FESTIVALS: Groening's Picks at Northwest Film & Video
by Jeff Winograd
As the sunshine of summer gives way to the gray clouds of winter, Portlanders shift their attention from the great outdoors to the multitude of artistic choices that litter Portland in the fall. For twenty-six years, the Northwest Film and Video Festival (which ran this year from Nov. 5-14) has been showcasing works created by artists living or going to school in Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Idaho, Montana, and British Columbia. This year's judge, Portland native and "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening, was given the task of selecting films for the ten-day program without any real guidelines other than his own taste.
In his published Judges statement, Groening admits to growing up with film festivals as a kid, with his father, "Homer, a Portland-based filmmaker." "I got dragged to various scary auditoriums from the time I was eight, freaking out at all sorts of things that kids weren't allowed to see in the early 60's," he writes. "So all my life I've gone to film festivals, and all my life I've staggered out of hot, stuffy screenings with a splitting headache and a sore ass. Invariably, there'd be some film on the program which was so bad, so incompetent, so offensive, so utterly lacking in any possible merit, that I was just left sputtering, WHAT THE HELL WERE THE JUDGES THINKING? And now, finally, vengeance is mine: I'm a film festival judge."
Groening proved true to his motives, with his choices ranging widely from the occasionally sublime to the mostly sub-standard. The program itself lacked any real direction, though within the mire of mediocrity, there were certainly a few shining moments. The festival itself is not competitive in nature, but Groening did hand out several Judges Awards. Each of the winners is given a small production package, including items donated by a variety of Northwest businesses.
The winners included four short films and one hour-long documentary. Long-time Portland animator Jim Blashfield won an award for his surreal animated piece "Bunnyheads." Todd Korgan, another Portland native, won an award for "Da Da Dogs," his parody of the recent string of Volkswagen commercials. Another parody, "Steaming Weanies" by Trevor Fife, also of Portland, brings uncomfortable laughter as his hapless protagonist takes the challenge of hot dog eating from "Meatballs" very seriously. The other award-winning short was Matt Wilkins "Interior Latex," a loosely structured, extremely well acted film that shows some real potential from this Seattle-based filmmaker. The one longer piece to win accolades from Groening was "Bingo! The Documentary," which covers this age-old game through a look at the intensity with which it is played.
The two shorts programs at the festival were a mixed bag. Though the majority of the films were uninspired, a few managed to shine. Many of the films in these programs felt shallow and sophomoric in their attempts at humor. "Cheezcake" by Vancouver's Rose Robertson, "The Insurmountable Debt of John G. Ford" by Bozeman's Chris Cummins, and "Lesbianage IV" by Sarah Marcus and Kristen Kuppenbender, all failed to create any real humor, though they certainly tried.
Joel Baird and Rick Phillips of Missoula, Montana, brought two interesting pieces to the festival. Both "The Candle" and "Fiftieth Wedding Anniversary" had some original qualities. A music video for the Portland band Pink Martini, titled "Sympathique," directed by Alex Marashain, was a refreshingly original work filled with engaging visual effects. Also Portland's Matt Blauer did an excellent job of stringing together a series of still photographs to create a stunning, tightly edited piece delving into phobias in "Flight FM2."
But by far the standout among these short films was the challenging 22-minute documentary "Bloodlines" by Jennifer Jako and Rebecca Guberman of Portland, each of whom became infected with HIV while in their teens. They decided to take action by making a hard-hitting documentary that portrays the difficulties facing teenagers who become infected with the virus. Its subjects are all mostly attractive, young individuals who come across as intelligent and well rounded, though each has been careless and now have to live with the consequences. Not a film filled with self-pity; instead, it is a poignant work that talks straight about a horrendous disease that is attacking people of all ages and all sexual orientations.
Another focus of the festival was the documentary section, titled Ties That Bind. The standout among them was the 91-minute "Varmints" about the struggle between prairie dogs and the people that want them eradicated. Doug Hawes-Davis of Missoula, Montana, came to filmmaking as a secondary pursuit in an attempt to spread his beliefs regarding the environment. Proud to have his film shown, Hawes-Davis says that smaller festivals such as this one "allow works to be seen," an opportunity that many filmmakers aren't always afforded.
The captivating "Varmints" was in refreshing opposition to the flat filmmaking of D-J Haanraadts' "Psycho Paths," a documentary about Gus Van Sant's foray into remaking the classic film, "Psycho." With thirty minutes of straightforward interviews and uninteresting editing, the film does little to grab the audience's attention, and if it were not for the name of Gus Van Sant at the base of this project, it is unlikely it would have ever been seen. Somehow the subtlety that Hawes-Davis came to so naturally was lost completely by the Portland-based Haanraadts.
The other entry in the documentary section that made a strong impact was an experimental piece, "Dutch Harbor: Where the Sea Breaks Its Back," a stunning film shot in black and white on Super 8 film by Van Fischer of Snohomish, Washington. Screened with a band playing a live soundtrack, this unique experience reminds one of the power in nontraditional methods. The combination of the images of this distant Alaska seaport needed little explanation outside of the emotional playing of the accompanying Boxhead Ensemble, an ever-changing group of musicians. In all, the sort of experience that one can't easily find elsewhere.
The rest of the program was surprisingly flat. Many of the films displayed low production values and poor execution. The feature films screened do not warrant a mention and the majority of the shorts were hard to sit through. Although smaller, regional festivals can offer a venue for films that might not otherwise be shown, one is left wondering if this is the best the Northwest has to offer. With so many independent filmmakers in this part of the country, it seems that a wider variety of quality work should be out there. The Northwest Film and Video Center, which sponsors this festival each year, deserves praise in their attempt to showcase local work. Many of these films will never get another chance to screen. Still, it would be nice if the overall quality of material shown at an event like this could increase, even if it meant a decrease in the number of screenings.
[Jeff Winograd is a Portland-based filmmaker. His last article for indieWIRE was coverage of the Taos Talking Pictures Festival.]