Goodbye, Northwest Film Center. Hello, PAM CUT: Center for an Untold Tomorrow.
That was the biggest news to come out of the third annual Cinema Unbound Awards, held Tuesday night in the Portland Art Museum’s Kridel Grand Ballroom. Director Amy Dotson announced the name change at the close of the ceremony, saying that “We’ve got a new name for a new era,” blowing out a single candle on a birthday cake to commemorate the occasion, and leading the evening’s honorees and presenters in a cacophonous sing-a-long that didn’t seem to garner the expected level of crowd participation. It’s a bold move for a fifty-year-old institution that for so long bore the imprimatur of longtime Director Bill Foster, whose name I didn’t notice being uttered from the stage once all night.
I spoke with Dotson last week about the motivation behind the redubbing. “We’ve been around for fifty years, and the Film Center has been a beloved place for artists, and audiences,” she says. “We’ve been exploring this magical world we call cinema for some time. That spirit is still there, but a lot has changed, and not just in the last two years. We embrace that, and our entire ethos going forward is to change for whom, by whom, and how cinematic stories are told.”
The new name attempts to pay homage to the Film Center’s past through its acronym (which unfortunately suggests the end of a scene), while emphasizing a supra-cinematic approach by removing the word film, and signaling a forward-looking, frontier-crossing mission. That mission meant exploring fresh ideas about what 21st-century storytelling looks like, and how it can be best incubated and presented.
“And we’re taking our own medicine. Every great story, including our own, can expand and grow and take on new forms, and that’s what we’re doing. We’re de-siloing and letting go of the idea that it’s a place for some but not for all,” says Dotson. “If you love movies, we’re still here for you. But we’re also inviting artists, musicians, dancers, technology, design, and creative folks in general to come in and help us to mix it up.” As an example of this sort of cross-pollination, Dotson cites a recent event co-presented with Friends of Chamber Music featuring the documentary filmmaker Sam Green and the Kronos Quartet.
One change from the old regime is evident. The Cinema Unbound Awards have definitely upped the glamor quotient, as evidenced by Tuesday night’s hosts, Izhonny, “Portland’s Glamazon Burlesque Power Duo,” who presided over a room where a stilt walker, a Sleestak, and some sort of helmeted futuristic warrior had free reign.
The ceremony itself was brisk and entertaining, with star power provided by recorded introductions from Will Smith, Isabella Rossellini, and Jeff Goldblum. Goldblum’s, introducing honoree Carrie Brownstein, was (naturally) the best of the bunch. Brownstein’s acceptance speech, which riffed on the different meanings of “bound,” was nicely done, but the most affecting words of the night came from director Roger Ross Williams, who spoke about being the son of a single mother who cleaned dormitories so that he could attend college. Izhonny brought welcome doses of irreverent energy to the evening, and the gorgeous, well-dressed crowd reflected a diversity that, it must be said, was not a hallmark of the Film Center’s demographic.
A LONG TWO YEARS
One of the last big indoor gatherings in Portland prior to the pandemic shutdown was the inaugural Cinema Unbound Awards banquet on March 9, 2020, where the Northwest Film Center, under Dotson’s then-new leadership, honored Todd Haynes, John Cameron Mitchell, and other visionaries in line with the institution’s increasing focus on “working against the traditional constraints of film and media.” It was meant to be the jumping off point for the Film Center’s new identity, one of experimentation and exploration, and of thinking outside the box.
The sense of curiosity and anticipation was abruptly quashed later that week, when the Portland International Film Festival came to a screeching halt along with the rest of the world. Like every other arts organization, the Film Center sought creative ways to survive, including a barrage of outdoor screenings last summer (literally “outside the box”) and an online edition of 2021’s Portland International Film Festival. Even as most Portland theater screens re-opened, the Whitsell Auditorium remained shuttered until last month, when it held matinee screenings of work by this year’s Cinema Unbound honorees. That the Film Center continued to exist at all is something to be grateful for, for as Dotson rightly notes “a number of museums shut down their cinema programs during the pandemic. And they’re not coming back.”
Now, Dotson and her staff are finally able to work unfettered towards realizing this new vision of what the organization is about. “I came in as a story-starter,” she says. “I talked to people in the museum and in the creative community at large, and I got to go out into the real world and see and listen and then act on what I saw and heard. I’m the pebble in the puddle, taking in all these concentric circles of feedback.”
And Dotson understands that these changes may seem disruptive, but maintains, “We’re not going to be a one-size-fits-all kind of experience. Artists are really hungry to contain multitudes and to not be contained by one thing. Part of our job is to push those boundaries, get people to be in the same room and be participatory and vibrant and ever-evolving. That’s what the new name represents.”
The Center for an Untold Tomorrow website went live during the ceremony, and reaction on social media from former employees and associates of the Northwest Film Center was swift and harsh, with the general sentiment being that this move marked the end of an era and the demise of an institution that nurtured Portlanders’ appreciation of, and creation of, cinema.
While Dotson isn’t ready to announce any events or exhibits that embody this new nomenclature in all its boundary-pushing glory, PAM CUT has announced the next batch of programming at the Whitsell: a retrospective honoring another unbound soul, Tilda Swinton. “We’re going to test-drive something called the ‘Tilda-Whirl.’ We have seven films from the incomparable Tilda Swinton, and we have a local artist who is doing some fun merch for us–Tilda-on-a stick, that sort of thing.” These weekend matinee screenings, which include The Souvenir and The Souvenir Part II, begin on March 19.
Two years after pressing pause on these plans, is it a relief to be slowly getting back to normal? “I don’t know what normal is anymore, but that goes right to the ethos of who we are. I don’t want to go back to normal. I want to try something new. We have two new folks who have joined us just this week, and we have more hiring on the horizon. And we have more big news on the way.”