Parisian in Portland: French gov’t reporter films alt-arts.

Hooked by a "Portland Weird" fetish, Samuel Cuneo films Portland music, tattoos, and graffiti.

Update: Since the initial publication of this article, the B-roll footage mentioned below has been retrieved and re-edited into Cuneo’s final film, along with an “in memory” credit for local videographer Stephen Person.


My living room couch had already accommodated an Australian, a German, an Italian and others when I got the following request on Two people from Paris, friends not a couple, a government reporter and a teacher, were hoping I could host them. They’d also seen that I was an arts journalist—so did I know any musicians they could talk to?

the initial inspiration, or when Portland pop-culture hit Paris…

In April of 2012, the “Keep Portland Weird” showcase, a delegation of Portland pop-culture creators, landed in Paris’s Pompidou Gallery as if carried and dropped there by a flock of screen-printed swifts. The event was primarily a music festival headlining Stephen Malkmus, Tara Jane O’Neil, Holcombe Waller and others*, but also featured graphics by Crash America poster artist Mike King, films by Department of Kickass‘s Vanessa Renwick, tourism-promoting party favors, and more PDX miscellanea. (Curious? Check out a French newscast about it.)

While Parisian reporter Samuel Cuneo was enjoying Portland, some locals compared him to Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne. See any resemblance?

While Parisian reporter Samuel Cuneo was enjoying Portland, some locals compared him to Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne. See any resemblance?

The French ministry’s deputy manager for the communication of reforms Samuel Cuneo, no doubt accustomed to more formal diplomacy, attended the festival…and immediately fell in love with Portland’s madcap ethos and unusual pop music. His next vacation, he decided, would be a working summer holiday in Portland,  during which he would mix his OWN cocktail of Portland music and weirdness into a short documentary film. He introduced himself to several artists at the Pompidou show in the hopes that they’d give him keys to their city—but when he followed up in July, they didn’t reply to his emails. Now, he was stuck culling—a traveler’s paradise but a cultural crapshoot—for Portland music community contacts, and/or hosts willing to show his documentary crew of two around town.

exploring “musictopia”

Luckily, he came to me. Initially, I offered Cuneo and his assistant Caroline Lewi-Vaissiere a few leads from the local music scene: hiphop expert Ryan Feigh, animator/musicians Klein & Woolley, songwriter Tim Martin, sound man Jeff Simmons. When Cuneo and Lewi-Vaissiere physically arrived, we discovered an easy rapport, and I extended my offer, volunteering to also show them some sights: a PICA party, a Rigsketball game, the Great Idea Festival, even a food cart pod and some bizarre bars. Full disclosure, I was already going to the Great Idea Festival because I was playing there, and I was going to bars to read tarot. Cuneo filmed both performances and ended up including me in his documentary’s cast of characters, which I hadn’t been aiming for—but as they say, c’est la vie. For 10 days in 2012, I got a rare chance to play cultural concierge—not, as I’m so accustomed, on paper—but in person.

Left to right: Tim Martin plays in the Old Church, B-roll of Saturday Market, David Klein shows off a home stopmo setup,  rapper Tope enjoys his Rigsketball trophy.

Left to right:
Tim Martin plays in the Old Church,
B-roll of Saturday Market,
David Klein shows off a home stopmo setup,
rapper Tope enjoys his Rigsketball trophy.

the elusive b-roll

After he returned to Paris, Cuneo’s editing process hit a glitch. He needed more “B-roll,” the scenic tissue that knits a film’s relevant content together. Stephen Person, a media colleague of mine, agreed to make a few swoops of the city and nab the extra shots Cuneo needed: buildings, signs, the Voodoo Doughnuts queue…. Persons’ arty B-roll shots, which Cuneo noted as “uniquely American, and unique to him,” elegantly and asymmetrically framed city scenery. The Doug Fir’s marquee was reflected in a rippled puddle. Saturday Market wind chimes gently twisted in the breeze. As the fall and winter wore on, “Musictopia: The Music Scene of Portland” began to take shape as a narrated 27-minute amble through Persons’ vision of Portland, punctuated by Cuneo’s visits to musicians where they live and play.

Tragically, this spring as the rough cut was wrapping, 28-year-old Persons was killed in a car crash. Around the same time across the pond in France, Cuneo’s computer crashed, destroying the hi-res copies of Person’s files. With a rough cut ready to roll and future collaborations planned with Person, Cuneo was at a double loss. He added a memorial mention to the rough-cut credits and reached out to Person’s colleagues for copies of the hi-res files, but they’ve yet to be found. If Cuneo can’t retrieve them before his re-edit and premiere later this summer, he’ll have to replace the precious footage with new shots.

tattoos and grafitti

“I’ve been thinking of the second part of the documentary…I would focus on street art and tattoos,” Cuneo wrote this spring. He was planning a return trip in the summer, he said. Could I help?

Hm. For me (tat-less and mostly gallery-bound) these art-world niches were less familiar. Still, I agreed to host him and wrangled a few leads: vegan ink shop Scapegoat, leading tattoo machine supplier Rose City Steel, and some contacts who might know muralists who need NOT be named. Arriving on the 18th and departing on the 31st, Cuneo sat in at numerous tattooing sessions, had a meaningful chat with my favorite tattooed waitress, and even ferreted out a few street-art makers, shooting them headless to maintain their anonymity. At PDX Pop Now, Cuneo doubled down, shooting the heavily-inked crowd for his new film, and simultaneously capturing rock band shots to augment “Musictopia.”

This Wednesday, Cuneo returned to Paris, flush with footage and eager to get back to editing. But just before he left, I asked the 38-year native Parisian, French government insider, and two-year Portlandophile about his findings in the two cities’ culture-scapes. He answered thoughtfully, in an accent thicker than a wedge of brie.


How is  Portland similar to Paris, and how’s it different?

Portland is really into culture, which is something that is obvious in Paris. It’s really creative so there is a lot of things happening, and Paris is also a city where things are happening all the time; there’s a lot of novelty. Another common point is, I think, that Portland is not as the other cities of the US. Its really progressive, and we share common values on that point of view.

Paris is more strict as far as the cultural system is concerned. If you don’t get into the cultural system, it’s like your voice can’t be heard, whereas in Portland it’s like people are doing their thing, even if they don’t intend to become famous. In Paris, I think people would calculate more their effort to be famous.

Going to Portland for a Frenchman is having a shot of novelty without that feeling that we are really far from each other. Because in Paris, we’re addicted to culture, and finding people that are addicted to it in the same way, it’s something that is a real pleasure.

Can you share a few of your favorite discoveries?

The first thing I loved was this industrial landscape made of steel, and the fact that it’s rusty. Inversion +/-? No, no. You see it when you come from the airport. [The Steel Bridge.]

The second, I would say, is the number of musicians that are playing for only one show. Like, you’ve got three bands in a row. You’ve got the impression with these shows that you can see plenty of young bands that are really innovative, and it gives you the impression that the music scene is so rich, and is moving all the time. You wouldn’t see that in Paris. Just one band, or you will have to pay to see two bands that you actually know. So it’s a pleasure for discovering so easily so many different musics.

The third thing is the restaurants. The cuisine is so good, and so diverse, I would say that you’ve got a strong sense of putting people around the table, which is a really strong contrast with what France knows about the US. It’s like you’re trying to be innovative about the cuisine like we do in France, with good produce, which is important.

The fourth thing would be that you can get in touch easily with people, even by eye contact. They smile quite easily and they talk with you without a complex, without any pretext. You feel like people are really open and easygoing. I’ve been feeling like I had discovered people, and then made friends. It’s something that made me feel Portland more intimately, and that attached me to the town. It was like living from the inside, feeling in tune with the people. Another thing, I’ve never felt like a stranger. I felt immediately integrated in communities. It’s a bit strange, but I had the impression that the weirdness that is around is like a collection of unique situations that I will never forget, as if it deeply enriched me.

The fifth, I would say, is the vintage culture of the city. It’s a real pleasure to wander in the streets and to find all these vintage shops, and it’s something that we would like to have more in France.

What about Portland has been different from your expectation?

I’d say I found what I expected: diversity. And I hoped by coming here, I’d find a community of creative people that had a lot of connections between them. Because of that, things have been so simple for me. In France, we tend to put walls between every kind of art; people are really separated. It’s probably why I wouldn’t be able to do in France what I do here. Things have been amazingly easy.

For example, being in a theme park [Enchanted Forest] for a festival [Great Idea Festival] is something that is really unique for me. Going to Dino Tarot prediction, divination, is an experience in itself for someone who is not really sensitive to divination in general. Meeting people that are coming from so many different environments than mine, and feeling close to them, is probably the most rewarding experience I had.

Explain your job in France.

I currently work for the Prime Minister in France [Jean-Marc Ayrault]. I make really short films, between one and a half minutes and seven minutes. I do a lot of communication about the reforms of public policies, which is quite a serious subject that can appear to be sometimes dry. But what I like in this job is that I feel related to the life of citizens. I do video reports, documentary style, from behind the camera, editing myself out. I like the situation of being behind the camera, because I don’t want my ego to interfere with what people say. As much as possible, I want to give them the way to express what they think.

Was it challenging to do a longer film since you usually work shorter?

Saying it was a challenge would be a bit negative. I had so many small subjects to aggregate, that it was more of a recovered freedom than a constraint. I felt I had more space to let people express their thought. All I had to do afterward was to find the right red line, which is probably the most challenging aspect of this work. I wanted to show more people working together, and integration of art. I wanted to show more how people are working together coming from different artistic origins. But I had difficulties to find so many different people in my short time here, so I focused rather on music, which actually was quite clearer to explain.

But you included other stuff, like Rigsketball and Dino Tarot. How did those things fit?

It’s because they are aspects of the life of musicians here that I felt really interesting, intriguing, and probably things that I wouldn’t have found somewhere else. I think that all these things are the proof that life of musicians here is really rich and they’ve got a lot of initiatives, not especially related to music as itself, but related to the life of musicians. It was a great opportunity to show that music is not the only dimension you can have in the life of a musician.

How are you feeling about the tattoo and street art stuff you shot this year?

I feel confident about the richness of the material I captured here. I think it will lead me to a totally different way of showing things. This documentary is fed with my previous experience, and it will lead me beyond what I’ve done previously. The main impression I have from my stay here is a strong excitement because I have the impression that I got something else but as interesting as the first time, and I’m really excited to put that in shape so that i can transmit all these different impressions that I got during my stay.

Somebody at the rough cut screening found your last film “slow.” Will you try a different pace in the next film?

I have no idea of the pace. It is just that I understand his impression, but the first documentary is slow sometimes and then really dense and energetic at other times. And this is the kind of balance I try to put in the film. Portland is a slow city, and I didn’t want to show it more excited or energetic than I had perceived. And for the current documentary, what I felt is, tattooing someone takes two to seven hours, actually. And painting a mural is a long and patient work. So I don’t feel like showing things with a fast pace would be really translating the impression of people that take their time to do things well.

Are you planning a next project after this one?

Yes, but it’s a bit blurred. I think there is a lot of subjects that could be highlighted in Portland, but one in particular is related to the skate culture, because it’s related directly to the way people live the city, and there’s a strong element of graphic and music in the skate culture, and it could be maybe the sum-up of all my previous experiences. [Rapper] Tope took me to the skate park, and was playing really loud hiphop in the car; this is something different than I had ever experienced.

How do you choose your titles?

“Musictopia: The Music Scene of Portland” took me months to come up with, because the initial title was “An Eye on Portland: A Music Scene About to Explode.” I had chosen this title that is more generic in order to be able to do one, two three volumes with the same title, “An Eye on Portland,” and just using subtitles to precise it. This is the kind of titles we have in documentaries in France. But a friend of mine told me it would be really cool to have something that is translating directly in a word, the impression I had. In the US, you tend to use the suffix “topia” to express something that is great, that is almost nonexisting, maybe in dreams—and I thought that was translating quite well my impressions and my expectations about Portland. I have no title for the next one yet.

What’s it like to have someone else play reporter with you?

I’ve never done any interview at all. Ive done a lot of interviews but I was asking quesitons. It feels surprising because I wasn’t at the origin of the questions for the first time. I feel better what my interviewees can feel, like my questions seem to me obvious but actually they’re not. The questions you asked to me seemed obvious to you, but to me they didn’t. Maybe you felt the same way about me. I thought because you were able to answer [my questions], these were the good questions.

A. L. Adams also writes for  The Portland Mercury and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine.
Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch  | The Portland Mercury

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*Complete “Portland Weird” roster: Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, The Thermals, Helio Sequence, Tara Jane ONeil, Holcombe Waller, Rebecca Gates,Tender Forever, Dragging an Ox Through Water, Au, Brainstorm, Beyondadoubt, Slimkid3 from Pharcyde, Nurses, Sunfoot, Miracles Club, YACHT, and more. Coordinators included Serge Laurent, Delphine Legatt, and Geraldine Celli at the Pompidou Centres; Benoit Rousseau at the Gaite Lyrique; Kristan Kennedy from Portland Institute for Contemporary Art; Department of Kick Ass Filmmaker Vanessa Renwick; and Melanie Valera of Tender Forever.

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