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On the long road with filmmaker Vanessa Renwick

April 24, 2013


Although Vanessa Renwick has been making films in Portland for decades now, all the while expanding her vision and technical grasp while portraying a host of characters and places across the West, a retrospective this week at the Hollywood Theatre reminds us that her signature image may be a point-of-view shot from the 1998 film “Crowdog.” Using a super-8 camera, Renwick simply photographed her own two feet, traipsing down the shoulder of a rural Western highway, following its white line like a grittier yellow brick road.

“Crowdog” chronicles a 1984 hitchhiking trip Renwick made in her early twenties, entirely barefoot, to South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Though her intent was to explore remnants of the FBI’s battles with the American Indian Movement in the 1970s, the film is really a travelogue about camaraderie and solitude. Sometimes on foot, sometimes hitching rides, Renwick and her protective wolf-dog, Zeb, encounter parties both friendly and unfriendly, but the Chicago-born filmmaker never loses her eagerness to connect with the mammoth American landscape. “Crowdog” always returns to that central image: a pair of dirty feet in rhythmic motion along the road as Renwick and Zeb continue their journey. They’re not in Kansas anymore, but technically Kansas is only a few million steps (or even just one answered thumb) away.


Vanessa Renwick’s feet in “Crowdog”

Countless Hollywood filmmakers from Robert Aldrich (“Kiss Me Deadly”) to David Lynch (“Lost Highway”) have used the dotted line of an unfolding highway as a kind of hypnotic dream-shot: the road as both escape and absolution. But Renwick makes the unfolding shoulder of the road her own, willing to shrug off the broken glass her bare feet inevitably step upon (she simply kept a pair of tweezers to pick out the shards) or the menacing figures that Zeb is there to scare away. Nothing can keep this woman tied down.

Even now, as Renwick has gone on to become one of Portland’s most respected filmmakers and installation artists (she’s a regular on the city’s gallery scene as much as at the movie theater), it’s almost surprising when I learn she’s in town: The 52-year-old artist’s DNA seems that of the nomad, eager to put more calluses and scars on her feet as if they are her own perverse beauty marks.

Renwick will be at the Oregon Movies, A to Z two-night retrospective of her poetic short films and documentaries called “Raw, Raucous and Sublime: 33 Years Of Vanessa Renwick,” April 25 and 26, at the Hollywood Theatre (7:30 pm, 4122 NE Sandy Boulevard). The programs offer not only the chance to revisit her impressive and evolving body of work but also a reminder that the term “experimental film,” under which her films are generally categorized, can be misleading. There is nothing avant-garde about Vanessa Renwick’s films and videos: no esoteric abstraction, no shots continuing for minutes on end, no winking irony, no mystery to what she’s trying to say. Instead, Renwick’s shorts, be they a series of diary entries guided by her narration or a succession of documentary portraits about fellow outsiders (a kooky Centralia garbage artist, a Satan worshiper, jockeys at Portland Meadows), are straightforward in structure and earnest in tone.


Renwick was part of a small wave of Portland experimental film talents who gained notoriety in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s such as Miranda July, who would go on to direct Sundance Film Festival favorites like Me and You and Everyone We Know, and Matt McCormick, who founded the Peripheral Produce screening series and the PDX Film Fest. At these screenings  Renwick’s work first found acclaim, as she went on to win the PDX Fest’s central event, the Peripheral Produce Invitational, numerous times.

“Vanessa Renwick was a powerful influence on me in my twenties,” July wrote in a testimonial for Renwick’s new video collection, NSEW. “Here is a woman who has taught herself how to make movies, following her own rules about what movies can be and creating them in ways that are personal, organic, and sometimes wildly risky. Her body of work is substantial and important, and radiates with love and anger and sense of real joy in the gritty specifics of life (and death) on earth.”


Still from Vanessa Renwick’s “The Yodeling Lesson”

My first encounter with Renwick’s work, in 2000, wasn’t in a movie theater but in a gallery where I was working at the time. Her film “The Yodeling Lesson” was playing on a TV set powered by a stationary bicycle. If one was willing to pedal along, onto the screen came the story of a woman riding up a hill on North Mississippi Avenue, past freeway overpasses and warehouses. When she reaches the top of the hill and coasts back down the hill, her clothes suddenly disappear. The rider is unperturbed, as if the freedom of nudity is only the natural expression of her visceral thrill. Like with “Crowdog,” Renwick seemed to be expressing more than a Zoo Bomber-style sense of wonder about everyday life as protection against its inevitable disappointments and tragedies. She also wanted to take us along.

Over the ensuing years, Renwick has continued evolving as a documentarian and installation artist. One landmark is her 2001 film “Richart,” co-directed with Dawn Smallman, about Tacoma artist Richard Tracy, a former psychiatric patient whose life was reborn when he decided to become an artist. His entire home and front and back yards are teeming with his assemblages of garbage, but Tracy’s manic personality is its own kind of performance art. “Every time I have a dream, it’s a solution,” he says in one memorable moment, lying down for a power nap after leading a trio of teenagers through an exercise in decorating automobile hubcaps.

RICHART from Collective Eye Films on Vimeo.

“Vanessa’s seeking, unsatisfied kind of freedom will…never reach the end of the road,” author William T. Vollmann writes, in another testimonial from NSEW. (Vollmann appeared in Renwick’s 1999 film “The Ugly Movie.”) “But her movies are not only about herself, or about the borders and patterns she sees. She gives love and recognition to the strivings of other outlaws. The result is a rare public spiritedness.”

Renwick also has created a noteworthy collection of found-footage collages, particularly drawing from the Prelinger Archives, that offer glimpses of people and places far off Hollywood’s path. Especially captivating is “Britton, South Dakota,” taken from a series of 16mm reels shot by a theater owner, Ivan Besse, during the Great Depression; he’d shoot a few seconds of children and other passers-by outside the theater and then run montages of them for a few moments before movie screenings as a marketing effort to draw customers. Renwick picks up on the distinctive non-narrative quality of the footage, and presents it nearly as-is, without editing it into any kind of story. “The lack of narrative invites dressing these cinematic dolls with futures, now histories,” Renwick wrote on her website.

“Britton, South Dakota” won the Gus Van Sant Best Experimental Film award at the prestigious Ann Arbor Film Festival. One could also argue that it’s a sequel, or perhaps a prequel, to “Crowdog” and its barefoot pilgrimage to South Dakota. Be it through everyday life or the world of cinema, Renwick seeks out those without guile.

In recent years, Renwick’s “Portrait” series has chronicled a series of disappearing places in the Northwest, reflecting upon the temporality of any place we congregate or place meaning. 2005’s “Portrait #1: Cascadia Terminal,” about a grain terminal in Vancouver, BC, that services up to 300 train cars a day but also was a longtime hang-out place for local kids to imbibe drugs, alcohol and each other—until post September 11 security concerns made it inaccessible. A wordless film driven by Tara Jane O’Neil’s score, combined with the visuals’ hybrid look (hand-processed and hand-dyed 16mm film embellished with video-based sepia tone after-effects), it was called “at once soothing and transfixing” by director Michael Almereyda, who gave the film a Judge’s Award at the 2005 NW Film & Video Festival.

2006’s “Portrait #2: Trojan” is a kind of artful crowd-pleaser or thinking person’s YouTube clip. One of the only Renwick films shot by someone else (veteran Hollywood cinematographer Eric Alan Edwards, who shot Gus Van Sant’s To Die For among many others) and one of her only works on 35mm film, the five-minute short, also wordless with a score by Sam Coomes of indie-rock band Quasi, views the controlled implosion of the Trojan nuclear power plant. There is a sort of liberal glee implied in watching this symbol of 1970s-80s industry collapse, yet in this moment of destruction—particularly watching it in a post-Fukushima world—one also gets a sense of the destructive power of the nuclear reactor itself.

Portrait#2: Trojan from Vanessa Renwick on Vimeo.

Exceptional as “Portrait #2: Trojan” may be, closer to her essence is “Portrait #3: House of Sound,” a history of a Portland record store of the same name that became both a film and an installation at the New American Art Union. The film fuses black and white stills and images to evoke the store’s past glories and present-day absence, with audio from a radio broadcast tribute to the shop giving voice to former customers and workers there. The House of Sound, as Renwick conveys, wasn’t just a record store but part of a host of African American-owned businesses, particularly jazz clubs, that flourished in Portland in the years after World War II before urban planning, economics and changing demographics saw them disappear.

“In retrospect, the lost neighborhood has come to seem like a flashing sliver of Harlem itself, a beacon of livelier, more colorful times in a part of town only recently rediscovered by developers,” writes novelist and screenwriter Jon Raymond of “Portrait #3.” “Renwick’s response to the loss of the House of Sound is characteristically stalwart and unintrusive. Like a kind of hospice nurse of community architecture, she has quietly tended the patient, dressing its wounds, cleaning its body, making room for relatives to view the remains. She has collected family histories and arranged the services. Here, now, the sign rests, surrounded by votive candles, as ghostly images and voices, remembering, float in the air.”

“Thanks to Renwick, we are at least allowed a moment to mark the passage,” Raymond adds. “Thanks to Renwick, the preservationist, we are granted the dignity of mourning.”

Vava and Zeb in Vanessa Renwick's "Crowdog"

Vava and Zeb in Vanessa Renwick’s “Crowdog”

This, above all, may be Renwick’s legacy as Portland filmmaker and artist: She began her career as a diarist and rabble-rouser, but what has carried through, no matter the subject matter, is her profound empathy: for the dispossessed, for the eccentric, for those who dream bigger dreams than they can afford, but who find a way to carve out spaces and lives for themselves—people like Renwick. For if you want to get away on a pilgrimage, you don’t need a car or even a pair of shoes. All you need is the willingness to accept the inevitable if occasional shards of glass under your feet.

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