Reel NW


The Particular Character of Northwest Film

Olympic National Park, Washington
Olympic National Park, Washington

The film critic Robert Horton ponders whether there is a particular quality to Northwest film.

When Life magazine published its famous (it was famous around here, anyway) 1953 article called "Mystic Painters of the Northwest"—an attempt to trace the similarities shared by a group of Seattle artists—the writer suggested that the work of Mark Tobey, Morris Graves et al. was "an art that without being a limited 'regional art' is distinctive of the Northwest." You might say that the "grunge" breakthrough of the early 1990s did a similar thing for Northwest music: it was distinctive, all right, and not limited.

But what about film? There's been a sense that Northwest filmmakers ought to have broken through in a similar way by now. Yes, there have been success stories. Gus Van Sant has long been identified with Portland, where he chooses to live and regularly make films. Seattle's Lynn Shelton has gained national distribution deals for her films "Humpday" and "Your Sister's Sister" (which will bow at Sundance in January), and Vancouver, B.C., has long been a mainstream hub of moviemaking; its solid industry infrastructure and enticing tax breaks have made it a virtual Hollywood North.

Still, there's somehow a defining moment waiting out there that hasn't yet defined itself. One of the useful things about Reel
NW is that the series throws a loop around a group of films from the Northwest and sets them in proximity to each other, which lets the viewer pick up any regional character on display. Or not, as the case may be.

If regional filmmaking has a value, it should be "distinctive of the region," as the Life writer put it. Many independent films of the Pacific Northwest lean in the direction of the experimental, or at least an aversion to traditional narrative; think of Shelton's first film, "We Go Way Back," or Robinson Devor's dreamy "Police Beat," or David Russo's gaga "The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle." And of course Van Sant's filmography is littered with non-traditional titles such as "Last Days" and "Gerry," amidst his more multiplex-friendly efforts.

It makes sense that a regional independent scene here would be this kind of retreat from the mainstream; that pioneer urge brought people to this far-flung corner in the first place. One thing about regional filmmaking, though, is the danger it can become a little insular—not a problem for moviemakers capturing a sense of New York or L.A., because they're automatically presumed to be working on the big stage, no matter how site-specific their movies might be.

For some years the Northwest indie scene seemed in danger of turning too far into itself, but has adopted a longer gaze in the last decade or so, and seems to be getting past a certain we-don't-deserve-attention-so-we're-not-going-to-try regional neurosis. At the same time, the films have indeed remained distinctive: sometimes improvised, non-linear, or downright surreal. Same goes for documentaries; just look at some of Reel NW's selections for a certain combination of dark observation ("Carts of Darkness"), wry humor ("Way of the Puck"), and lucid political inquiry ("Sweet Crude," "Clear Cut"). While we were wondering when regional filmmaking would really happen, it turns out it was already happening…even if the character of it has yet to be fully sketched in.

Photo credit: J.A. Belcher; some rights reserved.

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