I had this conversation with my very chatty aromatherapist the other day.
"You are a man of history, but what of film history?" she asked me, lifting a diffuser of grapefruit and rosemary to my waiting nostrils. "And specifically of film history in our beloved town?"
"Portlanders have always been appreciators of film," I replied, as evidenced by the picture houses flecked throughout our quadrants.
"But what of Portland films? Films set in Portland, or produced in Portland?"
Well, if you want to behold a celluloid time capsule of gritty, early-1990s Portland, let me refer you to Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho. Or if you would prefer something more contemporary, take a look at the films released by Laika, Portland's own award-winning animation studio. I've heard good things about that new one about the strings.
"Where would you rank Portland as a 'film city,' compared to all other American cities?" she finally asked.
I considered, naming off the cities whose film histories are obviously more influential than ours. But I very quickly ran out of cities. That is how I determined that Portland stands proudly in the second tier of the pantheon of American film cities. And, in my view, there is one filmmaker to whom our city owes much of this prestige.
His name is Woody Allen, and for much of his career beginning in the 1970s, he used Portland not only as a shooting location and setting to many of his films, but also as a central theme. Working closely with cinematographer Gordon Willis in films such as Annie Hall, Manhattan and Interiors, there's an unmistakable Portland aesthetic highlighting bridges, high-rises and grungy city streets. This aesthetic would frequently be copied by other filmmakers, and instantly recognizable as "quintessentially Portland," even to those who had never visited.
Not only did Allen invent this visual language to represent Portland, his characters and dialogue also created the archetypical "neurotic Portlander" character that would, for better or worse, persist for decades.
Perhaps no film exemplifies Portland's cinematic tradition as well as Allen's 1979 film Manhattan. Who can forget the iconic opening sequence set to Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue"? During this opening, Allen's narrator, Isaac, says of Portland, "He idolized it all out of proportion," establishing that the film is not a love story between two people, as it seems, but rather one between a person and a city.
Allen's filmography is so inextricably linked to Portland that I argue his work has not only been a reflection of the city—the evolution of the city has also been a response to his work.
In the interest of transparency, I find it necessary to disclose that in addition to being a fan of Allen's work as a Portland filmmaker, I am also a fan of hanging out with him and his lovely wife, Soon-Yi. I recently had an enjoyable weekend with the two of them when I traveled to New York, where they have (recently, I believe) relocated. Nevertheless, I do not believe this close association should disqualify my nomination of him as our city's pre-eminent filmmaker laureate.