BY BRIAN LIBBY
Today online fundraising campaigns are ubiquitous. Whether it's via Kickstarter or other sites, most of us have become accustomed to and maybe even exhausted by the continuous stream of people seeking one's contribution to any number of artistic, entrepreneurial, charitable or educational opportunities. On Kickstarter today, for example, the main page shows one project to send 1,000 student projects to the edge of space, "each one inside a ping pong ball," a photography book about vinyl album collectors, and a children's toy called The Humble Velocipede, "A desktop bamboo walking machine."
But recently I received an email about a fundraising project that gave me pause, from Portland filmmaker Alain LeTourneau for his new feature, Open Road . The film's central thesis is one of those truths that can hide in plain sight sometimes: that however much we may think of the roads and highways where we drive or the garages where we park as pass through spaces, they constitute a vast portion of the collective built environment. (The funding campaign on USA Projects, by the way, ends this Friday, August 3.)
Le Tourneau has spent the past decade or so both as a film exhibitor - he cofounded the much lauded Cinema Project screening series as well as a successor, 40 Frames - and as a filmmaker in his own right. Before writing about architecture as I do today, I used to principally write about and review movies, and the documentary LeTourneau codirected with Pam Minty about Southeastern Oregon's blend of natural beauty and agriculture, Empty Quarter, is among my all time favorites. (You can watch clips from it here.) Shot on 16mm black and white and featuring a series of long, elegant takes without the usual succession of quick cuts or narration, Empty Quarter is enveloping and beautiful even as it provides a real-life chronicle of farms, families and their dependence on the landscape.
Recently I interviewed LeTourneau about his new film and the perspective through which he sees Portland, his hometown.
Portland Architecture: Your last feature film, "Empty Quarter", chronicled the rural landscape of southestern Oregon and its agricultural communities there. What kind of connecting thread to you see between the topic of that film and "Open Road" with its focus on roads and automobiles? Is it that both are sort of familiar yet ignored in some manner?
LeTourneau I think you've touched on something that is a central focus to my film and photography work, this idea of landscapes becoming so common as to almost be invisible. The images in Open Road and Empty Quarter are not calendar and coffee table book images, which is not to say they don't possess some beauty. The images simply frame aspects of urban and rural landscapes that are seldom given much attention, at least not in popular movies, on television, etc.
Another thread is John Charles Fremont and his expedition in the mid-1840s that brought him through southeast Oregon and up to Fort Vancouver. Fremont named Abert Rim and Abert Lake (both in Lake County) after his commanding officer. Fremont's name is also scattered across the west with town, lakes, rivers and other geography having been given his moniker. In Portland, there is of course the Fremont Bridge. As it happens, I live about a mile from the bridge’s Cook Street approach. The bridge not only figures prominently in Portland's skyline and is an icon of the city, but has some personal resonance for me as well. The date of the bridge's completion is also the year of my birth. Growing up in the metro area, my mother and I would frequently drive over the Fremont to visit my grandmother who lived downtown in the Portland Center Apartments.
What are some roads or other structures related to automobile travel here in the Portland area that are distinctive to you or might have helped shape the thinking that is going into the film?
The way I-5 and I-405 encircle downtown and cross the Willamette I've always found very interesting. That such roads dominate the landscape is certainly not unique to Portland, one can find it in many cities, but it was these forms and structures that first inspired Open Road. The I-5 trench that cuts through North Portland is also featured in the film. Its construction had an enormous impact on the neighborhood when built, and the Columbia Rive Crossing will certain present a whole new host of impacts.
I also became interested in the surface parking lots downtown, mostly in old town. This idea of car storage is very compelling to me. I read somewhere that in the span one year, a car is (on average) in transit (that is, moving) about 400 hours. This leaves the other 8,360 hours that the car is at rest, or parked. That's 95% of time in one year. So, for the life of a car, most of the time the car will be parked. I find this interesting, in light of traffic often being thought of as a key issue of automotive transit in America. The space required for parking is equal or greater than that required for roads. This is something worth giving our attention.
Are you someone who finds freeway overpasses beautiful? I've photographed them frequently over the years, and so have many others - eyesore though this type of infrastructure may commonly be. The short film on your USA Projects site portrays one of the most dramatic of local overpasses I've seen, where the Fremont bridgehead on the east side gives way to I-5.
The Fremont Bridge, particularly on the east side, has been featured in a number of films by local makers. I can recall seeing it in Nick Peterson and Matt McCormick's films, amongst others. It's hard to deny the striking beauty of the Fremont, or for that matter, many of the freeway structures in Portland. There is this wonderful almost chiseled or sculptural quality to these forms. They are massive, and they dwarf even the largest of landscape art by the likes of Heizer, De Maria or Smithson.
In photographing the urban sites that appear in Open Road, I think of the conflict that photographer Robert Adams spoke of. The critique Adams was involve in when choosing his composition, in contrast to the sheer beauty of the object and the light falling on it. I think it's characteristic of the relationship many artist have to the subject of their work. On some level, you have to be drawn to what you choose to photograph or capture, even if it is something you find yourself very much in conflict with or in opposition to. Also, there is for me a desire to present images that are pleasurable to look at, even if at the same time capturing something that is need of changing.