northwest film center

Streamers: Recapping the pandemic, reimagining Jack London

No, we are not stuck inside the bars of various online platforms. (Did someone say "bars"?)

Portland’s independent theaters continue to provide virtual programming, as the shutdown of in-person cinema-going enters its 437th month. (Some, however, are allowing members of the public in under certain circumstances—see below.) Here are some of the recent local “openings” (how long till those scare quotes disappear?) worth your digi-cash and quaran-time:

Martin Eden

Luca Marinelli and Jessica Cressy in a scene from Martin Eden, photo by Francesca Errichiello, courtesy Kino Lorber

This Italian drama, based on a 1909 Jack London novel, was initially scheduled to screen during March’s Portland International Film Festival. Now, it’s being offered as a streaming option online, with a share of proceeds going to the Northwest Film Center.

The story follows the evolution of the titular proletarian worker (Luca Marinelli) from traveling laborer to literary sensation, as he first ingratiates himself with a bourgeois family in 20th-century Italy and goes on to become a politically active iconoclast and disaffected celebrity. In the process, his romance with the daughter of said bourgeois family (Jessica Cressy) waxes and wanes, as does his proximity to the socialist ideals promulgated by his aging, radical mentor (Carlo Cecchi).

Director Pietro Marcello has made a handsome film, with a handsome lead actor—“Martin Eden” often feels like a more polished version of a John Sayles or Ken Loach production. And its overall depiction of the cradle-to-grave arc of an artistic life has moments of both swelling promise and bracing pathos. But there’s a frustrating lack of specificity to much of the action: you’ll notice I mentioned above that it’s set in “20th-century” Italy, because frankly it’s hard to tell exactly when things are taking place. References to Italy’s fascist history come sparingly and late, and references to any other historical specificity are essentially nil. (Marcello will occasionally insert purportedly authentic, sepia-toned silent footage of things like shipwrecks, but it’s not clear what they are supposed to represent.)

In addition, the lead character’s politics are hard to figure. Soon after being bitten by the autodidactic bug, Martin happens upon the work of Herbert Spencer. Spencer, little-known today, was an influence on Charles Darwin and the originator of the phrase “survival of the fittest.” In other words, he was closer to a eugenicist than a socialist. Despite publicly chastising a leftist rally, Martin is tarred as a socialist, a misunderstanding that haunts him in the latter part of the film. But we’re not (or at least I wasn’t) ever really clear on what his political philosophy exactly is. Before watching “Martin Eden,” I was aware that the film had been effusively praised by the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis, who saw it as a cautionary tale centered on an empty enigma, and reviled by The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, for whom it was the film itself, rather than its protagonist, that was “slick and hollow.” This division of opinion clearly depends on how knowingly the film indulges in its conceits. I come down, with reservations, on the side that Marcello intended to craft an indictment of the various ways society exploits and deadens its creative voices. I just wish he’d done a somewhat more coherent job of it. Northwest Film Center (Silver Screen members only). Trailer.

Totally Under Control

Dr. Rick Bright, one of the heroes of Alex Gibney’s documentary “Totally Under Control.”

Alex Gibney is the undisputed king of the 21st-century, ripped-from-the-headlines documentary genre. But he may have outdone himself in timeliness with this two-hour investigation of the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic and the American government’s disastrously ostrich-like reaction to it. There aren’t any bombshell revelations here, just a recapitulation of the “lost month” that most experts say is the primary reason that we are still engaged in the pendulum swings of infectious outbreaks instead of dealing with the aftermath of a horrific but temporary episode.

So much has transpired, and so much scientific theory has been bandied about, over the last six months, that it’s actually quite useful to take, as Gibney’s film does, a tentative step back to those days in January and February when COVID-19 first started to creep into headlines. The stars of “Totally Under Control” are figures like mathematician Eva Lee, whose predictive models augured early on for widespread calamity, and Rick Bright, a government immunologist who demonstrated the patience of Job before finally breaking with the administration and blowing the whistle on its incompetent response.

For me, the biggest takeaway was the emphasis on the flawed testing kits sent out by the CDC in February. “Totally Under Control” (which, of course, takes its title from one of Trump’s many cocksure, dismissive quotes about the virus) focuses on the applied science behind this disastrous mishap in a way I hadn’t seen or read previously. Another revelation (again, to me, at least) came from the testimony of a disconcertingly young volunteer member of the Jared Kushner-“led” task force dedicated to obtaining more N-95 respiratory masks. The level of institutional idiocy he relates is, amazingly enough, still shocking in an environment where the bar for governmental competency is at an all-time low.

It might seem like just so much more doomscrolling to take in a film like this at a time like this. But, by prosecuting a level-headed, science-based indictment of the government’s response, and refusing to indulge in partisan outrage, “Totally Under Control” remains just that, and is all the more powerful for it. Northwest Film Center. Trailer.

Major Arcana

A scene from “Major Arcana.” Courtesy Good Deed Entertainment.

No, it’s not a military drama about an officer with magic powers. Check your Disney+ subscription for stuff like that. (Not that it doesn’t sound cool.) Writer-director Josh Melrod’s debut feature is a small-scale, classic American indie about a damaged man trying to rebuild his life and reconnect with his past. Despite that “Garden State”-sounding premise, it’s an intimately powerful piece of work.

Ujon Tokarski, convincingly grizzled and wounded, plays Dink, a wandering soul who returns to his rural Vermont hometown after his father’s death. Newly sober, he undertakes to build a cabin with his own bare hands on the property he has inherited. In the meantime, he tentatively re-establishes a relationship with Sierra (Tara Summers), a woman from his past and fends off his dysfunctional mother’s efforts to claim his inheritance.

The film is an understated but extended metaphor about the challenges of transcending past sins, addictions, and inadequacies, while maintaining a connection to one’s heritage and home. Melrod never pushes too hard to make these points, and Tokarski inhabits the character of Dink seamlessly. The latter might have something to do with the fact that Tokarski is in fact a carpenter who Melrod met when he was working on the director’s house, and that an actual cabin was actually built during the production of the film. “Major Arcana” (yes, there are Tarot readings) is exactly the kind of film that would likely get irredeemably lost in the shuffle during a normal cinematic economy, but can serve as an unexpected treat in the current wasteland.  Cinema 21.

The Antenna

Gül Arici and Ihsan Önal in Orçun Behram’s THE ANTENNA. (Photo Credit – Dark Star Pictures)

This one isn’t screening in conjunction with any local theaters, but it’s too odd not to mention. In a nondescript apartment complex in Turkey, the building manager, Mehmet (Ihsan Önal) arrives to work one day to find a large new antenna being installed on the roof. Within minutes, the installer has plummeted to his death, and that’s just the beginning of Mehmet’s bad day. It turns out that these antennas are being installed all across the nation, with the specific purpose of broadcasting a midnight message which all citizens are expected to receive. Over the course of the day, as we meet the various residents of the drab dwelling, a black, tarry substance begins to ooze into bathrooms and bubble up from storm drains. Pursuing the source of this disgusting substance, the hapless Mehmet discovers (duh) that it’s emanating from this new technological intrusion.

Turkey, under the authoritarian rule of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has ample recent experience with mass-media propaganda and creeping repression. In fact, it’s a little surprising that the making of this film was tolerated, until you realize that authoritarianism and free speech don’t have much trouble co-existing in our neck of the woods either. Anyway, things get progressive more bizarre and disturbing as the anticipated broadcast approaches and arrives, and director Orçun Behram maintains a creepy, darkly deadpan tone that wouldn’t be out of place in an early David Cronenberg film. Unintentionally adding to the vague political overtones is the fact that leading actor Önal looks like no one so much as Pete Buttigieg after a three-day bender. Available to stream through various services.

In-person screenings? In-person screenings!

Living Room Theaters: Private screenings for up to 10 people are available, featuring first-run films such as Miranda July’s “Kajillionaire” and Brandon Cronenberg’s “Possessor.” Check website for details.

Cinema 21: Theater rentals for $250 includes admission for 10 people (with an additional $10/person above that) and includes $100 in concession credits. Titles available include those mentioned above and more.

Streaming: Fall film fests flourish from afar

Three Portland film festivals have figured out how to keep the images streaming, one way or another, during the pandemic

Around the globe, it’s fall film festival season, but of course it’s a season the likes of which has never been seen before (and with any luck intelligence, won’t be seen again). Industry pros, major critics, and the pass-buying public have been getting socially distanced sneak peeks at awards-caliber movies coming soon to a screen near you. Whether that’s a laptop screen or a theater screen, of course, remains to be determined. The Toronto, San Sebastian, and Venice Film Festivals have all limited public screenings, and the ability of festivalgoers to travel to them has been, of course, almost totally curtailed.

Closer to home, it’s fall film fest times, too. Perhaps the cruelest blow to Portland’s cultural corpus administered by the pandemic was the abrupt shutdown of the Portland International Film Festival in early March. The pain was especially acute since this was the first iteration of the city’s premiere filmgoing event to be conducted under the leadership of the Film Center’s new Director, Amy Dotson. Dotson brought a dramatic change in focus to the institution, intent on leaning forward into new technologies and new venues for both filmmakers and filmgoers.

The 42nd edition of PIFF, appropriately branded as Cinema Unbound, got off to an impressive start with a snazzy awards ceremony and a variety of nontraditional cinematic experiences on tap, along with a renewed focus on regional filmmakers. All that, of course, came to a screeching halt along with most other aspects of normal life, and with theaters still unable to host crowds for the foreseeable future, the Film Center has offered up PIFF 2.0, a weekend of screenings featuring works originally scheduled to show back in March.


It’s so 2020: A virtual conversation about Virtual Reality

The Virtual Reality component of the Venice Film Festival comes to the Portland Art Museum for a limited engagement.


The Portland Art Museum is the only venue in the United States for the Venice Film Festival’s Venice VR Expanded exhibition. The event began September 2nd and runs through September 12th. Credit for this exclusive honor goes entirely to the new director of the Northwest Film Center, Amy Dotson, who started in September of 2019 (Dotson is also the Museum’s Curator of Film & New Media). Dotson arrived in Portland with a close connection with Michael Reilhac, the Curator of Immersive Media Content and Experiences for the Venice Biennale VR Competition. The Northwest Film Center celebrated Reilhac in March as the 2020 Cinema Unbound honoree.

The virtual reality exhibition is also a piece of the overall vision that Dotson, who took over from longtime director Bill Foster last year, brought to the position. As she related in an interview with ArtsWatch, Dotson has a future-facing emphasis on expanding the definition of “cinematic experience.” That emphasis was evident in the programming for the 43rd Portland International Film Festival (rebranded Cinema Unbound), which viewers didn’t have a chance to fully explore since the festival was abruptly interrupted midstream by the coronavirus. 

VR sets at Venice VR Expanded at the Portland Art Museum. Image courtesy of the Portland Art Museum.


Portland Art Museum facing big layoffs

With income severely cut back by a closure forced by coronavirus concerns, Oregon's largest art museum will make deep staff cuts next week

LAYOFFS ARE COMING SOON TO THE PORTLAND ART MUSEUM, Director Brian Ferriso informed the staff in a memo on Friday. The museum is closed for the foreseeable future because of the pandemic, and income has dropped sharply. What this means for the $100 million capital campaign to build the Rothko Pavilion between the museum’s two main buildings is not yet clear. The museum expects to make a more complete announcement next week.

The museum’s Belluschi Building. Photo courtesy Portland Art Museum


Here is Ferriso’s Friday memo:

Dear Museum and (Northwest Film Center) staff,

I hope this email finds you safe and adjusting to being at home. I know this is a difficult and uncertain time, and I want to continue providing you updates about our status and future plans.

As I have shared previously, maintaining staff and operations, even during this closure, costs about $1 million a month. This situation is not sustainable beyond April 15, and our cash flow cannot support it.

Today, it is becoming more evident that all pathways forward include deep staff reductions. To that end, we are working to identify direct assistance and other support tools that may be available for staff and families. This information changes daily based on new legislation and other developments in the state and federal pandemic response, but we expect to have clarity around those questions sometime next week and are consulting with outside counsel to ensure that we are doing it right.

We will be in touch individually with those of you whose jobs are affected, and we will provide information about next steps and resources.

Today’s news is difficult to share, and I know it is difficult news to receive. Thank you for your patience and trust as we work to protect the future of the Museum and Film Center. We will have more to share next week.



COVID-19: Art & history museums, libraries shut down

Portland, Salem, and Eugene museums and Multnomah County's library system join a cascade of closures as the coronavirus crisis escalates

Response in Oregon to the international coronavirus crisis escalated significantly Friday when both the Portland Art Museum and the Oregon Historical Society, anchors with Portland’5 Centers for the Performing Arts of downtown’s cultural district, announced they would shut their doors temporarily. Perhaps more drastically, Multnomah County Library shut down all of its locations until further notice.

UPDATE: The two biggest museums in the Willamette Valley south of Portland also have announced they’re closing. In Eugene, the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon will be shut down at least through April 10. And in Salem, Willamette University’s Hallie Ford Museum of Art will remain open Saturday and Sunday and then shut down beginning Monday, March 16, at least through April 12. While both museums are connected to universities, they are also the de facto art museums for their regions, and their closures affect large populations.

UPDATE 2: Late Saturday afternoon Maryhill Museum of Art, on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge, announced it will remain closed until further notice. On Friday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced a ban throughout the state for the next six weeks of gatherings of more than 250 people.

Robert Colescott, “Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future: Upside Down Jesus aThe final four days of the fnd the Politics of Survival,” 1987, acrylic on canvas, Museum purchase: Robert Hale Ellis Jr. Fund for the Blanche Eloise Day Ellis and Robert Hale Ellis Memorial Collection, © 1987 Robert Colescott. In the Portland Art Museum’s shows “Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott,” through May 17. The museum will be closed at least until April 1.

The Portland Art Museum and its Northwest Film Center will be closed until April 1, the museum announced late Friday afternoon. The final four days of the film center’s Portland International Film Festival already had been canceled. The history center announced earlier in the day that it will close its doors Saturday through March 29. Extensions of the shutdowns are, of course, possible depending on the spread or containment of the COVID-19 virus. The performing arts centers already had announced that all events in Keller Auditorium, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, and the Newmark Theatre would be shut down for the next four weeks.


Film fest preview: PIFF hits fast-forward at 43

New Northwest Film Center Director Amy Dotson brings a new emphasis and a new energy to Portland’s premiere cinematic event

“It’s not going to be robots and lasers!”

That’s Amy Dotson’s way of reassuring fans of film art—and of the Portland International Film Festival in particular—that the 43rd incarnation of the event is staying true to its mission. Since 1977, that mission has been to expose Portland audiences to a cornucopia of global cinema, allowing those with flexible schedules and insatiable appetites to gorge themselves on a diverse menu of movies. And so it remains.

Amy Dotson, the director of the Northwest Film Center

But while some things never change, others do. Dotson took over as the Director of the Northwest Film Center last year, following the 2018 retirement of Bill Foster after nearly four decades at the organization’s helm. Rising to the challenge of putting her own stamp on the Film Center and the Festival, while retaining the core appeal of each, Dotson’s approach can be encapsulated by PIFF’s 2020 motto (and new URL), “Cinema Unbound.” She spoke with ArtsWatch during the run up to PIFF, which kicks off Friday, March 6.


As Ilana Sol’s new film about war and reconciliation, Samurai in the Oregon Sky, screens this week at Portland’s Northwest Film Center, a look back at the Portland filmmaker’s first documentary

Editor’s note: On Thursday, November 14, Portland Art Museum’s Northwest Film Center presents the second film by Portland filmmaker Ilana Sol. Samurai in the Oregon Sky tells the story of Japanese pilot Nobuo Fujita, the only pilot to bomb the U.S. mainland during World War II, his subsequent visit to the Oregon town the bomb struck, and the 35-year-long relationship between the Fujita family and the people of Brookings, which he came to call his “second home.” It previously screened at the East Oregon Film Festival, Astoria International Film Festival and others.

Sol’s acclaimed first film dealt with a similar subject — the Japanese balloon bomb that killed a group of Oregon picnickers during the War. On Paper Wings won several awards and was included in an episode of National Public Radio’s Radiolab. Here is the profile of Sol ArtsWatch’s Brett Campbell published in Oregon Humanities magazine when it premiered.

Nobuo Fujita during World War II

The sunlight sparkled as it made its way through the forest on Gearhart Mountain, and the small party of schoolchildren and their minister from the nearby southern Oregon town of Bly laughed and chattered as the car pulled over to the side of the road. It was May 1945. The country was at war and just emerging from a long Depression, but it was a beautiful spring day, and the young minister, Archie Mitchell, had found a perfect spot for a picnic in the woods. As they spilled out of Mitchell’s car, one of the kids spotted something white lying on the ground. Followed by Mitchell’s pregnant wife, Elsye, they raced to see what it was. “Don’t touch it!” shouted Mitchell.