Escape from New York: Portland

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Many of Reverse Shot's staff writers and contributors come from and reside in locations all over the U.S. and beyond. Escape from New York is a new column devoted to reminding us Manhattan-and-Brooklyn-centric moviegoers that we are not the world when it comes to cinephila. In the following weeks and months, look for dispatches by a handful of our best writers from such far-flung locations as Taipei, Tel Aviv, London, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and more.

Strange Brews in Portland, or Dude, Where’s My Movies?
by Kristi Mitsuda

New York City and cinephilia are inextricably linked for me. I moved to the city first for film school and then later returned to the area following some time off to travel and started working at the Film Forum and writing for Reverse Shot. Fair to say, my life in New York revolved around movies. It’s no wonder that leaving again—about two and a half years ago, I moved to Portland, Oregon, for the hell of it, ready for a new experience—felt almost like I was banishing myself from the film world.

So it’s not too surprising, I suppose, that my cinephile self has felt a bit adrift in this new town, though more grounded in so many other ways. Nearly all of my professional and personal connections in NYC are themselves cinephiles, so certainly separation from them accounts in part for this feeling. But it goes beyond this: Disconnection is built into the experience of being a cinephile since we’re prone to sitting alone in darkened theaters for hours, but in New York there’s a collective sense of enterprise around movie-watching—you always feel as if you’re one among masses of other individuals involved in the same thoughtful sport. But from my vantage point as a relative newcomer to Portland—though compared to many random people I meet, most of whom seem to have only moved here within the past six months, I practically feel like a veteran—a cohesive cinephile community seems lacking; the same level of devout attention doesn’t coalesce around film-viewing experiences here. And for some reason, it’s less of a thrill to watch Olivier Assayas’s five-hour version of Carlos on the Friday night of its one-weekend-only run surrounded by a couple of handfuls of people instead of in a giddy, packed New York Film Festival room.

But this isn’t to say that film-going here isn’t stimulating or rewarding in its own right; Portland fosters a film scene that’s playful, enlivening, and integrated into the culture of the city. Casual movie-watching here at the ridiculously affordable (generally $3) second-run theaters—most all of which serve microbrews you’re allowed to take into the theater with you—is a regular pastime. The ubiquity of this type of venue means that I almost never pay to see anything first-run anymore unless it’s obscure-seeming enough that second-run possibilities seem slim. And this perhaps contributes to the diffuse energy around moviegoing; if everyone waits for second-run, as many do (why go see a film upon its immediate opening when you can wait a few months and pay far less, the saved amount of which can be used to buy beer?) there’s no buzzy sense of excitement attending the unknown entity of the brand spanking new release. Many of these movie theaters are institutions in town, including some run by McMenamins, a local mini-empire which often takes over historic spaces that have fallen into disrepair and refurbishes them to serve in various capacities; one of these is the Kennedy School, a former elementary-school-turned-hotel where even locals go to hang out, see a movie while drinking house-brewed beer, and then afterwards continue to lounge in one of its myriad pubs or possibly hop into its community hot pool.

First-run indie theaters have started getting in on the beer-serving action as well, realizing Portlanders don’t seem to want to do anything without a drink in hand; in the last couple of years, two formerly teetotaling art houses, the Hollywood Theatre and Cinema 21, started serving beer and wine. But this trend—really, more a way of life—has lately reached its apotheosis in the Beer & Movie (BAM) Fest, which made its debut last year up against the Portland International Film Festival (PIFF), the latter of which is run by the most traditionally cinephilic temple in town, the Portland Art Museum’s Northwest Film Center, host to repertory, international, and non-mainstream indie films year-round. Both BAM and PIFF have just recently commenced their annual February runs.

Screening in the second-run, beer-serving Laurelhurst and Academy theaters, BAM movies this year include classic and fetishized lowbrow fare (THX 1138, The Fifth Element), as well as flicks that will resonate most powerfully with those who came of age in the 80s (The Dark Crystal, Gremlins, Ghostbusters). And this type of programming isn’t specific to BAM; random celebratory I-grew-up-in-the-80s screenings of movies such as Dirty Dancing, Labyrinth, and the like crop up perennially over the course of a given year at various theaters, perhaps in recognition of Portland’s young-skewing population. BAM also hosts free Friday screenings of IFC’s Portlandia (oh yes, lines from the show are already passing into the local lexicon, from “Cacao!” to “Put a bird on it!”), preceded by live music in one of the McMenamin’s properties.

PIFF, on the other hand, targets the highbrow. Its screening of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is the first (and possibly only?) chance Portland has to see Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest on the big screen; although the city sees a fair amount of art-house releases, many of the more obscure titles never receive a real opening here (my favorite film of last year, Everyone Else, for instance, only garnered a single PIFF screening as far as I know). Opening night of this year’s festival featured frothy, feel-good choice from Ozon, Potiche; with a lowest-tier membership, I was able to snag tickets for myself and my man, inclusive of access to the after-party full of free-flowing food and libations, for $20 a pop, the same price as any regular screening at the New York Film Festival. Granted, PIFF doesn’t draw the star power of NYFF, and the selection is spottier, but with regular screenings priced at $10 for the general public and significantly less for members, the tony film festival here feels much more accessible and less exclusive (by the time I left New York, it didn’t matter how proximate I was to the world-class film festival—I couldn’t afford to go).

In addition to its usual selections, though, PIFF has this year apparently recognized the need for inclusion of more cultishly quirky fare of the variety Portland seems to adore (in response to the rise of BAM?), showcasing an inaugural four-film “PIFF After Dark” series curated by Dan Halsted, programmer of Portland’s Grindhouse Film Festival, which throughout the year presents kung fu, horror, blaxploitation, and other B-movies in 35mm prints. Also acknowledging the inseparability in Portland of movies and booze (again prompting the question of whether this is in response to BAM), PIFF is branching out beyond its usual, nonalcoholic venues to include beer-serving art houses. It’s also hosting two pop-up bars for the duration of the festival in locations close to those screening venues without built-in bars so that even if one can’t take a drink in with them, at least they can precede or follow up a show with one.

Also in February, the Cascade Festival of African Films, another annual tradition, runs free screenings of African features and documentaries to celebrate Black History Month at various venues. And it seems there are always a multitude of other random mini-film festivals going on at any given moment to address each niche subculture; today, for instance, southeast Portland’s Clinton Street Theater featured a day-long festival devoted to steampunk-themed shorts. Later this month, the theater will host a two-day Bicycle Film Festival.

A variety of multimedia events also frequently crop up around town to showcase film in inventive ways. A slice of hipster heaven called Holocene (I jest; it’s a lovely place with amazing programming and populated by people who, while often fashionably styled in a certain mode, yes, have none of the attitude that allegedly goes along with said style), schedules mostly musical acts and dance parties, but also puts together imaginative shows that incorporate various media and modes of performance. A couple of weeks ago, Holocene asked music video director and filmmaker Lance Bangs to curate a multimedia event as part of a recurring series it’s running; Bangs’s take included storytellers, comedians, a DJ set by Carrie Brownstein, and performance by Mister Heavenly (pardon my swoon, but the band featured Michael Cera on bass!), as well as screenings of super 8mm films by Bangs and others (plus a video by local god M. Ward, who showed up to live score it). Holocene also runs a series called “Fin de Cinema,” in which it gets local bands to perform live, original scores over a chosen film; past forays have included beautiful riffs on Jaromil Jires’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders and Tarkovsky’s Stalker.

One-off events like these show off the fact that, really, when it comes to film, Portland just wants to mash things up for amusement’s sake. This can feel unsettlingly refreshing to a cinephile; part of the satisfaction in watching a film for us sometimes arises out of a sense of mildly smug masochism (if we’re honest with ourselves), as we test our cerebral limits to see how much we can bear, congratulating ourselves for our forbearance as we do so. Portland’s having none of that self-serious self-flogging. Even when it’s encouraging you to engage in cinephilic contemplation, Portland insists the experience be weighted more toward the purely pleasurable.