BY BRIAN LIBBY
In Matt McCormick's new movie, Some Days Are Better Than Others, Katrina (Carrie Brownstein) holds a postcard of Portland's decaying circa-1950s Palms motel in front of the frame as she stands in front of the Palms itself. This is also a continuing device or motif in The Great Northwest, McCormick’s new video showing at Elizabeth Leach Gallery: a quasi-documentary in which the filmmaker retraces a car trip around Montana and Oregon’s picturesque natural wonders based on a vacation scrapbook he found in a thrift store.
Holding up a postcard to the frame seems to encompass in a single shot much of what his filmmaking career is all about. It’s a way of looking at architecture and landscape with a sense of wonder: about what is there and what used to be there, wondering what endures and what fades away, and why.
To many viewers around the country or beyond, McCormick might soon be thought of as a new voice. In a few weeks Some Days, his first narrative feature, debuts nationwide. It’s already been a success at festivals around the country, including South By Southwest in Austin and the Museum of Modern Art's "New Directors/New Films" series in New York. Here's a preview...
Some Days stars Carrie Brownstein, who is currently making a splash in the TV show “Portlandia” (she previously belonged to the seminal band Sleater-Kinney), and James Mercer, singer from another hugely popular Portland band, The Shins. "Carrie is blowing up right now. No doubt about it," McCormick says. "We actually filmed this movie before they did 'Portlandia'. But my thought is it’s kind of cool because it legitimizes her as an actor. It’s no longer Carrie Brownstein the musician who is acting. " That said, Some Days is more personally a Matt MCormick fim, drawing from his own life: romantic breakup, walking dogs for the Humane Society, even elderly friends making experimental soap films.
The film is set in Portland, and it feels so: a melancholic valentine to the city’s gritty industrial enclaves, thrift stores, parks and murals. Among the settings for the movie, an intertwining series of narratives about melancholy twenty-somethings looking for love and fulfillment, are the demolition of the Zell Brothers building downtown, a series of small houses in North and Northeast Portland (many of them condemned and boarded up during the Great Recession in which the movie was filmed), a pumpkin patch on Sauvie Island, and much more.
I’ve been covering McCormick’s work for over a decade, dating back to the early 2000s when I was a film critic at Willamette Week and he was an experimental filmmaker curating the “Peripheral Produce” screening series. (You can read two of those articles here and here, and a story from The Independent Film & Video Monthly here.)
His career began with a series of found-footage collages such as The Virotonin Decision that deftly combined old Jack LaLaine shows and other ephemera gathered from old reels discarded by Portland station KPTV. It felt a lot more like the 1970s than "That '70s Show". His career only escalated from there, with works like Sincerely, Joe P. Bear and especially The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal.
His career took a major turn with the half-joking, half-serious documentary The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal. It too is a valentine to Portland’s disappearing but still resonant brand of hallowed seediness. In viewing graffiti removal in the Central Eastside Industrial District as a kind of unwitting art unto itself, McCormick compares the guileless bands of color to the work of seminal 20th Century modern artist Mark Rothko; and of course Rothko himself grew up in Portland. It’s not to say McCormick is a Rothko for our time. Who is?
But I can’t think of any other artist, be it a filmmaker, painter, photographer, sculptor or otherwise, who has over time so captured the precise local blend of youthful creative types and the gritty yet beautiful urban underbelly of Portland that is becoming a national pop-cultural brand of its own. If “Portlandia” the TV show is quickly becoming a kind of short-hand for a certain socio-cultural tribe expanding in this city and gaining notice far beyond, then McCormick’s work, from Some Days and The Great Northwest to his older films of the past decade, are the most evocative form of long-hand I know to exist.
"These filmmakers know this type of work won't appeal to the masses," New York curator Astria Suparak told me for a 2001 article in SOMA magazine. "Without that obligation, they have more freedom to play with form, subject material, and the construction of (or disregard for) a narrative. There's less compromising, and more passion and drive." Ten years after that quote, and after filmmakers like McCormick and former Portlander Miranda July (whose shorts McCormick was the first to exhibit) have gone from experimental to mainstream narrative filmmaking, it's still true.
The Great Northwest is a combination of travelogue and documentary, all based on a scrapbook from 1958 that McCormick found in a thrift store. “Four women from Seattle went on this epic road trip and drove through Yellowstone, down the Idaho panhandle, up the Columbia River Gorge, down the coast, up to Crater Lake. It was 3,400 miles altogether,” McCormick explains. “The interstates were just about to go into construction.” As a result, the women’s trip, which McCormick retraced and filmed, is an homage to the more varied landscape that existed in the days before I-5 and I-84. Luckily they filled the scrapbook with hints about how McCormick, or anyone, could follow the journey of Bev, Berta, Sissie and Clarice headed east from seattle in their Chevy Bel-Air.
“They saved receipts, collected menus, all this weird ephemera, and put it together in this scrapbook. It’s almost like a trail of breadcrumbs. There are these hints of where they stopped for lunch, where they slept. So I retraced their road trip and attempted to go to every place where they had stopped and documented. Every postcard or menu, I tried to find that location today.”
It begs the question: what happened to these women? Who were they? “I was able to find death records for two of them from the early ’90s. They were all in their late thirties or early forties during the trip,” he explains. “I don’t think they had any children. My understanding they were all single, middle-aged women who liked going on road trips and drinking beer. They drank a lot of beer.”
For McCormick, who grew up in New Mexico and Colorado before coming to Portland in his twenties, it was a chance to see the Northwest landscape anew and to assess the transformation that has taken place. “I’d never been to Glacier National Park or Crater Lake either. There were places that I’d never been that were just amazing, beautiful places. But it was also the history. When you start to look at an old record like this, it’s like looking at a time capsule. And that forces you to realize how much change there’s been."
"One town, vantage, Washington, was flooded out by a damn. Taft, Montana they stopped and had dinner in. that was completely bulldozed over by Interstate 90. There are lot of ghost towns, essentially, that were flourishing cities. Another one, Harleton, Montana, was on the old Milwaukee road train line. It was the third transcontinental railroad to be built, from Chicago to Milwaukee to Seattle. One thing that made it unique was that over the Rocky Mountains it was powered by electricity. In this town in Montana, it made the switch over from coal and steam power to electric. So it was this really important town. But the railroad went out of business in about 1971. All these little towns that were on the Milwaukie Road are becoming ghost towns. Without the train station there, the towns are just drifting away. But then on the flipside, there are other cities just exploding: Spokane, Seattle, Portland. The Oregon coast has gone from sleepy down and out fishing and logging towns to these tourists Meccas.”
The film continuously juxtaposes images and pages from the scrapbook with his own present-day travels.
Even though he has been known heretofore as an experimental filmmaker, there is more than a little Ansel Adams in McCormick. He will patiently wait in remote locations for several hours at a time to capture the most beautiful morning or evening light. So the way in which he captures a mixture of kitsch and striking natural landscapes is magically resonant, from the Ginko Petrified Forest and golden wheat fields to surviving dives from 1958 like the Martha Inn Café, Dicks Burgers, The Flame Lodge. He passes the ghost towns of Vantage, Montana of Burke, Idaho. “On the east coast they built roads to the towns. In the west, a lot of times it was the road that was first. It’s like the towns only exist to support the road or the railroad. You can see the difference. You can see the layout of towns is affected by that.”
He’s clearly at his most comfortable in these either remote or under-appreciated portions of the Northwest, but McCormick also turns a telling eye on huge tourists attractions like Yellowstone, where his camera focuses on the visitors. “It’s wildlife Disneyworld,” he laughs. “The tourists there lose their minds.”
But he respects the tourist quartet who created the scrapbook: “It’s like they’re explorers and this was a historical document. First it was Lewis and Clark, and then it was Sissie, Bev and Bertha.”
The Great Northwest can be seen at Elizabeth Leach Gallery through April 2, and it includes a host of photography as well. Some Days Are Better Than Others opens in theaters on March 25.