her films.

Only problem is, she just hasn’t made enough. I wish I knew more as to why it’s taken so long between projects. It’s without doubt presumptuous, naive and even pretty damn selfish of me to want more from a filmmaker whose work I enjoy, especially when I don’t know why. I don’t mean to conjure any conspiracy theories, but there’s been a lot of evidence and testimonies of late shedding light on how difficult it is for women filmmakers getting work. Yet directors like her with a specific point of view and original style seem to struggle the most to get work produced. Could this be at least part of the reason we’ve only got two features from her in nearly thirty years as a filmmaker? It’s not out of the realm of possibility. (I’m working on an interview when “Evolution” opens in Portland and hope to get some understanding.)

But that’s where those plucky young film loving folks at 5th Ave Cinema have done right by Lucile Hadžihalilović and other talented female filmmakers like Kimberly Peirce and Kelly Reichardt (their respective films “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Meek’s Cutoff,” both excellent as well, will screen there in the following weeks). Hadžihalilović, along with the absolutely brilliant Scottish director Lynne Ramsay (I sure wish 5th Ave was showing “Ratcatcher” or “Morvern Callar” in this female-director-heavy series too, but alas, it’s not to be), are two of my favorite working filmmakers these days, man or woman. None of them have made enough movies, far as I’m concerned.

If you catch “Innocence” this weekend, I bet you’ll feel the same way.