FILM

Imagining a different world with Ursula K. Le Guin

Arwen Curry, whose documentary about Le Guin will play in Nehalem, says she wanted to share the experience of being with the Oregon author

As Oregon authors go, few are better known or beloved than the late Ursula K. Le Guin. A list of her awards alone would probably fill the space of this column. Most famous for her fantasy and science fiction works, including A Wizard of Earthsea and The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin died last January at age 88, only months before a documentary on her life, 10 years in the making, was finished.  

Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin will show at the North County Recreation District theater in Nehalem — presented by Hoffman Center for the Arts’ Manzanita Film Series — at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 21. Tickets will be available at the door for $5.

I spoke with film director and producer Arwen Curry about the documentary and her relationship with Le Guin.

Filmmaker Arwen Curry (left) worked with author Ursula K. Le Guin over a period of 10 years to
make the documentary “Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin.” It will be shown Dec. 21 in Nehalem.

Where does this begin? How did you decide you would take on the subject of a celebrated, world-renowned author?

AC:  I read the books for children or young adults and then I read the grown-up novels. She was a known voice to me. She was a figure in my internal bookshelf from my childhood. Seeing writers talk and the experience of seeing them in person can be so powerful and tell you so much more about the experience of being a writer. Who it is that became Ursula K. Le Guin? I wanted to share that experience of being in a room with her.

When I first decided to do that I didn’t know how to make films at all. I was writing for a magazine. I enrolled in a class on making documentaries at Berkeley with this project in mind. That was kind of a crapshoot.

Was it difficult to get Le Guin on board with you to make the film?

It wasn’t till after I finished and made one dissertation film that I came to her. I wanted to have one film under my belt. First, we had a correspondence asking to let me do this. She sort of agreed tentatively. Then, she sort of backed off. I convinced her to let me come and meet her. She invited me to her house. We talked about my vision for the film. After that point, she agreed to do it with me and stayed with me the entire time.

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River and Elliott: Remembering two troubled princes of 1990s Portland

River Phoenix and Elliott Smith brushed Portland and maybe Portland brushed them

There’s a name you keep repeating
You’ve got nothing better to do

— Elliott Smith, “Alphabet Town”

From James Dean to Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain to Heath Ledger, we have immortalized a constellation of famous artists—especially musicians and actors—who died young and, then, through a combination of their talent and the public’s grief, lived on. Robbed of the futures we imagined for them, yet frozen in time and thus never to suffer the indignities of aging or late-career artistic mediocrity, their luminosity—and our love for them—intensifies as if in proportion to the tragedy.

Portland and Oregon haven’t traditionally produced a lot of bold-type names that have endured in the international pop zeitgeist. Far from America’s entertainment capitols, this is arguably a place where talents are nurtured, not where one becomes a full-fledged star. The most high-profile artists, such as the great abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko or Simpsons creator Matt Groening, have tended to move on and live their career-defining creative moments elsewhere. Yet even if their time here is fleeting, sometimes these artists don’t just remain culturally relevant long after their deaths but also come to represent something essential about a particular time in the city.

Last month brought reminders of two such one-time Oregonians and what they left behind. October 21 was the 15th anniversary of musician Elliott Smith’s death, at the age of 34 in 2003, while Halloween brought the 25th anniversary of actor River Phoenix’s death, at the age of 23 in 1993. They died a decade apart, but each moment of mortality came in Los Angeles, and the two sites are less than nine miles away from each other: Phoenix outside West Hollywood’s Viper Room club after an accidental overdose, and Smith by stabbing at his home in Silver Lake (a presumed suicide but never officially determined).

Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho

The coincidences don’t end there. River Phoenix and Elliott Smith were born within a year of each other: Smith in Nebraska (he was raised until age 14 in Texas) and Phoenix in Madras, Oregon (raised mostly in Florida). Each arguably made his most famous work in collaboration with director Gus Van Sant. Phoenix co-starred (along with Keanu Reeves) in Van Sant’s 1991 film My Own Private Idaho and Smith was nominated for an Academy Award for the song “Miss Misery,” on the soundtrack to Van Sant’s 1998 film Good Will Hunting. Each struggled with drug abuse, which in different ways led to each artist’s untimely death. River Phoenix and Elliott Smith presumably never met, yet each is a kind of fleeting prince of ’90s Portland, and their work acts as time capsule and talisman for the days many locals now look to longingly: a grittier, more affordable and off-the-radar city that predated Portlandia, a succession of swooning New York Times stories, and an ensuing wave of tourism and gentrification.

Like Rothko, neither stayed here for good. But also like Rothko and many of the city’s other most famous sons and daughters, Phoenix and Smith were transplants to the city who saw Portland with fresh eyes. Like rain clouds that give way to bright sunlight almost daily for much of the year, each artist’s Portland-based work is personal and often deeply melancholic, yet also joyful, lyrical and instinctual. It’s not always pretty, yet we are drawn to their work again and again.

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Fearless Flyer

Dancer Olivia Ancona’s path from Portland to ‘Suspiria’

Olivia Ancona has collected plenty of passport stamps in her journey from Portland stages to the silver screen. A student and performer with The Portland Ballet, Jefferson Dancers, and Northwest Dance Project in the mid-2000s, Ancona plays the dancer Marketa in Suspiria, Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 remake of the 1977 horror movie, which is set in a dance school and company run by (spoiler alert!) witches. Besides performing in the film, Ancona served as a dance coach for stars Dakota Johnson and Mia Goth.

We caught up with Ancona while she was settling into her new digs in Berlin, and got her take on her early career, her time performing internationally with companies including Batsheva and Tanztheater Wuppertal, the Suspiria experience, and the real horrors that professional dancers can face.

Oregon Arts Watch: Where are you now? What are you doing currently?

Olivia Ancona: I’m in Berlin where I’m based, although just came from Wuppertal, in the north of Germany, having spent the past month guest-dancing for Tanztheater Wuppertal | Pina Bausch.

I’m putting my suitcases down for a couple of months after several years of nomadic living and freelancing. I will teach a workshop in the city alongside my partner, Scott Jennings, a member of the Pina Bausch company, and in January will prepare to set the work of Israeli choreographer/L-E-V artistic director Sharon Eyal at Konzert Theater Bern, a contemporary company in Switzerland.

Describe your trajectory from Portland to present.

I returned to Portland in eighth grade after living abroad with my family in London; my experience with The London Children’s Ballet solidified my desire to be a part of new creations and to perform. Upon our return, I continued my classical training at The Portland Ballet for three years. However, pointe work became too painful and I was told I had pre-arthritis in my feet and should probably stop dancing. I had no plans to listen to doctors’ recommendations and sought out other platforms for movement and training, auditioning for the Jefferson Dancers. This pre-professional program gave me the opportunity to rehearse in a variety of styles and to perform numerous times a year.

I saw the Batsheva Dance Company for the first time in Portland through White Bird and I fell in love with the company. The dancers were like no others I’d seen before—individualistic and unique but with the skills of superheroes. Their agility and passion really spoke to me. I decide to pursue dancing with the company; I applied to the Juilliard School with an essay about Batsheva!  I was able to work with Batsheva’s artistic director, Ohad Naharin [at] Juilliard, and I attended summer courses with him in Tel Aviv.

At the end of my junior year, Ohad invited me to join the Batsheva Ensemble, the junior company which most dancers [join] before entering the main company. After two years, I left as a founding dancer of L-E-V with Israeli/Batsheva choreographer Sharon Eyal … [I did a] half-year tour in Europe for Belgian creator Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and his troupe, Eastman.

Despite feeling artistically fulfilled with these freelance projects, I craved some stability, and after two years with L-E-V, took a soloist position at the Royal Swedish Ballet as one of the contemporary members. But before long, I returned to Batsheva’s main company, where I had the opportunity to create with Ohad Naharin and Roy Assaf.

Olivia Ancona in “Mr. Gaga,” the documentary about former Batsheva Dance Company artistic director Ohad Naharin. Photo by Gadi Dagon.

After almost three years working full time for institutions, I was hungry for freelance opportunities and a creative world beyond Israel. Although I had never worked with [choreographer] Damien Jalet prior to Suspiria, he had spent years collaborating with Sidi Larbi, and had seen me perform, which was my link to participating in the film. Beginning in the fall of ’16, hours after my last show with Batsheva, I caught a flight to Milan and was immersed in preparation, research, coaching Dakota, acting, and dancing in Suspiria for about four months. After this intense experience, I returned briefly to the States. I spent six months teaching Gaga workshops in the U.S. and Europe and returned to Juilliard as one of the choreographers in their summer intensive.

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Masters of Horror

Guignolfest, Dylan Hillerman and Julia Reodica's 72-hour horror film festival, returns.

When Dylan Hillerman and Julia Reodica were performers at the legendary Portland haunted house FrightTown, they specialized in subjecting people to fantastical terror. Yet in 2013, Reodica discovered a more mundane horror.

“I told her, ‘I had to walk six miles to my new place last night and I’m not getting paid until next week for FrightTown,’” Hillerman remembers. “She was like, ‘Oh shit! You’re gonna die!’ And I’m like, ‘I’m aiming at the Earth and hoping to miss.’”

Sensing his desperation, Reodica offered him a lifeline. “I hadn’t connected with a person in this way in a long time,” she says. “I said, ‘Come hang out with me. I’ve got sanctuary.’”

“She gave me six weeks,” Hillerman adds, “and it turned into a marriage.”

Reodica and Hillerman, partners in horror. AMBERED Photography

That marriage (which Hillerman and Reodica sealed with a promise that they made to each other in Transylvania) has not only transformed their lives, it has been a boon to filmmakers who participate in Guignolfest, the 72-hour horror film festival that Hillerman founded and produces with Reodica. This year’s films screen Sunday, October 28, at the Clinton Street Theater.

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International film fest wanders to the Coast

The Wandering Reel Traveling Film Festival's short films explore gender and equality, overcoming obstacles, and little moments that make life whole

Oregonian Michael Harrington tells people he grew up with the ocean as his front yard and the forest as his back, which, if you know Oregon, must mean he grew up on the Coast. Depoe Bay and Lincoln City, to be specific.

“They are small town communities, you know everybody,” said Harrington, co-founder of the Wandering Reel Traveling Film Festival. “I think I’ve always had a deep appreciation for nature and for that small-town hospitality. Authenticity. People are themselves. There’s a real peace in that.”

A middle-class woman without a husband encounters problems renting a house in Mumbai in “Counterfeit Kunkoo,” one of the short films in this year’s Wandering Reel Traveling Film Festival.

That small-town upbringing also led to an understanding of what is sometimes lacking in those out-of-the-way places — in this case, film festivals.

With Wandering Reel, now in its fourth year and coming to the Coast this week, Harrington is trying to do something about that. He left Oregon to study film at Marlboro College in Vermont, then worked in the film industry in L.A., at one point running a short-film series in Big Sur, Calif. When he moved to Portland, he wanted to continue showing international films, but Portland already had plenty of those.

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A chance to revisit “The Shining” on the silver screen

Arts calendar: See Jack Nicholson's maniacal leer in all its grotesque glory, view an artist's take on the atomic bomb, hear an organ concert of hymns

Given the volume of commentary, criticism and amateur blogosphere speculation that has accumulated since 1980 about what happens in The Shining and what it all means, it’d be a mighty achievement to actually produce some new, original insight into Stanley Kubrick’s film, based on the horror novel by Stephen King.

What strikes me is the way it lives on in our imaginations and the fact that so many feel compelled to keep the discussion going. It’s not a fate one would have predicted after those first, lukewarm and even negative reviews in 1980. (“I can’t recall a more elaborately ineffective scare movie,” lamented The Washington Post’s Gary Arnold.) But in 2018, is there anyone who wants to revisit (or even remembers) Terror Train or Motel Hell? No. But if you were to put The Shining in, say, the Elsinore Theatre in Salem, would that pique your interest?

Jack Nicholson in “The Shining” wears pretty much the same expression critics had in 1980 when Stanley Kubrick’s horror film was released. It has since produced an astonishing volume of commentary by viewers bent on unraveling the film’s visual riddles and enigmas. It will be screened Wednesday at the Elsinore Theatre in Salem.

It does mine, and not just because it’s a chance to see Kubrick’s amazing images on the big screen. Consider, too, that when The Shining shows at 7 p.m. Wednesday, it will be on a screen where it very likely first appeared. Multiplexes were a rare thing back then, and the majestic Elsinore was a theater where blockbusters opened.

The Shining is the perfect example of a film that improves with age and repeated viewings, though one is obliged to note one uncomfortable truth about its making: While Kubrick and the crew went out of their way to ensure that child actor Danny Lloyd was shielded from the story’s horrific aspects, he wasn’t so kind to Shelley Duvall. Watching the sequence where Jack Nicholson stalks her up a staircase, it’s impossible for the viewer familiar with Kubrick’s perfectionist drive not to wonder: Was this the 127th take, or had they topped 100 yet? Knowing all this today, it’s unsettling to realize that part of Duvall’s on-screen distress and exhaustion was, thanks to Kubrick, all too real.

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Hispanic Heritage Month, Russian theater and music, and more

Upcoming Yamhill County events range from Aztec dancers and Day of the Dead celebrations to Gogol and the Hermitage Piano Trio

Hispanic Heritage Month, Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, is designated as a time to celebrate the contributions — not just in arts and culture, but in all human endeavors — of Hispanic and Latino Americans. It started as Hispanic Heritage Week in 1968 under President Johnson and, thanks to legislation by U.S. Rep. Esteban Edward Torres, a California Democrat, was expanded by President Reagan to a month-long observance in 1988.

Perhaps due to the proximity of Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations as October turns into November, public events fill out the calendar during this month. That, at least, is true in Yamhill County, where — no surprise here — the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg has packed October full of Hispanic theater, music, and dance. Linfield College in McMinnville and George Fox University in Newberg are also getting into the act, so let’s take them in chronological order.

Curtis Acosta speaks Oct. 15 in Newberg on defending the rights and education of Chicanx/Latinx youth.

Oct. 15: PROFESSOR CURTIS ACOSTA is a teacher with a story to tell, one that has made the pages of Yes! magazine and was the subject of the documentary Precious Knowledge. He was among those who developed a Mexican Studies program serving 1,500 high school students in Tucson, Arizona, in 1998. Although it was successful by a number of measures, it generated a politically motivated backlash in 2010, culminating in a law that banned the class. Long story short: Teachers, parents, and students got mad, got organized, and filed a legal challenge that was ultimately successful, with the curriculum being reinstated three years later.

Acosta, who is on the University of Arizona faculty, will speak Oct. 15 in the Canyon Commons of George Fox University in a presentation titled Victory in Arizona: Defending the Rights and Education of Chicanx/Latinx Youth in an Era of Hate and Anti-Intellectualism. Seems like a timely topic. The talk is scheduled for 7 to 8 p.m. and is free and open to the public.

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