You've been sleeping on Matt McCormick. Don't feel bad, you're not alone. The Portland artist and filmmaker, whose work slides between documentary and fiction, has made his name in the international art and film worlds with exhibitions at Art Basel, the Museum of Modern Art, Sundance and the Reykjavik Art Museum, to name a few.
He came to prominence with 2001's The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal, an artsy short that suggests the graffiti removal worker in Portland is an unconscious abstract expressionist. McCormick's distinctive, striking visual style plays on Portland's brutalist beauty and was recognized nationally, picked as a favorite by Art Forum and The Village Voice in 2002. Later, WW called it "the defining movie of Portland's DIY art scene."
This weekend, Portland State University's student-run 5th Avenue Cinema is celebrating McCormick, who now teaches film at the university. Friday, McCormick gives a talk about Portland's film scene in the '90s and a preview of Buzz One Four, his upcoming feature about his B-52-flying grandfather. Saturday and Sunday, 5th Avenue screens his 2010 feature, Some Days Are Better Than Others, starring Portland cultural ambassador Carrie Brownstein and Shins frontman James Mercer. Revolving around the lives of three working-class Portlanders, Some Days is a tender, gently satirical look at a transforming city. WW spoke to McCormick about a changing Portland landscape and Some Days seven years on.
WW: What is your talk on Friday about?
Matt McCormick: I've lived in Portland for 22 years, and I've always been active in the film scene. I was running this series called Peripheral Produce in the '90s and early 2000s, where we'd host these big events at the Hollywood Theatre that would feature films and bands. They were really popular, and we'd have hundreds of people showing up. I'm going to talk about that history [and] my career as an artist, and show some video clips from back in those days. I'm also going to talk about Some Days, The Great Northwest [his 2012 Oregon road documentary], and some clips from Buzz One Four to get people primed for that.
What is Buzz One Four about?
My grandfather was an Air Force pilot. In 1964, he was involved in one of the nation's scarier nuclear weapons accidents. He was flying a B-52 bomber that was carrying two thermonuclear bombs. During a winter storm, the tail was torn off of the airplane. It crashed about 90 miles from Washington, D.C., in western Maryland. Obviously, the two bombs did not detonate. But had they, it would've been absolutely devastating.
To add insult to injury, the Air Force knew the B-52 had a defect in its tail, and this problem was happening two to three times a year, all from the exact same problem. Yet they decided it was probably cheaper to deal with these accidents than it was to go and fix the problem.
How is that story going to be told?
I'm telling the story as someone who is related to this person. My grandfather happened to be a really dedicated home-movie maker, and I have hundreds of feet of 16 mm Kodachrome home movies he shot in the '40s and '50s. Oftentimes, he would bring his camera to the Air Force base with him, so I have this great log of footage that he created. The Air Force was really diligent in documenting itself, so I have lots of archival footage of family footage, Air Force footage, news footage and news.
I spent a lot of time in the area, and found people who are still alive who were around when the crash happened. It turned this small town into a giant military installation for a few days while they removed these bombs. It was quite a show.
Some Days seemed to tackle the changing social and economic landscape of Portland back in 2010. How do you think it reflects on Portland today?
Portland is a key character in that movie, and it's interesting how much the city changed. We were filming it shortly after the economic crisis of 2008. There were all of these houses and buildings being torn down, or slated to be torn down, but the construction on the buildings that were going to be built in their places all froze. So we had these lots and boarded-up places that, for a couple of years, just kind of lingered.
Historically, there was a really interesting thing going on in Portland in the '80s, '90s and early 2000s. This was the cheapest city on the West Coast, considerably cheaper than Seattle, San Francisco and L.A. People who couldn't afford to go to San Francisco or New York were here working a part-time job, living in a house with roommates, paying very little rent. It allowed time for bands and art and creative endeavors to be made.
As we got in towards 2007 and 2008, you could see that starting to get squeezed out. I was trying to reflect in that movie, the character Eli [James Mercer] is almost an artifact of this era that we're losing. He's bumping into this realization that getting by on part-time work isn't working anymore. It's interesting because since then, it's only gotten a lot worse. If we were to make some kind of sequel, I don't know where Eli would be today. It's a remnant of a time that isn't here anymore.
SEE IT: Matt McCormick speaks at 5th Avenue Cinema at 7 pm Friday, Jan. 20. Some Days Are Better Than Others screens at 7 and 9:30 pm Saturday and
3 pm Sunday, Jan. 21-22.