Peripheral Produce: Local cut

By Brian Libby

According to the old saying, the Velvet Underground’s first album only sold about 1,000 copies but everyone who bought it started a band. Perhaps something similar could be said of Matt McCormick’s Peripheral Produce screening series, which returns at 8 p.m. Saturday to the Hollywood Theatre. More underground whisper than big splash when the screenings began, Peripheral Produce has championed and inspired local indie filmmakers from the start.

Peripheral Produce returns at 8 p.m. Saturday.

Peripheral Produce debuted in 1996 at Portland rock club Thee O in Old Town (better known in its previous incarnation as the legendary X-Ray Café). McCormick had recently moved to Portland from Albuquerque and increasingly favored making experimental short films with super-8 and video cameras to playing in bands.

Only 14 people showed up that first night. But a succession of Peripheral Produce shows in the late 1990s helped introduce a number of artists who would go on to international acclaim, including director Miranda July, novelist/screenwriter Jon Raymond, filmmaker Vanessa Renwick, and McCormick himself. July, Raymond and McCormick had all seen their work rejected by the Northwest Film Center’s annual Northwest Film & Video Festival, so McCormick sought to exhibit his films and those of his friends in some of the same clubs his favorite bands played.

After numerous Peripheral Produce screenings in the ‘90s, it morphed into the Portland Documentary and Experimental film festival (better know as the PDX Fest) in 2002. But by the middle of the decade McCormick’s own filmmaking career had advanced enough that it was discontinued in 2009. After three years however, McCormick has put together what he’s calling a 15-year retrospective of the Peripheral Produce and PDX Fest days, which he’ll present  Saturday (August 4) at the Hollywood Theatre.

“There was something magical happening that I am not sure is happening now,” McCormick says of local experimental film in the late 1990s and early 2000s, “or at least it was happening very differently.  It is important to point out just how much computers and the Internet have changed things.  It is so easy to communicate these days that we take community for granted.”

Terms like experimental or avant-garde can imply challenging fare for audiences used to the multiplex, be it molasses-slow films in the tradition of Andy Warhol’s 8-hour Empire, or flickering abstractions like Stan Brakhage’s shorts. But those landmarks came from the ‘60s, while McCormick and the generation of filmmakers featured over the years in Peripheral Produce shows found a more contemporary kind of sweet spot: works eclectic, unique and local enough to provide a real alternative to Hollywood, yet often funny and more accessible than one might have expected.

Audience favorites at Peripheral Produce shows and the succeeding PDX Fest included works by Rob Tyler, for example, that portrayed everyday household items like salad shooters and electric can openers in an heroic light—with tongue firmly placed in cheek— and Renwick’s work acted as a kind of visual diary. McCormick’s screenings have almost always included animation as well, and the results spoke for themselves:  Experimental film usually draws scores of people to a screening at most, but the PDX Fest at its height was selling out downtown’s 600-seat Guild Theater each spring, especially for the event’s apex, the Peripheral Produce Invitationals shorts program, which crowned a so-called “World Champion of Experimental Cinema” by audience vote.

McCormick’s screenings have always been tied to a video and DVD label, and he first began thinking of a one-time Peripheral Produce reunion show this year after deciding to issue on DVD a now out of print and hard-to-find VHS release from 1998 called the Auto Cinematic Video Mix Tape. Many of the artists included in the original tape are still enjoying fruitful careers, including not only July, Renwick and Raymond but the Los Angeles-based duo Animal Charm and Seattle filmmaker Eric Ostrowski.  Saturday’s screening at the Hollywood Theatre will feature a selection from the Auto Cinematic tape and some additional selections by Stephen Slappe, Andy Blubaugh, and Jim Blashfield, among others.

“Since it has been so long since I have set up a Peripheral Produce show, I thought it would be more fun to include newer work and younger filmmakers,” he told the local film blog Oregon Movies A to Z, “so the show is essentially a retrospective of Portland-made experimental film from the past 15-plus years.”

[In full disclosure, one of those additional shorts in the program will be by yours truly. I was a film critic at Willamette Week for seven of the years McCormick was programming regularly, and like many others seeing Peripheral Produce shows inspired me to try making films. They felt compelling enough to watch in their own right, but stripped of polish in a way that made joining in seem a lot more accessible.]

Since Peripheral Produce began in the mid-1990s, its alumni have gained significant notoriety. Filmmaker and performance artist Miranda July, then a Portlander (she’s since relocated to Los Angeles), has gone on to make two Hollywood features and Sundance film Festival hits: 2011’s The Future and 2005’s Me and You and Everyone We Know. She was an unknown performance artist when Peripheral Produce debuted the then-22-year-old’s surreal videos, with Portlandia’s Carrie Brownstein as one of the lead actors. Raymond is now the author of books like Livability and the recent Rain Dragon in addition to co-writing the movies Meek’s Cutoff, Wendy & Lucy and Old Joy. For the Peripheral Produce tape in 1996 (and for Saturday’s screening), McCormick selected Battles on the Astral Plane, which features a young Raymond wearing a leotard. There’s also the work of McCormick himself, who would later direct music videos for The Shins and Sleater-Kinney in addition to his 2010 feature Some Days Are Better Than Others. From the beginning, be it found-footage collages like 1999’s The Vyrotonin Decision or quasi-documetaries like The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal, his films proved funny one moment and quietly poignant the next.

“I think the mid-to-late ‘90s was a great time in this country for all the creative arts,” McCormick says. “The whole punk DIY thing was fresh and exciting and hadn’t been hijacked by corporations yet.  These days I think there are some very cool things happening locally, but it is much more spread out. I think artists and viewers are finding communities online, which is great but renders the big shows and events less important.”

Luckily, as Saturday’s screening will remind us, the Peripheral Produce days for local film only seem to get larger in the rear-view mirror.

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