Marc Mohan

What you see & what you get

ArtsWatch Weekly: Richard Brown's photographic tales of Black Portland; picturing Pride; symphony's new chief; words of the poets; more

PHOTOGRAPHS TELL STORIES – all sorts of stories, in all sorts of ways. What seems like a simple process – point a camera, click, catch an image of the reality right in front of you – can take on much more varied and creative form in the hands of an artist. Yes, sometimes great photographs seem to come out of nowhere, as if by accident. But, like any other artists, great photographers have visions of their own, and the camera is the instrument of their vision. 

Father and child. Photo by Richard Brown, from his memoir “This Is Not for You: An Activist’s Journey of Resistance and Resilience.” 

Portland photographer and activist Richard Brown, who was born in Harlem in 1939, is one of those visionaries, as Maria Choban makes clear in her fascinating essay Brown in Black and White, written on the occasion of the release of Brown’s memoir, This Is Not for You: An Activist’s Journey of Resistance and Resilience, which he wrote with Brian Benson. The book, which contains two dozen of Brown’s remarkable photographs of Black life in Portland and elsewhere, suggests the complex and creative interplay of art and action and community in Brown’s life. 

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FilmWatch Weekly: Four debuts, with frights and delights, and one long-lost relic

Oh, the horror (and more): As movie houses begin to reopen, a mini-flood of fresh new films arrives

Now that most Portland-area arthouse theaters have reopened, what was a trickle of worthwhile cinematic fare has become a veritable flood. Of course, trying to keep up with a barrage of interesting independent and foreign releases is a good problem to have. Without further ado, then, here are some of this week’s standout offerings:

As a result of this unleashed backlog, some films more suited to, say, a Halloween-themed release are only now showing up. One example of this is The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, the latest sequel in Warner Brothers’ horror franchise, which was originally supposed to come out last September, but has only recently debuted in theaters and on HBO Max. For those who prefer their scares to be subtler than those Hollywood typically serves up, a couple of other films are worthy of note.

Niamh Algar in Censor

The process of filmmaking itself, with all its inherent obsessions and doublings, has inspired more than a few disturbing thrillers, from Brian De Palma’s Blow Out to Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio. Like the latter of those (which you should really check out if you haven’t), director Prano Bailey-Bond’s debut feature Censor uses horror movies themselves as a backdrop for a story about the thin line between reality and madness. It’s set during the “video nasties” moral panic of the 1980s in England, when the Thatcher government cracked down on gory flicks, banning some and threatening draconian penalties for providing them to minors. Enid (Niamh Algar), the censor of the title, spends her workdays watching disturbing movies and deciding which cuts must be made before their release.

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Film Watch Weekly: A Saudi surprise, plus hot and cold running French movies

Plus: Portland's Hollywood Theater gets ready to welcome live audiences, and the Church of Film resumes its live monthly screenings

But first, a couple of re-opening news items: The Hollywood Theatre has announced that it will reopen to the public on July 2, with screenings of the highly anticipated music documentary Summer of Soul. Sounds like a feel-good title to commemorate a feel-good event. And the long-running labor of love known as the Church of Film resumed its monthly screenings this week with a showing of the 1977 Spanish transition narrative Sex Change at the Clinton Street Theater. Both are welcome indicators that things continue to move in the right direction.


The Perfect Candidate is about a doctor named Maryam, who works at a run-down, underfunded rural clinic. She decides to travel abroad to a convention and interview for a position in a larger city, but a screwup by airport security threatens to ruin her plans. In the process of asking a politically connected family friend for help, Maryam accidentally ends up registering to run for a seat on her town council. She then decides to actually do it, undertaking a crash course in electoral campaigning and emerging as a scrappy underdog.

Mila Al Zahrani in The Perfect Candidate

This outline, as well as other plot details, could easily have come from an American movie about a smart, stubborn woman who refuses to let the chauvinistic world around her keep her down. But the fact that The Perfect Candidate is a Saudi Arabian film illustrates exactly how brave and determined Maryam (Mila Al Zahrani) is. The airport security incident is prompted by the fact that all women require the permission of their male “guardian” (usually father) to travel out of the country (Maryam is heading for Dubai). It would be wrong to say that her decision to stand up to the patriarchy is any more courageous than that made by other women in other cultures, but she certainly faces longer odds than most.

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The arts moment: back, or ahead?

ArtsWatch Weekly: We're emerging, but into what? The culture, and the arts world, consider the possibilities and make plans.

LIKE MOST OF THE NATION, OREGON HAS ENTERED SOMETHING OF A STATE OF SUSPENDED ANIMATION. Are we in or are we out? Do we shrink or do we grow? Scurry back, or look ahead? In the immortal words of The Clash, should I stay or should I go? Large stretches of rural Oregon, apparently, are eager to go – out of Oregon and into Idaho. Meanwhile, we are free to go unmasked into public spaces if we’re fully vaccinated, but not everywhere and not all the time – and we either are or aren’t on an honor system: Grocery store and restaurant workers and others dealing with the public are being left to police the unmasked to make sure they’re not cheating, and to live with the consequences of their customers’ anger. Businesses that live and breathe on public access, such as the sweet Oregon-scaled Enchanted Forest amusement park south of Salem, have eagerly reopened – and then shut down again in the face of threats from unvaccinated would-be visitors over being required to wear masks. We are one state, it appears, deeply divisible, with liberty and justice dependent on your point of view.

Back to the future? Melvin Van Peebles’ 1968 debut feature “The Story of a Three-Day Pass,” about a Black American G.I. and a white woman who meet and hit it off in France, came two years before his breakthrough hit “Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song.” And it is, Marc Mohan writes, “the most revolutionary ‘new’ movie to hit Portland this week.”

Still, the trend appears to be toward motion – moving ahead – and that includes the worlds of culture and the arts. Museums have reopened, with restrictions. Music and theater and dance are once again among us, if mainly via video stream or on outdoor stages. (But not completely: Portland’s Triangle Productions is entering the final weekend of its production of the comedy Clever Little Lies, live and on an indoor stage, with a quarter-of-the-house capacity of 50 people at a time.)

Here at ArtsWatch we’re shifting with the tide, too. For instance, we’ve renamed Marc Mohan’s movie column, which has been called “Streamers” through the pandemic because movies have been available only via streaming, as “FilmWatch” – because, as Marc notes, movie theaters are beginning to open up again, and whether it’s in a popcorn palace or streaming to your living room screen, a movie is a movie. Even then, as he writes in his latest film column, this whole moving-forward thing can be a confusing muddle of present, past, and possible future. “The most revolutionary ‘new’ movie to hit Portland this week is from 1968, of course,” he writes. That movie is The Story of a Three-Day Pass, the debut feature of maverick filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, “a sneakily acerbic takedown of American racism, particularly its internalized effect upon the psyche of Black Americans.” A story ripped, or so it seems, from the headlines of pretty much any year you choose.



FRIDA’S POPPING UP ALL OVER, IN OPERA AND IN ART


LEFT: Catalina Cuervo as Frida and Bernardo Bermudez as Diego Rivera in Anchorage Opera’s 2020 production of ‘Frida’. They’ll repeat their roles this summer at Portland Opera. Photo by Kathleen Behnke, courtesy of Anchorage Opera. RIGHT: Kahlo and Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky are among the figures in artist Molly Van Austen’s 175-foot scroll weaving around the Chehalem Cultural Center. Photo: David Bates

SUDDENLY IT’S FRIDA KAHLO SEASON IN OREGON: Onstage and via stream from Portland Opera, and on paper in a fascinating art exhibition at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg. One of a handful of 20th century cultural figures whose work can draw a crowd just about anywhere, the ever-fascinating Mexican artist is either central to or an integral part of both shows. Here’s the word on each: 

  • PORTLAND OPERA’S BOLD NEW SEASON. As we noted here last week, Portland Opera will present Frida, its long-anticipated production of Robert Xavier Rodríguez’s opera about the life and times of Kahlo, in combined outdoor and streaming performances in June. This week, Angela Allen takes us beyond with a broad discussion of the big new changes brewing in the opera company’s new season, which ranges from its still-streaming Journeys to Justice concert of music about the Black experience to the coming traditional Tosca and the contemporary operas The Central Park Five, a Pulitzer Prize winner with music by Anthony Davis, and the “dystopian chamber opera” When the Sun Comes Out, which was commissioned by the Vancouver Queer Arts Festival. “Opera is for everybody, not just for millionaires and folks who get all dressed up,” Damien Geter, one of the company’s artistic advisors, told Allen. “People want to see things about real people, about real things, things that happened in recent times.” Soprano Karen Slack, Geter’s co-artistic advisor, added: “I am both a lover of grand traditional repertoire and new works. Having made a solid career on both sides, I know the power they both possess. A healthy mix of classics reimagined and new works is always exciting. A little something for everyone.”
     
  • ART FROM THE QUARANTINE LIFE. “Cultural life in Yamhill County hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels of activity, but the engine is revving louder these days,” David Bates writes. “People are making plans, holding rehearsals, scheduling summer art camps.” And at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg, he adds, a “delightful new exhibit” addresses the question of what artists will make of the Shutdown Year: “How will a historic, life-changing pandemic translate to the stage, page, and canvas?” The show features suggestions from two artists: Joe Robinson, owner of the East Creek community art studio and anagama kiln near Willamina, who declares that the “large, beautiful pots” scattered around the gallery “can only be accomplished when many hands come together,” and Molly Van Austen, whose 175-foot scroll snaking around the gallery comprises something of a diary of her memories and imaginings during the pandemic. It’s a cavalcade of people: “Each image in this long drawing is a meditation on some dear person in my life. That brings me joy and sadness. Memories prolong life and intensify our emotions.” Among the crowd is a portrait of Kahlo with the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Frida seemed to know everybody – and as likely as not, everybody was at least as eager to be around Frida as Frida was to be around everybody.


PEAK EXPERIENCES: GOING TO THE MOUNTAINTOP


From left: Taylor Feldman, Ryan Stee, Stacey King and Shanita King on the trip to the top of Mt. Hood in Devin Fei-Fan Tau’s documentary “Who’s On Top?”

DEVIN FEI-FAN TAU: WHO’S ON TOP? In her newest Stage and Studio podcast, Dmae Roberts talks with Portland’s Devin Fei-Fan Tau, a gay Taiwanese-American filmmaker, about his new documentary Who’s on Top?, in which he and his crew follow four LGBTQ+ climbers – only one of them with previous climbing experience – in their quest to get to the top of Mt. Hood. It’s not just a physical journey, but an emotional one, too, and Roberts’ interview includes the voices of each climber talking about what led them to this pursuit. As Roberts puts it: “Historically excluded and ostracized as not belonging to the adventurer community, the climbers tackle not only a mountain, but assumptions about who they are and how they belong to the world of outdoor sports.” Bonus: The film is narrated by the great George Takei.

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Lawrence Shlim (American, born 1954). “Volcanic Ash, Centralia, Washington,” 1980. Gelatin silver print. Portland Art Museum, Gift of the artist, 81.41.2

TUESDAY, MAY 18, WAS THE 41st ANNIVERSARY OF THE ERUPTION OF MOUNT ST. HELENS, one of the signal events in the history of the Pacific Northwest. (It was a Sunday morning in 1980, and I was in Seattle, waiting at the depot to board the train back to Portland, which didn’t happen because the tracks were wiped out somewhere south of Centralia). The mountain’s cataclysmic explosion was the focus of the Portland Art Museum’s terrific exhibition Volcano! that opened last spring, and that in turn lost most of its run to another catastrophe, the coronavirus pandemic. Fortunately, the museum assembled this excellent online version of the exhibition, which you can still access. It’s a grand-scale show, with historic paintings going back as far as the 1850s, some wonderful post-explosion paintings by Henk Pander, George Johanson, Lucinda Parker and others, and many photos documenting both the devastation and the recovery that followed. If you click the link, you’ll find your own favorites. One of mine is the photo above, by Lawrence Shlim, of a street scene in Centralia, looking out a window at a man walking through a blizzard of ash. It seems to speak both to 1980 and the plague year of 2020: life enduring and moving on in the midst of disaster. A town staying, and going, too.



THE NIGHT JANET REED DANCED INTO BALLET HISTORY


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FilmWatch Weekly: Melvin Van Peebles, Angelina Jolie, and D.C. Punks!

What's the most revolutionary "new" movie in town? A Melvin Van Peebles filmed-in-France flick from 1968.

Here’s a rundown of some titles new to Portland’s screens, big and small:

Film of the Week: The Story of a Three-Day Pass.

The most revolutionary “new” movie to hit Portland this week is from 1968, of course. The debut feature of maverick filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, who would make the even more influential Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song two years later, is a sneakily acerbic takedown of American racism, particularly its internalized effect upon the psyche of Black Americans.

Nicole Berger and Harry Baird in The Story of a Three-Day Pass

It would be an exaggeration to say this movie couldn’t have been made in the U.S., but it certainly helps that it was made in France, after Van Peebles was rejected in his initial efforts to penetrate Hollywood. On an American base near Paris, Corporal Turner (Harry Baird) receives a promotion and a weekend pass from his blustering white commanding officer. Van Peebles immediately conjures du Boisian “double consciousness” by having Turner’s reflection in a mirror accuse him of receiving these favors only because he is an obsequious Uncle Tom. Surreal elements like this permeate the movie, which clearly took inspiration from French cinema of the decade as much as from Paris itself, where Turner heads for his 72 hours of freedom.

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Derek Chauvin, George Floyd & the art of crisis

ArtsWatch Weekly: A Portland Oscar nod; Dawson Carr's big day; diving into dance; conversation with a laureate; musical BRAVO; fish tales

ON TUESDAY, THE BIGGEST CULTURAL NEWS OF THE WEEK – maybe the biggest since the January 6 insurrection in the nation’s capital – came down. Derek Chauvin, who almost a year ago, as a Minneapolis police officer, pressed the life out of George Floyd with his knee, was found guilty of second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. It was a rare case of a police officer being held accountable in the killing of a citizen – even, as with Floyd, of an unarmed citizen – and it seems, at least for now, to have topped off a year and more of intense cultural division. Any other decision by the jury most likely would have set off a firestorm across the nation.

The political and cultural fissures of the past year have pulled the arts & cultural world into the fray, perhaps inevitably: If art reflects its culture, how can it possibly stay uninvolved? In Portland, public statues have come tumbling down and institutions have been under attack: Two men were arrested and charged with smashing another $10,000 or more worth of windows at the frequently targeted Oregon Historical Society during rioting last Friday. The window-smashing and other acts of destruction came during protests against recent national killings of Black citizens by police, and a police killing in Portland’s Lents Park of a man with a history of mental illness.

George Floyd was the focus of a Black Lives Matter mural painted by Emma Berger and others last year at downtown Portland’s Pioneer Place.

In the past year a rapid growth of public protest art has transformed the sides of many buildings in the city and the plywood covering boarded-up storefronts. Across the nation, in arts and cultural organizations large and small, racial equity has become the issue of the day, an overdue conversation in search of action, and an issue that is unlikely to be resolved by a single decision in a single courtroom on a single day.

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Streamers: A forgotten feminist filmmaker, and the stellar biography “Mike Nichols: A Life”

Celebrating the French director Nelly Kaplan on the Criterion Channel; a vivid and engaging biography of an American director-of-all-trades

By the time this column posts, it will be April, and another Women’s History Month will have come and gone. But does that mean we should stop spotlighting the contributions made by, for example, women filmmakers? If you think for a moment that was not a rhetorical question, we probably can’t be friends. With that in mind, I’d like to introduce you to the work of a director whose name and filmography were new to me, but who deserves recognition for at least a couple of movies that captured a spiky, often hilarious feminism at a time when such a thing was rarely expressed, even in the relatively progressive milieu of post-’68 France.

Nelly Kaplan in 1969. Photo: Cythere/Paris Film/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock,
Cythere Films/Paris Film, On/Off Set, “La Fiancee Du Pirate.”

Her name was Nelly Kaplan, and she was born in Buenos Aires. After embarking on the pursuit of an economics degree, she fell in love with cinema and moved to Paris, where she frequented the Cinematheque Francais and became a trusted assistant and mentee of the legendary filmmaker Abel Gance, whose Napoleon had revolutionized the art in 1927 and who was still going fairly strong. After dabbling in short documentaries, Kaplan made her feature directing debut with 1971’s A Very Curious Girl.

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