It's Monday evening at Sandy Boulevard's bleacher-seated Century Bar. While I enjoy nachos and a cinnamon-scented tequila cocktail, the thrift-store chic trickle in wearing Doc Martens, vintage leather jackets and tote bags screen-printed with the word "womyn."
They aren't here to watch sports at Century, named in Drank, our 2017 bar guide (now available across Portland) as one of the city's five best new bars. They're here for Czech director Karel Kachyna's 1976 take on The Little Mermaid, a tragic fantasy about pain and sacrifice awash in periwinkle blues, rose petals and gauzy high-fantasy costuming. The film is strikingly beautiful and sad, made in Soviet Czechoslovakia and never distributed in the United States.
Matthew Lucas, the mastermind behind enigmatic film collective Church of Film, tracked The Little Mermaid down, cut his own trailer for it and brought the film to a hip Portland sports bar. He's been bringing barely seen films like The Little Mermaid to Portland almost every week since 2013, and he does it mostly for free.
Church of Film got started at the North Star Ballroom event space off of North Killingsworth. Lucas and his friend Leslie Napoles, who manages the ballroom and co-organizes Church of Film with him, conceived it as a way to bring film to mostly theater-barren North Portland on the space's off days.
Church of Film audiences began small, mostly friends, but within two months locals began showing up. "At that time, we considered it a local film club, so we didn't even think about buying rights or securing distribution," says Lucas.
"But once the screenings started getting attention, distributors took notice." Lucas and Napoles received a threatening letter from an unnamed distributor in 2014—"I don't want to poke the dragon on this one. It wasn't even a cease and desist. We just got a letter saying 'we're suing you.'"
The suit never came to fruition, but following that incident, Lucas mostly stopped screening films that had distribution in the United States (he pays for licensing rights when he does). He's found the restriction liberating. "The notion of a film 'canon' is a crapshoot," he explains. "Films become famous because somebody bought the rights in the '60s. There's no real rhyme or reason why some films are in the canon, but for good distribution."
Thus, you aren't likely to see fawned-over classics from Tarkovsky and Kurosawa at a Church of Film screening. I've attended three so far, and alongside The Little Mermaid, I caught another Czechoslovakian film, Juraj Jakubisko's 1969 carnivalesque, punk rock coming-of-age story, Birds, Orphans and Fools, and Ion Popescu-Gopo's psychedelic, half-animated/half-live action children's movie, Maria, Mirabella, which follows the adventures of a talking frog and two little girls trying to save their friends from the fairy of the forest.
This week, Church of Film is screening Ki-young Kim's The Killer Butterfly at the Clinton Street Theater. It's a surrealist melodrama from a legend in Korean cinema that almost defies description. Among other things, the film follows a man who survives a double suicide, then discovers a thousands-year old skeleton in a cave, later to meet its spirit in a dream.
"The script is so ridiculous that you can tell it was written on the fly," says Lucas. "It almost has an oneiric narrative, passing from one strange story to the next—sort of a horror film, but one that doesn't make sense. I'm always looking for authentic surrealism, and this film approaches it. Maybe by accident, maybe by design."
If you haven't heard of these films, well, neither had I. Lucas has a near-encyclopedic knowledge of cinema, which he's cultivated since he started watching VHS copies of Ingmar Bergman movies rented from a Salem library while in high school. He tracks most of what he screens down through online film communities, mostly "academic European people," who trade and share digital copies of films that have never been released here.
This process sometimes requires subtitling films himself, translating and proofing them with a native speaker; it takes at least a few days per film. To replace bad subtitles on Malombra, an Italian film from the '40s, Lucas read the novel of the same name on which it was based and directly subbed the dialogue in the book into the film.
If that effort isn't devotional enough, Lucas cuts his own trailers for his programs, which he has done since Church of Film's inception. "I wanted the film night to have a professional veneer, the romance of the Cinémathèque Française," he explains. "So I taught myself editing software and learned how to cut trailers. I kept doing it every week."
Portland is a town flush with excellent film, but few programs embody the sheer level of expertise, personal commitment and pure DIY ethos as Church of Film.
"Somebody asked me for a list of my favorite films," Lucas laughs. "I couldn't keep it under 300."
SEE IT: The Killer Butterfly screens at Clinton Street Theater on Wednesday, May 24, at 8 pm. Church of Film screens Wednesdays at Clinton Street Theater and North Star Ballroom and the first and third Monday of every month at Century. See churchoffilm.org for schedule.