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March 23rd, 2005 David Walker, Becky Ohlsen, Brian Libby, Nancy Rommelmann, Byron Beck | Movie Reviews & Stories
 

Filming Portland

Four emerging local filmmakers-and one zany group-are producing must-see cinema.

     
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The digital revolution leveled the playing field of filmmaking, making it possible for anyone with a video camera and editing software to create movies. Unfortunately, the bar of excellence has also been lowered. It's the same all over the country: Wannabe auteurs who don't know what an auteur is, but really want to direct. Now we seem to live in an age when few people want to write the great American novel, even fewer want to be president, but everyone wants to make movies. Thanks to cheap technology, everybody can-it's just that not all of them will do it well.

Making movies is a privilege to be earned through an understanding of filmmaking craft and style, not a right that comes with the purchase of a Canon GL-1. Fortunately, our city boasts quite a few filmmakers worthy of the term.

To celebrate the kickoff of the Longbaugh Film Festival, Willamette Week's third annual tribute to independent movies (see our complete program guide in this issue), we've profiled a select group of Portland's emerging filmmakers. There's James Westby, who has attracted attention by drawing upon his own self-proclaimed film geekiness, Beth Harrington, a guitar player who uses her own passion in filming

stories about musicians, and Nick Peterson, whose quiet work reveals his love of silent films. Then there's Vance Malone, a fast-moving ad guy by day who turns out intimate documentaries after hours, and Cinema Queso, a group of 13 madcap movie types who have given themselves the assignment of claiming artistic freedom, one short film at a time.

Not all of these artists have work showcased in the Longbaugh festival this year. But all of these Portlanders, along with their Longbaugh peers, show the breadth and depth of what film can be. They have earned their cameras-and they deserve an audience.

-David Walker

James Westby | Geeking out

BY BECKY OHLSEN

Everything ever written about James Westby quotes Roger Ebert calling the director's 1996 film Bloody Mary "a diabolical thriller in the tradition of Blood Simple." That's high praise for any filmmaker, but it's about to become irrelevant-or at least drowned out by a massive new wave of buzz.

This spring, Westby is earning attention for Film Geek, his fourth film, a labor of love made on the cheap with a digital video camera and a script he cranked out in just three weeks. It's the strange story of Scotty Pelk, played by former Portlander Melik Malkasian, a socially inept video-store clerk with an encyclopedic knowledge of-and reverence for-movies.

To the surprise of Westby and producer Byrd McDonald, Film Geek won the Independent Visions award at last month's Sarasota Film Festival, and the $2,500 prize was just about enough to cover the movie's cost. The movie was picked up by First Run Features, a Brooklyn company known for distributing indie films and documentaries, and there's talk of a late-summer theater release.

Before Film Geek, Westby had made three features: Subculture, which he dismisses as a "student film"; the noirish Bloody Mary; and the million-dollar Anoosh of the Airwaves, which wasn't ever released. None brought him the success he'd hoped for.

After all, Westby has been chasing his moviemaking dreams for years, including a three-year stint in Los Angeles, where he did everything: script writing, freelance editing, subtitling. To make a living, Westby worked as an apartment manager, and in retrospect, he says, "I probably learned more dealing with tenants every day."

In November 2001, Westby returned to Portland when he was offered a job editing the documentary Haunters. That's when he met McDonald, an NYU film grad who had worked in Jonathan Demme's production company. Their common love of movies-and the fact that McDonald had experience and connections-led them to form the Portland Narrative Project. Film Geek is the company's first release.

Three seconds into a conversation, listening to Westby rattle off fully formed mini-homages to semi-obscure directors, you realize he pretty much is Scotty Pelk, at least in terms of film obsession. Film Geek, he admits, was "kind of an exorcism."

Like all his movies, though, this one is shaped by his star and muse, Malkasian. The two met when Malkasian, then attending Portland State University, responded to an ad to act in Westby's Subculture. Since then, Malkasian has portrayed the short-fused, twitchy centerpiece of Bloody Mary, the naive Armenian exchange student in Anoosh and, most memorably, the awesome Latino porn director Arturo Domingo in Westby's well-known short The Auteur.

Now that a distributor has picked up Film Geek,"it's so much easier to move on," Westby says. Next up for his film company is an Arturo Domingo vehicle, "a sweet comedy about a sordid character." After that comes a crime thriller set in Lake Oswego-an idea Westby had while working as a dental-equipment delivery driver there.

"I'm almost glad I didn't succeed with those other projects," says Westby, who with his wife, Stephanie, is expecting their second child. "Because it would've been for the wrong reasons."

AGE: 32.

NEIGHBORHOOD: Southwest.

DAY JOB: Freelance film editing and subtitling; part-time video-store clerk.

MUSE: Actor Melik Malkasian.

FAVORITE FILMS: Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye and his whole streak from McCabe & Mrs. Miller through 3 Women.

FAVORITE DIRECTORS: Luis Buñuel and Jean-Luc Godard. Woody Allen from Annie Hall through Bullets Over Broadway.

WHY PORTLAND? Moved back to work on Haunters.

PORTLAND BACKDROP: Videorama (2940 NE Alberta St., 288-4067).

"GIVING IT UP" MOMENT: "[Before] I discovered digital moviemaking. Not worrying about funding saved me, or inspired me to try things a new way."

SEE WESTBY'S WORK: At film festivals.

Beth Harrington | Keeping the Faith

BY BECKY OHLSEN

Faith is a recurring theme in filmmaker Beth Harrington's career. Not religious faith, precisely, although a lot of her work deals with Catholic traditions, particularly among the Italian-American residents of Boston's North End. Rather, the faith that sustains her is a simple belief that, whatever the obstacles, she will accomplish what she's set out to do. The expressions on her delicate pixie face radiate determination, and right now she needs it more than ever.

"This is a very intense time," Harrington says. "So much hinges on money." The director is scrambling to finish her latest film, The Circle Still Unbroken, which she has been working on for four years. A documentary about the Carter family and its significance in music history, the film includes an interview with Carter in-law Johnny Cash, conducted shortly before he died in September 2003. There's a Cash biopic starring Joaquin Phoenix due for November release. If her film is done in time, Harrington will be in a prime position to capitalize on an audience hungry for all things Cash.

Considering that Harrington's last film earned rave reviews and a Grammy nomination-Welcome to the Club, narrated by singer Rosanne Cash, profiled rockabilly pioneers such as Wanda Jackson and Janis "The Female Elvis" Martin-you'd think it would be easy for Harrington to find support. Everyone else thought so, too; many of her funding sources have chosen to support smaller-budget films instead. It's a case, she says, of "being a victim of whatever success you've had."

She became interested in the Carter family's music while singing occasional gigs with Boston's Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, and Richman recommended that she listen to the Carter family's music. After Rosanne Cash narrated Harrington's documentary, she helped Harrington get access to her famous family. The filmmaker figures she needs about $175,000 to complete the film.

Harrington frequently collaborates with Oregon Public Broadcasting, while continuing to shoot her own work. And it's not always easy to be a woman making films. Harrington acknowledges parallels between her own career and those of the women in Welcome to the Club. She started as a writer for the same reason her first guitar was acoustic rather than electric. There weren't overt rules, but there were conventions: Girls didn't play electric guitar, and women were writers, not directors. Eventually she joined a group called Women in Film.

Though her animated manner in this interview can be partly attributed to stress, you can't imagine her quitting. She has persevered throughout her career, especially in making The Blinking Madonna & Other Miracles, a 1996 PBS film that explored what appeared to be a miracle, the Virgin Mary blinking, captured on videotape as Harrington was documenting a traditional Catholic festival. "That was the first one where my belief really played into how the film got done," she says.

After Circle is completed, Harrington plans to shoot another narrative-style film like Madonna. "I loved how much control you could have over the situation with planning-which you don't have with documentary," she explains. "And it can't be any harder to raise the money!"

AGE: 49.

NEIGHBORHOOD: Vancouver.

DAY JOB: Freelance film producer.

FAVORITE DIRECTORS: Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Soderbergh, Allison Anders.

FAVORITE FILM: This Is Spinal Tap.

PORTLAND BACKDROP: Half & Half Cafe (923 SW Oak St., 222-4495) for meetings and to write.

WHY PORTLAND? Moved here nine years ago on the strength of a budding relationship with a volcanologist, whom she later married.

"GIVING IT UP" MOMENT: Occurs "about two or three times a year, at least."

SEE HARRINGTON'S WORK: On OPB and PBS.

Vance Malone | Cutting to the Chase

By BRIAN LIBBY

Vance Malone makes the sort of films cinematic purists tend to dismiss. That's because Malone, a founding partner in Food Chain Films, makes his living filming commercials. Chances are you've seen some of Malone's spots, which include work for clients such as ESPN, Adidas and MTV. Reach and Frequency, a spoof modeled after a 1970s porn film that he directed for the local Rosie advertising awards, attracted more than 100,000 viewers when it was posted online.

Since 2003, Malone has applied the skills honed in advertising to more personal documentary films. He doesn't apologize for his slick, commercial style. "I think advertising has taught me that audiences are very sophisticated," says the director, who came to Portland from Wyoming as a teen and studied film at Mount Hood Community College. "In a 30-second commercial, you have to tell a story fast. I've learned that you don't have to explain everything."

Take Malone's 2003 documentary Ocularist, which screened at the Sundance Film Festival and has since been shown on the Sundance Channel. Just eight minutes long, the film tells the story of a maker of prosthetic eyeballs, and its subtle editing and cinematography techniques enhance the story without the film ever feeling rushed. As in the best commercials, the polished style of Ocularist isn't simply for show, but employs a precise set of shorthand storytelling tools. "I don't like technique for technique's sake," he says.

Last year, along with a handful of other artists, Malone was commissioned by Seattle's Bumbershoot festival to make a film that used the phrase "What in God's name" as its starting point. Malone filmed a documentary about those curious statues along Interstate 5 between Portland and Seattle, which turn out to be Dominic Gospodor's heartfelt series of tributes to Holocaust victims, Native Americans and Mother Teresa. Kitschy as this roadside art appears from a car window, Malone didn't play up the comedic possibilities in What...in God's Name. "Once you say 'Holocaust,' I think it's not going to be funny anymore," the director says.

Malone has recouped some of the cost of making Ocularist from network licensing fees, but the rest of his short films haven't made any money. He considers his films a creative outlet, a balance to his day job, and he's working on a new short film about a forensic sculptor.

While it might seem like the next logical step in his career would be a move to Los Angeles, Malone isn't interested. "Whenever the thought of L.A. comes up, I kick and scream," he says. "Some film people may think if you're not from New York or L.A., you're somehow not legit. But I feel lucky every day I get to live in Portland making films."

AGE: 34.

NEIGHBORHOOD: Northeast.

DAY JOB: Co-founder, Food Chain Films.

FAVORITE FILM: 1942's Now, Voyager.

FAVORITE DIRECTOR: Pedro Almodóvar or Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

PORTLAND BACKDROP: Costello's Travel Caffe (2222 NE Broadway, 287-0270) for meetings and to write.

WHY PORTLAND? "We're close to the beach, mountains, desert, city, small towns. And we're a short plane flight away from the hub-Hollywood-and in the same time zone."

"GIVING IT UP" MOMENT: "Every time I have to stand in front of an audience for Q&A's."

SEE MALONE'S FILMS: At www.foodchain.com.

Nick Peterson | The Sounds of Silence

By BRIAN LIBBY

In a time when wobbly handheld digital video dominates mainstream and underground media, Nick Peterson's aesthetic is more of a throwback. He shoots on celluloid, rather than digital, because it's a better fit for his elegantly composed cinematography and minimalist editing. While other young filmmakers aspire to be the next Quentin Tarantino or Kevin Smith, Peterson draws inspiration from Ernst Lubitsch, Stanley Kubrick and Yasujiro Ozu.

After completing just a handful of shorts, Peterson is becoming noted on the film-festival circuit for a signature style. There's his attention to composition-random moments from his work could be freeze-framed and mounted on a wall-as well as spare dialogue, inspired by his love of silent-era films. For example, in Peterson's communication trilogy-three shorts named One, Two and Three-there are no verbal exchanges; instead, characters communicate with brief glances or smoldering sighs.

"I really like his use of camera, actors, story, in what appears to be glimpses into young Northwest lives, lives that I only see from a distance," says filmmaker Gus Van Sant of Peterson's work. "He brings them in up close."

Peterson talks passionately about the collaborative nature of filmmaking, like when he was working with actor Nora Jesse to create a character in Contingent, his most recent short film. "I gave her the challenge of creating the woman for this film with little aid on things like expository dialogue," he says. "We worked a lot with movement, gestures and posture within the frame. Working with people like this is always a thrill, because you get to see your vision come to life through their talents."

As Peterson's work continues to evolve, the young filmmaker says he aims to achieve a balance between artful eccentricity and mainstream accessibility, which is his motivation for shooting his first feature-length film this summer. "Gus told me if you can make a 26-minute movie, you can make a 90-minute movie," Peterson says. "That gave me a lot of courage."

Maybe that's why Peterson is considering such a daunting challenge for his next project: a musical. For a writer-director who favors the sounds of silence to suddenly have his characters break into song-well, it sounds like a strange idea. But according to Peterson, he considers the form an opportunity to give his characters the chance to express themselves in a powerful way.

Or, more simply: "The whole goal is just that it would be fun."

AGE: 24.

NEIGHBORHOOD: Northeast.

DAY JOB: Computer support analyst at OHSU library.

MUSE: Ovid. Robert Bresson. Close friends.

FAVORITE FILM: The Marriage Circle (1924) by German director Ernst Lubitsch.

FAVORITE DIRECTOR: "Just one? Yasujiro Ozu."

PORTLAND BACKDROP: Shooting photographs in industrial areas, especially under the Hawthorne Bridge.

WHY PORTLAND? "I've had fruitful collaborations with amazing musicians in town, like Eric Schopmeyer and Blue Skies for Black Hearts. Also there's the Northwest Film Center, Digital Downstream and a very supportive experimental-film community."

"GIVING IT UP" MOMENT: "Haven't had one yet. I'm too young."

SEE PETERSON'S WORK: At www.sampofilms.com. Shorts showing at film festivals this spring in Ann Arbor, Mich.; St. Paul, Minn.; and San Francisco.

Cinema Queso | Making cheese

BY NANCY ROMMELMANN

Remember your first camcorder? Pretty fun, shooting your mom when she just got out of bed, your friends spoofing The Real World, or exercising your inner auteur with what at the time seemed an achingly truthful shot of your girlfriend without her shirt on. But then some part of your brain bleated you're a goofball, not Godard, and you realized you lacked the gravitas to make even a 30-second silent short.

Those who didn't receive this "Stop before you embarrass yourself!" message include 13 filmmakers who formed Cinema Queso, a 2-year-old Portland collective that has been churning out short digital films at a rate of one a month. Single-minded? Yes. Serious? Uh, no.

"We weren't even thinking at first of having plots," says Laura Roe, one of three women filmmakers in Cinema Queso. "We just wanted to do fun, action-type things. We envisioned someone running around downtown with a briefcase, or a fight scene-cheesy stuff."

The freedom to produce local cheese turned out to be what others were craving, as well. "We were tired of waiting to be on other people's projects that we didn't really care about," Tony Bevacqua says.

The chance to work independently, to shoot and direct and produce work on their own terms, proved magnetic. "One day it was just like, 'Hey, let's get together next week,' and people kept showing up," Roe says. "Miraculously."

Some of those who showed up are have day jobs in the local film community, which means the group has access to equipment and the talent to use it. Ideas are hashed out on Tuesday nights, at the home, Bevacqua says, "of whoever gets the pizza and beer."

At their silliest, Cinema Queso's shorts are studies in sophomoric lunacy, quick romps with zombie newscasters, manic-depressive office workers and young men vomiting on their shoes. The work slyly comments on pop culture, as it parodies current TV (a channel surfer cruises World's Slowest Police Chases and Who Wants to Marry a Leper? in American Idle) and 1950s instructional videos (How to Make an Instructional Video).

And while much of Cinema Queso's work is broadly comedic, there are also flashes of precise weirdness, as when a boy (played by Portland actor Christian Dolan) eats a piece of candy before dinner and is punished by being instantaneously transformed into Hitler (Adventure into Caution). Then there's the slick, moody espionage-homage The Take, which uses Portland locales to great advantage and makes it clear that Cinema Queso, when it chooses, can skew serious.

"We're not looking to be the biggest comedy troupe in Portland or anything like that," Bevacqua says. "We're just kind of a collective that enjoys doing this, and hopefully we can have a little following that enjoys what we do."

That "Let's just film it and see what happens" mindset is part of the reason the collective seems such a good fit for this town. "There are the different film scenes, or motivations, or styles of films," Roe says, "but that's why Portland is so great; there's room for everybody."

AGE: 2 years old.

DAY JOB: Some work in the local film community; there are also musicians, carpenters, a bookstore manager and a karaoke jockey.

PORTLAND BACKDROP: Picture This Production (2223 NE Oregon St., 235-3456), where the group meets regularly.

WHY PORTLAND? "We love the city first and foremost," Tony Bevacqua says. "We're starving filmmakers. I like the feeling of being a big fish in a smaller pond."

SEE CINEMA QUESO'S WORK: At www.cinemaqueso.com; their films have also been screened regularly at Nocturnal's Independent Tuesday series.

Microcinemas

New work by local filmmakers screens at Portland's annual slate of film fests, including the Film Center's Northwest Film & Video Festival in November and Peripheral Produce's experimental PDX Film Festival in April. But the city also supports a handful of microcinemas or film collectives, which are run by volunteers and screen independent films throughout the year.

The Know (2026 NE Alberta St., www.theknow.info) hosts national indie filmmakers on punk-style bargain-basement tours and sponsors competitions like the Fast Film series for local work. Tickets $4-$5.

At Nocturnal (1800 E Burnside St., www.nocturnalpdx.com), local filmmakers' digital and animated shorts screen on the last Tuesday of each month. The series moves to 1305 SE Main St. in April. Free, 21+.

In 2003, the now-defunct Four Wall Cinema split into two groups. The Cinema Project (New American Art Union, 922 SE Ankeny St., www.cinemaproject.org) shows avant-garde films, such as work by famed Japanese documentary filmmaker Tsuchimoto Noriaki and artist Yoko Ono. Tickets $6, memberships $30-$100. Lighthouse Cinema (425 SE 3rd Ave., #300, www.lighthousecinema.org), also shows art films ($7).

-Brian Libby

PDX's A-List

Here's an update on the projects of Portland's crew of filmmakers, including those who work in town, like Gus Van Sant, who has shot many of his signature works here, and other residents, like Todd Haynes and David Weissman, who work elsewhere.

Gus Van Sant

Van Sant's latest film, Last Days, about a Kurt Cobain-like character, is expected to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

Eric Edwards

The cinematographer of My Own Private Idaho, To Die For and Kids is wrapping up shooting on First Snow, starring Guy Pearce and Piper Perabo. Another film he shot, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, screens at Longbaugh.

Jimmy Bolton

The Graffiti Artist, a drama about a young tagger set and filmed in downtown Portland and Seattle, will be released on DVD in May.

Todd Haynes

The director of Far from Heaven and Velvet Goldmine is working on a film about Bob Dylan.

David Weissman

The director of The Cockettes, a documentary about San Francisco's famed troupe of drag queens, will teach a film production class in April at the Portland Art Center and is working on a film about a 92-year-old female painter and nudist in Honolulu.

Nick Lyon

The photographer and filmmaker has completed production on a new feature film, The City They Fell.

Miranda July

The artist's Me and You and Everyone We Know won an international filmmaker award at this year's Sundance Film Festival. July has moved to Los Angeles but is scheduled to screen her film here later this year.

Rebecca Rodriguez

Her debut feature, Coming Up Easy, was the centerpiece of this month's Reel Women International Film Festival in Los Angeles.

Ian and Tyson Smith

The creative brothers responsible for the comic-book series Oddjob and the film The Sexy Chef are currently fine-tuning their latest feature, Monday Night Gig.

Ian McCluskey

Director of Sun Gu Ja: A Century of Korean Pioneers is working on a biography of native Portlander Charis Wilson, the former wife and model of legendary photographer Edward Weston.

-David Walker and Byron Beck


Beth Harrington's The Circle Still Unbroken will have a special work-in-progress screening at 6:45 pm Saturday at the Hollywood Theatre as part of the Longbaugh Film Festival.

Vance Malone's documentary What...In God's Name screens with two other shorts at the Longbaugh Film Festival, 4:30 pm Saturday and 7 pm Sunday at the Hollywood Theatre.

Peterson's film Two received the Silver Award at the 2003 WESTfest in Abilene, Texas. Later that year, Two and Three were honored at Portland's Northwest Film and Video Festival and were included in the Microcinema International touring program. Three earned the Best Short award at the 2004 Bend Film Festival.

 
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