As Portland’s movie theaters have reopened over the last couple of months, one screen has remained dark: that of the Whitsell Auditorium, home base of the Portland Art Museum’s Northwest Film Center.
The Film Center was impacted in a unique way when the coronavirus pandemic exploded in March of 2020, causing an immediate truncation of its signature event, the Portland International Film Festival. The last public event that yours truly attended before the shutdown was the inaugural Cinema Unbound award ceremony held during PIFF 43, days before the festival came to an abrupt halt. Those awards were the brainchild of the Film Center’s then-new director, Amy Dotson, who had stepped into the shoes of longtime head Bill Foster only months earlier, bringing with her an ambitious agenda to reshape and reimagine the mission of the organization.
I spoke with Dotson recently about how the pandemic affected those plans and what to expect from the Film Center now that an opportunity to implement them has re-emerged. “In fact,” she says, “it allowed us to do some of the things we wanted even earlier. First and foremost, we got real comfortable with being unbound from the physical theater space.” The Film Center had been a pioneer of the recent resurgence in drive-in movies even before the pandemic, and part of the mission of PIFF 43 had been to incorporate events, such as live podcasts, that depart from the traditional definition of cinema. The 2021 edition of PIFF, like many film festivals around the country, was held online this year, and the Cinema Unbound awards were presented in a socially distanced, drive-in-style event at Zidell Yards.
Those events were rewarding, Dotson says, but “we have had so much more fun on the top of the Lloyd Center,” where the Film Center has held a round of outdoor screenings this summer. “The first night, when we showed The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, we must have had 350 people on the roof of the mall, and about half of them were dressed as Steve Zissou! We’re also going to continue through September with our drive-in series down at OMSI, where someone showed up in a dinosaur skull outfit for Jurassic Park.”
Outdoor costume-contest screenings of big-budget Hollywood movies are a fairly stark departure for an institution that for decades had been virtually the only place in town to catch, say, an Antonioni retrospective or a six-hour Matthew Barney opus. But, firstly, every independent theater in town is doing whatever it can to replace the revenue lost over the last year and a half. And, secondly, Dotson has no desire to see the Film Center return to that arguably hidebound tradition.
“We don’t want to go back to what it was. We’re really moving forward with our exhibition work, working with artists who are also making this transition, and with our education programs.” One exciting aspect of this forward-looking approach is the return of the Venice Biennale’s touring VR exhibition, which was one of Portland’s few cultural highlights of 2020. “We had the highest number of people come out of any city where the program played, including Paris, Moscow, Shanghai, Venice.” The event, which can be experienced at home for those with access to the requisite tech, or in person, will return for a three-week run.
That sort of showcase fits in with Dotson’s mission to diminish the Film Center’s image as an elitist gatekeeper. “You don’t have to be a hardcore cinephile, you don’t have to be an art nerd. If you are, all the better, but come as you are. You are welcome.” It also has resulted in a dramatic shift in the composition of the audience, which aligns with an equity-based approach. “It’s different zip codes, different demographics, different age groups.”
But back to the Whitsell: “We’re not planning on opening it until perhaps the fall,” Dotson says. Despite all the recent progress, the Film Center still has a “very truncated” staff, and it will take time to build it back up. Once that happens, according to her, there will be a “wholesale reimagining” of the programming in that more traditional exhibition space. “PIFF will be back and will continue to evolve. I’m very excited about presenting more live podcasts, live documentaries, and performative work. All of that, to me, is just as exciting as film.”
That said, “Film is never going anywhere. There will never be a time when we’re not showing film.” But, as Dotson points out, the Film Center is a part of the Portland Art Museum (which has reopened), and in the same way the art museum refuses to put silos around the different media it exhibits, so goes the Film Center. “There are so many of my colleagues in this town who run beautiful, amazing theaters that do incredible programming as well, and we want to complement that, but we want to be something that’s radically different from that as well.”
That difference will include showing work that doesn’t conform to one’s expectations of an ivory-tower art-museum aesthetic. “Despite my love of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, I am a cinephile, as are so many of the people that work here. But I also believe in letting people tell their stories however they want,” says Dotson. “Tik-Tok is fine by me! There’s also a real need right now for people to come together to experience communal cinematic storytelling, to begin to connect and feel some joy.”
The short takeaway is that, despite some recent radio silence, the Film Center isn’t going anywhere. And, despite the raft of disasters that have befallen Portland since her arrival—ice storms, wildfires, and that pesky pandemic–neither is Dotson. “You’re stuck with me!” she says to sign off, promising more updates on her ambitious plans in the near future.