Portland, the City in Cinema: See the City of Roses as it Appears in 20 Different Films

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Mak­ing of Drug­store Cow­boy, Gus Van Sant’s First Major Film (1989)

The City in Cin­e­ma Mini-Doc­u­men­taries Reveal the Los Ange­les of Blade Run­ner, Her, Dri­ve, Repo Man, and More

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 Cin­e­maand the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future? Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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