Shooting from the hip
Andrew Dickson and pals are energizing the local film scene
If moviemaking is still the American lingua franca, then slang is definitely in. Camcorders are wielded as casually as aerosol paint cans, and projects are thrown together for the price of a $10 tape. The mini-DV recorder is definitely mightier than the sword.
That doesn't mean it's easy to make a good movie. But as the Northwest Film and Video Festival kicks off Nov. 8, a crop of Portlanders will be screening their wares in the hope of getting sucked into the updraft that leads to Sundance and, eventually, to giving up the day job.
Andrew Dickson, 29, is typical of the new breed of low-budget, high-energy Portland filmmaker. For him, the day job consists of patching together freelance work as an actor, writer and that most euphemistic of job titles, 'set dresser,' i.e., cinematic moving man.
He works on ad shoots and 'industrials' (corporate training films), but in his free time, the cheerful Dickson inhabits the fringe world of Portland's amateur auteurs. He hangs out at art collective Ye Dirty Olde Lab Shoppe in Old Town, or over at the offices of Videominds, a two-person graphics company in the trendy B&O warehouse building on Southeast Washington Street, or just works on his fifth movie in his Northeast home.
When he needed someone to do some catchy-looking titles for 'Hunter Dawson,' his entry in this year's festival, he naturally called up his friends at Videominds, Emily Bulfin, 24, and Jalal Jemison, 27.
'The credits are totally lifted from 'The Osbournes,' ' Dickson says with a laugh, referring to MTV's show about Ozzy Osbourne's home life. 'We just wanted it to look like a hit reality TV show.'
Just 10 minutes long, 'Hunter Dawson' is fast, funny and so original that it invents its own subgenre of the mockumentary (think 'This Is Spinal Tap' and 'Best in Show'). 'Hunter Dawson' is a mock audition tape for a reality show Ñ or rather, a batch of unspecified reality shows. The protagonist, Hunter Dawson, as played by Dickson with bleached blonde hair, is too busy to make more than one audition tape. So he makes an all-purpose (self-) promo video to send to a dozen shows, taking us on a narcissistic journey through his day.
Cheap and fast
The premise is superbly observed: Dawson fills free postcard racks in downtown Portland bars and clubs for 'Go Cards.' He invites the camera to watch him hustle for business (and for ladies), undaunted by the most hostile rejection, dispensing self-motivational malarkey nonstop. If you've ever thought that everyone under 30 is prepped for prime time, this is your movie.
The character is the epitome of the rootless service industry drone trying to make a name for himself. He's only been in town for a few months, fresh from Southern California, but already has created a problem with Sam, a rival rack-filler from 1-800 Postcards. One scene shows Dawson confronting Sam in a turf standoff that ends in hip-hop hugs and more blather. It later turns out that shy Sam has the advantage over the man from Cali: Sam knows a lot more people in town, and they actually like him.
This $300 movie works because it uses the cheapness and immediacy of video to get a funny idea to market at high speed. Portland has plenty of talented video editors sitting around in warehouses, garages and converted bedrooms, ready to pull a few all-nighters and crank out a short movie using the cheap horsepower of desktop computers and editing software.
There's a type of short film common to film festivals that aims for gravitas but ends up ponderous. Mundane actions (opening a door, raising a glass) are Warholed to death, adding up to the longest 10 minutes of your life. Dickson avoids all this. As well as the usual suspects Godard and Cassavetes, Dickson says his tastes run to Wes Anderson ('Rushmore,' 'The Royal Tenenbaums'), whom he admires for finding humor in tragic situations.
Dickson exploits the city like a local, scrambling around guerilla-style, shooting in downtown's cheesy bar scene for 'Hunter Dawson' or on Nike's campus in an earlier film 'Autographhss.com.' (The spelling mocks the dot-commer's branding dilemma.) 'Autographhss.com' was another mockumentary, this time about someone who sells memorabilia online. Dickson himself makes a bit of money selling vintage postcards on eBay.
To add a twist to 'Dawson,' he's sending it out with a fake cover letter to a bunch of reality shows, such as 'The Amazing Race,' in the hope of getting a bite from an unsuspecting producer. It's subtle satire that depends on good acting. The gestures and language of the annoying Dawson character are just convincing enough that someone might fall for it. 'Hey, that's me,' he says, swaggering. 'If you don't like it, get off the island.
'MTV created the buffoon and the belly,' Dickson continues, referring to Dawson and the flat-bellied females preferred by TV. 'This audition tape is a fun and cheap way to showcase our talents.'
He has no intention of following up on any calls from misguided TV producers, however. 'These shows are so popular now, they make you pay your own airfare to the auditions,' Dickson says, ever mindful of cash flow.
Dickson says he came to Portland from Maryland seven years ago because it's a cheap place to pursue an artistic dream. While the glory days of Wieden & Kennedy, Will Vinton Studios and Food Chain Films keeping everyone busy are over for now, there's enough of a network in place to keep things interesting.
'There's a critical mass of young people moving here,' he says. 'I come from an indie-rock background, and Portland is known as a place that's cheap enough to nurture a career as a dancer, a filmmaker, a puppeteer or whatever.'
At Videominds, Bulfin and Jemison are survivors of the dot-com burnout. They moved here together from Santa Cruz, Calif., nearly three years ago Ñ again because Portland is cheap, and because they liked the scene.
'San Francisco has already exploded,' Jemison says. 'But here you can hide out in your garage and do your art.' With just a couple of Macintosh G4s, they edit digital videotape of a fashion show they shot for Portland fashionistas at Seaplane, and create eerily beautiful 'vector' graphics for backpack company DaKine. After work they feed their appetite for obscure movies at places such as nearby Four Wall Cinema Collective on Southeast Third Avenue.
Dickson met Steve MacDougall, the cameraman on 'Hunter Dawson,' while on one of his myriad freelance assignments. MacDougall has an art space known as Ye Dirty Olde Lab Shoppe, located in a former factory where he turns old TVs into sculpture and makes shorts under the name New Lab Films.
Like almost everyone in town, MacDougall currently is working on 'Elephant,' Gus Van Sant's new movie about high school kids. 'People are moving here to seek out an attitude they can't find in New York or Hollywood,' he says.
MacDougall is referring to Portland's flourishing experimental movie community, which includes Johnne Eschleman, who creates found footage collages and plays live music over them using the band name the Distance Formula. Then there's Matt McCormick and his exhibition society Peripheral Produce, as well as performance-video artists Miranda July and Vanessa Renwick.
But he also mentions Kingpin Productions, which make best-selling snowboarding videos; Lance Bangs of 'Jackass' fame; and Kow, the (now defunct) storefront cinema on Northeast 28th Avenue.
What unites the avant-garde and the next generation of commercial moviemakers in Portland? 'It's obvious they are all having a good time,' MacDougall says. 'They want to express themselves or it's not worth doing.'
Or, as Hunter Dawson would say, 'If you don't like it, get off the island.'