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Camera obscura

Filmmaker Matt McCormick sees life and beauty in the industrial world

Matt McCormick casts an appreciative gaze around the Georgian Room at Meier & Frank, taking in the ghastly green walls and the underemployed serving staff.

'I've been in Portland nearly 10 years, but I've never been here,' he says.

The 32-year-old experimental filmmaker is used to observing obscure and slow-moving objects. His latest work, 'Towlines,' is a 22-minute homage to the tugboat, a stunning Ñ and strange Ñ documentary about the workhorses of the waterfront, which he finished last fall and is now available on the DVD 'From Tugboats to Polar Bears' (Peripheral Produce, $25).

In take after long take, we see the plucky boats nudging the prows of giant ships whose muted colors smolder in the sun. We see green water, rust-red hulls, white sky and towers of metal containers painted in bright colors and bearing words such as Maersk and Sealand that dwarf the tiny tugboats. We learn that tugs debuted in Glasgow in 1801, changing the very evolution of cities by freeing cargo ships from the dictates of the tides.

The film ends with a vaguely motivational voice-over about the humble vessels: 'They know they are about to do something very important, even if nobody else notices.'

McCormick says he wanted the film to be a children's story for adults.

'I wanted to put forward a documentary that tricks you into feeling the way those stories about bulldozers or trains do, without actually giving the tugboat a name and drawing little eyes on it.'

Once the audience connects with its childlike wonder, 'the tug becomes a metaphor for the underappreciated hard workers of society,' he says.

McCormick screened the movie at a Cleveland art gallery the day after the election. Of the 50 people there, he estimates that at least half had just come from working for the Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign. At first the mood was somber. Then people got emotional.

'It's the part where that tugboat gets sucked under the bridge and then pops back up,' he says of a sequence of dramatic stills he used. 'It's all about coming back up on the other side and keep on going.'

McCormick was starting to make a little money from his own films when his day job Ñ as a production assistant on commercials for the likes of Nike and the Oregon Lottery Ñ disappeared in the economic aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

'I thought, should I whip up a bunch of rŽsumŽs and find new work, or be broke for a while and focus on art?' he says. 'And that's what's been happening, for the last few years, and it's much more enjoyable.'

Lines and light

He graduated from high school in Denver, then spent three years at the College of Santa Fe in New Mexico.

'In high school I saw myself taking war photos for Time magazine,' he says laughing. 'I quickly realized I hated sticking a camera in people's faces. Besides, I'd read Noam Chomsky and was not excited about the media.'

He discovered experimental filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage and Peter Hutton. He says he was blown away by Ernie Gehr's 'Serene Velocity (1970). (Gehr also made 'Untitled: Part One' in 1981, filming the uncertain movements of Jewish immigrants from Russia in the street using a telephoto lens, and 'Rear Window,'shot entirely from his Brooklyn apartment.)

In New Mexico, McCormick played several instruments ('badly') in bands, at one time sharing the bill with James Mercer of the Shins. They later bonded over a mockumentary 'Driver 23' by Rolf Belgium, about a man with mental health problems who wanted to be a rock star.

McCormick eventually encouraged Mercer to relocate to Portland. He arrived in in 2002.

'Matt's video for our song 'Past and Pending' is the best video we've had. He's got a real grasp of the art form of moving pictures,' Mercer says. McCormick used several locations he had been storing in his head; sunny rural ones as well as his the Portland bridges and overpasses that he venerates.

'Our music and film match,' Mercer says. 'I think it's his desire to capture beauty. We were driving along (Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard), and I was struck by how sensitive he is to lines and light, stuff that is everywhere around us all the time. He almost drives off the road because he's noticed how the shadow and reflections off the car are being projected on a building.'

Much of McCormick's found footage was sneaked to him by a sympathetic soul at a Portland TV station. It often crackles with scratches and glows with a strange brightness that is caused by the emulsion breaking down.

'He loves the look of old film,' Mercer says. 'He told me that during a fire in one of the big film depots in Hollywood, the entire planet's supply of celluloid was slightly damaged, so there's a period where all films had this certain look to them.'

From concept to shooting, editing, scoring and distributing, McCormick pretty much works alone. He compares his technique to landscape photographer Ansel Adams, in the sense that he'll sit somewhere for hours waiting for the right lights and shadows Ñ and for the right vehicles to pass.

Like many experimental filmmakers, he hits the road in the manner of a band. Last fall he did 27 shows in six weeks at various colleges Ñ each paying from $300 to $700 a night. Typically he also sells five or 10 DVDs after the show, and gets licensing fees from the Sundance Channel and channels in Europe and Japan.

He'd really like to make a film with no people and no words, using images and music to create an emotion in the viewer.

'I didn't want 'Towlines' to look like a public broadcasting show-and-tell documentary,' he says. 'They don't give you time to look at anything. It's usually just a picture, and then you're told what to think. TV documentaries are so bottled up, there's no room for interpretation.'

McCormick has made other documentaries. 'American Nutria' tracks the hungry Argentine rodent to North America and people's reactions to it Ñ including recipes.

Blending genres

But the film that has become McCormick's calling card since it showed at Sundance Film Festival in 2002 is 'The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal' (16 minutes, 2001). In this he posits that the large squares and rectangles that city workers use to paint over fresh graffiti, especially on the industrial east side, are unconscious attempts to mimic abstract expressionism. The urge to chuckle dies halfway through the film as McCormick's serious intent shows through.

He says it has the same message as his anti-documentary stance. 'Stop telling people what to think when they see something; allow that visual thing to happen.'

The greatest compliment he received was from an 11-year-old Portland girl who saw 'Graffiti' with her mom. Six months later she told him all about the graffiti-covering shapes in her neighborhood. 'She was really excited about all the graffiti she'd seen in her neighborhood,' McCormick says. 'She was looking at it a whole new way. That's a very honest, perfect reaction, better than a newspaper review.'

Ed Halter, executive director of the New York Underground Film Festival and a contributing writer for the Village Voice, champions his work.

'Matt's a VIP in the world of underground film and microcinema, for his curating, his video line and his own work,' Halter says.

He likes the way McCormick blends genres and brings his interest in the aesthetics of Portland to wherever he's filming.

'He sees these (industrial) landscapes as comforting and beautiful, yet he's interested in going deeper and knowing their history,' Halter says. 'He never will let go of the idea that these patterns are beautiful.'

It's alive

From McCormick's studio on the banks of the Willamette River just off North Interstate Avenue, giant ships can be seen passing so close you can see the peeling paint and hear the gears shift.

McCormick captures Portland's industrial zone alive and working, not downsized and abandoned. He's not just a gangly loner in a beat-up T-shirt. He's also extremely good at getting people together.

Bill Foster, director of the Northwest Film Center, admires the way McCormick has tirelessly supported the local film community. In April, Foster's organization will be a supporting sponsor of McCormick's annual Portland Documentary and eXperimental Film Festival.

Foster sees cheaper technology changing the documentary market, which flourishes at festivals: 'Documentaries are shifting to a first person point of view, so you don't know whether they are documentaries or essays. People are taking on social issues. All three currents are in Matt's work.'

For the next three months, McCormick will be working on the film festival, which takes place April 20 through April 24. He still has Chomsky on his mind as he sifts through new submissions by unknown filmmakers.

'We could debate all day about the artistic merits, but what's extremely important is media literacy,' he says. 'Mass media dictates our culture, society and politics, so if you're actively making movies, you know how this stuff works. I want people to interpret mass media and create their ability to report on their own environment.'

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