Erik McClanahan

Film critic, podcaster and writer residing in Portland, OR. I co-host and edit the film podcast Adjust Your Tracking. Lead film critic for Oregon Arts Watch. Columnist/podcast editor for The Playlist (on Indiewire). Co-host Over/Under Movies. Other work includes duties as projectionist, print traffic coordinator and manager for The Northwest Film Center and Cinema 21. My writing has also appeared on indiewire, Willamette Week, The Star Tribune,, Toledo City Paper and Pulse of the Twin Cities.


ArtsWatch looks ahead to the 38th Portland International Film Festival

The Vancouver International Film Festival gave us a great jump on the best films coming to PIFF and beyond

Film festivals are complex, multifaceted, logistical nightmares… (almost) as much for the audience as for staff. However, if one distills them down to their essence, an inherent bifurcation is revealed. They are the final bastion for a not insignificant crop of smaller, foreign, arthouse, documentary and independent films to be seen in a cinema with a crowd. They’re also an odd microcosm of all that’s wrong with the industry today.

I’m willing to bet almost every reader here already agrees with the former, but the latter? Not so sure. Perhaps it’s our dirty little secret. Gasp! There are just as many bad movies produced every year in world cinema as Hollywood, probably even more.

Which is why you, dear movie lover, need some guidance. Some good, old-fashioned curation. After all, Portland is rife with endless festivals. It has a deep bench of specialty, indie and arthouse theaters. We’ve got choices. Too many, perhaps. In a way, though, it’s a good problem to have, but it’s all too easy (and understandable) to take for granted such privileged access to films far and wide, strange and square, big and small, and nearly everything in between.


Celluloid Resurgence: Film is not dead after all

The unique release of Christopher Nolan's epic space tale "Interstellar" has our critic reevaluating the digital vs. film divide.

Actual, physical celluloid has been on the endangered species list for more than a decade. Surely you’ve already heard about it. Death to cinema they’ve been saying! Digital projection, “that’s just TV in public,” says Quentin Tarantino. You know, typical over-the-top, sky-is-falling bloviating from the sometimes tragically nostalgic cinephile crowd. Admittedly, I am one of them, but these days find myself more in the middle of this seismic change in movies. When a situation is this complex, it’s the best place to be. It’s where optimism is earned.


However, before satisfaction would be mine… first things first: Christopher Nolan has a new film out, called “Interstellar.” You’ve no doubt heard about this too. Nolan is one of a handful of big name directors whose name even average moviegoers know. His place in the pantheon of great modern auteurs is well-earned. He consistently makes good, sometimes great, cinema (there’s even a masterpiece or two in his filmography). He is a bastion for going out to the movies, no mere conjurer of cheap tricks but one who instills all his work with honest-to-goodness movie magic.

I’d love to wax-poetic about “Interstellar” (believe me, I really could), but that’s not what I’m here to do (besides, everyone and their mother has already reviewed the damn thing, so there’s plenty of opinions to sift through). In short—set your hyperbole and critic-speak tolerance to high, please—I found it to be immensely enthralling and easily Nolan’s (a chilly director) most emotionally satisfying film to date. I laughed, I cried, I was honestly blown away at times. It’s a more complete, far greater accomplishment than even his last two (very good) movies, “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Inception.” I can’t recommend enough seeing it on the biggest screen possible, to take in the vastness of its vision.

The question becomes: in what format will you be seeing “Interstellar?” For those who don’t know—or much more likely just don’t care—Nolan has been a big proponent of shooting and projecting his work on film. He’s used his clout in the industry, of which he has a lot (thanks to an impressive box office run of massive hits), to ensure that folks in cities where cinemas still have working film projectors can see “Interstellar” on film, be it on the former standard 35mm or the gloriously huge 70mm IMAX. Most will see it on the new standard, DCP. In the end, all that truly matters is that people see it, feel something (good or bad) and hopefully are moved by the picture.


LISTEN: Interview with ‘Land Ho!’ writer/director Aaron Katz

The indie filmmaker and Portland native talks about his new film, buddy road comedies, The Simpsons, living in LA, and more


Land Ho! director Aaron Katz (red cap, next to his co-director Martha Stephens) on set in Iceland.

Writer/director Aaron Katz has a new film opening in his hometown of Portland today at Cinema 21. Land Ho! is a simple, low-key story about two old friends (Earl Lynn Nelson, Paul Eenhoorn) with near polar opposite personalities who go on a vacation to Iceland. The locations are beautiful, the character dynamics deeply empathetic and well-developed, and the humor consistent through this charming trifle’s 96 minute runtime. Katz was generous enough to talk with us over the phone about the film and much more, so we hope you give a listen and like what you hear.

Land Ho! profile

Earl Lynn Nelson and Paul Eenhoorn in “Land Ho!”

Follow Erik McClanahan’s work on Facebook. Or you can check out his film podcast Adjust Your Tracking on Twitter, and subscribe via iTunes or Stitcher. Stream the interview with Katz on the embedded player or download the MP3 below. We’d love to hear your feedback in the comments section. Thanks for listening. [Music by Marius Libman].

FILM: For director, ‘Boyhood’ was an all-encompassing life project

The latest film by Richard Linklater should send him to the next level

For a film to work, the viewer must, in some way, believe what they are seeing is true. That doesn’t mean they all must be realistic, but for fantasy, science-fiction, biopics, comedies, documentaries—whatever—we just need to buy in to the reality conjured on the screen to get lost in the story. Director Richard Linklater, whose films typically take place in the real world, or a facsimile of the real world as we know it, is a master at this.


His latest film, Boyhood, plays like a grand statement on this idea. Normal everyday life unfolds so furiously, with such care and precision, it’s easy to take for granted that it’s a brilliantly cinematic and well-crafted piece of art. Yet I imagine there will be little doubt that the film is anything but a modern masterpiece befitting a confident craftsman who has grown into one of America’s greatest living filmmakers. Having said that, Linklater still seems under appreciated by most film fans.

That’s likely to change as Boyhood is poised to be a huge crossover hit, a shoo-in for loads of Oscar nominations, and it just might make Linklater a household name. He’s always deserved to have that rarified status as a director whose name alone can sell a movie, alongside contemporaries like the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson. Now it may actually happen.



Heaps of attention has already been paid to Boyhood’s unique, admittedly high-concept structure. In almost three incredibly brisk hours, the audience experiences 12 years in the life of a boy (played by newcomer Ellar Coltrane) and his family (the sister is played by Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei; the mother and father by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, returning for his eighth go-round with the director). No embarrassingly cheesy makeup effects were used, though, to age the characters. Linklater and his crew made the film over 12 years, a few weeks every year.

“[Audiences, critics] are interested because it’s just something they haven’t seen before,” Linklater said when I interviewed him last week. “If it works at all and isn’t a gimmick and touches people it’s even more compelling. Whenever you connect and it’s being interpreted the way it was put forth in the world and taken in the spirit that it was made…it’s wonderful when that happens.”

He’s never lit up the box office, save for School of Rock, a charming little 2003 studio picture he made with Jack Black which is by leaps and bounds his most commercially successful work (earning more than $130 million worldwide on a $35 million budget). Boyhood should also deliver commercially, and it’s further proof that Linklater can work in the mainstream and still retain his voice.

“You don’t have any control how your movies meet the world,” he said. “Sometimes the planets line up that people want to see it, sometimes they don’t.” His 1998 based-in-truth bank robbers tale, Newton Boys (another rare studio picture in his eclectic and odd oeuvre), starring Hawke and Matthew McConaughey, is a case in point. To Linklater, it never gained the audience he thought it deserved, going so far as to say that were the movie released today, people might  react more warmly to it. Perhaps the unstoppable McConaughey’s fresh Oscar-gold reputation can breathe new life into the mostly forgotten Newton Boys?


For all the critical adulation and relative success of his most famous and revered films (the Before trilogy, Dazed and Confused; all of them near-perfect) it wouldn’t be that surprising to learn there’s yet another hidden gem worthy of a larger audience. My nominee would be A Scanner Darkly—subversive, funny, stylish and hallucinogenic.

“There’s only so much you can do about it,” Linklater said. “I feel fortunate that my films have had a chance, that they exist at all. I’m grateful, beyond that I can’t complain.”



There was time in the second half of the ‘90s when things weren’t going as well. Financing projects was getting tougher, a few films underperformed. Maybe he was out of vogue. His output suffered (only two films in five years, subUrbia and Newton Boys). Linklater remembers that time as a struggle. “You just get sick of it, and there’s nothing more dangerous than the artist out of work,” he said.

“I’ve seen younger filmmakers go through that, too. You establish your voice or what’s different about you a few films in. Then by about that fourth or fifth film they’re kinda like, eh, this is getting old [laughs]. It happens, your time is up, people are sick of you. The culture just kind of agrees you’re on the outs for a little while. You don’t get the memo, no one tells you explicitly.”

The year before Boyhood went into production (shooting began in 2002), there was a spark that ignited an explosion of projects for Linklater, his most fertile and prolific period, 13 movies in 14 years. As he recalls, it was as simple as deciding to take things into his own hands.

“For me, that was making Waking Life and Tape back-to-back, for so little money,” he said. “If I had to draw a before and after moment I would say everything before Waking Life and everything after. To me, that just ends up this century versus last century. I’ve had a pretty good century.”


Though it’s filtered through the constraints and inherent lie that is cinema, Boyhood is truth on screen. It’s a hybrid type of movie, combining reality with a narrative construct in a way that’s weird and fresh. I could point you to analogous ideas in movie history: as recent as the 1950s section of The Tree of Life and Shane Carruth’s brilliant Upstream Color or as far back as Michael Apted’s Up series or Francois Truffaut’s Adventures of Antoine Doinel.

Yet none of these titles are quite like Boyhood. Linklater’s biggest latest gift to moviegoers is the most rare of things, real-deal originality. Its closest analog can be found in the opening scene of the director’s 2004 sequel Before Sunset, during which Ethan Hawke’s author character, Jesse, so beautifully describes an idea for another book:

The way Jesse describes this hypothetical character’s experience—in an instance, “all his life is just folding into itself and it’s obvious to him that time is a lie… that it’s all happening all the time and inside every moment is another moment… all happening simultaneously”—is akin to how Boyhood is structured, flowing seamlessly from moment to moment. It also articulates the experience of watching the film. Recalling your own experiences as you watch, you occupy “both moments simultaneously,” your life and the lives onscreen linked by the power of cinema and the filmmaker’s gift for finding big things in the common, the every day.

“It is so conceptual, isn’t it,” Linklater mused. It’s easy to link the two films together, as they both deal with the idea of time—manifesting viscerally for the audience its effects on the characters physically, emotionally and psychologically—and how people evolve (or devolve) through it.

How did Linklater come up with the approach to Boyhood? He talked about it a lot in our interview:

“I think of storytelling as there’s all these great stories in the world or things you’re trying to express, but for me the key is always the formal qualities. How to tell the story, not what the story is, but how you tell it. I’m trying to make a film about growing up and I hit a wall because my ideas are spread out over the whole process. A novelist can just cover all of it, but a filmmaker can’t. You’ve got this limitation with the age of the young actor in it. After two years of mulling it and hitting a wall this idea came to me. It solved my problem of how to tell this story.

“I’m often in the margins, thinking about time in cinema and narrative. It created a cinematic canvas on this idea. That’s all it was. I think all of my ideas have to do with time as structure device in lieu of plot. I’ve largely replaced plot with structure and time, which is more innate to the human psyche, if you think about it. How we process this thing called life and time, we do find a lot of structure and patterns. A lot of the films I’ve done that have a lot of these time structures actually contribute to the realism that I’m trying to communicate.

Boyhood is made up almost entirely of these intimate moments that have no place in a well-plotted story because they’re not moving the story forward quick enough and not revealing enough in themselves about character. It’s a different pace. This is a movie that would be cut out of all other movies, the entire movie. It doesn’t fit any traditional rules yet it’s as common as life itself.”

Boyhood was essentially a 12-year side project (“an all-encompassing life project”) for everybody involved. It never hit the back burner, according to Linklater, even during his most productive span of his career. “Any memory from my own childhood I would write down over the years and work into a scene, or anything I would hear anyone talk about. It’s not a bad way to go through life. You gotta pick your subject matter carefully in this world. This was ultimately something very life affirming, deepening and made me more life-aware. I was lucky. Even if I was busy with other things I always knew it was coming, it was always on my mind. It was very cool.”


Nearly 23 years ago, a story about the director’s sophomore feature, Slacker, the film that jump-started his career, was published in a late summer midweek edition of the New York Times, featuring a picture of a young, long-haired Linklater under the Cinema 21 marquee.


Picture by Brian Drake for the New York Times (Aug 7, 1991)

He remembers it as a weird time, when Slacker was growing bigger. “It was clear it was becoming a cult film, something else. We broke through at that point and I just happened to be in Portland for that picture when it happened. That film rolled out slowly, so it was kinda cool when it hit that bigger place.”

It was a different time for indie movies then. “They don’t really occupy a place in our culture [anymore], the film out of nowhere from nobody,” Linklater said. “It’s kinda sad. A film like that which only grossed $1.3 million had a big cultural impact. Now I don’t think anyone would take it very serious because that’s not quite big enough. We live in very inflated times. I like films about ideas rather than box office. Or a film that’s different and breaking some new ground. That should be the story rather than how well it’s doing.”

He was hoping to make it back Portland to take a new picture for the release of Boyhood, which, appropriately, opens Friday at Cinema 21, the place where Portlanders first learned what a Richard Linklater film was. Alas, he couldn’t fit it into his busy schedule. Making a movie that’s got everybody talking (and wanting to talk to its maker) will fill your calendar fast.

But, he promised: “I’ll be back there some day and we can take that picture.”

If he does, it would be just another moment within a moment, happening simultaneously. Anyway, that’s kind of the idea…

Re-Examining ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’

Why the newly restored 1974 shocker is even more relevant today

By critical acclamation The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is unquestionably a masterpiece. That much, after 40 years of existing in the world, seems to be a simple undeniable fact. Though I wonder…do you love its pulpy horror or does the thought of watching it make you recoil? Either reaction is understandable and, maybe, even both at the same time.

For many cinephiles, critics and scary movie fans, the original 1974 Massacre, directed by Tobe Hooper (who went on to make Poltergeist under Steven Spielberg’s supervision but never achieved these heights again) is the ne plus ultra of horror cinema. Yet it long ago transcended its genre. So, a print has been enshrined in the permanent collection at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and in the most recent Sight & Sound critics poll, it was voted one of the 250 greatest films ever made.


But I want to argue that it deserves even more respect—and dare I say, your respect. If you’ve never had the stomach to watch it, you really should. You owe it to yourself to see what the best of the genre looks like. If nothing else, take it as a challenge, but not as some of kind of crude test to see what levels of cinematic extremity you can handle. It deserves to be wrestled with, thought about, discussed. It should scare the living crap out of you, but leave you nourished after its vise of terror loosens its hold on your psyche.

The sole intention of a typical, good horror film is to scare an audience. When this happens, fans of this kind of cinema—often unfairly marginalized and seen as bloodthirsty gorehounds, much to their (our!) chagrin—delight in the sheer visceral experience. That is, more often than not, enough, and by that measure, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is great cinema.

Titles don’t get much more bluntly evocative than those five words, stitched together like one of Leatherface’s freaky masks made of human flesh and yet able to roll off the tongue with an ease befitting some sadistic poet’s best work. They promise the audience scares, buckets of blood and a relentless, inescapable nightmare. That the film not only delivers on that vow, perhaps even more so today, is one of its many enduring strengths.


“When I was 14 I saw The Texas Chain Saw Massacre… I saw that film was an art form, meaning that I saw subliminal images. That’s when I realized the power of art: it’s not what you see, it’s what you think you see… That’s when it penetrates an audience. That’s when it goes deep. On the surface you watch like a brain, [and] you understand. But with subliminal images, or the thought of subliminal images, [that’s] when it has penetrated and the art has taken over your body.”

-Nicolas Winding Refn (The Treatment,Oct. 14, 2009)

Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives) speaks often of his love for the film. In the above video clip from this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it’s hard not to find his admiration for the film, and its director, Tobe Hooper, endearing as all hell. Look beyond his palpable enthusiasm, though, and you’ll find an insightful, rich reading of the film. “Subliminal images” do abound in Texas Chain Saw Massacre. See it and you’ll you swear you witnessed graphic, gory violence. But did you?

At the beginning of the second act, a character is impaled on a large meat hook, left to suffer and dangle like a helpless fish snatched from the river. While this is happening, the film’s main villain, Leatherface, begins cutting up another victim. You think you see all of this happening; gore, blood and viscera splattering. You’re sure you saw it. Look closer at the scene, though, and it’s quite remarkable how little is violence is explicitly shown. It’s a sublimely constructed sequence, and not the only one. In fact, the titular cutting tool is never shown touching a person, save for Leatherface’s accident at the climax. Hooper mentions in the DVD commentary that he’s argued with countless people over the actual content of the film, to no avail.

TCM hook

This is evidence of the way Refn says those images “penetrate an audience” and the art takes over your body. There is real power in Hooper’s skill as an image maker. He grabs the audience by the throat, never relents and forces the audience to experience his vision, for better or ill. Whether or not you enjoy the act of watching the film is purely subjective, but it’s hard to argue against the objectively effective craft on display from Hooper and his entire cast and crew.

In his 1974 two-star review, Roger Ebert attempted such an argument, stating that it’s “without any apparent purpose, unless the creation of disgust and fright is a purpose.” And yet, several times he grudgingly acknowledges that it’s well-made: “In its own way, the movie is some kind of weird, off-the-wall achievement. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to make a movie like this, and yet it’s well-made, well-acted, and all too effective… All of this material, as you can imagine, is scary and unpalatable. But the movie is good technically and with its special effects, and we have to give it grudging admiration on that level, despite all the waving of the chain saw.”

Laughably, Hooper was actually attempting for a PG-rating for the film, even asking the MPAA film board how he could attain that rating  AND still portray a woman hanging on a meat hook. As absurd as this sounds, it does explain the film’s lack of explicit violence. The horror and murder is obscured and mostly bloodless. Classy is not the right word, but compared to most horror movies, it’s pretty damn close.

There are other techniques worth mentioning. The editing by Larry Carroll and Sallye Richardson plays a big part in sustaining the growing sense of fear and anxiety. It’s all about misdirection. Cuts often happen in the middle of an action, not the norm, giving the viewer a subconscious feeling of discomfort. The raw, grimy beauty of Daniel Pearl’s cinematography was born from his naiveté and inexperience (he was still a college student when the film was made). The most gorgeous shot in the film comes when the camera tracks behind soon-to-be victim Teri McMinn as she approaches Leatherface’s house, going under a bench to follow her as the house gets larger in the frame. The shot was improvised on set.

TexasChainsawMassacre house track


 Though TheTexas Chain Saw Massacre is probably best appreciated as a sensory experience that takes advantages of cinema’s many unique tools, arguments have been made for various thematic and intellectual readings. What’s remarkable is how many of these particular readings by various scholars and critics are even more relevant today than when the film was released in 1974.

For example, Hooper apparently stopped eating meat while making the film and saw the crux of the film as being about meat. There’s something to be said for it as a pro-vegetarian film. There’s the sense that Leatherface’s murderous, cannibalistic clan is a scathing parody of modern American families gone awry. Existentially, it’s hard to escape the notion that the film is about the absurdity of life, random and seemingly without meaning. And it resonates politically: America was in a dark place during the film’s initial release, with racial tensions, a struggling economy, Vietnam and Watergate, and the apparent passing of the counter-culture, to name but a few issues. It’s fair to say things have only gotten more complicated and confusing, yet no horror filmmaker today has been able to capture so much of this complexity and fear as well as Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

The best evidence of this may be the odd sense of sympathy for the film’s killers you have as the film unwinds.. After all, their piece of the American dream was taken away when their jobs at a slaughterhouse were rendered obsolete by technological advances. Who in this modern age of high unemployment and an intimidatingly fast devolving/evolving job landscape can’t understand that? There’s political satire buried in the subtext, where it belongs in a horror movie, and it makes for a rich experience beyond simply being scared.



Citizen Kane is perhaps the one American talking picture that seems as fresh now as the day it opened. It may seem even fresher.”

-Pauline Kael (Raising Kane, 1971)

Is it crazy that Refn (again, from the Cannes clip above) mentions The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in the same breath as Orson Welles’ masterpiece? Both films, in their way, have endured through so much cultural, political, moral and cinematic change yet still remain fresh as ever. The years have been kind to both.

Why did Ebert feel he had to grudgingly admit his admiration for the film in that original review? As he stated, there’s “no motivation, no background, no speculation on causes is evident anywhere in the film. It’s simply an exercise in terror… What we’re left with, though, is an effective production in the service of an unnecessary movie.” Films by Lars von Trier, Harmony Korine and Gaspar Noe, to name a few, often receive this kind of half-hearted, faux-praise. There’s something dishonest about it. I’d rather the critic just toughen up and say they hate the damn thing. After all, how can a film be unnecessary if it’s well-made and effective? And for that matter, “unnecessary” to whom?

Ebert grew into a critic who appreciated a film for what it was doing compared to others of its type. But many mainstream critics fall into this trap all too easily. Pauline Kael, in her wonderful 1969 piece for the New Yorker entitled Trash, Art and the Movies, put it perfectly: “When you clean them up, when you make movies respectable, you kill them. The wellspring of their art, their greatness, is in not being respectable.”

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre fits neatly into a throughline of the best and/or most shocking horror films in film history. Start with Hitchcock’s Psycho, move to Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead and Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, then it’s on to Craven’s Last House on the Left and Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Once you arrive at Hooper’s film, you see the influence of those forebears had on him. Yet it’s undeniable how influential and copied Massacre has become.

The idea of the slasher movie as we still know it today truly started here, as did the idea of the final girl. Without it, we wouldn’t have Alien, Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street, and so many others, not as we know them today. Its documentary rawness gave it a realism which in turn led to a new sub-genre known as found footage. During the opening credits of Massacre, a narrator claims the film was based on a true story (it wasn’t, though like Psycho and Silence of the Lambs, it was inspired by serial killer Ed Gein). In 1996, the Coen Brothers received a lot of press (and a screenplay Oscar) for their similar, “original idea” regarding Fargo. Sorry Coens, I love you, but Hooper did it first.

Back to that Ebert review: in his closing paragraph, he writes,  “Horror and exploitation films… provide a good starting place for ambitious would-be filmmakers who can’t get more conventional projects off the ground. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre belongs in a select company of films that are really a lot better than the genre requires. Not, however, that you’d necessarily enjoy seeing it.” He’s right that it’s much better than the genre requires, but he’s wrong that nobody would enjoy watching it. The only proof of that needed is the reason this article was written, because the film is still showing at movie theaters in 2014. That’s worth celebrating, and experiencing the terror all over again.


The new 4K digital restoration of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre screens for a weeklong run at The Hollywood Theatre starting today. For more information, check the Web site.

Kelly Reichardt, Oregon Will Miss You

With the release of her latest film, Night Moves, the director talks moving on to a different cinematic landscape

Old Joy was the first Kelly Reichardt film I saw. It made me want to move to Oregon.

Four years ago I finally made the journey west to become an official Portlander, and high on my list of things to do when I arrived: hike to Bagby Hot Springs, where most of Old Joy’s final act takes place. Reichardt’s subtle directorial hand, the minor-key drama and lived-in, naturalistic performances by Will Oldham and Daniel London were enough to enjoy the film, but what about those gorgeous wood tubs where they soaked in the forest? I needed to go there, to experience what looked to my Midwestern eyes as a slice of paradise.

While Bagby and Oregon’s countless other natural wonders continue to thrill me, Reichardt’s had enough. Cinematically, at least. Her last four features—Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff and her latest, Night Moves, opening Friday—have all been set here. But her next project will not take place in Oregon.

“I think I gotta push myself a little bit to get out of there,” she said during our phone interview. “Everyone knows about [Oregon] now and now it’s really fuckin’ expensive. It’s outside my range to even be able to visit there now.”

She was coy about divulging any information on her next film, let alone where it will be set, insisting it’s “in the cooker,” but nothing to talk about yet.


The Best Film You’ve Never Seen

An interview with the writer of a must read new film book

A killer with black leather gloves. Death by meat cleaver. A beautiful reporter. Poorly dubbed audio. Goblin’s amazing throbbing score. A famous psychic. And a terrifying ventriloquist dummy.

No, I’m not referring to Christmas with my family. The Hollywood Theatre is bringing back more grindhouse goodness with another early gem from giallo master Dario Argento. This coming Tuesday, a 35mm print of “Deep Red” will be shown at the theater.

In the annals of once great filmmakers who’ve now seemingly lost their mojo, Argento is the Italian equivalent of John Carpenter. For both filmmakers, once known innovative horror films, their best days waved bye-bye a long time ago. But forget about the embarrassingly terrible and schlocky recent efforts of “Mother of Tears” and “Giallo” and go back to a better time, a time when Argento was the man for moody, violent horror. “Deep Red” is insane and inventive as hell, but that’s not all that’s in store for the evening.

Before the film starts, there will be a reception, book signing and Q & A with writer and cartoonist Mike Russell and Robert K. Elder, the author of the fantastic new book, The Best Film You’ve Never Seen. Elder, a U of Oregon grad whose work has appeared in The Oregonian, went to the school on the advice of Ken Kesey after he interviewed Kesey for his high school paper. Now he calls Chicago home, but will be back in Portland to talk about his book, Argento and attempting to rewrite film history.

That was the impetus for his latest book, a quasi-companion piece to his 2011 effort The Film That Changed My Life, a series of interviews with filmmakers who discuss the film that inspired them to make movies. “The Best Film You’ve Never Seen” is ambrosia for voracious cinephiles always looking for that next meal, a hidden delight, or a filmic treat that was destroyed during release by critics and poor box office. The book collects 35 directors— including Edgar Wright, Guillermo del Toro, John Waters, Danny Boyle, Peter Bogdanovich, Richard Linklater—who passionately defend their choice for the best underrated movie you probably haven’t heard of and should do everything in your power to see and/or reconsider.

In the spirit of the book, here’s an edited transcript of the interview I conducted with Elder recently.

Q: What are your thoughts on “Deep Red” and Argento?

Elder: Argento is a deeply interesting character. “Deep Red” is his most Hitchcock-like film. And it’s also one of those that I think most…how can I say… most boldly underlines the problems he has with women that pop up in all of his films. It’s a good pairing, a difficult pairing [with his book]. More challenging perhaps for those who are a bit squeamish and don’t know Argento at all. I think most people in America after a certain age know his daughter [Asia].

Q: Well, since it’s playing at the Hollywood you’ll be in the perfect setting to show and talk about that film. That theater has changed quite a bit in the last few years.

Elder: I’m glad to hear that. I lived in Oregon in the late ‘90s and I spent a lot of time in Portland. I covered music, interviewing everyone from Henry Rollins to Marilyn Manson. When I was reviewing film for The Oregonian at that time, I think the theater was in turnaround so I’m really excited to see what they’ve done with it.

Q: For the book, which took you more than seven years to complete, did you start with a long grand list of directors you wanted to speak with and whittle it down?

Elder: I had a very strict criteria: people who said yes. They had to be people I respect and had an interesting body of work. For instance, Henry Jaglom, who’s had a long, storied career. His taste is not my taste, but that made for a really great interview. He defends Orson Welles’ “F For Fake,” which may be my favorite film in the book. He’s also the only director who doesn’t play ball with me. I’m supposed to play devil’s advocate, supposed to say, listen, this film is dismissed for these reasons. He would have none of it, didn’t want to hear anything that would diminish [the film] in his eyes.

Q: You mentioned in another interview that you argued with Kevin Smith about his choice for the book, “A Man For All Seasons,” since it won six Oscars including Best Picture in 1966. But the choice I found most interesting was John Woo picking “Le Samouraï.”

Elder: I think film nerds know who Jean-Pierre Melville [who directed “Le Samourai”] is, almost anybody else, no. Yes it has its own Criterion disc and I’m happy to have that, but he is not as well known as Truffaut or any of his other contemporaries. I didn’t make John defend that. There’s a sliding scale. Everybody knows who Orson Welles is, but not everybody knows what “F For Fake” is. Melville just doesn’t have the esteem in popular readers. I wrote this book not for film geeks. I wrote it for a more general audience. I chose to let these directors talk about what they considered obscure and what they thought needed attention.

Q: Many of these filmmakers willfully admit the faults of the films they’re championing. Even in the general audience today there seems to be an embrace of the so-bad-it’s-good phenomenon, with screenings of “The Room” and “Troll 2” for instance.

Elder: It isn’t ‘Mystery Science Theater.’ We’re legitimately trying to rewrite film history because we think these films have been lost. The fact that I push them and ask why did it fail and they’re willing to acknowledge some flaws, it’s like saying, ‘you might have some reservations about this.’

Q: Another thing I really admire about the book is that it goes beyond the simple good/bad paradigm of discussing films. It’s hard for some people to understand that a film can be great even though you can admit it’s flawed, perhaps very much so.

Elder: A film critic friend of mine contends that a flawed film can still get four stars, and I agree. For example, look at “Apocalypse Now.” It’s disjointed and has an unsatisfying ending, but it is one of those movies that sticks to your spine.

Q: Any filmmakers you were hoping to get for the book that eluded you?

Elder: I have been chasing Quentin Tarantino for years. But he kind of does this already. He is the guy who changed my life. When I saw “Reservoir Dogs” and the commode sequence happened, that was the first time I noticed the director’s fingerprints on the filmmaking process. Eventually I want to track him down. Sadly Robert Altman agreed to do the book but then he passed away. Same for Robert Wise. There were a couple chapters cut for space. Ondi Timoner (“Dig!”) chose this lost Robert Frank documentary on the Rolling Stones called “Cocksucker Blues.” It’s such a legally touchy film I think you can’t show it publicly unless Frank is there. After seeing it, you wonder why. It’s less about the Stones than all the bad behavior of the people around them.

Q: Since things move so fast in the culture now and we’re quick to dismiss something without really considering it properly, do you think it’s harder for underrated films released now to be discovered later?

Elder: I don’t think so. For so many years you had no way to see a film once its theatrical release was done. Now with all the various home formats there’s so many more ways for a film to find its audience than ever before. Now’s the time to have these conversations and praise them while they still have an economic life. Richard Linklater talks about in the book these different lives a film has: how it did at the box office, what the critics thought about it, and then there’s its true life. How it holds up, how it’s remembered.

Q: What’s something you’ve seen recently that feels destined to be another Film You’ve Never Seen entry?

Elder: I’m a tiny bit biased because I’m from Billings, Montana. It’s not a recent film, but I did just revisit Robert Redford’s “A River Runs Through It” and I always thought it’s just amazing. When it came out, it got mixed reviews. It has an early Brad Pitt performance. I think Redford captured not only that time and place but also that relationship in that book. If people haven’t seen it, it’s about more than just fly fishing. Another one with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Jeff Daniels before they were in “Looper” together is “The Lookout.” It’s this tightly wound little film. I really recommend that one as well.

-Listen to an extended audio version of this interview over at Adjust Your Tracking
-The release of the movie coincides with Goblin’s first ever US tour. The band will appear at the Hawthorne Theatre October 19 at 9 p.m.

Oregon ArtsWatch Archives