Anne Richardson

Category: Will Vinton

Timeline illuminating Oregon’s three NEA advocates for regional film: 1962-1977

I recently drew up a timeline illuminating the minor cinemas of Oregon, 1910-1965 for Sheldon Renan. Before continuing the timeline in a second installment, I want to zoom in for a close up on a pivotal period in Oregon film history.

I italicize events which take place outside the state lines. Some people don’t consider these events part of Oregon film history. I do.

In 1962, Portlander James Blue makes his first feature, THE OLIVE TREES OF JUSTICE, in Algeria. It wins the Critics Prize at Cannes.

In 1967, Portlander Sheldon Renan publishes the instant classic, An Introduction to the American Underground Film.

In 1969, James Blue‘s A FEW NOTES ABOUT OUR FOOD PROBLEM is Oscar nominated for Best Documentary. He becomes Oregon’s first Oscar nominated film director.

In 1970, James Blue and Sheldon Renan are appointed to the NEA’s first media funding panel. At the time, Blue was the founding director of Rice Media Center in Houston, Renan the founding director of Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley.

From 1965 (the year of its founding) to 1970, the NEA directed all their film funding to AFI in Los Angeles. Once on the NEA media funding panel, Sheldon Renan immediately voices his objection to this. He proposes that the NEA support a network of regional film centers. Pacific Film Archives would be one. There would be three additional ones in Portland, Chicago, and Detroit.

James Blue, a member of the founding faculty of AFI, was expected to vote against this idea, as it would drastically cut AFI’s budget. Instead, Blue voted in favor. Renan’s initiative is approved.

In 1971, the NEA invites Portlander Brooke Jacobson, a leader of the Portland State Film Committee, to submit a grant accessing the funds set aside by Renan’s 1970 initiative. Jacobson and co-founder Bob Summers open the Northwest Film Study Center on Culpepper Terrace with a $15,000 NEA start up grant. Portland Art Museum is the fiscal sponsor.

In 1973, Sheldon Renan organizes a national conference of regional film advocates, partially funded by the NEA. James Blue and Brooke Jacobson are in a study group which travels to film centers across the country.

In 1974, Brooke Jacobson founds The Media Project in Portland, a non profit which acts as a resource for regional filmmakers. The Media Project distributes the films of Will Vinton, Gus Van Sant, Jim Blashfield, and others.

In 1977, James Blue founds SWAMP (Southwest Alternate Media Project),  a non profit which acts as a resource for regional filmmakers, in Houston.

Summary:

Three Portlanders, Sheldon Renan, Brooke Jacobson, and James Blue, worked together to advocate for regional, i.e. independent, film on a national level. Four regional film centers, proposed by Renan and supported by Blue, still exist today. NWFC, co-founded by Jacobson, is one of them.

Sources:

There is no scholarship about the behind the scenes work of James Blue, Sheldon Renan and Brooke Jacobson at the NEA. All information about this aspect of their intertwined careers came directly from conversations with Sheldon Renan, Gerald O’Grady (another member of the 1970 NEA media panel), and Brooke Jacobson.

Support for Oregon Cartoon Institute’s ongoing research has come from projects funded by Kinsman Foundation and Miller Foundation. Kinsman Foundation’s support began with the Oregon Sesquicentennial Film Festival at Marylhurst University in 2009. Miller Foundation’s support began with the Mel Blanc Project, a partnership with Oregon Jewish Museum, in 2011.

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Timeline illuminating the minor cinemas of Oregon, 1910-1965

 

What role did the minor cinemas (newsreels, educational films, industrial films, experimental films, animation, home movies) play in Oregon’s overall film history?

I drew up this timeline for Sheldon Renan, noting the early appearance of our regional specialty, the independent writer-director-producer.

I italicize figures whose entire careers take place outside the state lines. Some people don’t consider these artists part of Oregon film history. I do.

Three time Oscar nominee James Ivory made fourteen low budget independent features before his first Oscar nomination, for ROOM WITH A VIEW, in 1987.

Part One: 1910-1928, Silent Oregon

William L. Finley (1876-1953), Oregon’s first nationally distributed independent writer-director-producer, made nature themed newsreels. His name carried enough weight so that it appeared in endorsements for home movie cameras in national print advertising campaigns. His filmmaking was mission driven – he was an ornithologist and conservationist. Finley doesn’t wear his filmmaker hat in Larry Lipin’s OHQ article about his good roads advocacy.

Jesse Sill (1881-1981), Portland based filmmaker specializing in local and national newsreels. He used the business model (later adopted by Lew Cook and Norm Dimick), of offering both filmmaking and film processing services. In addition to shooting regional events for national newsreels, Sill created an entirely local newsreel series for local movie theater audiences, the Webfoot Weekly. He was active in both the silent era and the sound era, eventually working as a cameraman for Portland television news stations. Amos Burg (1901-1986), was taught by him. Walt Dimick, Ron Finne, Gary Lacher all knew him. Ellen Thomas’ masters thesis, Commercial Motion Picture Production in Portland Oregon, 1910-1928, discusses him.

Lewis Moomaw (1889-1980), writer-director-producer. One of the founders of American Lifeograph, a full scale film studio which opened in 1910 on SE Yamhill. Directed several Portland based live action feature length films. THE CHECHACOS (1924), shot on location in Alaska, has been restored and preserved. His last feature film in Portland, FLAMES (1926), was written by Alfred Cohn, who the following year was Oscar nominated for his screenplay for THE JAZZ SINGER. Eugene O’Brien, a big star, was the leading man in FLAMES; Jean Hersholt and Boris Karloff in supporting roles. The coming of sound moved Moomaw to Hollywood, not sure what he did there.

Pinto Colvig (1892-1967), writer-director-producer. Born and raised in Southern Oregon, educated by a combination of Oregon Agricultural College and the circus, Pinto began animating in San Francisco. Some film historians list his lost film, CREATION (1916), as the first animated feature. Moving to LA, he did animated special effects for silent film, and then, with the coming of sound, the voice work which made him famous.

Lew Cook (1909-1983) was trained by Jesse Sill to shoot newsreels while still in high school. He worked for Sill, then went out on his own. He made THE LITTLE BAKER, a stop motion animated short, in the 1920s. Spent most of his career in Portland, with the exception of his WWII years, and some post-WWII years, in the military. Founder of OHS Moving Image Archive, he selected and trained his successor, Michele Kribs. He mentored Homer Groening and Jim Blashfield, who later paid tribute to him in a ten minute profile for OPB.

Every one of these filmmakers made work which was seen nationally. Not a farm team. When film was brand new, Hollywood did not yet have the monopoly on content.

Part Two: 1929-1965, Sound Era Oregon

The regionally made independent feature disappeared with the coming of sound. Too expensive! On the smaller screens, home movies thrived, as did films made for classrooms, sales conventions, and grange halls.

Figures whose careers took place entirely outside the state are italicized.

Luther Cressman (1897-1994) used film to document archeological field work. Arriving at UO in 1930 as a sociologist, by 1939 he was making films as an archeologist. In Bali, at the exact same time, his ex-wife Margaret Mead was doing the same thing.

Lester Beck (1908-1977) used film to document UO psychology experiments, then started writing and “supervising” (does this mean directing? producing?) educational films. After HUMAN GROWTH (1947), a nationwide sex education hit, Beck became head of USC’s film department. USC film student James Ivory remembers fulminating against Beck’s emphasis on short, non fiction filmmaking. Beck left USC to teach psychology at Portland State College in 1955. He brought one of his USC faculty, Andries Deinum, future founder of PSU’s Center For The Moving Image,with him. Beck continued making educational films throughout the 1960s. From Malheur County.

Stephen B. Kahn (1910-2007) combined the journalism he studied at UO and the law he studied at University of Tennessee as a PR man for Bonneville Power Administration. He hired Woody Guthrie to compose songs for THE COLUMBIA (recorded in 1941, film completed in 1949). Raised on radical politics in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Kahn’s last chapter of life was spent as a lumber man and philanthropist in Northern California.

Norm Dimick (1910-1991) began making films while still in high school (as did Lew Cook, his near exact Portland contemporary.) Taking a page from the long career of Jesse Sill, Dimick Motion Picture Services on NE Sandy offered production, post production, and film processing services. The stability of Dimick’s diversified business model meant he was around to provide crucial assists to the re-emergence of independent film in sound era Portland. Viewmaster used his lab to process their film in the 1940s; brand new filmmaker Homer Groening hired Dimick for sound editing in the late 1950s; young Berkeley undergraduate Will Vinton came by for advice (and parts) crucial to an aspiring stop motion animator in the 1960s.

Frank Hood (1912-1987) made training films and sales films for a brand new start up named Tektronix in the mid-1950s. He left Tektronix to found Teknifilm, a processing lab, in 1964. In Hood, we see the flicker of a return of the writer-director. When Hood moved Teknifilm into Portland’s Film Row buildings on NW 19th, he was bridging Portland’s silent and sound eras. His lenient approach to payment schedules made loyal customers of Will Vinton, Jim Blashfield, Gus Van Sant, who located their studios nearby.

Andries Deinum (1918-1995), writer-director-producer. Blacklisted in Hollywood, Deinum arrived in Portland in 1957, and opened PSU’s Center For The Moving Image, the first film school in the PNW, in 1969. His students included Brooke Jacobson and Bob Summers, who co-founded Northwest Film Center in 1971, music video pioneer Jim Blashfield, cinematographer Harry Dawson, and historian Michael Munk. Oregon Encyclopedia notes: “Deinum’s innovative television series Urban Mosaic, begun in 1965, offered “weekly scrutinies of our immediate environment and its impact on human values.” The mosaic consisted of discussions, confrontations, filmed reports and interviews assembled each week within a flexible time slot. He made the show a place where Portland’s officials, architects, realtors, and diverse citizens might encounter one another.” Deinum was invited to Portland by Lester Beck, his former boss at USC.  Heather Petrocelli’s masters thesis, Portland’s “Refugee from Occupied Hollywood”: Andries Deinum, his Center for the Moving Image, and Film Education in the United States, examines his PSU years.

Homer Groening (1919-1996) writer-director-producer. Exposed to filmmaking as an account executive at Botsford Constantine & Gardner, Groening struck out on his own in 1958, taking the Jantzen account with him. As Homer Groening, Inc., he made commercials, documentaries, industrial films, promotional films, and experimental short films. His merging of business success and artistic independence inspired the independent filmmakers who followed him: Will Vinton, Bill Plympton, Matt Groening.

Harry Smith (1923 -1991), writer-director-producer. Born in Portland, raised in Bellingham & Anacortes. Experimental animator, music ethnologist, anthropologist. The second generation black sheep scion of a powerful salmon canning family, he was a disciple of Franz Boas, as was Luther Cressman. Too important to leave out of Oregon film history, so I always include him. Wildly influential.

John Parker Jr (1925-1981), writer-director-producer. The son and heir of a Portland theater chain mogul, Parker made Oregon’s first sound era independent feature, DEMENTIA (1953), in Los Angeles. Highly stylized, low budget, black & white, with a score by George Antheil, Parker’s first and only film was made for a hybrid art house/exploitation audience no one else dreamed existed.

James Ivory (b. 1928), writer-director-producer. Oregon’s most distinguished filmmaker. A titan in the history of independent film. Not often seen that way, because Hollywood distributed his (resolutely independent) films. Founded Merchant Ivory Productions in 1961. His decades long collaboration with producer Ismail Merchant and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala began with THE HOUSEHOLDER (1963), shot in Delhi. Ivory received Oscar nominations for ROOM WITH A VIEW (1987), HOWARD’S END (1993), and REMAINS OF THE DAY (1994). He graduated from Klamath Union High School in 1946 and UO (art history) in 1951. Classmate of James Blue.

James Blue (1930-1980), writer-director-producer. Oregon’s first Oscar nominated filmmaker began making films at age 12. Like James Ivory, his career breakthrough happened overseas. THE OLIVE TREES OF JUSTICE (1962), shot in Algeria, was good preparation for the cultural and political complexities of THE MARCH (1963), shot on the Washington Mall. After the Oscar nomination of A FEW NOTES ON OUR FOOD PROBLEM (1969), Blue spent the last decade of his life teaching, making experimental documentaries, and advocating on a national level for regional film. He graduated from Jefferson High School in 1949 and UO (theater) in 1953. Classmate of James Ivory.

Ken Kesey (1935-2001), writer-director-producer. Kesey’s home movies of his 1964 cross country bus trip were made during a time experimental filmmakers were pushing the boundaries of the medium. He continued to edit and re-edit the 1964 footage throughout his life, while continuing to document his live shows on film/video. I believe it is fair to describe Kesey as an experimental filmmaker. Paul Newman and Milos Forman adapted Kesey’s region-centric novels into feature films, but Kesey’s interests lay elsewhere – in film as a happening. I classify this part of his career as underestimated and misunderstood, perhaps even by himself. Graduated from Springfield High School in 1953, UO (speech & communication) in 1957.

I will pick up the timeline as it continues into the 1970s, when independent filmmaking returns to Portland.

Sources: 

I learned about Jesse Sill from Ellen Thomas, UO masters thesis; Pinto Colvig from Ben Truwe (2015 OFHI); Lew Cook from Michele Kribs; Lester Beck from Elizabeth Peterson (2017 OFHI) & Michael Aronson; Stephen B. Kahn from Libby Burke (2016 OFHI); Norm Dimick from Walt Dimick (2015 OFHI); Frank Hood from Robert Zurcher; Andries Deinum from Brooke Jacobson (2015 OFHI) and Heather Petrocelli, PSU masters thesis; Homer Groening from Lisa Groening & Matt Groening (OCI Mid Century Oregon Genius); Harry Smith from Sheldon Renan (OCI Harry Smith PDX, 2015 OFHI); John Parker Jr. from JD Chandler and Joshua Fisher; James Ivory from James Ivory (OCI Mid Century Oregon Genius); James Blue from Richard Blue (OCI Mid Century Oregon Genius, 2016 OFHI).

 

James + James: Mid Century Oregon Genius @ Hollywood Theatre/Oct. 10 & 11

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When Will Vinton and Bob Gardiner won their Oscar in 1975, independent filmmaking in Oregon seemed to be entering a new stage. But the truth is that Oregon already had produced four successful independent filmmakers: James Ivory (b. 1928), James Blue (1930-1980), Harry Smith (1923-1991) and Homer Groening (1919-1996). All four artists had emerged a decade before Vinton and Gardiner made their breakthrough film.

Ivory made his cinematic debut from India.

Blue made his from Algeria.

Smith made his from New York City.

Groening remained in Portland, splitting his time between his advertising work and his short art films, which he sent to film festivals around the world.

In the Mid Century Oregon Genius screening series, we unite these four Oregon mid-century film artists under one umbrella. One film is shot in an Algerian war zone. One stars a Hollywood heart throb. One is shot on an animation stand which doubled as a bed for the filmmaker. Some are shot underwater.

On Oct. 10 at 7:00 PM, three time Oscar nominee James Ivory comes to Portland to introduce MAURICE (1987), starring James Wilby, Hugh Grant and Rupert Graves. Handpicked by Ivory for the screening series, MAURICE is on the short list of films for which he served as both screenwriter (with Kit Hesketh-Harvey) and director.

James Ivory grew up in Klamath Falls and graduated from the University of Oregon in 1951.

On Oct. 11 at 11:00 AM at the Hollywood, we will screen James Ivory’s AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A PRINCESS (1977), starring Madhur Jaffrey and James Mason. Ivory chose AUTOBIOGRAPHY specifically to complement James Blue’s THE OLIVE TREES OF JUSTICE, which shares its theme of post colonial identity crisis.

On Oct. 11 at 1:00 PM, Richard Blue, the brother of director James Blue, will introduce THE OLIVE TREES OF JUSTICE, an extremely rare film which won the Critics Prize at Cannes in 1962.

James Blue grew up in Portland and graduated from the University of Oregon in 1953. He and James Ivory worked together on at least one drama production at UO. Did they have any idea they would become Oregon’s first Oscar nominated directors?

And that they both would launch careers from outside this country?

On Oct. 11 at 2:30 PM, following the screening of THE OLIVE TREES OF JUSTICE, there will be a panel discussion titled  James Blue, a life in conversation.

Three panelists will talk us through James Blue’s life and career. Using archival photos from the Blue Collection to structure the narrative, we will travel conversationally from Tulsa to Portland, Eugene, and Paris, to Blue’s professional breakthrough in Algiers, his subsequent embrace of documentary, and his dual identity as filmmaker and educator.

The panelists are Richard Blue, the brother of James Blue; James Dormeyer, Blue’s classmate at L’Institut des hautes études cinématographiques in Paris and a close friend; Gill Dennis, the screenwriter of Blue’s 1969 Oscar nominated doc, A FEW NOTES ON OUR FOOD PROBLEM.

Tickets for individual events, and for the entire series, will be available online through The Hollywood Theatre and at the door.

The Mid Century Oregon Genius screening of The Olive Trees Of Justice is co-sponsored by The James and Richard Blue Foundation.

The second half of the Mid Century Oregon Genius screening series will take place on January 15 & 16, 2015. Two back to back evenings will celebrate the work of independent filmmakers Harry Smith and Homer Groening.

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More information: http://midcenturyoregongenius.wordpress.com

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The Mid Century Oregon Genius screening series is supported by grants from Kinsman Foundation and Miller Foundation. It is presented by Oregon Movies, A to Z, which is fiscally sponsored by Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission, a 501 © 3 private non profit organization.

To Matt Zoller Seitz, In Advance Of His July 25, 2014 Visit To NWFC/Introducing The Royal Tenenbaums


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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.

Founded in 1892, Portland Art Museum was built in 1932, during a period the whole city listened to Mel Blanc, Portland musician turned radio voice artist. Blanc grew up fast, selling newspapers on street corners and smoking a pack a day, starting in elementary school. The audition act he brought to Hollywood from his hometown 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. Blue graduated from Jefferson High School, 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.

In 1970, Sheldon Renan and James Blue were tapped to serve on the NEA’s first media funding panel. By this time, Blue was living in Houston, Renan in San Francisco. While on the panel, Renan proposed, and Blue supported, a network of regional film centers: Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley, Northwest Film Center in Portland, Detroit Film Theater, and The Film Center of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, now named Gene Siskel Film Center. 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 had 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. His studio went on to train hundreds of Portland filmmakers, including, of course, Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox’s animation director, 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,

AR

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. He left in 1977, leaving behind the Rice Media Center (now the Rice University film department), the Southwest Alternate Media Project (SWAMP), and the 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.

It’s The Ignominy, Stupid: Portland, Portlandia, and the cultural legacy of Robert Johnston’s radical middle class

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1. THE QUESTION

It started with one question. Why has Oregon produced such a steady string of animation and cartooning geniuses?

I shot that question into the air. It startled me by exploding into many questions.

Where does pop culture come from?

Is it essentially urban?

Is it possible that the border culture of the West has played a greater role in fueling American pop culture than we recognize? Alternately, is the border culture of the Pacific Northwest more urbane than we thought?

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If Oregon has produced a string of important cultural game changers, what does that say about us? What regionally specific elements contributed to the production of these effective, powerful, influential artists?

What was the role of the interrelated early twentieth century developments of mass transit, abundant electricity, and neighborhood movie houses?

Is there a link between the radical, ie empowered, middle class Portland Robert Johnston researched and the anti-elite cultural values lovingly lampooned in Portlandia?

How is it that even at this late date, after decades of producing them, Oregon has no awareness of or interest in tabulating its most successful pop culture practitioners and including them in our history? Where does this blind spot come from?

Is this blind spot part of the culture which helps us produce these successful artists?

2. ARCHITECTURES OF UNDERSTANDING

By “radical”, Robert Johnston did not mean “destructive of social order”. By radical, he meant “aligned with the social, economic and political interests of the worker”. His research, a precinct by precinct analysis of voting patterns, found Progressive Era small business owners in Portland, especially in East Portland, voting in the interests of labor. They identified downward. Instead of voting to protect the interests of owners, including owners of businesses larger than their own, a group to which we can imagine they wished to eventually belong, they voted to protect workers, a group to which they no longer belonged, and whose interests, arguably, were not in perfect alignment with their own.

I believe this early emergence of a radical/empowered middle class explains and supports Portland’s phenomenally successful string of pop culture practitioners.

June 1930 Charles F. Berg, Harry Grannett,Tige Reynolds, Dean Collins,

How could a historically singular sensibility come into being, exist long enough to leave behind voting patterns Robert Johnston could identify and map, and then just go away without leaving a trace.

The answer is, it didn’t. The empowered middle class continued, expressing itself culturally if not politically.

Portland is not large, or particularly prosperous. Yet in 2013, the circulation of its public library system was second in size only to that of New York’s. Oregon’s public television station, located in Portland, is the third largest producer of public television programming in the nation, after New York and Boston. In 2011, Portland’s park system received a Gold Medal for excellence – best in the country. Portland’s funding for education, and for the arts, is among the lowest in the country. We have not one single top ranked university.  Our symphony, ballet, and state historical society have dwindled in size. Yet our libraries, parks, and public television rank with New York’s. Libraries, parks, public television: what do those institutions have in common?

They are free. They are for everybody.

Portland never perfected the idea of an elite culture.  The people who made tons of money here imported their ideas of who they should be from elsewhere. Meanwhile Portland’s middle class, from the beginning, was constantly and confidently expressing and inventing itself. Forging its own way, making its own future, passing its own legislation.

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I am the product of this triumphantly self accepting middle class.

Portland produced the creator of the most popular television situation comedy of all time. Portland is the home of the third largest comic book publishing company in the world. The public radio show most likely to replace Prairie Home Companion is made in Portland. We are experts at producing what Rebecca Solnit calls “that hybrid and ever-evolving mix of sophisticated technique and populist content”: entertainment.

Portland’s film culture, downright Parisian in its density, is the most deeply embedded legacy of the brief but formative ascendancy of the radical middle class. Our film culture is one where the boundaries between consumer, exhibitor, and creator are extraordinarily permeable, and are purposefully kept that way, with our values supporting mobility between all three categories. This is what is unusual about Portland.

3. The MEADOW LAWN MEADOW HYPOTHESIS

It began early.

Silent era Portland filmmakers made anything and everything they thought would please their audiences. They made newsreels, commercials, shorts, features, animation. They found capital, set up studios, trained a work force, found multiple markets, and combined local talent with name talent imported from elsewhere: all steps Will Vinton would later repeat. The arrival of sound, with skyrocketing production costs, ended all this. Hollywood was able, in its Golden Age of studio dominance, to temporarily stamp out a thriving regional cluster of independent filmmaking.

Filmmaking slowly began to return after WWII. The studios lost their grip on audiences. 16mm made production affordable. In Portland, which had a strong film watching culture already, plus living survivors of the silent era to serve as mentors to young independent makers, the pace of the sea change was accelerated. Will Vinton and Bob Gardiner brought home an Oscar in 1975.

A meadow of indigenous filmmaking, temporarily wiped out by a lawn/monoculture of Hollywood studio product, has been reverting to diversity ever since. In this reading, Hollywood becomes the flash in the pan, not regional filmmaking.

Have we have misunderstood our own cultural strengths? Have we underestimated our role as cultural leader?

Perhaps we are not behind. Perhaps, in the area of culture, the relationship to media creation and consumption first envisioned by Portland’s radical middle class actually has put us ahead.

Futurama! That’s why the young kids move here.

4. PORTLANDIA

Carrie Brownstein has said that Toni and Candace are the heart of Portlandia. She is right. They are the most accurate portrait of a real Portland subculture.

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Although both Toni and Candace love abstraction, and delight in rules, between the two of them they do not heave around a great deal of education. Ideologically driven as they seem to be, they appear to have avoided reading any of the books in their store. Their elitism seems predicated on no one comprehending it. They intend to be an island of two. This is what makes them so adorable, so transparent. Their feminism ends with them, it cannot be leveraged into a larger movement. It is too lunatic.

Who needs books? They have each other. They are Adam and Eve. Laurel and Hardy. Akbar and Jeff.

Candace and Toni are not high brow or low brow. They think they are middle brow. They think they have a shot at serving the community.

5. THIS IS HOW IT WORKS

I am standing in Sheldon Renan’s library, holding a book inscribed to him by Walt Curtis, his high school friend. Sheldon tells me Stewart Holbrook’s library, which he saw as a child, inspired the room in which we stand. Now that Stewart Holbrook and Walt Curtis, two guardians of Portland history, are thus properly invoked, Sheldon sits me down in his office, and I start asking him questions.

Here’s what I learn.

The family legend is that they met and fell in love while handcuffed to the same streetcar at a suffrage demonstration in downtown Portland. Henry Minor Esterly was a lawyer and architect. His credentials as a feminist were stellar: he had worked his way through college in Wisconsin, and then put his two sisters through college after him. Elizabeth Norcross was a Bryn Mawr educated school teacher. They married in 1908.

The Portland the newlywed Esterlys lived in was home to John Reed and CES Wood. Portland Hotel was sandwiched between Pioneer Courthouse and the Orpheum Theater. Streetcars went everywhere. Theaters lined Broadway. Cheap electricity lit up the downtown streets. The Esterlys were members of the social group which nurtured Portland Art Museum and the Museum Art School. They listened to new adopter Charles F. Berg experiment on radio with a show, the KGW Hoot Owls, which eventually includes high school drop out Mel Blanc. They send their daughter Louise to Bryn Mawr which she attends in concert with Charles F. Berg’s daughter, Caroline. Both women remain on the East Coast after graduating. Louise stays until she meets and falls in love with a bookish agricultural labor organizer from Queens.

Louise Jackson Esterly, Bryn Mawr '33

Louise Jackson Esterly

Louise brings George Renan home to Portland and Sheldon Renan is born in 1941. He grows up in Oregon City. As soon as he is old enough to travel alone on a street car, he attends the Museum Art School on Saturdays. Sometimes he skips class to go to the movies at the Blue Mouse, a decaying 800 seat relic from the silent era. He grows up deeply in love with movies and with books. In 1967, he combines the two by writing An Introduction to the American Underground Film. He starts it in New York, finishes it in Portland. In 1970, the NEA puts him on a funding panel where he successfully petitions for the creation of a network of regional film centers. All four still exist. One is in Berkeley, one in Detroit, one in Chicago. The fourth is in Portland, the Northwest Film Center. Twenty years later, David Cress, future producer of Portlandia, walks through its doors.

Carrie Brownstein could not possibly have known, when she and Fred Armisen created the haven for phallus phobes which is the Women and Women First bookstore, how deeply Portland feminism and Portland filmmaking are intertwined. Two faux feminists, Toni and Candace, were made possible in part by two real feminists, Elizabeth Norcross and H. M. Esterly, and their film obsessed grandson, Sheldon Renan.

5. GEOGRAPHY IS DESTINY

The question “Why has Oregon produced such a steady string of animation and cartooning geniuses?” still wreaks social havoc here in Portland. No one knows what to do with me. Is it history? Is it film? Is she serious? What is she after? Quentin Crisp objected to cleaning his house because, he said, there was no end to it. Things could always be cleaner. In the same way, in Oregon we choose to prize mysteries rather than eradicate them. There are things we must leave wild, if we are to preserve the charms which brought us here. We must not understand. We want the raw, not the cooked.

It is as if we live in a cultural mobius strip, with skilled practice on one side, and willed innocence on the other.

After six years of hard labor at Oregon Cartoon Institute, trying to flatten out that strip, I learn that the largest and most scholarly collection of print cartoons at the Library of Congress is the Caroline and Erwin Swann Collection of Caricature and Cartoon. Caroline Berg Swann, the only New York art collector and theater producer descended from a KGW Hoot Owl, had beat me to the punch.

Caroline Flora Berg, Bryn Mawr '33

Caroline Flora Berg

I appreciate this vote of confidence from beyond the grave. And my work, though widely misunderstood, isn’t entirely lonely. After I asked Sheldon Renan to tell me his family history, he adds that he is a cartoonist. His work is still on display at Yale. I tell this to Bill Failing, the head of the board of trustees at Oregon Historical Society, whose family chopped down some of Portland’s first trees, but it doesn’t impress him. He’s cartoonist too.

A key, in order of appearance:

Robert Johnston is a historian.

Will Vinton is a writer, director, producer.

Bob Gardiner was a filmmaker, animator and artist.

Carrie Brownstein is a musician, producer, writer, actor.

Sheldon Renan is a writer.

Walt Curtis is a poet.

Stewart Holbrook was a writer.

Henry Minor Esterly was a lawyer.

Elizabeth Norcross Esterly was an educator.

John Reed was a writer.

CES Wood was a lawyer and writer.

Charles F. Berg was a businessman, radio pioneer, entertainer.

Mel Blanc was a musician, writer, producer, voice actor.

Louise Esterly Renan was a social worker, turkey farmer and secretary.

Caroline Berg Swann was an Off Broadway producer.

George Renan was a turkey farmer.

Fred Armisen is a musician, producer, writer, actor.

David Cress is a producer.

Erwin Swann was a Revlon executive. In 1974, he built the Caroline Berg Swann Auditorium in honor of his late wife.  Predating the Whitsell Auditorium, it housed the screenings of the Northwest Film Center, the brainchild of the son of Louise Esterly, his wife’s Bryn Mawr classmate.

Bill Failing is the head of the board of trustees of Oregon Historical Society. In 2013, he began a new initiative, exploring ways his institution and Portland Art Museum could work together to create programs which use art, including film,  to explore Oregon history.

Guide to Photos

  1. Mel Blanc, the most influential and respected voice artist in the history of the planet, grew up in Portland.  Dropping out of high school to become a musician, he first worked as a voice artist for Charles F. Berg, producer/director of the KGW Hoot Owls. The Hoot Owls were amateur entertainers experimenting with radio, a new mass medium which delivered content free to the public.
  2. Musicians Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen first began collaborating in Portland on Thunderant, a sketch comedy series distributed on the internet.
  3. The KGW Hoot Owls stage a mock arrest. Charles F. Berg is in the light colored suit. Harry Grannatt, the talent scout who brought a young musician named Mel Blanc to Charles F. Berg’s attention, is second from the right. Berg’s day job was running a women’s clothing store. Grannatt’s day job was selling insurance.
  4. & 5. Portlandia’s fictional Women And Women First bookstore is closely based on the real Portland bookstore, In Other Words, which serves as its set.

6. Louise Esterly’s Bryn Mawr graduation photo, 1933.

7. Caroline Berg’s Bryn Mawr graduation photo, 1933.