Portland vs. NYC, Plus “Views from the Avant-Garde” at this Week’s New York Film Festival

Written by Ed Halter on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.


One night
this past July, I stood under a construction awning on Ludlow St. with Matt
McCormick, a filmmaker and curator in town from Portland, OR, yakking and sheltering
ourselves from a sudden, street-slapping rainstorm. We had come to attend the
weekly Robert Beck Memorial Cinema at Collective:Unconscious, seen the first
part of a fine show there by local filmmaker Luke Sieczek and had gotten stuck
down the block during the intermission. Now, we were discussing the differences
between current experimental filmmaking in New York and the active scene in
Portland that has emerged around Peripheral Produce, a five-year-old ongoing
screening society founded and organized by McCormick.


"In
New York, they make films," Matt offered. "In Portland, we make movies."


It’s
an interesting distinction that makes sense in a superficial way, though, like
most esthetic theories, it gets less clear the deeper you dig. It’s not
that New Yorkers of the sort that you might see at the Robert Beck keep remaking
The Seventh Seal, whereas Portlanders strive to capture the feel of,
say, Dude, Where’s My Car? in their works–although a bit of
this serious vs. playful dichotomy would emerge in comparison.


"There’s
an accessibility to the work in Portland," McCormick elaborated later on.
"You don’t have to be a filmmaker to understand it."


A certain
solemnity of purpose has certainly accrued around the New York scene, where
a great deal of experimental film activity circles around venerable institutions
like Anthology Film Archives, MOMA, the Whitney and Lincoln Center, which screens
its annual "Views from the Avant-Garde" showcase later this week as
part of the New York Film Festival. Here, in a city that began screening experimental
film in the 40s with Cinema 16, nearly four generations of artists and curators
hobnob at shows. The NYFF’s "Views" program has become, in its
own way, the avant-garde social event of the year. This personal presence of
history may have had its influence, fostering both ambition and insularity,
as well as, perhaps, a coddling affection for outdated formats like Super-8
and 16 mm and film-purist conventions like hand-processing, in-camera editing
and silent projection.


The art-saturated
overkill environment of New York could be the reason why some nights at local
venues prefer the subtlety of works that on occasion might seem, to the uninitiated,
like dashed-off camera rolls, plain home-movie diaries or unedited thrift-store-found
footage. The NYFF’s "Views" program aims, of course, much higher,
favoring more mature, rigorously constructed work provided by top film artists
that curators Mark McEllhatten and Gavin Smith have brought into the fold. The
2001 edition, for example, boasts the premieres of heavyweights such as Stan
Brakhage, Nathaniel Dorsky, Robert Beavers, Abigail Child, Saul Levine, Lewis
Klahr, Peter Hutton and Leslie Thornton.


In contrast
to New York’s dense, neotraditionalist, introspective atmosphere, Portland
feels giddy with a traditionally Left Coast sense of newness, autochthonic reinvention
and a politely neopunk lack of interest in either satisfying inner professors
or playing to curatorial predilections. Or so it seemed to me when I visited
there on Labor Day weekend for the first annual Peripheral Produce Invitationals,
eager to see what was happening a continent away.


"Most
of us didn’t know each other before Matt started doing his thing,"
local filmmaker Vanessa Renwick recalled, as we shuttled around the sleepy,
leafy streets of Portland in her beat-up station wagon, a sticker reading CARS
SUCK staring up at me from the passenger-side dashboard. Renwick, who has DPed
for Portland’s best-known experimental moviemaker, indie hyphenate Miranda
July, is an accomplished and versatile film and video artist herself, dubbed
the "Queen of the Portland underground scene" by locals. We had screened
a mini-retrospective of her work at the NY Underground Film Festival last spring–turned
on to her stuff by a recommendation from Matt McCormick–but this was the
first time I had hung out with her in person.


Later in
the weekend, Renwick’s video Richart, an affable experimental doc
about an Olympia-based outsider artist, would win the Invitationals by popular
vote. Held at the old Hollywood Theater, the sold-out Invitationals appeared
to be one of the biggest events to date put on by McCormick & Co. Not just
a semiregular exhibition society, Peripheral Produce is also a video distribution
company, with a catalog of tapes including work by McCormick, Renwick, July,
L.A.-based video mixology duo Animal Charm and San Francisco underground stalwart
Craig Baldwin, all of whom turned out for the Invitationals. Their smartly packaged
videos were for sale, along with Peripheral Produce t-shirts, at an indie-rock-style
merch table in the front lobby.


The rock
show connection extended further than just the merch table, though, as much
of the Invitationals were devoted to screenings with live performance elements.
Animal Charm performed a witty video remixing of beautifully crappy 80s infomercials.
Craig Baldwin and Bill Daniel manned a bank of 16 mm projectors for a multiscreen
composition. Bay Area artists Kate Haug and Melinda Stone created an audience-participation
event in which one person won the chance to come up on the stage and watch their
film–projected with the screen facing away from the rest of the crowd,
so the winner was the only one who could see it. Even the New York entry, from
the Robert Beck’s Brian Frye, had a participatory element of optical-illusion
legerdemain.


An audience
favorite, though, was a piece by local Johnne Eschleman (he also performs as
the band the Distance Formula), who projected colorful abstractions set to a
droning, emo-ish live instrumental score. A year ago, Johnne had been in New
York while touring his Travelling Cinema project. He built a shed-sized collapsible
cinema out of scrap wood and metal, fit it in the back of his van and toured
the country with his own mini-movie house. At each stop, he set up the tiny
two-seat theater (with peepholes in the walls for the SRO crowd), crammed himself
into an even teenier space behind the movie screen and projected his own homemade
films while playing live guitar and DJ accompaniment from inside the cinema’s
walls. McCormick says that the live performance thing is enjoying a vogue with
local moviemakers.


"A
lot of us here in Portland have/are doing that," he e-mailed me after the
show. "It comes down to economics, but also creates an opportunity to keep
working on stuff…the ongoing work in progress, or a new movie every month.
It is great for local screenings and touring, but pretty impossible for sending
to film fests."


It could
also be part of how, as in many smaller cities, the experimental film scene
grew out of the local music scene. "It is hard to not hang out with musicians
in Portland," says McCormick, "because there are just so damn many
of them. I started favoring film because it was something I could work on by
myself…probably the same motivation that makes a lot of old rockers turn to
DJ stuff or electronica."


This Portlandish
feel of intelligent playfulness comes through in McCormick’s own film and
video work. In a duo of 16 mm shorts, The Vyrotonin Decision and Sincerely,
Joe. P. Bear
, McCormick altered some old 16 mm from the early 70s that had
been thrown out by a local tv station. The Vyrotonin Decision, which
won best experimental at the 2000 NY Underground Film Festival, creates a found-footage
disaster epic out of obscure commercials and tv spots. In Sincerely, Joe
P. Bear
, a chipmunky voice reads a forlorn love letter over forgotten images
of a pageant queen riding a giant block of ice, accompanied by her polar-bear-costumed
paramour.


McCormick
premiered a video piece, The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal, at
the NY Video Festival this past summer. Narrated by Miranda July, the tape is
a subversively smart quasi-doc about the drab, angular blotches painted by Portland
city workers as part of a municipal program to cover up graffiti. McCormick’s
thesis is that in the process of erasing artistic tagging, the workers unconsciously
create new works of abstract-expressionist art in the tradition of Rothko and
Malevich. Graffiti Removal makes great use of the unique industrial landscape
of Portland.


Judging
from work I saw at the Invitationals, the environmental landscape of Portland
is a key element in many locals’ works. Alain LeTourneau’s Central
Eastside
is a series of mute urban landscapes. Miranda July set key parts
of Nest of Tens in the mall-like architecture of Portland International
Airport. Vanessa Renwick’s The Yodeling Lesson features nude bike-riding
down factory-spotted hills.


Also especially
attuned to Portland’s postindustrial nostalgia is Going to the Ocean,
a new film by McCormick that will make its world premiere at "Views from
the Avant-Garde" this weekend. In Vyrotonin, Joe P. Bear and
Graffiti Removal, McCormick used narration and dialogue as a key element,
but he has abandoned language altogether for his newest film in favor of thick,
wordless soundscapes. Monochrome footage of a ship slowly pulling into harbor,
shot in night-vision video and transferred to film, plays out underneath looping
lightflares and a soundtrack composed of what sounds like reverbing roomtones,
meandering melodeon and oceanic drones. Suddenly, the footage shifts to lush
Kodachrome home movies of people running through sunny surf.


McCormick
first developed the film as a performance piece. "It was originally presented
with a video projector and a film projector rolling simultaneously," he
reports, "while the soundtrack was created on the spot by creating various
sound loops and remixing them live." The dual-format nature of the final
work seems to be approaching some kind of new consideration of how different
visual formats affect our emotional registers. The cold, dark video feels completely
different from the exuberant Kodachrome.


"I
love film," says McCormick, "and I joke that people cannot call themselves
filmmakers until they have conformed their own negative. Video cameras still
don’t do it for me." But at 28, he says, "I’m young enough
to know that it would be a waste of time to really invest too much of my life
into film. It’s kind of obvious that technology is slowly going to solve
all these problems that are hindering video at the moment."



"Views
from the Avant-Garde" runs Oct. 13-14, as part of the New York Film Festival,
at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, 165 W. 65th St. (B’way);
call 875-5600 or visit www.filmlinc.com for ticket and schedule information.


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