A pair of veteran participants in Portland’s truly independent film culture will be back in action over the next couple of weeks, presenting the work of visiting artists, while another is on the verge of departing after over two decades spent laying the foundations of the city’s experimental film community.
The non-profit collective Cinema Project was founded fifteen years ago, its stated mission to promote avant-garde cinema from the past and present. In a shifting lineup of venues, from Produce Row warehouse spaces to chic photography studios, this dedicated group of true believers in the power of sound and image loosed from narrative shackles presented challenging, fascinating work from around the world, often with the filmmaker in attendance.
As one might imagine, this was a fairly thankless task, from a financial perspective, and in February 2017 the group wrapped up what had been billed as its final season of regular programming. Now, though, Cinema Project returns, at least for the moment, after an 18-month hiatus, with a screening of films by the Belgian artist and researcher Anouk De Clercq on Wednesday, July 11. This time, however, it won’t be in some drafty loft with the whirring of a 16mm projector as background audio (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), but on one of the largest movie screens in the Portland metro area: the Empirical Theatre at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.
This seems like a fully appropriate way to take in the work of a filmmaker whose work has been described as giving “evidence of a complex and changing navigation of technological developments.” De Clercq’s short films, based on descriptions and brief clips, are stark, minimalist, black-and-white depictions of things like a blind man’s description of a solar eclipse, or an architect’s narration of the city he built, with 3-D, pixelated scans of urban spaces as visual complement. The only film available for preview, “Oh,” tries to capture the spirit of utopian 18th-century French architect Etienne-Louis Boullée and the enormous spherical cenotaph, never constructed, he designed for Isaac Newton. For all I know, it does.
One of the challenges inherent in trying to get the most out of these sorts of immersive shorts is the ubiquity of distraction in today’s most common viewing environments, be they home theaters, smart phones, or cineplexes. For anyone interested in or curious about the possibilities of cinema that lie outside mainstream pop culture, an opportunity to fall into these works in an immersive environment like OMSI’s massive screen should not be missed.
There will be a conversation between De Clercq and Portland experimental filmmaker Sam Hamilton following the screening.
The fifteen-year journey of Cinema Project is impressive, but it pales in comparison to Vanessa Renwick’s three-decade-spanning filmography. Deserving of the honorific of “Portland icon” at this point, Renwick lends her stature and integrity to a screening on Wednesday, July 18, devoted to the longtime artist/activist Danny Lyon at the Hollywood Theatre. Lyon, now 76, made his name as chronicling the civil rights movement in the 1960s as the official photographer of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He also chronicled the lives of outlaw motorcycle gangs in his 1968 book “The Bikeriders.”
Lyon’s preoccupation with society’s outsiders fueled the two films that will screen at the Hollywood. In “Willie” (1985), he profiles Willie Jaramillo, a petty, recidivist criminal, as he moves in and out of prison in New Mexico. Black-and-white footage of a younger Willie is intercut with color film of his older, more troubled self, and the overall effect is to reinforce the ways that sound and motion can conjure empathy and complexity in ways that still photographs cannot. “Willie” is both a time capsule of the 1970s and 1980s in the Southwest among a marginalized population and a timeless examination of the ways the child is father to the man.
In the half-hour-long short “Murderers,” screening with “Willie,” Lyon profiles five different convicted killers as they talk about the circumstances that led to their homicidal incidents and relate their experiences within the prison system. Without condoning or excusing the behavior of his subjects, Lyon facilitates an appreciation of the common humanity viewers share with them. Lyon’s official website and blog is at bleakbeauty.com, and his URL is well-chosen indeed.
Lyon will participate in a post-screening conversation with Renwick, as well as a brief audience Q&A.
Meanwhile, ArtsWatch is sad to report that filmmaker/curator/exhibitor and all-around booster Matt McCormick has announced plans to leave Portland after 25 years and move to Spokane. I first came across Matt’s work in the form of his deliciously wry short film “The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal,” which captured something about the absurdity and inevitability of gentrification in Portland way before it became the monster it is today. As a founder of Peripheral Produce and of the Portland Documentary and eXperimental Film Festival, he contributed immensely to the sense of community that still holds among Portland film artists. (In fact, the winner of the first Peripheral Produce Invitational competition, held in 2001, was none other than Vanessa Renwick, who “defeated” such competitors as Miranda July and Craig Baldwin.)
McCormack went on to direct short films and features (2010’s “Some Days Are Better Than Others”) and documentaries (2013’s “The Great Northwest”). His latest project was the fascinating docu-fiction hybrid “Buzz One Four,” which explored McCormick’s grandfather’s role in a harrowing, nuclear-tipped accident during the height of the Cold War. That one’s available on Amazon Prime, so if you haven’t seen it, take a look.
McCormick has spent the last couple of years teaching in the film department at PSU, and starting this fall he will be a professor of art and integrated media at Gonzaga University. They’re lucky to have him, and it’s hard not to think of Spokane’s gain as another crack in the edifice of Old Portland.