Last year, I posted about The City in Cinema, my series of video essays exploring cities as revealed and re-imagined by the films set in them — or rather, at that time, about one city in particular: Los Angeles, birthplace of Hollywood cinema and endlessly fascinating urban phenomenon in its own right. But ever since I first began the project, I knew I’d want to extend it to other cities. When first I stepped beyond Los Angeles with The City in Cinema, I stepped into the city I’ve long considered my favorite to visit in America.
And what city, exactly, would that be? “Portland, Oregon: one of the nation’s most beautiful cities, with Mount Hood rising in the distance, majestic, serene, white with eternal snow,” a “city of wide streets, modern buildings” whose citizens “attend many fine churches” and live in “beautiful homes,” a city where “in the soft climate, gardens grow lush and green throughout the year” with roses “everywhere in profusion,” a “family town, a good place to bring up children.” Or so, in any case, goes the opening of Portland Exposé, a 1957 true-crime morality play, one of the very first films to use Portland as a setting, and the one that opens my latest long-form video essay, Portland, the City in Cinema.
At that time not much more than a small-to-medium-sized town in the woods, Portland claims only a scant cinematic history up through the 1970s. But every Portland movie that came out then, such as the CBS nuclear-strike dramatization A Day Called X and the bohemian land-use satire Property, boasts its own sort of interest. And then, in the 1980s, emerges Gus Van Sant, unquestionably the foremost Portland auteur of his generation. His black-and-white debut feature Mala Noche, which deals humorously with themes of homosexuality on Portland’s former Skid Row (now the thoroughly gentrified Pearl District) drew the Hollywood attention that would ultimately get him making mainstream features like Good Will Hunting and Milk.
But Van Sant has, in parallel, led another career as a thoroughly independent filmmaker, and one who shoots most of those thoroughly independent films in Portland. That track of Van Sant’s work has led to such formidable Portland movies, central to a project like this, as Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, and Paranoid Park. During the 1990s, the time of the “Indiewood” boom in America, other filmmakers discovered Portland’s potential as a rich and underused urban setting: Annette Haywood-Carter for her adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ novel Foxfire, for instance, or Jake Kasdan for his unconventional detective story and black romantic comedy Zero Effect.
Albert Pyun, perhaps the last great B-movie auteur, also came to Portland of the 1990s for his Andrew Dice Clay vehicle Brain Smasher… a Love Story. And not much later, the city hosted the likes of Body of Evidence, a highly unerotic erotic thriller starring Willem Dafoe and Madonna. But it, too, reveals the the city’s potential (or potential for misuse) as a setting, as does the more recent Untraceable, a bland compromise between techno-thriller and torture horror that at least had the money to shoot Portland from some impressive angles.
As the city of Portland has developed in a way appreciated by urbanists for its compact downtown, useful transit system, mostly well-executed architectural preservation, and overall “smart” growth (by American standards, anyway), the cinema of Portland has developed in a way appreciated by critics. The 21st century has so far seen such well-crafted, thoughtful Portland pictures as Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, Aaron Katz’s Dance Party USA and Cold Weather, and Matt McCormick’s Some Days Are Better than Others. But if Portland, the City in Cinema remains, in its current version, the definitive examination of the cinema of Portland, I’ll be terribly disappointed. I intend it in part as an appreciation of the Portland movies already made, certainly, but in larger part as a call for more Portland movies in the future.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, and the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future? Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.