Gus Van Sant

Portland International Film Festival preview: 5 picks to click from (virtual) PIFF

Marc Mohan picks a handful of favorites from this year's 44th annual festival, much of which is online

Last year’s Portland International Film Festival was among the first cultural events truncated by the spread of COVID-19, and at the time it seemed impossible that the pandemic would continue to be inhibiting normal life when the 2021 edition rolled around. Nevertheless, here we are, albeit with more than a glimmer of hope that seeing movies in public with strangers might once again be possible relatively soon. Then again, that’s what we thought 11 ½ months ago…

“Minari” screens as part of PIFF’s opening-night celebration

In any event, the Northwest Film Center has made PIFF, like many other film festivals, a mostly online experience. Unlike most other film festivals, PIFF has a ready-made, pandemic-friendly resource at its disposal—namely, the Drive-In Theatre at Zidell Yards, where it has hosted popular outdoor screenings over the last several summers. With any luck, fickle March weather won’t put too much of a damper as Zidell Yards hosts both the fest’s opening-night Cinema Unbound Awards on Friday and a diverse lineup of crowd-pleasers for the duration, March 5-14.

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The big news this week was the announcement that, as of Friday, February 12, Portland’s movie theaters, like its restaurants, will be able to reopen on a limited basis. None of the metro area theaters have announced plans to sell tickets or rentals to the public immediately, but it is at least a small symbolic step back toward normalcy. Let’s not screw it up this time, eh?

Cinema Unbound Awards

With the 44th Portland International Film Festival on the virtual horizon, the Northwest Film Center has announced the recipients of the second annual Cinema Unbound Awards, which will be presented at a drive-in ceremony on March 4 (which will also be streamed live online). Gus Van Sant, the director who put Portland on the independent cinema map, will get one. So will British filmmaker and artist Steve McQueen (“Small Axe,” “12 Years a Slave”), filmmaker and artist Garrett Bradley (whose “Time” is one of the best documentaries of the year), producer Mollye Asher (the Oscar contender “Nomadland”), and animation producer Alex Bulkley (currently overseeing Guillermo del Toro’s stop-motion, Portland-shot “Pinocchio”). Presenters will include del Toro, “Nomadland” director Chloe Zhao, and Portland icons Walt Curtis and Thomas Lauderdale (gee, I wonder who they’ll be presenting to?).

‘Two of Us’

Martine Chevallier and Barbara Sukowa in “Two of Us”

This Golden Globe nominee, Oscar contender, and late-career highlight for star Barbara Sukowa centers on two women who’ve been neighbors, and secret lovers, for decades. Now that Madeleine (Martine Chevallier) has been widowed, they have a chance to move from Paris to Rome and live out their lives together. But Madeleine, despite pressure from Nina (Sukowa), hesitates to reveal the truth to her adult children. When she suffers a debilitating stroke, Nina undertakes a bittersweet masquerade to remain close to the woman she loves, and who she knows loves her.

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Playing chicken at the book bash

Stamina, lively conversation & Colson Whitehead's chicken recipes help our correspondent survive the crush of the AWP's national gathering

I don’t eat chickens, much less cook them. That didn’t stop me from enjoying the delectable chicken-themed keynote speech by Colson Whitehead that officially kicked off the 2019 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) national conference the last week in March at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland.

Established as a nonprofit group by fifteen writers in 1967, AWP “supports literary authors who teach, provides services, advocacy, resources, and community to nearly 50,000 writers, 550 college and university creative writing programs, and 150 writers’ conferences and centers.” To get a sense of the breadth and scope of this year’s conference, imagine how such a mission statement translates into the organization’s premier annual event—the biggest of its kind in North America, one that draws somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 attendees each year.

Colson Whitehead: on writing, and cooking chicken. Photo: Madeline Whitehead

Like any story, time—the actual fact of it, and how it’s negotiated—is really the engine of the narrative. Sessions began at 9 a.m., lasting an hour and fifteen minutes, and went all through evening, with fifteen-minute breaks, allowing for an airport-like rush from one end of the convention center to the other. Preparation was unruly and complex, and scrolling through the substantial online schedule seemed to be the only real option (though, I confess, it took me hours to do this: more than once, I would get half way down a page and forget what time-slot I was looking at). I did hear a few stories from those daredevil types who went without any plan whatsoever, and they seemed to fare just fine. If I had advice to offer future attendees, just know that your swag bag will contain a comprehensive glossy program, and unlike the impressively designed online app that didn’t work because my phone could not manage to stay connected to the internet in the conference center, the glossy program never let me down!

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River and Elliott: Remembering two troubled princes of 1990s Portland

River Phoenix and Elliott Smith brushed Portland and maybe Portland brushed them

There’s a name you keep repeating
You’ve got nothing better to do

— Elliott Smith, “Alphabet Town”

From James Dean to Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain to Heath Ledger, we have immortalized a constellation of famous artists—especially musicians and actors—who died young and, then, through a combination of their talent and the public’s grief, lived on. Robbed of the futures we imagined for them, yet frozen in time and thus never to suffer the indignities of aging or late-career artistic mediocrity, their luminosity—and our love for them—intensifies as if in proportion to the tragedy.

Portland and Oregon haven’t traditionally produced a lot of bold-type names that have endured in the international pop zeitgeist. Far from America’s entertainment capitols, this is arguably a place where talents are nurtured, not where one becomes a full-fledged star. The most high-profile artists, such as the great abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko or Simpsons creator Matt Groening, have tended to move on and live their career-defining creative moments elsewhere. Yet even if their time here is fleeting, sometimes these artists don’t just remain culturally relevant long after their deaths but also come to represent something essential about a particular time in the city.

Last month brought reminders of two such one-time Oregonians and what they left behind. October 21 was the 15th anniversary of musician Elliott Smith’s death, at the age of 34 in 2003, while Halloween brought the 25th anniversary of actor River Phoenix’s death, at the age of 23 in 1993. They died a decade apart, but each moment of mortality came in Los Angeles, and the two sites are less than nine miles away from each other: Phoenix outside West Hollywood’s Viper Room club after an accidental overdose, and Smith by stabbing at his home in Silver Lake (a presumed suicide but never officially determined).

Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho

The coincidences don’t end there. River Phoenix and Elliott Smith were born within a year of each other: Smith in Nebraska (he was raised until age 14 in Texas) and Phoenix in Madras, Oregon (raised mostly in Florida). Each arguably made his most famous work in collaboration with director Gus Van Sant. Phoenix co-starred (along with Keanu Reeves) in Van Sant’s 1991 film My Own Private Idaho and Smith was nominated for an Academy Award for the song “Miss Misery,” on the soundtrack to Van Sant’s 1998 film Good Will Hunting. Each struggled with drug abuse, which in different ways led to each artist’s untimely death. River Phoenix and Elliott Smith presumably never met, yet each is a kind of fleeting prince of ’90s Portland, and their work acts as time capsule and talisman for the days many locals now look to longingly: a grittier, more affordable and off-the-radar city that predated Portlandia, a succession of swooning New York Times stories, and an ensuing wave of tourism and gentrification.

Like Rothko, neither stayed here for good. But also like Rothko and many of the city’s other most famous sons and daughters, Phoenix and Smith were transplants to the city who saw Portland with fresh eyes. Like rain clouds that give way to bright sunlight almost daily for much of the year, each artist’s Portland-based work is personal and often deeply melancholic, yet also joyful, lyrical and instinctual. It’s not always pretty, yet we are drawn to their work again and again.

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FilmWatch Weekly: Gus Van Sant talks about his biopic of Portland cartoonist John Callahan

"Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot" follows Callahan's journey to sobriety after being paralyzed in a drunk-driving accident

One well-known Portlander tells the story of another in “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot,” Gus Van Sant’s new film based on the memoir by the late cartoonist John Callahan.

Van Sant has had his eye on Callahan’s life story for a couple of decades, with Robin Williams, who had optioned Callahan’s book, attached at one point to play the lead role. After Williams’ death, the project’s realization seemed unlikely. But Van Sant recruited Joaquin Phoenix, reuniting the two after Phoenix’s breakout role in “To Die For (1995),” and a fascinating supporting cast, and here we are.

If you lived in Northwest Portland in the 1990s, the spectacle of the orange-haired Callahan speeding down the sidewalk in his motorized wheelchair was a familiar one. Even if you didn’t recognize him on the street, however, you would have almost certainly been familiar with the outrage he frequently stoked with his squiggly, single-frame cartoons, which ran regularly in Willamette Week from 1983 until his death in 2010, and skewered race, gender, and other sacred cows (including disability) with politically incorrect impunity.

Joaquin Phoenix as John Callahan and Jonah Hill as Donnie star in DON’T WORRY, HE WON’T GET FAR ON FOOT.

“Don’t Worry” focuses less on Callahan’s notoriety than his journey to sobriety, which began some time after the horrific car accident in California that left him paralyzed and bitter. Among the members of the Alcoholics Anonymous group that Callahan reluctantly joins are characters played by the likes of Udo Kier, Beth Ditto, and Kim Gordon, who’s especially convincing as a wealthy Portland housewife with a drinking problem. The group’s de facto leader is Donnie, a self-mocking sober hedonist played with impressive savoir faire by an almost unrecognizable Jonah Hill.

The rest of the cast includes Jack Black as the drunk driver behind the wheel for the fateful wreck and Rooney Mara as Callahan’s almost too-angelic nurse/girlfriend. Newcomer Tony Greenhand deserves special mention as Callahan’s wry, stringy-haired caretaker, but the less said about Carrie Brownstein’s brief appearance as a bureaucrat the better.

Van Sant was in town last month for an advanced screening of “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” held at Cinema 21, with proceeds benefitting the John Callahan Garden at Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center. I met with him the afternoon of the screening at a downtown Portland hotel, where he discussed the evolution of the movie, its visual aesthetic, and why he didn’t shoot it here in town.

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