Portland vs. NYC, Plus "Views from the Avant-Garde" at this Week's New York Film Festival

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One night this past July, I stood under a construction awning on Ludlow St. with Matt McCormick, a filmmaker and curator in town from Portland, OR, yakking and sheltering ourselves from a sudden, street-slapping rainstorm. We had come to attend the weekly Robert Beck Memorial Cinema at Collective:Unconscious, seen the first part of a fine show there by local filmmaker Luke Sieczek and had gotten stuck down the block during the intermission. Now, we were discussing the differences between current experimental filmmaking in New York and the active scene in Portland that has emerged around Peripheral Produce, a five-year-old ongoing screening society founded and organized by McCormick.

"In New York, they make films," Matt offered. "In Portland, we make movies."

It's an interesting distinction that makes sense in a superficial way, though, like most esthetic theories, it gets less clear the deeper you dig. It's not that New Yorkers of the sort that you might see at the Robert Beck keep remaking The Seventh Seal, whereas Portlanders strive to capture the feel of, say, Dude, Where's My Car? in their works?although a bit of this serious vs. playful dichotomy would emerge in comparison.

"There's an accessibility to the work in Portland," McCormick elaborated later on. "You don't have to be a filmmaker to understand it."

A certain solemnity of purpose has certainly accrued around the New York scene, where a great deal of experimental film activity circles around venerable institutions like Anthology Film Archives, MOMA, the Whitney and Lincoln Center, which screens its annual "Views from the Avant-Garde" showcase later this week as part of the New York Film Festival. Here, in a city that began screening experimental film in the 40s with Cinema 16, nearly four generations of artists and curators hobnob at shows. The NYFF's "Views" program has become, in its own way, the avant-garde social event of the year. This personal presence of history may have had its influence, fostering both ambition and insularity, as well as, perhaps, a coddling affection for outdated formats like Super-8 and 16 mm and film-purist conventions like hand-processing, in-camera editing and silent projection.

The art-saturated overkill environment of New York could be the reason why some nights at local venues prefer the subtlety of works that on occasion might seem, to the uninitiated, like dashed-off camera rolls, plain home-movie diaries or unedited thrift-store-found footage. The NYFF's "Views" program aims, of course, much higher, favoring more mature, rigorously constructed work provided by top film artists that curators Mark McEllhatten and Gavin Smith have brought into the fold. The 2001 edition, for example, boasts the premieres of heavyweights such as Stan Brakhage, Nathaniel Dorsky, Robert Beavers, Abigail Child, Saul Levine, Lewis Klahr, Peter Hutton and Leslie Thornton.

In contrast to New York's dense, neotraditionalist, introspective atmosphere, Portland feels giddy with a traditionally Left Coast sense of newness, autochthonic reinvention and a politely neopunk lack of interest in either satisfying inner professors or playing to curatorial predilections. Or so it seemed to me when I visited there on Labor Day weekend for the first annual Peripheral Produce Invitationals, eager to see what was happening a continent away.

"Most of us didn't know each other before Matt started doing his thing," local filmmaker Vanessa Renwick recalled, as we shuttled around the sleepy, leafy streets of Portland in her beat-up station wagon, a sticker reading CARS SUCK staring up at me from the passenger-side dashboard. Renwick, who has DPed for Portland's best-known experimental moviemaker, indie hyphenate Miranda July, is an accomplished and versatile film and video artist herself, dubbed the "Queen of the Portland underground scene" by locals. We had screened a mini-retrospective of her work at the NY Underground Film Festival last spring?turned on to her stuff by a recommendation from Matt McCormick?but this was the first time I had hung out with her in person.

Later in the weekend, Renwick's video Richart, an affable experimental doc about an Olympia-based outsider artist, would win the Invitationals by popular vote. Held at the old Hollywood Theater, the sold-out Invitationals appeared to be one of the biggest events to date put on by McCormick & Co. Not just a semiregular exhibition society, Peripheral Produce is also a video distribution company, with a catalog of tapes including work by McCormick, Renwick, July, L.A.-based video mixology duo Animal Charm and San Francisco underground stalwart Craig Baldwin, all of whom turned out for the Invitationals. Their smartly packaged videos were for sale, along with Peripheral Produce t-shirts, at an indie-rock-style merch table in the front lobby.

The rock show connection extended further than just the merch table, though, as much of the Invitationals were devoted to screenings with live performance elements. Animal Charm performed a witty video remixing of beautifully crappy 80s infomercials. Craig Baldwin and Bill Daniel manned a bank of 16 mm projectors for a multiscreen composition. Bay Area artists Kate Haug and Melinda Stone created an audience-participation event in which one person won the chance to come up on the stage and watch their film?projected with the screen facing away from the rest of the crowd, so the winner was the only one who could see it. Even the New York entry, from the Robert Beck's Brian Frye, had a participatory element of optical-illusion legerdemain.

An audience favorite, though, was a piece by local Johnne Eschleman (he also performs as the band the Distance Formula), who projected colorful abstractions set to a droning, emo-ish live instrumental score. A year ago, Johnne had been in New York while touring his Travelling Cinema project. He built a shed-sized collapsible cinema out of scrap wood and metal, fit it in the back of his van and toured the country with his own mini-movie house. At each stop, he set up the tiny two-seat theater (with peepholes in the walls for the SRO crowd), crammed himself into an even teenier space behind the movie screen and projected his own homemade films while playing live guitar and DJ accompaniment from inside the cinema's walls. McCormick says that the live performance thing is enjoying a vogue with local moviemakers.

"A lot of us here in Portland have/are doing that," he e-mailed me after the show. "It comes down to economics, but also creates an opportunity to keep working on stuff...the ongoing work in progress, or a new movie every month. It is great for local screenings and touring, but pretty impossible for sending to film fests."

It could also be part of how, as in many smaller cities, the experimental film scene grew out of the local music scene. "It is hard to not hang out with musicians in Portland," says McCormick, "because there are just so damn many of them. I started favoring film because it was something I could work on by myself...probably the same motivation that makes a lot of old rockers turn to DJ stuff or electronica."

This Portlandish feel of intelligent playfulness comes through in McCormick's own film and video work. In a duo of 16 mm shorts, The Vyrotonin Decision and Sincerely, Joe. P. Bear, McCormick altered some old 16 mm from the early 70s that had been thrown out by a local tv station. The Vyrotonin Decision, which won best experimental at the 2000 NY Underground Film Festival, creates a found-footage disaster epic out of obscure commercials and tv spots. In Sincerely, Joe P. Bear, a chipmunky voice reads a forlorn love letter over forgotten images of a pageant queen riding a giant block of ice, accompanied by her polar-bear-costumed paramour.

McCormick premiered a video piece, The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal, at the NY Video Festival this past summer. Narrated by Miranda July, the tape is a subversively smart quasi-doc about the drab, angular blotches painted by Portland city workers as part of a municipal program to cover up graffiti. McCormick's thesis is that in the process of erasing artistic tagging, the workers unconsciously create new works of abstract-expressionist art in the tradition of Rothko and Malevich. Graffiti Removal makes great use of the unique industrial landscape of Portland.

Judging from work I saw at the Invitationals, the environmental landscape of Portland is a key element in many locals' works. Alain LeTourneau's Central Eastside is a series of mute urban landscapes. Miranda July set key parts of Nest of Tens in the mall-like architecture of Portland International Airport. Vanessa Renwick's The Yodeling Lesson features nude bike-riding down factory-spotted hills.

Also especially attuned to Portland's postindustrial nostalgia is Going to the Ocean, a new film by McCormick that will make its world premiere at "Views from the Avant-Garde" this weekend. In Vyrotonin, Joe P. Bear and Graffiti Removal, McCormick used narration and dialogue as a key element, but he has abandoned language altogether for his newest film in favor of thick, wordless soundscapes. Monochrome footage of a ship slowly pulling into harbor, shot in night-vision video and transferred to film, plays out underneath looping lightflares and a soundtrack composed of what sounds like reverbing roomtones, meandering melodeon and oceanic drones. Suddenly, the footage shifts to lush Kodachrome home movies of people running through sunny surf.

McCormick first developed the film as a performance piece. "It was originally presented with a video projector and a film projector rolling simultaneously," he reports, "while the soundtrack was created on the spot by creating various sound loops and remixing them live." The dual-format nature of the final work seems to be approaching some kind of new consideration of how different visual formats affect our emotional registers. The cold, dark video feels completely different from the exuberant Kodachrome.

"I love film," says McCormick, "and I joke that people cannot call themselves filmmakers until they have conformed their own negative. Video cameras still don't do it for me." But at 28, he says, "I'm young enough to know that it would be a waste of time to really invest too much of my life into film. It's kind of obvious that technology is slowly going to solve all these problems that are hindering video at the moment."

"Views from the Avant-Garde" runs Oct. 13-14, as part of the New York Film Festival, at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater, 165 W. 65th St. (B'way); call 875-5600 or visit www.filmlinc.com for ticket and schedule information.

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