For those who frequent Portland’s independent cinema scene, Greg Hamilton is a familiar sight. Whether he’s hosting an event he programmed, or simply supporting his local cinemas, his bearded, beret-bearing, bespectacled visage is hard to miss. He’s one of those unsung heroes of the city’s movie-mad, always eager to share his passion for the offbeat.
Hamilton has been compiling and presenting collections of obscure 16mm films for years, and has a couple of screenings looming in the next few weeks. On July 5, he’ll host a revival screening of his Psychotronic Afterschool Special program at the Clinton Street Theater. And on August 1, he’ll debut a whole new selection of inadvertently surreal, ostensibly educational short films at the Hollywood Theatre. I was able to sample some of the latter during a visit to the subterranean lair where Hamilton concocts his bizarre strategies, i.e., his basement. I also got a chance to explore the origin story of someone who embodies cinephilia in all its tangible glory. (Questions and answers have, of course, been edited for length and clarity.)
What made you into a movie lover?
I’m a native Portlander, and I was first exposed to films when we would come to visit my grandparents in the house that my family and I live in now. During the summertime in the 1980s, my grandfather would take me to the movies. We saw all sorts of trash. And some amazing things. But that was the key for me, as far as loving film.
What theaters do you remember?
I remember going to see films at the Roseway, and at the Bagdad before it was bought by McMenamins. We went to a lot of the neighborhood theaters, some of which are just gone now. There was one called the Southridge, I think; it was down by Milwaukie. And I have memories of the Hollywood, which back then was really cheap. Grandpa and grandson could get in for two bucks. This was before any of the renovations. It was in a state of disrepair.
When did the idea of collecting old 16mm prints take hold?
I started collecting 16mm films because I had been going to see Dennis Nyback’s shows. I really liked the freshness of them and all the things he managed to find and show. Whenever he was in town, I’d make it a point to go and see one of his shows. I heard about a sale of what was left in the collection of the Portland Public School District. So, I went and bought everything that was left, coming home with more films than my wife was happy about. The thing that drew me into [showing the films publicly] was movie trailers. I bought some trailers off of a guy, and I thought it would be fun to expose people to movies they’d never heard of, so I started this show called Trailermania at the Clinton Street Theater around 2004. I ended up making about ten shows’ worth of programs, each a little over an hour. I’d introduce it, and I’d give everyone who was there a little program of all the trailers, so if they wanted to go to Movie Madness and find whatever that strange Burt Reynolds movie was, they could.
And then you started to host and organize other sorts of film-related events.
When Hunter S. Thompson died, I showed Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and a few other things. For many years, I did the Martin Luther King, Jr. tribute at the Clinton each year; I’d bring over a bunch of educational films on Dr. King and provide an opportunity for people to see it.
You’ve also had a longstanding connection with the films, and the family, of fabled documentarian Les Blank (Burden of Dreams, Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers).
I didn’t go looking for Les, he kind of found me. I was in the library, and I found this documentary called Always For Pleasure, which is his piece on New Orleans and Mardi Gras. After I took it home, I realized I wanted to see all of this man’s films. Thanks to the Multnomah County Library, I was able to access many of them.
I really responded to his filmmaking. He just points the camera and observes. Sometimes it’s for periods of time that feel too long, but there’s always something at the end of the shot that makes sense. There’s this organic interplay that unfolds in his filmmaking, which isn’t necessarily unique. There are many filmmakers who have done similar things, but I think his relationship to his subject matter, his observing eye, is so full of joy.
There’s a connection between your relationship with Les Blank and the subject of the short film you made, Thou Shall Not Tailgate.
I had a lot of different connections with the art car community here in Portland, and while I was researching Les I learned that his son Harrod had made two movies about art cars. So, I brought Harrod to Portland and had all the art cars in the region gather for this sort of organic shindig. I talked to Harrod before I ever talked to Les, and Les wasn’t around too much longer after that, unfortunately. I never met him in person, but I talked with him on the phone and kept in touch. It was kind of an awkward time, because he knew he was headed south. [Blank died in 2013.] Harrod invited me down to Les’s celebration of life down in Berkeley, and that was amazing. The people who were associated with Les spanned the gamut. There was a New Orleans Second Line, and Werner Herzog was there, talking about what a filmmaker Les was. It was quite an experience.
After going to Les’s celebration, I decided to become his advocate. I told myself I was going to show all of his movies in Portland. And we did it. We showed ‘em all. So now we’re cycling back through them.
The screenings you host, both of Les’s films and others, feel like they’re very organic communal events.
I wanted to embrace the spirit of what Les would do, so for instance I’ll bring food. For a Mardi Gras show, I’ll cook up a jambalaya, some gumbo, have some king cake. Back in the pre-COVID days…
Those are just the sorts of experiences we stand to lose if people stop going to movie theaters.
I’m right there with you. Especially in a film community like Portland’s, where there has been such an explosion of screenings and events that expand upon the films themselves. We’re spoiled that way. So not having that for quite a while has been sad. Right before COVID hit, I had John Dahl here for screenings of Red Rock West, and things shut down right after that.
So that brings us up to the present. Now that theaters have reopened, you’re as busy as ever?
This year I’m on board with about 12 events, a lot of them at the Clinton Street Theater, since the recent change of ownership there has opened up the schedule somewhat. The show I’m hosting there on July 5 is something that I’m about five episodes in on. It’s a combination of nostalgia but also there’s meaning in it. I pick things because there’s a purpose to what I’m doing. Sometimes I resonate with a story that’s being told.
In other words: Make no mistake, this is no random assemblage of cinematic detritus. This is a specific program of films in a specific order, designed to provoke a specific response.
It’s like when I did the trailer programs. I’d lay out a bunch of trailers, look at the titles, and start putting them in their places. Maybe a couple of Westerns, and the second one has John Wayne in it, which leads into McQ, and then you have more transitions, maybe connected by an actor or a director, moving in and out of genres. The psychotronic show is a creative exercise for me, and it’s fun to share because people get the jokes. They see what’s going on.
What are your primary sources for acquiring new films now?
I’ve found different communities that trade and sell, and of course there’s eBay, which is a great clearinghouse of material. But I’m a lot more selective now. I appreciate the more obscure, the more unseen, ideally with humor involved. There’s a lot of stuff out there that’s “educational,” but it’s subversive. I have one called Jesus and the Vegetable People, which unfortunately doesn’t quite live up to its name.
Some of this stuff does involve people with recognizable names, though. One of the titles in the Clinton Street program features Wallace Shawn, for instance.
There are a lot of known actors, character actors specifically, who made Afterschool Specials and other stuff for the kid market. Scott Baio loves those things; I think he was in every anti-drug movie made. Stoned was the centerpiece of my 4/20 show a couple years ago.
What are some of the more unexpected finds you’ve come across?
I picked up a stash from a friend who couldn’t deal with his collection anymore and wanted to clear out his garage. I took everything he had and started sorting through it. I found one called Morris Goes to School, and it’s a stop-motion animation about Morris the Moose, who goes to school. It’s all in this really creepy animation style, and lapses into moments of pure psychedelia. When I watched it the first time, I took a selfie of my mouth hanging completely open. That’s part of the show I’m doing at the Clinton. It’s nightmare fuel.
Another one, which I might trot out for select audiences, is this public-service film [1978’s A Different Approach] about employment for people with disabilities. It stars a young Michael Keaton, alongside a bunch of Hollywood celebrities. He looks all of about 17 or 18 years old.
It’s kind of like Christmas. You find stuff all the time. Right now, I have five different films coming from five different directions that sometime in the next week I’m going to get to look at.
To be clear, this is a labor of love for you.
I’ve put in much more than I’ve gotten back. The enjoyment factor was the catalyst. I leave the shows as is after I assemble them, despite the temptation to pull them apart when I find new material. I prefer to treat them as stories, so I’m building a library of different experiences.
(“Psychotronic Afterschool Special” screens on Tuesday, July 5 at the Clinton Street Theater. The all-new “Psychotronic Afterschool Special” screens on Monday, August 1 at the Hollywood Theatre.)