Erik McClanahan

Top Down: Making It Happen Every Week

Projectionist Erik McClanahan provides a glimpse at the hard work that makes Rooftop Cinema a reality

The act of showing a movie today is almost embarrassingly easy. Push a button and voilà, movie time! Digital magic, you know? All you have to do is press that button and the show will go on.

Now, put all that equipment outside and things get a little more complicated.

It can be a magical way to experience a movie, under the stars of a gorgeous Summer evening in Portland. That’s the appeal of Top Down, at least for the audience. For projectionists like me and my co-workers, it’s a whole different story.

The annual rooftop movie series put on by The Northwest Film Center is back and ready to kick off Thursday. The makeshift outdoor cinema will be built, as always, atop the Hotel deLuxe parking structure in downtown Portland, once per week through the end of August. The Film Center staff is a small but devoted clan of film lovers, and it takes nearly all of us every Thursday to pull off this event.

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The projectionists’ view from behind the screen at Top Down

For sound, we have six speakers and two large sub-woofers shaped liked giant ice cubes, all run through a mixing board which is set up behind the massive 16′ x 9′ inflatable screen. Keeping that screen erect is a small machine that simply shoots a non-stop funnel of air through it all night long. If the power goes out, or some hapless child decides to pull the plug (which has happened before), it will deflate almost instantly, and we have to scramble to solve the problem.

Setting up projection, though, is the most laborious and time-consuming part of the process. We opt for rear projection up there, so the portable digital projector is setup behind the screen. This arrangement is akin to a great special effect: when it’s done well, with plenty of advance preparation and testing, the audience won’t even notice all the hard work it took to make it happen.

Portland is spoiled rotten with outdoor screenings during these hot Summer months. Most of them are free, relatively low-key community-based events at parks across town. Not Top Down, where your ticket gets you a seat to the movie (or at least a place to put the lawn chair you bring), a live band or DJ performance preceding it, and a stunning 360 degree panorama of our lovely city. If you’re lucky, a gorgeous sunset will not only fill the sky with more sparkling yellows, oranges and purples than a Terrence Malick film projected through black lights, but also signal the movie is about to begin.

Once the sun goes down, the real magic hour begins. After the film ends, the audience departs, almost certainly tired and maybe a little tipsy, but also (ideally) buzzing with the joy of a special cinematic experience. For the staffers on site, breakdown begins and we reverse all the set-up from the day, packing up the equipment, tents, and hundreds of chairs. If we’ve done our job correctly, there’s nary a trace that a movie was shown here, or that 500 people sat atop and watched it. We won’t be done working until 1:00 am, if we’re lucky. Working Top Down is a right of passage for the staff, something we all have to do at some point, and even though it’s exhausting and stressful as hell, it’s all worth it.

attack-the-blockThe seven films programmed for the series this year—can’t miss highlights include “Attack The Block,” “Raising Arizona” and “Key Largo”—include something for everyone. As always, it’s an eclectic mix of titles. Where else could you see Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It” one week and then John Waters’ musical “Hairspray” only a few weeks later, all projected on a big screen? (If it’s windy up top, the screen will bulge in and out as though you’re watching a 3-D movie without glasses, which is a special treat, believe it or not). Talking Heads frontman David Byrne’s 1986 film “True Stories,” less a musical than an art film inspired by that decade’s music video aesthetics, closes out the series on August 25. But first, this week, there’s Ed Wood’s infamous shitshow “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” which you have to see to believe.

Now’s your chance to see them all, under the stars with friends and a bunch of like-minded strangers. I can’t think of any better reason to work so hard for one screening. There’s plenty more to this story, but at least now you know that simply pushing a button is only 1% of this event.

Erik McClanahan is a projectionist for The Northwest Film Center. If you see him and/or any other crew members at Top Down, make sure to say hi. Advance tickets are highly recommended for this event. You can purchase tickets for each film here.

Film Review: “Men & Chicken” is a zany Danish comedy

Mads Mikkelsen is a long way from "Hannibal" in this bizarre tale of genetics and slapstick violence.

Most comedies that make it to movie theaters are content to do the bare minimum: set up an easy conflict, get a few laughs, keep it mostly inoffensive. Done deal. It’s not like the audience really expects or cares about cinematic ambition in this genre, and filmmakers seem fine delivering at that low bar.

“Men & Chicken” is not most comedies.

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Review: “Take Me To The River” shows promise

Writer-director Matt Sobel's first feature is about a gay California teen attending a family reunion in Nebraska

Anyone who’s ever left home and came back for a family reunion gets it. In those unavoidably awkward (re)encounters with folks you haven’t interacted with in a long time, there’s that overwhelming sense you’d never actively seek out their company were you not related. Matt Sobel’s debut film, “Take Me To The River,” tells of one such trip. Its teen protagonist, Ryder, framed in the film’s opening shot directly between his parents, is clearly not excited for another reunion in Nebraska with his mother’s family.

Not the only awkward dinner-table conversation in Matt Sobel's film "Take Me to the River"

Not the only awkward dinner-table conversation in Matt Sobel’s film “Take Me to the River”

Ryder (Logan Miller, “The Stanford Prison Experiment”) has good reason to be leery of this trip. He wants to come out this extended family. He’s not afraid of his homosexuality, but his mother, Cindy, warning of (or, perhaps, hiding behind) her relatives’ close-mindedness, is terrified by this idea, and asks him to keep mum. She’s played by the great TV character actor, Robin Weigert (who killed as Calamity Jane on “Deadwood”), is a mass of contradictory emotions and subtle tics.

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Review: ‘Kill Your Friends’ Is Served Cold, But Not Exactly Fresh

We recommend it only if you've never seen any of the better movies it wants to be

Current movie trends and audience tastes seem to prefer, overall, a bright, shiny, redemptive and hopeful product, the rampaging box-office success of “Batman v Superman” notwithstanding. But those of us who are also attracted to stories at cinemas involving less noble examples of humanity have nonetheless been well-served over the years. So much so that “Kill Your Friends,” a confidently-made new British feature starring Nicholas Hoult (“X-Men: Days Of Future Past”) as a serial killing A & R record man, may provoke déjà vu in even the slightly adventurous moviegoer. 

The characters here mistake their insane levels of drug-taking and entitled positions in life for something of value, but unfortunately so do the filmmakers, who perhaps thought that by upping the nihilism and over-the-top nastiness in this adaptation of the 2008 novel by Scottish author John Niven they could gloss over their movie’s most glaring flaw: it has absolutely nothing new to say.

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I can’t be sure that it’s any different from the source material, as I’ve not read it. the film follows Hoult’s journey through the British music industry, circa 1997, as that particular corner of the business was flush with pop success. His transition from vicious corporate ladder-climber to the titular killer of friends feels cynically amoral–the movie plays like a series of uninspired ‘why-nots.’ Hoult, the boy from “About A Boy,” quotes Conan the Barbarian as he murders and betrays anyone between him and the top job at his company.

Hoult has been on something of a mission in his mid-20s to seek out more adult roles. He clearly wants to be taken seriously as an actor, and for the most part, I’ve been pleased to see where his instincts have taken him thus far (His turn in last year’s Oscar-winning ‘Mad Max Fury Road’ was great but he was even better in the criminally underseen 2014 indie sci-fi “Young Ones.”). Here, as anti-hero Steven Stelfox, he leaves no line of coke un-snorted, no woman un-demeaned, no co-worker un-destroyed and no fourth wall unbroken. If he existed in the same cinematic universe as Patrick Bateman from “American Psycho,” they could easily create some kind of uber-douche Justice League of serial killer misanthropes who rule corporate hell (and by extension, all of us).

That’s all well and good. Hoult seems to relish the opportunity to go bad, and his performance makes “Kill Your Friends” watchable as hell, but that can’t save this film from being anything other than a B-squad “Wolf Of Wall Street.” Even HBO’s flawed but getting better new show, “Vinyl,” has more to offer. And neither the outstanding 90’s Britpop soundtrack nor the score by veteran producer Junkie XL (“Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Deadpool”) save it from being a lesser, rote version of the Mary Harron movie adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ infamous bestseller (they got there first after all). Director Owen Harris makes his feature debut following several great episodes of the British TV series “Misfits” and one of my favorite “Black Mirror” episodes, “Be Right Back.” He does right by the material, even if it all seems hollow and uninspired while the running time, admittedly, whizzes by. I’m not faulting the film for being bad as it wants to be. It’s more that, once you’ve seen it done better so many times before (all hail Martin Scorsese!), there’s not much left to do but shrug with indifference. 

(“Kill Your Friends” opens Friday, April 1, at Kiggins Theatre in Vancouver, WA.)

Rated R (for bloody violence, nudity, lots of drug use and plenty of foul language), 103 min. Grade: C

INTERVIEW: Ciro Guerra, Writer/Director Of Oscar-Nominated ‘Embrace Of The Serpent’

The Colombian filmmaker talked with our critic about his films, what makes for great cinema, the amazing locations in 'Serpent', his Oscar experience and more

Ciro Guerra is having a good month. The Colombian-born filmmaker recently attended his first Oscar ceremony, where his newest film, “Embrace Of The Serpent,” was nominated in the foreign language category (it lost to “Son Of Saul”). Beyond being a personally momentous occasion for the young writer/director, who celebrated his 35th birthday in February, the Academy Award nomination was the first ever for his native country.

Describing his experience at the ceremony as “quite fun and quite crazy” during our interview on Skype, he says the Academy made them feel welcome and that he was thankful to meet so many people in the industry he’s admired for a long time. “We we’re kind of relieved we didn’t win,” he said. “There was a favorite going in and it’s great not to be the favorite. It can be a lot of pressure. Even winning can be a lot of pressure. So we just made the best of it and enjoyed it.”

I really can’t praise “Embrace Of The Serpent” enough. It’s one of those films that captures the imagination with a grip that doesn’t loosen until the credits have ended. Make sure to seek out the film when it opens exclusively this Friday at Living Room Theaters. Its two-pronged narrative ping-pongs back and forth (sometimes in the same unbroken take) between events 40 years apart in the life of Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman and the last survivor of his people. He encounters and travels with two scientists, one inspired by the other to search the Amazon for a sacred healing plant. (While by no means a “true story,” much of the film is inspired by the diaries of German Theodor Koch-Grunberg and American Richard Evans Schultes)

The black and white visuals, druggy hallucination sequences, performances, and a killer soundtrack—ancient tribal music mixed with the natural cacophony of the jungle—all make for an incredibly immersive, funny and beautiful rumination on dying, colonialism and being the last of one’s kind. It’s truly a film to go get lost in at the cinema.

Guerra, whose previous film, “The Wind Journeys,” is also highly recommended (I was able to rent the DVD at Movie Madness in fact), was generous with his time over Skype, talking with me for more than 40 minutes. Suffice to say it was fairly in depth, focusing mostly on his latest film and his work overall, but also making room to talk about what makes for great cinema (you know, the kind you see at an actual movie theater), the gorgeously epic Amazonian locations where they shot ‘Serpent’, and much more. Below are a few excerpted highlights from our chat. If you’d like to hear the entire interview, you can do so by streaming or downloading the embedded podcast below.

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one of many memorable images from “Embrace of the Serpent”

“Embrace Of The Serpent” is filled with so many great, memorable cinematic sequences. In particular, the moment when you link both storylines from different time periods in one fluid take.

In the early versions of the script, it was a very Western script in the way everything was explained and all the dates and locations were perfectly clear. Then I started working with the Amazonian people, and I realized their conception of time is completely different. Film is essentially a medium of time. That’s the clay we work on with cinema, it’s made up of fragments of time. I realized what would make the movie special and unique would be that it was told from that perspective. And that included this different understanding of time, that time is not a linear sequence, which is how we are taught to experience it. Amazonian people, and shamans especially, see it more as a simultaneous multiplicity. Which is funnily extremely close to the way quantum physicists define time.

So I wanted the film to be an expression of that. In Amazonian storytelling past, present and future intertwine and dialogues mirror each other. As the process of research went on the film became more and more imbued with this Amazonian spirit and way of storytelling. So I thought if we could create links between different times, to make them appear to be simultaneous, it would be close to the spirit of the Amazonian people. 

So the idea for the two-pronged narrative, is that also how that came about? To put the audience in the mindset of Karamakate? 

Yes. The main thing about the film is that the point of view is from the shaman. This story has usually been told from the explorers’ point of view. So we really needed to flip the story on its head. When you switch the point of view you realize that history has been told in a very one dimensional way. I think that is something cinema can do. It really can make you experience the world from a particular perspective. The perspective of Amazonian people is very difficult for us to understand and get into it. This film is an attempt to build a bridge between the storytelling that we know and can understand, and their storytelling which for us at first can be incomprehensible. This film needed to be accessible for anyone. It would have been dishonest to make this a cryptic film for a small [art film] niche.

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“Embrace Of The Serpent”

Watching the film is an incredibly immersive sensory experience. I think that’s really important for cinema today. Since most people are happy to watch everything on their TVs, computers or phones, it’s more important than ever that a film deserves to be up on a big screen to get people out of their house and going to the theater. “Embrace Of The Serpent” is truly a big movie and belongs there. 

I agree totally with you. I think the cinema should be an experience. The effect that cinema can have on the senses is something I think no other art form can come close to it. For me it’s always very important that the films… that you can really feel where you are. They have a strong sense of place. And the tools of cinema allow you to do that, to put you in there.

The sound design and overall look of the film is incredible. Can you talk about some of those sensorial elements and how you conceived and executed them? 

The sound design is the creation of Carlos García, a brilliant sound designer. We had this concept of creating a trance-like state through the sound. Using the sounds of nature and its frequencies in a way that would take the viewer in a trance like, or a spiritual state. It’s the state that Amazonian people use to tell their stories. You are sort of elevated by the sound. You do that only using the frequencies of the natural environment. That creates a feeling that can only be experienced completely in a cinema.

The look of the film [cinematography by David Gallego] is inspired by the images the explorers took during their travels. When I went there I realized it was not going to be possible to portray the colors of the Amazon on film. Especially what they mean to the people there. These are people who have 15 words for what we call green. I thought this way we could trigger the audience’s imagination. The Amazon that you see in the film is not the real one, it’s an imagined Amazon. But that imagined Amazon is certainly going to be more real than what we could portray.

“Embrace Of The Serpent” opens at Friday March 11 at Portland’s Living Room Theaters. Advance tickets are available now. 

ArtsWatch looks ahead to the 38th Portland International Film Festival

The Vancouver International Film Festival gave us a great jump on the best films coming to PIFF and beyond

Film festivals are complex, multifaceted, logistical nightmares… (almost) as much for the audience as for staff. However, if one distills them down to their essence, an inherent bifurcation is revealed. They are the final bastion for a not insignificant crop of smaller, foreign, arthouse, documentary and independent films to be seen in a cinema with a crowd. They’re also an odd microcosm of all that’s wrong with the industry today.

I’m willing to bet almost every reader here already agrees with the former, but the latter? Not so sure. Perhaps it’s our dirty little secret. Gasp! There are just as many bad movies produced every year in world cinema as Hollywood, probably even more.

Which is why you, dear movie lover, need some guidance. Some good, old-fashioned curation. After all, Portland is rife with endless festivals. It has a deep bench of specialty, indie and arthouse theaters. We’ve got choices. Too many, perhaps. In a way, though, it’s a good problem to have, but it’s all too easy (and understandable) to take for granted such privileged access to films far and wide, strange and square, big and small, and nearly everything in between.

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Celluloid Resurgence: Film is not dead after all

The unique release of Christopher Nolan's epic space tale "Interstellar" has our critic reevaluating the digital vs. film divide.

Actual, physical celluloid has been on the endangered species list for more than a decade. Surely you’ve already heard about it. Death to cinema they’ve been saying! Digital projection, “that’s just TV in public,” says Quentin Tarantino. You know, typical over-the-top, sky-is-falling bloviating from the sometimes tragically nostalgic cinephile crowd. Admittedly, I am one of them, but these days find myself more in the middle of this seismic change in movies. When a situation is this complex, it’s the best place to be. It’s where optimism is earned.

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However, before satisfaction would be mine… first things first: Christopher Nolan has a new film out, called “Interstellar.” You’ve no doubt heard about this too. Nolan is one of a handful of big name directors whose name even average moviegoers know. His place in the pantheon of great modern auteurs is well-earned. He consistently makes good, sometimes great, cinema (there’s even a masterpiece or two in his filmography). He is a bastion for going out to the movies, no mere conjurer of cheap tricks but one who instills all his work with honest-to-goodness movie magic.

I’d love to wax-poetic about “Interstellar” (believe me, I really could), but that’s not what I’m here to do (besides, everyone and their mother has already reviewed the damn thing, so there’s plenty of opinions to sift through). In short—set your hyperbole and critic-speak tolerance to high, please—I found it to be immensely enthralling and easily Nolan’s (a chilly director) most emotionally satisfying film to date. I laughed, I cried, I was honestly blown away at times. It’s a more complete, far greater accomplishment than even his last two (very good) movies, “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Inception.” I can’t recommend enough seeing it on the biggest screen possible, to take in the vastness of its vision.

The question becomes: in what format will you be seeing “Interstellar?” For those who don’t know—or much more likely just don’t care—Nolan has been a big proponent of shooting and projecting his work on film. He’s used his clout in the industry, of which he has a lot (thanks to an impressive box office run of massive hits), to ensure that folks in cities where cinemas still have working film projectors can see “Interstellar” on film, be it on the former standard 35mm or the gloriously huge 70mm IMAX. Most will see it on the new standard, DCP. In the end, all that truly matters is that people see it, feel something (good or bad) and hopefully are moved by the picture.

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