Dear Matt Zoller Seitz,
I’m looking forward to hearing your introduction to Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums at the Northwest Film Center on July 25, 2014. You are arriving to find Portland thrown into a tizzy, both by the revelation that the mayor has allowed the reinstatement of an openly neo Nazi police captain, and by the release of a report which predicts Portland’s population will grow to 3 million by 2030.
I’ve been looking into that crystal ball myself, over the years, and thinking hard about Portland.
You are arriving in a city which is the inverted mirror image of your own. In New York, there is nothing but success. If you are not successful, you do not exist. If you are not trying to be successful, you are not alive. Whatever you are doing has no relevance. In Portland, if you have dedicated yourself to ambition, you have similarly segregated yourself from the pack. You have chosen to howl at a moon, alone. Everything people strive for in New York – the best food, fashion, fun – happens here, but without the careers. Instead these scenes are driven by the unemployed, underemployed, and self employed. It is an upside down kingdom, where everything elitism deals out parsimoniously to the few in the New York is limitlessly available, with no ceiling on excellence, to Everyman in Portlandia – as long as he creates it himself/herself.
But that’s not what makes for the flipped image effect. What makes Portland truly the inverse of New York is that there is no mandarin culture which monitors all this, interpreting it and recording it for others. We are a culture of participants, not observers.
The first historian to analyze Portland’s “all Indians, no chief” anti elitism was Robert Johnston, who wrote The Radical Middle Class: Populist Democracy and the Question of Capitalism in Progressive Era Portland. He found middle class Portlanders, particularly on the east side, unusually protective of the rights of workers, based on precinct by precinct analysis of voting records. Workers were important in Portland. The institution in which you have been invited to speak, Portland Art Museum, found its first longtime director, Annabelle Crocker, in the typing pool of one of the members of the board.
The museum building in which you will speak first opened its doors in 1932, during a period the whole city listened to Mel Blanc, a local dance band musician turned local radio voice artist. Blanc grew up fast, selling newspapers on downtown street corners and smoking a pack a day, starting in elementary school. The audition act he brought to Hollywood from his hometown in 1937 was news based, riffing on material taken from the latest headlines. Just kitty corner across the park from the museum is the building where Blanc attended (and dropped out of) high school. In the future, surely one of Portland’s projected three million inhabitants will get to the bottom of how it was/why it was Mel Blanc’s high school from which a second animation super nova, Matt Groening, would later emerge.
But here’s what I want to clue you in on: even as productive, ambitious New York appears on one side of the coin and the contemplative, creative Portland on the other, I want to tell you about the middle, where both cities meet – because this juncture happens to be professional territory you occupy.
In 1962, James Blue was in New York writing for Film Comment magazine. In 1965, Sheldon Renan was in New York writing for Jonas Mekas’ Film Culture magazine. More than a decade apart in age, they didn’t know each other. James Blue graduated from Jefferson High School, Sheldon Renan from Cleveland High School, both on the east side of Portland, the area identified by Robert Johnston as the stronghold of Progressive Era Portland’s unusually confident, self empowered middle class. Blue’s father was a housing inspector; Renan’s a turkey farmer.
By 1970, James Blue was the founding director of Rice Media Center in Houston, and Sheldon Renan the founding director of Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. They were both tapped to serve on the NEA’s first media funding panel. While on the panel, Renan proposed, and Blue supported, an NEA supported network of regional film centers: Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, Northwest Film Center in Portland, Detroit Film Theater in Detroit, and The Film Center of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, now named Gene Siskel Film Center. Later, back in Houston, James Blue would add a fifth, the Southwest Alternate Media Project (SWAMP). All five still exist today.
When I asked you to explain to me why Austin was Texas’ indie film town, it was because I was trying to understand the Texas chapter of James Blue’s life. You explained that Austin made the decision to pursue that title. I talked to another Texan after I spoke with you, the San Antonio artist James Cobb, and he added that James Blue could not have found a more congenial environment in which to pursue the goal of regional filmmaking – that the Republic of Texas is always ready to invest in regional identity.
While James Blue was in Houston, he founded the KUHT public television program showcasing independent film called The Territory. Maybe you saw it?
Maybe Wes Anderson, born and raised in Houston, saw it?
While Sheldon Renan and James Blue were advocating for regional film from Berkeley, Houston, and Washington DC, the hometown which produced them had welcomed back Will Vinton, a new graduate from Berkeley with a degree in architecture and an interest in stop motion animation. Vinton won an Oscar for his and Bob Gardiner’s first animated short, Closed Mondays, in 1975. Will Vinton Studios went on to train hundreds of Portland filmmakers, including, of course, the animation director of Wes Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Mark Gustafson.
In broad strokes.
Will Vinton Studios founded, 1975.
Dark Horse Comics founded, 1986.
Matt Groening’s television debut, 1987.
Bill Plympton’s first Oscar nomination, 1988.
Gus Van Sant’s first Oscar nomination, 1998.
Will Vinton Studios becomes Laika, 2005.
Laika’s first “best animated feature” Oscar nomination, for Coraline, 2010.
Wes Anderson’s first “best animated feature” Oscar nomination, for The Fantastic Mr. Fox, 2010. (Vinton studio alumn Mark Gustafson, animation director.)
Carrie Brownstein & Fred Armisen make Portlandia, 2011.
As you see, Portland does pop. Portland is all over pop.
But, as part of a sensibility which is attuned to “the advancing present”, a phrase I love which was coined by typist-turned-museum-director Annabelle Crocker, Portland has little interest in understanding this about itself. The role it played producing the leaders who successfully advocated for federal support for regional film is not written down anywhere. I learned it entirely from conversations with participants and eyewitnesses.
At any rate, perhaps some of this history helps illuminate Wes Anderson.
Or not. You tell me!
See you Friday,
P. S. The James Blue/Wes Anderson overlap in the time-space continuum is as follows: James Blue arrived in Houston in 1970, one year after Wes Anderson was born. Blue left in 1977, leaving behind three institutions dedicated to supporting independent film: Rice Media Center (now the Rice University film department), the Southwest Alternate Media Project (SWAMP), and the public television program, The Territory, which is produced by the Austin Museum of Art, the Southwest Alternate Media Project/Houston and KUHT-TV/Houston, and funded jointly by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Houston Endowment, the Texas Commission on the Arts, and the City of Houston through the Houston Arts Alliance.
The Territory is the country’s longest running showcase of independent film on public television. Founded by James Blue, it just celebrated its 37th anniversary.