Vanessa Renwick

FilmWatch Weekly: Vanessa Renwick, “Tower,” and “Valley of the Dolls”

Vanessa Renwick's new work, a documentary about a 50-year-old mass shooting, and a pair of camp classics on discs.

The screening of  Vanessa Renwick’s new program of short films has been scheduled for either the perfect night or the worst possible one.

On Monday, November 7, aka Election Eve, Renwick will present “Do You See What I See? No.,” which includes her deadpan, despairing take on modern life, “Next Level Fucked Up.” The 15-minute piece debuted as part of a multimedia installation at the Portland Art Museum earlier this year. It was inspired by Renwick’s increasing dismay at the relentless onslaught of negative media stories and images, on scales ranging from the local to the global.

Harbor Seal pup wearing a plastic id disk attached to its head, from Vanessa Renwick's "Next Level Fucked Up."

Harbor Seal pup wearing a plastic id disk attached to its head, from Vanessa Renwick’s “Next Level Fucked Up.”

The targets of the filmmaker’s wrath include people who bag up their dog’s poop but discard the bag on the sidewalk, Portland’s rampant gentrification, the force-feeding of baby seals, and the agribusiness giant Monsanto. It’s a scattershot but effective litany that collectively gets at the sense of apocalyptic anxiety many of us have been feeling during the last several months. Depending on how things go on Tuesday, “Next Level Fucked Up” may be a snapshot of existential anguish circa 2016, or (shudder) a reminder of the good old days.

Also showing are two new shorts by Renwick. “Strabismus,” which takes its title from the medical term for crossed eyes, recounts the filmmaker’s experience with ocular surgery, while “Eclipse” returns to one of her favorite subjects, wolves. Between the films, musicians who contributed to “Next Level Fucked Up”–Sam Coomes, Michael Hurley, and Marisa Anderson–will perform.

(“Do You See What I See? No.” screens at 7pm on Monday, November 7th, at the Hollywood Theatre.)

On August 1, 1966, gunshots rang out from the 27th-floor observation deck of the clock tower in the middle of the campus of the University of Texas in Austin. It was one of the first spree shootings in U.S. history, and certainly the first to make an immediate impact through mass media. The documentary “Tower” is, amazingly enough, the first feature-length fact-based film about the shootings, in which 14 people were killed and another 32 injured.

The perpetrator, Charles Whitman, isn’t the focus of director Keith Maitland’s movie. In fact, his name isn’t mentioned until nearly the end. Instead, Maitland uses animated recreations of the experiences of victims, using their own words, to take us through that traumatic day. Alternating between the animation and actual archival footage creates a fascinating dichotomy between documentary realism and the sort of dissociation that comes from looking back on a nightmarish experience.

These days, sadly, we know exactly how to respond emotionally when we hear about another mass murder involving firearms. Part of what’s fascinating about “Tower” is the way it takes us back to a time when random gun violence on this scale was simply unimaginable. The movie also serves as a potent reminder of the heroism that can emerge from utterly ordinary individuals at time like these. Altogether, it’s a remarkable and overdue piece of work.

(“Tower” opens Friday, November 4, at the Living Room Theaters)

As streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Itunes, and the brand-new FilmStruck (more on that next week) continue to proliferate, cinephiles would be well served to remember the permanence of physical media, namely DVDs and Blu-rays. And companies like The Criterion Collection (one of FilmStruck’s backers) continue to release some pretty impressive products.

Criterion’s recent releases include one of the best potential double features of all time: 1967’s camp classic “The Valley of the Dolls,” and its utterly warped pseudo-sequel from 1970, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.” The former, of course, is based on Jacqueline Susann’s mega-selling novel about three young women who aspire to show-business stardom but find unhappiness and addiction instead. Barbara Parkins, Sharon Tate, and Patty Duke star, with Tate astonishingly wooden and Duke an over-the-top dynamo.

The film was one of many awkward attempts by studios, specifically 20th Century Fox, to cater to a youth audience, and it pushed boundaries by referring to things like drugs and abortion, and using profanities like “bitch.” Despite terrible reviews, it was enough of a hit for Fox to pursue a sequel, and they made the astonishing decision to hire softcore savant Russ Meyer (“Vixen”) to direct it. Meyer brought in then-fledgling film critic Roger Ebert to write the screenplay, and the rest is history.

It’s indicative of the rapid evolution (or erosion, depending on your perspective) of Hollywood screen standards that, in order to match the boundary-pushing of the original, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” had to go much further–nudity, transvestism, constant drug use, and a storyline that goes all over the place.

Both of these Criterion release feature a bevy of special features. Parkins and entertainment journalist Ted Casablanca (who took his nom de plume from a character in the film) make their gossipy way through an audio commentary on “Valley,” while Ebert speaks from beyond the grace in a commentary (originally recorded in 2003) for “Beyond.” In addition, each features so many cast and crew interviews, retrospective documentaries, premiere footage, and other tributes to satisfy any fan. While these aren’t exactly the sort of films you expect to find in the Criterion Collection, but they’re among the most fun.

(“Valley of the Dolls” and “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” are available on Blu-ray for $39.95 each and DVD for $29.95 each)

ArtsWatch Weekly: Steampunk Sweeney, award season begins

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

It’s a brilliant beginning. Sitting in the audience you’re not quite sure whether it’s part of the music or some Victorian version of an emergency air raid warning: that long sharp shriek of a whistle that pierces the air and just keeps on slicing like the blade on a piece of heavy machinery run amok. Then the orchestra barges dissonantly in, and the chorus raises a clangor, and you’re attending the tale of Sweeney Todd, the closest thing the world of musical theater and opera has to a steampunk antihero.

Smoke-spewing factories and magical elixir: Toby (Steven Brennfleck) plays the crowd in Portland Opera's "Sweeney Todd." Photo: Cory Weaver

Smoke-spewing factories and magical elixir: Toby (Steven Brennfleck) plays the crowd in Portland Opera’s “Sweeney Todd.” Photo: Cory Weaver

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which has two performances left on Thursday and Saturday at Portland Opera in a production featuring the magnetic bass-baritone David Pittsinger as Sweeney and Susannah Mars as the ghoulishly pragmatic Mrs. Lovett, is a musical tale grounded in the upheavals of the Industrial Revolution, under whose disruptive rules and relentless sway we still live even if the rough promise it ushered in has taken on the aspect of a ghost revolution. Sweeney! Sweeney! He’s our conscience, our warning, our mirror. Plus, he sings. And that steampunk shriek keeps coming back now and again, just to remind us of what special brand of seductive, human-devised hell we’ve entered.

ArtsWatch reviewers Bruce and Daryl Browne took in a Sunday afternoon performance when the temperature outside was a sweltering 100 degrees, and report an almost-full house. “Perhaps they came in from the “city on fire” in shorts and spaghetti straps because they wanted to see great musical theater,” they write. “Maybe this was their very first opera production. Or they came because it was Steven Sondheim’s grisly musical-turned-opera, a tale of moral decay across classes with magnetic appeal to a diversity of theater goers. But aye, we ought not worry about the why. Just know that Portland Opera conjured the brilliance of Stephen Sondheim and those present were treated to a stunning afternoon of entertainment and artistry.” Read the full review here.



PAMTA, PAMTA, WHO’S GOT THE PAMTA? If it’s June, this must be theater award season. The Tonys arrive in New York this Sunday, June 12, complete with national television audience. Portland’s Drammys follow up on June 27 in the Newmark Theatre. And last night, Monday, the PAMTAs – the Portland Area Musical Theatre Awards – kicked things off with a big bash in the Winningstad Theatre.


You want art? I’ll show you art!: FilmWatch Weekly for June 3-9

Art films go to extremes, while Hollywood studio product flows like molten slag.

It’s an especially R-rated edition of FilmWatch this week, featuring a couple of artist/filmmakers who have never been afraid to push boundaries and embrace extremes. We’ve also got a documentary about another noted artist, and a new movie starring Juliette Binoche opening in Portland. Hollywood counters with ninja turtles, “Saturday Night Live” skits, and sappy romance. Is it just us, or does it seem like it might be a long summer at the multiplex?


INTERVIEW: Vanessa Renwick talks “Next Level Fucked Up”

The veteran experimental filmmaker discusses her current installation at PAM, her upcoming retrospective at the NW Film Center, and the decline of Portland

Vanessa Renwick has been kicking ass for over twenty years. It says so right there in the name of her website, the Oregon Department of Kick Ass.

Using a variety of media, primarily film and video, she’s probed the uncomfortable intersection between nature and so-called civilization, the paradoxes of humanity’s relationship with the wild, and the shifting fortunes of her adoptive city, Portland. These concerns intertwine in Renwick’s newest installation, “Next Level Fucked Up,” which currently inhabits the Apex Gallery of the Portland Art Museum.


On the long road with filmmaker Vanessa Renwick

A two-night Renwick retrospective at the Hollywood will help you catch up


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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