X

Above all, underground cinema (PDX FEST)

Good article on the PDX Film Festival in Portland. If you live in Portland you should go:

Above all, underground cinema
Matt McCormick directs Portland’s experimental film explosion, culminating in this week’s PDX fest
Sunday, April 23, 2006
KRISTI TURNQUIST
The Oregonian

Like our fondness for books, coffee and microbrews, loving movies is apparently in Portlanders’ DNA. Either we’re born with it or come down with a raging case of cinemania the instant we move into an Oregon ZIP code.

Film festivals seem to pop up every other week. And Portlanders are nothing if not eclectic: Why else would we stand in line to see popcorn blockbusters at Regal multiplexes, explorations of existential angst at Cinema 21 or slices of Uruguayan life at the Portland International Film Festival? As the saying goes, if you project it, we will come.

As varied as these objects of our big-screen desire are, there’s still another category of film out there, one that gets less attention, maybe, but with an equally devoted group of fans. One in which 400 audience members look through customized View-Masters to watch the tale of a frustrated cockroach yearning to break out from under the fridge. Or a filmmaker shoots the crowd as they come into the theater, develops his film during the first half of the show and screens it during the second half. Or viewers gaze at colorful abstract images, not sure whether they’re seeing landscapes, an extreme close-up of the human elbow or somebody’s bedroom wall.

These are movies made by and for anyone who’d just as soon skip, thank you very much, the latest gore-soaked horror flick, romantic comedy about commitment-shy guys and the pouffy-haired women who love them or the umpteenth thriller featuring Bruce Willis as a gun-toting tough guy.

These movie lovers mark their calendars, in anticipation of the biggest event of the year, the Portland Documentary and eXperimental Film Festival — better known as the PDX Film Fest, for short — coming up April 26-30.

It began 10 years ago, with the whimsically named Peripheral Produce screening series, a monthly showcase of experimental and underground films in galleries and punk clubs around Portland. In 2001, that monthly series compressed into a once-a-year festival, which brings together the city’s scrappy, spirited experimental film community and visiting hotshots whose work shows in museums and galleries around the world.

At the center of the screenings, workshops and Pabst Blue Ribbon-swigging after-parties is a tall drink of water named Matt McCormick. With his thatch of thick black hair, scruffy beard and intense dark eyes, McCormick has the look of Rasputin’s younger, nicer brother. And there is, in fact, revolutionary zeal burning beneath McCormick’s low-key demeanor. This amiable 33-year-old filmmaker — whose most scathing criticism of an another artist’s work is a polite, “It’s kind of boring” — is passionate about underground cinema. So passionate that he created the PDX Film Fest — along with the original Peripheral Produce screening series and film distribution label.

Back then, McCormick’s do-it-yourself empire was bubbling quietly under the radar. Now, though the festival is still a low-budget affair, it’s bigger than ever. McCormick says, with some embarrassment, that he’s been called “the Robert Redford of experimental cinema,” and it’s true that his efforts have introduced audiences to experimental cinema in the way that the Redford-founded Sundance Film Festival has with indie films. This year, for example, McCormick received more than 600 submissions.

“That’s insane!” says Mike Plante, who spent four years as a programmer of short films for the Sundance festival. Plante, based in Los Angeles, is now associate director of programming for the CineVegas film festival. “For CineVegas, we get about 1,000 submissions, and Dennis Hopper is the head of our advisory board. And we have a big publicity firm helping us out. And he’s getting almost as many submissions as us.”

Plante attended the PDX Film Fest last year. “It was great, the shows were full and people loved what they saw. That’s a successful festival. Portland’s like Austin, these interesting hotbeds that cool people have moved to.”

No rules, please

So, that’s all well and good. Impressive even. But no matter how excited PDX fest devotees are about this week’s event, there remains one nagging issue. Call it the “Huh? What?” factor.

Namely, if you haven’t seen these types of films, you have no idea what the fuss is about. What does “experimental” mean? What makes a documentary experimental? Is experimental cinema different from the American independent movies, like the ones showcased at Sundance? And more to the point — if I watch an experimental movie and I don’t get it, am I an unsophisticated dolt?

No, you’re not, McCormick hastens to say.

But people who make experimental films have different goals. They’re not trying to break into the Hollywood system. They use film to express themselves, in ways that can be funny, sad, joyous or head-scratchingly mysterious. And while most of our entertainment — everything from mainstream movies to memoir to reality TV — is about telling a story, experimental cinema doesn’t feel the need. There may be actors, but don’t look for traditional narratives, character or motivation.

In fact, experimental cinema doesn’t necessarily follow any of the structures we’re used to: It may be a study of the city’s skyline; documentaries that take us places we’d otherwise never think of going, with narration more poetic than explanatory; or, as in one of last year’s PDX Film Fest entries, “computer animation that interprets the human mind and uses hermit crabs to represent personality.”

McCormick is very accustomed to the “Huh? What?” factor. So, in an effort to explain what experimental film is and isn’t, he wrote the Peripheral Produce manifesto.

“This is not the entertainment industry,” it reads, but “folk art for a high tech society” that represents “a small victory over the monopoly that Hollywood and the corporate media have on our culture. . . THIS IS THE INTERNATIONAL CINEMATIC UNDERGROUND.”

The Portland headquarters of the International Cinematic Underground is a historic, decommissioned fire boat station on the east bank of the Willamette River. In this chilly, concrete-walled structure — nicknamed by its tenants “the Boat House” — artists and filmmakers keep studios. McCormick has been working out of this space for nearly five years. His films reflect the influence of its funky-but-hypnotic appeal: the slowly moving river traffic visible outside the windows and the roar and grumble of his industrial neighbors — trains, warehouses, construction.

A few weeks before the PDX Film Fest gets under way, McCormick conducts a tour of the Peripheral Produce warehouse and shipping center. The tour consists of a table and shelves stacked with boxes of inventory — in a hallway. Inside the boxes are DVD compilations of films shown and distributed by McCormick on his Peripheral Produce label.

Then it’s time to enter McCormick’s office, which you do by walking through a sheet of shower-curtain-style vinyl hanging in the doorway. It’s moderately warmer in the office, thanks to the vinyl “door” and a portable heater inside. The heat, or lack thereof, is a commonly mentioned topic among denizens of the Boat House.

“In the winter, it’s like a refrigerator,” McCormick says, darkly. The office is a mix of secondhand desks and chairs, piled-up film canisters, bookshelves, a blown-up color photo of a tropical beach on one wall and a spiffy computer with a large monitor. In one corner are plastic tubs filled with most of the entries McCormick received for this year’s PDX fest — these are the ones that didn’t make the cut.

The winnowing

To select this year’s program, McCormick and a core group of helpers watched the 600-plus submissions, compared notes and winnowed it down to the lineup that fills the festival’s 22 hours of programming. The core team: Gretchen Hogue, who’s working with McCormick in producing this year’s fest; Marc Moscato, who handles publicity; and Colin Brown, who does a mix of everything else that needs doing.

So how do they decide which films make the cut in the festival? “Something that is smartly made, challenges you to think or reconsider something, or that emotionally affects you,” McCormick says.

To demonstrate, he pops a DVD into the TV in his office. It’s called “There’s a Pervert in Our Pool,” made by Martha Colburn, an Amsterdam/New York-based filmmaker. Colburn is a respected name in experimental film; her latest work, “Cosmetic Emergency,” shows in the PDX Fest hot on the heels of screenings at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival and 2006 Whitney Biennial in New York City.

But if you’re expecting stuffy art museum fare in “There’s a Pervert in Our Pool,” think again. Set to a Baltimore poet’s weirdo rants, it’s a pop-culture collage of images taken from girlie pinup magazines, old photos and movie stills. Colburn has painted over them, scribbled on them and recut them, like an anarchic kid gone wild with the art-supply box.

It’s quite funny — but are we supposed to laugh? Feel offended and/or uncomfortable at Colburn’s use of the women-as-sex-object nudie cutie photos and bits of graphic male nudity? Is that part of her point — to mess with these hot-button images and make us aware of how we react?

“It’s just fun,” McCormick says. “It’s animation gone in this dark, twisted direction.” As for Colburn’s use of Playboy-style pinup photos, McCormick says, “She’s a feminist, but instead of just saying, ‘This is bad,’ she gets to be in control of it.”

McCormick pops in another DVD, from an upstate New Yorker who makes bizarre programs for cable-access TV and submits something every year. Once again, this fellow’s entry didn’t make it, and it’s easy to see why. It opens with a quote from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Prometheus Unbound,” and it features a man wearing silvery-white makeup, black sunglasses and black lipstick; a middle-aged fellow in a robe; a moon rising against a night sky with stars in the background; and the makeup man singing in falsetto.

It’s hard not to laugh at this ridiculous foray into the avant-garde, but McCormick tries to give the cable-access dude a break. The production values are just too funky, McCormick says. He doesn’t want to make fun of the alarming content. “It’s kind of like outsider art,” McCormick says, generously.

McCormick’s dreams

“Every single show, I always promise myself it’s going to be the last one,” says McCormick, a few days later. It’s still a couple weeks before the festival, and he’s pondering what still needs to be done: round up locals willing to put up visiting filmmakers for a few days; coordinate volunteers; tie up loose ends.

McCormick stretches his long legs out, leaning back in his desk chair, his computer behind him. The tropical paradise photo hangs to one side of him. On the other are shelves with books and tapes: “Small Business for Dummies”; “Accounting for Dummies”; “Film and Its Techniques”; “How To Be a Cog in a Compliance Culture”; “The Oregon Non-Profit Corporation Handbook’; “Noam Chomsky: Bringing the Third World Home.”

While attending the College of Santa Fe, in New Mexico, McCormick signed up for a class on avant-garde film, thinking it could be an easy, interesting elective. But he was fascinated by works such as “Window Water Baby Moving” (1962), in which filmmaker Stan Brakhage filmed the birth of his first child. “I learned more about childbirth from that than I did from science class,” McCormick says.

With a bachelor’s degree in moving image arts, McCormick moved to Portland, impressed by the low cost of living and bohemian vibe. These days, McCormick doesn’t have to have a “day job” — he supports himself, modestly, on proceeds from the Peripheral Produce DVD business, as well as guest appearances at colleges and film societies.

His own films are funny, sometimes melancholy, distinctive blends of documentary and experimental techniques, on topics ranging from tugboats to the nutria, a large rodent. McCormick’s best-known work is “The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal,” a clever and original look at the unlikely art that happens when crews paint over Portland graffiti.

That film is narrated by Miranda July, the performance artist and filmmaker who lived in Portland for several years. McCormick screened her work in those early days, and last year the PDX Film Fest hosted the Portland premiere of July’s first narrative movie, “You and Me and Everyone We Know.” Watching the success July enjoyed with the film, its critical praise and awards at the Cannes and Sundance festivals, McCormick couldn’t help feeling a twinge.

“I’m so jealous,” he says with a smile. “I’m trying to follow in Miranda’s footsteps.” McCormick is writing a script for a narrative feature and has an idea for a feature-length documentary. He’s aiming to submit his script to the Sundance screenwriters lab, which has a May 1 deadline.

As his own short films won awards, showed at Sundance, and screened around the world, McCormick periodically thought about doing what July ultimately did — leave Portland and move to Los Angeles, where the contacts are. But he chose to stay in Portland, where an independent film scene was coalescing around him.

“Portland is at a point where you can’t be too competitive or too driven here,” McCormick says. “I’ve seen a lot of people get here and leave, once they realize that. If there’s a fault of the Portland scene, it is a little bit slackerish.”

But McCormick loves Portland, he says. And he loves the PDX Film Fest. But he’s hoping to share some of the work next year with others, rather than devoting a chunk of every year to it. Next spring, he wants to be working on his own feature.

It’s a dilemma, casting such a long shadow. The festival is his “baby,” as McCormick says. But he’s hoping this community that’s gathered can help carry the ball. “My dream,” he says, “is that this could all reach a level where it could run without me.”

In the meantime, McCormick has films to screen. Long ones, short ones. And one he’s looking forward to seeing on the big screen. It’s “Inhale Exhale,” a seven-minute digital video by San Francisco’s David Borengasser. Watching it on a TV screen, you hear minimalist music playing, as you look at what appears to be a bright blue sky. Fuzzy-focused white shapes twirl down toward the viewer. Are they some kind of seed pods? Birds? Feathers?

After a few minutes of trying to think it through, you just surrender to the beauty of it.

“It’s very soft, and pretty,” McCormick says.

Inhale. Exhale.

Kristi Turnquist: 503-221-8227; kristiturnquist@news.oregonian.com

2006 The Oregonian