Sankar Raman

Oscars, books, and strange things

ArtsWatch Weekly: Oscarmania, Oregon Book Awards, strange tales and a stranger firing, opera's triumph, carving stories, photo stories

ON SUNDAY HOLLYWOOD THREW ITS BIG BACCHANALIA, the 93rd such annual fling, and even in its pandemic-year virtual tuxedo it was an obsessively overproduced wingding that was, at heart, a gigantic sales pitch for the movie industry. Nomadland (based on a book by Jessica Bruder, a former reporter for The Oregonian) won, the late Chadwick Boseman did not, and television viewership numbers took another tumble. Marc Mohan wraps things up smartly in his new “Streamers” column. Most refreshingly, he notes, the studios pushed their big fall and winter releases back to this summer, a move that “allowed greater recognition for films that didn’t conform to Hollywood ‘Oscar-bait’ formulas. As a result, the Academy took a few more halting, belated steps towards racial, gender, and aesthetic diversity.” 

A doff of the ArtsWatch cap also to Portland filmmaker Skye Fitzgerald, who scored his second Oscar nomination for his short documentary Hunger Ward, about the war-caused famine in Yemen and the struggle of two women to feed the devastated nation’s children and infants. Colette, about a former French Resistance member who travels to Germany for the first time in 74 years, won that category, but that takes nothing from Fitzgerald’s achievement. Mohan, ArtsWatch’s movie columnist, talked with Fitzgerald a week before the ceremony, and the resuting interview is worth a second read.

And now, back to our previously scheduled coverage.



WRITE A BOOK. MAKE IT GOOD. SEND IT INTO THE WORLD.



Left: Joe Wilkins, author of “Thieve.” Right: Ann Vileisis, author of “Abalone.”
 

THE OREGON BOOK AWARDS ARE COMING UP SUNDAY, and although they’re much less high-profile than Sunday’s Academy Awards blowout was, a lot of talent and a lot of prestige will be in the virtual room when this year’s winners are announced. That’ll be at 7 p.m. Sunday, May 2, on a special episode of OPB Radio’s The Archive Project, a co-production of OPB and Literary Arts, which also sponsors the annual book awards. (You can see the list of nominees here.)

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A flood of memory, a mosaic of the future

ArtsWatch Weekly: The Vanport Mosaic Festival goes virtual, bringing the legacy of the great flood of 1948 into contemporary Portland

ON MEMORIAL DAY IN 1948 A RAILROAD BERM BURST in the lowlands just south of the Columbia River and north of Portland, sending a swiftly moving wall of water over the edge and inundating the city of Vanport, killing 15 people, leaving 17,500 homeless, and essentially wiping the city off the map. Vanport had been hastily constructed six years before to house workers and their families building warships in the Kaiser shipyards of Portland and Vancouver. At its height it had had a population of 40,000, making it the second-biggest city in Oregon at the time. In the decades since, the disaster has been forgotten by many, lost in the march of “progress” (Delta Park and the Portland International Speedway now sit where Vanport once thrived). For others it’s become an almost mythological touchstone, an emblem of what Portland and Oregon had been and what it would become, especially in its attitudes and actions about race. As Brett Campbell put it in his 2015 review of Rich Rubin’s play Cottonwood in the Flood, which debuted at an early Vanport Mosaic Festival and was set in Vanport in the 1940s, the city became, “along with Celilo Falls, Oregon’s Atlantis.” 

Henk Pander, “Vanport,” watercolor, 40 x 60 inches, from his series of large history paintings of the flood and its aftermath. Pander will be part of the Vanport Mosaic virtual festival in an online conversation, “Painting History,” with Chisao Hata and other artists who have depicted Vanport in their work. Image © Henk Pander 

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Living in a world of upside down

ArtsWatch Weekly: The pandemic is the puzzle. Adaptability is the key. Unlocking the cultural world's path to the future is the challenge.

SUDDENLY EVERYTHING’S TOPSY TURVY, and it’s seeming more and more like a mistake to think that things are going to get back to “normal” even after the health threat has ended, whenever that might happen. In the cultural world, the economic effect of the coronavirus shutdown is going to be hard on everyone and catastrophic for some. And by “everyone” I mean not just arts groups themselves but also the artists and staffers who’ve made their livings working for them, and the funders who keep them going, and the audiences who may understandably be reluctant to flock back to theaters and concert halls and museums as if social distancing were just some crazy blip that’s done and gone. Some groups, even if they do everything “right,” aren’t going to survive.
 
Barry Johnson, ArtsWatch’s executive editor, has started writing a column he calls “Starting Over,” which is about exactly those issues. How do we start over? How do we reinvent? What do we return to, and what do we move beyond? In his most recent “Starting Over,” Masks and democracy, he talks about some of the political failures that have made things worse in the United States than they needed to be, and reports on his conversation with the veteran arts consultant George Thorn, who suggests that the sort of creative, step-by-step problem-solving artists engage in every day might be a model for the society as a whole. In an earlier column, Point to point, Johnson talked with Portland Center Stage at the Armory’s Cynthia Fuhrman about practical adaptability. 

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Friderike Heuer, “The Strikers,” montage, from her series “Fluchtgedanken,” 2020. In her visual essay “Fluchtgedanken: Thoughts of Escape,” Heuer writes about manipulating images of paintings by the mid-20th century painter George Tooker, and how her adaptation of his work is a response to such disturbing issues of the Covid-19 crisis as the return of eugenics to public discussion and practice: “Took us what, only 75 years to get around to it again? What are expendable lives? The old? The diseased? The incarcerated? The poor?”

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ADAPTABILITY IS GOING TO BE CRUCIAL, and in a lot of cases, also not sufficient. Because the situation will be different for everyone, which means that while there may be smart overall strategies, they’ll have to be adapted to specific situations. And the ground keeps shifting.

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The new history: Dreams Deferred

As the U.S. cracks down on "Dreamers," a new show at the Oregon Historical Society digs deep into the journey stories of new Americans

“The only dream worth having is to dream that you will live while you are alive, and die only when you are dead. To love, to be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and vulgar disparity of the life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.” 

― Arundhati RoyThe Cost of Living (1999)

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IF IT WEREN’T FOR THAT PESKY NUMBER at the end of the quote, dating it some 20 years back, you might as well imagine that Arundathi Roy had crafted that paragraph with an eye on the exhibition just opened at the Oregon Historical Society, DREAMs Deferred.

Inside the museum. Photo: Friderike Heuer

Roy frequently writes about the fate of minorities, refugees or displaced people on the Indian subcontinent. The focus of the DREAMs Deferred exhibit is closer to home, asking what happens to those who came to the United States from Mexico or Latin America as young children of undocumented parents. The collaborative work on display shows a combination of six portraits and short-form narrative accounts of young undocumented immigrants, joined by photographic documentation of some treasured objects they chose to take with them on the hazardous journey. The thrust is indeed: Watch! Try to understand! Never look away! These are your neighbors. These are people who just like the rest of us seek love, overcome obstacles and indescribable challenges, pursue a simple life and do not confuse the things that matter with those that should be ignored.

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