Angry Filmmaker

A dozen great reads from 2017

From a Lewis Carroll lark to a rambling Road Dog to a play about a baby to art out of ocean garbage, twelve ArtsWatch stories not to miss

A dance critic walks into an art show. A man and his dog travel the byroads of America. A pop song sinks into a writer’s soul. A jazz pianist walks into the wilderness. A play about a baby strikes a theater reviewer close to home. On the southern Oregon coast, artists make huge sculptures from the detritus that chokes the sea.

We run a lot of stories on a lot of subjects at Oregon ArtsWatch – more than 500 in 2017 alone – and a few stand out simply as stories that want to be told. Put together a good writer and a good subject and chances are you’ll get a memorable tale. Here are a dozen such stories from 2017.

 


 

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A look back at a dozen stories from 2017 you won’t want to miss:

 

Matthew Kerrigan reinterprets Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit, with a fleeting attention span ruled by a smartphone.

We’re all mad here … so let’s party

Jan. 31: “What do you do with your existential frustration? If you boil it down into its purest form, you get either despair or rage—which then has to be dealt with. But if you chill it out and mix in some humor, you end up with absurdity. And that can be played with! O Frabjous Day!” A.L. Adams got down in the existential trenches with Shaking the Tree’s We’re All Mad Here, a piece performed and largely conceived by Matthew Kerrigan in homage to the great absurdist Lewis Carroll. “Any drug-addled dodo could dream up a different world, but that wasn’t the crux of Carroll’s vision. Like his forebears Aesop and Chaucer and Jonathan ‘Gulliver’ Swift, Carroll was a satirist as well as a fabulist.”

Continues…

ArtsWatch Weekly: NEA battle, dancing with Rodin

Arts groups push back, a week of dance, a road dog warrior, concert tips, what's on stage

It’s been a busy week in the arts world. Nationally, as the New York Times reports, the new administration seems intent on moving forward with its plan to kill off the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, although it’s by no means certain that Congress would go along with it, and, as the Times reports, opposition is being mounted across the country. The endowments reach into virtually every congressional district, and that reflects a lot of votes. As the Times put it, “(E)ven if the arts get only crumbs, administrators said, they are crumbs worth fighting for: much-needed money that supports community projects, new works and making the arts accessible to people in different parts of the country and to those who are not wealthy. And after years of culture-war debates in which conservatives took aim at the programs, questioning their value, arts groups are pressing the case that the federal money they receive supports organizations — and jobs — in all 50 states, both red and blue.”

 


 

Oregon Ballet Theatre’s new “Swan Lake.” Photo: Randall Milstein

IN PORTLAND, MEANWHILE, it’s a dancey sort of week. Oregon Ballet Theatre has just opened Kevin Irving’s reimagined version of Swan Lake, with the focus shifted from Odette/Odile to Prince Siegfried; it continues with four performances Thursday-Saturday at Keller Auditorium. Look for Martha Ullman West’s review in ArtsWatch on Wednesday.

Continues…

A Road Dog barks his tale

Portland filmmaker Kelley Baker and his chocolate lab hit the road for some American adventure. Oh: and a book that spills the beans.

“Our story starts in the Garden of Eden,” Kelley Baker begins. “Not that one. The one in Lucas, Kansas.

 “S.P. Dinsmoor’s Garden of Eden.

 “The wind blows ferociously across the Kansas prairie, because it’s … Kansas.

 “I’m standing next to a too-skinny woman dressed in black who reminds me of a meth addict. With teeth. Dinsmoor’s lying in front of us. He’s seen better days.

 “S.P. Dinsmoor is a mummy.”

Baker calls himself The Angry Filmmaker, and there is some truth to the assertion, although “renegade” might be a more accurate if less marketable word. Now, with the release of Road Dog, his comic and exasperated and slightly profane tale of traveling America’s highways and back routes, he could even make it The Renegade Raconteur.

Curling up with a good book.

A fixture on the Portland film scene for decades, Baker’s juggled a mainstream career – sound designer on six Gus Van Sant movies and Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven, writer/producer/director of several successful documentaries for TV – with a fiercely independent career of making ultra-low-budget features, often peddling them himself on long road trips to colleges, film festivals, and specialty video stores. Then there’s the one he’s still reeling in, the feature-length documentary on the novelist and radical activist Kay Boyle, a three-decade project that is tantalizingly close to completion but still a few thousand dollars short of the finish line. I wrote about his quest three and a half years ago in Angry and obsessed: the Baker/Boyle story.

That’s almost, though not quite, how long it’s been since we’d sat down to talk. Until recently, when he came out with Road Dog, and I figured it was time to catch up. Kelley’s one of those people you like to catch up with now and again, if you can figure out where he is and how long he’ll be there. Road Dog is a sort of working-man’s riff on Travels with Charlie, John Steinbeck’s tale of traveling into the soul of America on an epic road trip with his dog. Baker’s book recounts his adventures over several years of long road trips in the company of a 120-pound chocolate lab named Moses, who may not lead him to the promised land but is a good and faithful companion and a co-conspirator in many stories.

The book is episodic, as rambling as the endless country roads Kelley and Moses travel, and very funny. Baker writes pretty much the way he talks, which is with a natural plainspoken rhythm that incorporates wry humor, sharp satiric jabs, fascinating side trips that eventually loop around to the point, and a streetwise moralism that does not suffer fools gladly but appreciates their contributions to the telling of a tale.

Baker

Road Dog covers several national tours that Baker and Moses undertook, usually twice a year, from North to South to East to West in a tripped-up minivan. It covers, usually, hundreds of miles a day, broken up by “incidents” with Texas and Idaho and Iowa state troopers and snooty film professors who’ve never made a film. It drops in on nights of drinking and swapping stories with lawyers from the Southern Poverty Law Center beside Hank Williams’ grave, and meetings with friendly bikers and pickup drivers and helpful long-haul truckers. It is dotted with Motel 6es and Walmart parking lots (“a series of campgrounds with stores attached that stretch across the United States”) and adventures with a giant Jesus in the Ozarks and an antiseptic Prayer Tower in Tulsa. It tells of being outed as a Yankee in a Memphis bar, and meeting kindred souls from Austin to the nation’s capital, and white-knuckle drives through blinding storms, and traveling with his daughter, Fiona, who adapts adroitly to life on the road. Through it all, Baker encounters an America shaped by and yet also somehow engaging deeply beyond the headlines of a divided nation. And Moses doggedly makes his mark at rest stops and tree stumps across the country, winning friends and stealing hearts along the way.

Road Dog even includes a glossary, which is largely an excuse for Baker to make epigrammatic pronouncements of a jaundiced and entertaining nature. (On the Winchester Mystery House: “This place is a tribute to one of the craziest people in America. But she was incredibly wealthy so she was just considered eccentric.” On PBS affiliates: “a loose network of television stations that have no problem overpaying for films by people like Ken Burns and yet wants most other filmmakers to give them their work for free. Especially if you’re local.”)

Oh, and about the Garden of Eden. S.P. Dinsmoor’s wife is there, too. Buried under several tons of concrete. You could look it up.

Angry and obsessed: the Baker/Boyle story

Portland filmmaker Kelley Baker's been dogging the trail of radical writer Kay Boyle for almost 30 years. Sometimes, persistence pays off

Kay Boyle in her Paris writing room, 1930s

Kay Boyle in her Paris writing room, 1930s

The other day my friend Kelley Baker tossed out a quote from the late Pauline Kael.

Kelley, a wise and irreverent soul who calls himself The Angry Filmmaker, and Kael, the legendary movie critic for the glory-days New Yorker magazine whose breathless enthusiasms for and against had an entire generation of film buffs and aspiring critics panting in anticipation of her latest proclamation, are a good match.

For almost 30 years Baker, the Portland independent filmmaker, has been on the intellectual and emotional trail of the radical American writer Kay Boyle, and at long last his feature-length film “Dangerous: Kay Boyle” is almost done. And Kael, though she was always on the lookout for fresh talent and would trumpet it unabashedly when she believed she’d found it, also believed the talent she trumpeted should be rigorously formed.

Persistence, skill, style, giving a damn: on those matters, Baker and Kael – and, for that matter, Boyle, whom S.I. Hayakawa, who as university president fired her from San Francisco State during the troubles of the late 1960s, once called “the most dangerous woman in America” – are in agreement.

So what did Kael write that caught Kelley’s eye? “It seems that many of the young who don’t wait for others to call them artists, but simply announce that they are, don’t have the patience to create art.”

Kelley Baker

Kelley Baker

Wow. True or false? Do we draw a line between people who act like artists and people who are artists? Posers and the real deal? Talent at self-promotion, and talent at actual creation? Do we – should we – rely on gatekeepers to tell us what is and isn’t art? And what does such a distinction mean in a city like Portland, which is heavily populated both with craft-obsessed artists and their presumed opposite, activity-based artists – the many who believe the true pulse of their art is in the exploration, not the result?

Partly, the impatience Kael talks about is simply a factor of being young. And, often, headstrong. Both can be drawbacks, but both can also be advantages. And sometimes, no matter what age, self-assertion is just embedded in a person’s DNA. Boyle, who died in 1992 at age 90, wrote about 40 books and was a friend of major figures ranging from James Joyce to William Carlos Williams. She was also adamantly acerbic and fiercely political, spending a month in prison, at age 66, for leading a sit-in at a military induction center. San Francisco State’s president (and later U.S. senator) fired her after she shouted him out during a ’60s campus protest as “Hayakawa-Eichmann.” He later reinstated her. Kelley quotes the writer Janet Flanner: “It’s no good asking Kay Boyle what she thought, because she would tell you.”

People who’ve gone through the battles can be impatient about the impatience of people who haven’t. Sometimes they have a point. I’ve talked with working artist/teachers in Portland and San Francisco who’ve despaired that their studio students won’t learn how to draw because they don’t think it’s important. Part of announcing one’s self as an artist is simply the act of self-creation: If I say it, I will be it. Many of those young self-proclaimed artists will drop away as they get older and the road gets tougher. Some will stick at it, and learn, and grow. Talent is huge. But so is determination. Baker’s a good example. In the years he’s been pursuing the Kay Boyle story he’s also made a trio of independent feature films (“Bird Dog,” “The Gas Café,” “Kicking Bird”), worked as sound designer on features such as “My Own Private Idaho,” “Good Will Hunting,” “Far From Heaven,” and “The Adventures of Mark Twain” for directors Gus Van Sant, Todd Haines and Will Vinton, and done a lot of shorter work of his own. He also spends a lot of time on the road, taking his gospel of small-budget filmmaking to universities and art centers across the country. His talent’s been obvious for a long time. I’ve seen a lot of other people I wouldn’t have bet money on when they were starting out who’ve stuck with it, broadened, deepened, and become serious artists. You can guess. But you never can tell.

So, I understand what Kael’s talking about. We live in a world of empty boasts and failed, sometimes self-aborted, dreams. And the increasingly chilly economic realities of the artistic life almost demand that actors, writers, painters, dancers, and other people living by their creative wits promote themselves. If you’re to survive in the economic Darwinism of the 21st century, a certain amount of self-hype goes with the territory.

But I’ve also learned, while making judgments, to be provisional. The world’s constantly shifting, and here at ArtsWatch, we try to keep our balance as we surf the shifting tectonic plates. Maybe that young artist with the radically different approach is just looking at the tremors from a different position.

On the other hand, I like craft. And I like artists who are in it for the long haul. A while back Baker, a compulsive quote-tosser, tossed out one of his own. “I believe that the young filmmaker who started making this film bit off more than he could chew,” he said. “I also believe that the filmmaker who is finishing this film is a better filmmaker because of experience gained over the years.”

I can’t wait to see “Dangerous: Kay Boyle.” In due time.

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“Dangerous: Kay Boyle – The Film” has a Facebook page, here.

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