CULTURE

Dance review: It was 51 years ago today

Mark Morris comes to town with 'Pepperland,' his take on 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

By HEATHER WISNER

I was working at SF Weekly in the mid-’90s when the Mark Morris Dance Group brought The Hard Nut, its take on The Nutcracker, to UC Berkeley. When the review came in from a freelance writer, the copy editor called me, the resident dance nerd, over to her desk. “The whole thing is about one part of the dance,” she said, pointing at her monitor. “Doesn’t that seem a little excessive?” I skimmed the piece, which focused on the Waltz of the Snowflakes. I hesitated, then said, “It does seem like a lot.”

But once I saw The Hard Nut, I got it. Mark Morris has many talents, not the least of which is forcing you to reconsider what you thought you knew—especially where music is concerned. The Hard Nut’s snow scene is a perfect microcosmic example: the waltz-y, pristine prettiness of the original becomes a joyful, snow-flinging swirl of movement in the remake. It might not be what you expected, but it feels right.

Mark Morris pays homage to The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” in “Pepperland.”/Photo by Gareth Jones

And so it is with Pepperland, the company’s witty and affectionate tribute to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, which White Bird, a co-commissioner of the piece, brought to the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall February 21. Last year, the city of Liverpool commissioned Morris to create the work as part of the city’s 50th anniversary celebration of the album. But instead of using its music outright, Morris turned to former Bad Plus composer/pianist Ethan Iverson for a new score.

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Act globally, view vocally: PIFF’s Portland ties

The Portland International Film Festival's second week is dotted with Oregon-sourced cinema

As the 41st Portland International Film Festival rounds the far turn and enters its second week, a mouth-watering array of cinematic flavors remain to be sampled. (We’ll even mention a few of them below.) But PIFF has always done an excellent job demonstrating that Northwest films and filmmakers can stand shoulder-to-shoulder alongside their intercontinental kin—and that they can do so without losing their unique local charms.

Greg Hamilton has been a familiar figure in the Portland film firmament for years. He’s organized tributes to director Les Blank, single-handedly kept “Fast Break”—the classic documentary about the 1977 NBA champion Portland Trail Blazers—in the public eye, and serves on the board of the Hollywood Theatre. Now he’s making his debut as a director with a portrait of another local institution: “Thou Shall Not Tailgate” profiles the Rev. Chuck Linville, an old-school Portland oddball who drives his elaborately festooned art cars around town when he’s not relaxing in his home amid equally eccentric decor.

Greg Hamilton, director of “Thou Shall Not Tailgate.”

The 25-minute film, screening as part of the shorts program “Made in Oregon 2: Wilderness,” lays interview audio with Linville over archival footage of his automotive exploits. Linville really is an ordained minister (Hamilton first met him at a wedding he performed), as well as a former Postal Service worker and an original member of Portland’s Cacophony Society. There’s a whole section devoted to him in Chuck Palahniuk’s myth-making Portland travelogue, “Fugitives and Refugees.”

One of the creations of the subject of the documentary “Thou Shall Not Tailgate.”

In other words, Linville and his Church of Eternal Combustion are the epitome of what we talk about when we talk about “Old Portland.” He’s not trying to create a personal brand, or exude some sort of cultivated weirdness. He’s just a guy who, as he puts it, gets bored easily. And who likes to glue hundreds of baby-bottle nipples to the top of his station wagon. “Thou Shall Not Tailgate,” though, isn’t meant as a simple nostalgic gesture, says Hamilton. Instead, it’s “paying witness to the transformation of Portland,” perhaps trying to inspire future kooks by spotlighting those who know how to do kooky right.

(“Shorts 4: Made in Oregon 2: Wilderness” screens at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 25, at the Whitsell Auditorium.)

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With Amorphous, DownRight Productions asks, ‘What If?’

A new Portland presenter arrives on the scene with a mix of performance disciplines and film in various states of completion

By HEATHER WISNER

The new performance-presenting venture DownRight Productions—co-directed by dancers Anna Marra and Emily Schultz—debuted at Headwaters Theatre February 15-18 with Amorphous, a program designed to showcase local talent working at the intersections of dance, art, music, and film.

It felt like a waltz with possibility: DownRight was willing to book artists who, at the time of their booking, were offering pieces that were finished, partially finished, or still in the idealized stage. And for a show that skewed young (though not inexperienced) and modern, the modest stage in this intimate space provided a fitting platform to play around with creative questions, such as:

What happens if I twist this knob?

There’s a long choreographic tradition of using tech to goose dance: in her solo “Dark Spot,” Kate Rafter switched a handheld light on and off in front of a computer screen, creating inkblot images that splotched across a larger projector screen facing the audience. After dispensing with the light, she moved toward and away from the computer screen, causing portions of her body to emerge and recede on the large screen, to ghostly effect.

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41st Portland International Film Festival features hidden gems from Tunisia, Spain, Romania

Not every movie worth seeing at this year's PIFF stars Juliette Binoche or Isabelle Huppert

I recently wrote a piece for The Oregonian listing the ten most anticipated films of this year’s Portland International Film Festival. This made sense because (a) people likes lists; (b) the early deadline for the piece meant there was precious little opportunity to actually see the films; and (c) it’s a relatively easy way to concoct a PIFF primer for casual movie buffs.

By “casual movie buffs” I mean folks who might dip their toes into subtitled waters once in a while if the film was made someplace they’d like to visit, but who won’t necessarily be trying to sneak chocolate bars into the latest Polish zombie flick or avant-garde effort from Iran. Don’t get me wrong: anyone who patronizes PIFF (or pays money to see a foreign-language film under any circumstances) is a cut or three above the typical American moviegoer in terms of sophistication.

But Portland’s true connoisseurs of cinema know a couple things that normal people don’t.

First, they know that most of those hotly “anticipated” titles, starring Juliette Binoche or Steve Buscemi or whoever, will most likely be returning to a local arthouse screen at some point in the next few months, whether it’s the Hollywood, Cinema 21, the Living Room, or (shudder) the Regal Fox Tower (a place I always refer to by its full corporate name just to invoke the image of a haughty vulpine monarch perched on the pinnacle of an antiseptic office building).

Second, PIFF veterans know that, quite frequently, the true joys of the festival come from those under-the-radar oddities you only go see because everything else is sold out, or because you lost a bet. It used to be that anything from outside Western Europe, Japan and maybe South America was officially cinema exotica, but these days the borders of middlebrow taste are drawn more along lines of genre than geography. For every familiar, universal story of familial reconciliation from Nepal, there’s a thrash-metal musical based on Joan of Arc. For every potent tale of a mother’s love and dedication from The Congo, there’s a button-pushing story about racial epithet-filled rap battles from California, USA.

With that in mind, I’ve started burrowing through the overwhelming number of advance screeners, trying to focus on the stuff that wouldn’t ordinarily jump out at me. I’m dying to see the final film from Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami, or the new documentary by the indefatigable Alex Gibney, or the documentary about Mister Rogers, or (especially) the movie based on Willy Vlautin’s novel “Lean on Pete.” And I’ll get to all of them. (To be honest, I would have already watched those last two if they were available, but alas…)

One great example of a film worthy of discovery but at risk of getting lost in the vast ocean of PIFF is Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania’s fiction feature debut, “Beauty and the Dogs.” It catches the eye with an opening scene at a party that begins with two friends in a bathroom and ends with one, Mariam (Mariam Al Ferjani), leaving with a guy she just met. This all unfolds over the course of one seven-minute shot, as do each of the next eight scenes in the film. The second chapter starts with Mariam and her new friend at a clinic trying to obtain medical certification of the rape she has just endured at the hands of the police.

From there, Ben Hania’s formal gambit pays off as it enhances both the tension and the dread of Mariam’s efforts to report the crime over one long night. “Beauty and the Dogs” depicts Tunisian society’s relative cosmopolitanism as well as its persistent misogyny, and features a powerful central performance by Al Ferjani. Ben Hania’s previous film, “The Blade of Tunis,” was a fake documentary in which she tried to track down a criminal infamous for slashing random women’s buttocks, so she’s clearly not afraid of engaging in critiques that require extra bravery even in the more Westernized parts of the Arab world.

Different in almost every way from “Beauty and the Dogs,” the Spanish animated feature “Birdboy: The Forgotten Children,” fairly matches it in intensity despite being a cartoon featuring a bunch of talking animals on a journey. This isn’t a family-friendly romp, though—it’s set in a dreary post-apocalyptic world, and in an early scene our young mouse-eared protagonist’s verbally abusive father accuses him of being on cocaine. But neither is it some Ralph Bakshi-esque exercise in raunchy subversion: there’s real pathos in the quest of Dinki and her friends, a rabbit and a fox, to track down her old friend Birdboy, a reclusive junky and quasi-folk hero who lives in the middle of a vast wasteland. Co-director Alberto Vázquez based this visually original, tonally unique tale on his own graphic novel, which he initially made into a short film that played at the Northwest Film Center in 2015.

For a more conventional experience, and one with at least a little bit less existential foreboding, check out “6.9 on the Richter Scale,” a Romanian romantic comedy (Romromcom?), centered on a seismophobic actor in Bucharest experiencing crises both domestic and professional. He’s terrified that the apartment he shares with his depressed, jealous-minded wife won’t survive the earthquake he’s sure is imminent. He’s playing Orpheus in a stage production opposite a pretty but talentless Eurydice. And then the father he hasn’t seen since he was five shows back up in his life, trailing carnal chaos in his wake. A far cry from the dour films (“The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days”) its home country is known for, this wry and charming movie culminates in a bizarre musical fantasia.

These options only scratch the surface, of course, of an event that includes nearly 90 features and eight programs of shorts. But they serve as a useful reminder that in Portland’s annual cinematic cornucopia, some of the most delectable treats can be found almost by accident.

 

“Beauty and the Dogs” screens at 8:45 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 16, at the Laurelhurst Theater, and 4:15 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 18, at Cinemagic.

“Birdboy: The Forgotten Children” screens at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 17, at Cinemagic, and at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 17, at the Empirical Theater at OMSI.

“6.9 on the Richter Scale” screens at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 17, at the Whitsell Auditorium, and at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 21, at the Regal Fox Tower.

For a full schedule and details, visit https://nwfilm.org/festivals/piff41/

 

The Photographic Journal

A Portland photographer and writer creates "a storehouse of meanings and mysteries" from his observations of the daily life around him

Essay and Photographs

By K.B. DIXON

The images of Portland included in my latest book of photographs were excerpted from a larger ongoing project—from what is basically a photographic journal, a personalized and idiosyncratic survey of the world around me, an archive that serves in its own special way as a species of memoir. My hope was, as always, to document—to capture and to preserve for myself and others a transient moment of aesthetic pleasure, a strong sense of the subject, a resonating mix of common and individual experience. A storehouse of meanings and mysteries, it is an archive that shares in many ways the characteristics of a written work.

 

                 Stars & Stripes, 2014

Joan Didion—the novelist, essayist, and screenwriter—wrote a piece many years ago on the subject of keeping a journal. Wandering aimlessly through a set of her cryptic notes from years before, she found herself periodically perplexed by various entries. She found herself wondering why she had chosen to write this or that particular thing down—just as I, wandering aimlessly through my photographic archive, find myself periodically wondering why I decided to take this or that photograph. The keepers of notebooks are, Didion says, “anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.” So too are many photographers. “The impulse to preserve lies at the bottom of all art,” wrote the poet Philip Larkin. It certainly lies at the heart of the documentary impulse.

 

                        Umbrella Man, 2013

“The point of keeping a notebook has never been…to have an accurate factual record.” Didion writes. This is where our paths diverge as “journalists.” The photographic urge as opposed to the calligraphic is born of what Didion calls an “instinct for reality”—an instinct she sometimes honors, but as a card-carrying Romantic usually disparages. “I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters,” she said. For the photographer’s purposes the distinction matters a great deal. For Didion it is the unfettered imagination vs. a cretinous literalism—a gross and self-aggrandizing simplification. Good old everyday rise-and-shine “reality” is the fundamental subject of photography. It may seem mundane, but it is essentially miraculous. If nothing else, it possesses what James Agee once called “the cruel radiance of what is.”

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Conversations With: Leanne Grabel

The Portland poet and memoirist talks about words, dogs, drawings, her new volume "Gold Shoes," and the attractions of the illustrated book

My introduction to the multimedia maestro Leanne Grabel comes by way of her small pup, Bailey, who sleeps nestled in her bed on the front porch of a turn-of-the-century house in a close-in Northeast Portland neighborhood. After figuring my way through the black wrought iron fence, I see Bailey and realize a moment too late that she’s been startled. Contrary to what I expect, she just looks at me wisely, assesses the threat level (zero), spins in her bed a few times, and retires right back into whatever dream I interrupted. This bodes well, I think, for what is to come. Sure enough, a knock later the door opens and brings me level with the bright and shining face of Grabel, who cordially shuffles me in and introduces me to her husband, Steve Sander, a well-met fellow going through some old books.

The poet/memoirist/illustrator, flexing her literary muscles. Photo courtesy Leanne Grabel

Meeting a literary figure can be a daunting affair, if only by the inherent lopsidedness of biographical knowledge, particularly if the writer’s work delves into the confessional. The experience can be downright exhilarating or painfully awkward, depending on chemistry, basic human laws of attraction, and the fact that some literary figures probably prefer not to be met at all but are forced into the fray of readings and mingling if they hope to sell their books. (Grabel’s own new graphic book of poetry, Gold Shoes, will be released at the end of March.)

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Boom! Arts from the edge

Boom Arts scans the globe for performances that challenge audiences to take on new perspectives. Next up: Penny Arcade; a gallery fete.

Essay and photos by FRIDERIKE HEUER

In times of political change and upheaval the arts often undergo a paradigm shift. New ways of representing the world or challenging the status quo rise out of despair or are driven by hope. This is true for the visual arts but perhaps even more so for theater. In Germany, my country of origin, for example, the era between the two world wars saw an enormous shift towards the use of theater as an instrument for social change. Famous innovators like Erwin Piscator and his Proletarian Theatre envisioned performances that would make people more thoughtful, and help them consider their social environment more critically. Live performance would encourage members of the public to analyze what was going on around them rather than making them react purely emotionally to a particularly beautifully written or produced play. In Piscator’s eyes the purpose of theater was to tell the truth and awaken consciousness for the truth in the audience, which might pave the way towards political action.

Piscator’s productions, which influenced his eventually much more famous compatriot and colleague Berthold Brecht, were geared toward audience involvement: He hoped for a modified version of the ancient model of the Greek stage and its public, making theater once again central to community life. His working-class actors often played without a stage, costumes or lighting, in neighborhood meeting halls or industrial barracks, encouraging conversation with the audience. His politics did not sit well with the rising totalitarian regime, and he eventually fled into exile, working, among other things, at the New School for Social Research in New York before eventually returning to Germany after the war.

Ruth Wikler-Luker

I was reminded of all this because I sat down with Ruth Wikler-Luker recently for a conversation about Boom Arts, the performing arts organization she founded in Portland about six years ago. I have been volunteering to photograph for Boom Arts for a number of those years, but had never had the opportunity to satisfy my curiosity about the organization and its producer in more detail.

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