When Matt McCormick first parked his gray Honda Civic under the marquee of the Fox Theatre, he had no intention of staying in Portland. Fifteen years later, the Fox is gone, but he's still a part of the city's cinema landscape.
The ornate movie palace on Southwest Broadway, which McCormick used as a landmark when he pulled into town in 1995, was torn down two years later. That demolition caught the filmmaker's attention. "I realized," he says now, "that I was seeing the very last remnants of a city that was getting ready to be turned over. All these great buildings were being torn down left and right."
McCormick has made his art on a canvas of moldering buildings and industrial landscapes. Nobody else in Portland's moviemaking firmament is as good a reason to be excited about Portland's cinematic future.
He founded Peripheral Produce, the-festival-and-distribution collective that gave Miranda July her first onscreen exposure and annually attracts a handful of the nation's top experimental directors to make karaoke videos at the PDX Film Fest. His 2001 documentary, The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal, is the defining movie of Portland's DIY art scene. Next year, he releases his first feature, Some Days Are Better Than Others—starring local indie rockers James Mercer of the Shins and Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney.
But McCormick only stayed in Portland because he didn't have enough money to keep driving.
In 1995, he was a 22-year-old graduate of the College of Santa Fe, playing band gigs in Albuquerque, N.M. "I wasn't up to any good, that's for sure," he says. (He won't give details.) "I had one of those nights where you throw all your stuff in a car and just leave."
He drove for three months, crisscrossing the West. "Portland is where I kind of ran out of money," he admits. He was bemoaning his cash woes in a now-defunct Laurelhurst diner called Pumpernickel's when the owner walked in, complaining that her dishwasher had quit. He took the job on the spot.
After two weeks, McCormick had earned enough to pay his way back to New Mexico. But he soon returned to Portland for good, resuming his career track at Pumpernickel's. "I quickly got promoted to sandwich maker."
McCormick got to practice what became a distinctively languid style when he got his "first actual job job": filming local city council meetings for cable access. Meanwhile, he was invited by the booker at a Burnside all-ages punk club, the O—a reincarnation of the legendary X-Ray Cafe—to screen his "goofy little shorts" at film nights.
McCormick loved the thought of gathering experimental filmmakers to party. Just 14 months after the accidental end of his road trip, McCormick launched the first annual Portland Documentary and eXperimental Film Festival, complete with its Peripheral Produce Invitational, a contest rewarding the oddest, most genre-busting cinema McCormick could find.
As McCormick prepares to debut Some Days, the director still feels a pang for the city he first encountered. "Nothing had changed since 1960," he says. "It was much more weathered. Now you can stand [on Broadway] and everything's new. It's like Portland got a facelift. If you've got a thing for old abandoned buildings and little nooks and crannies of a city, there's a lot to miss."