Johnne Eschleman and others will toodle along with old film
In 1938, the owner of the Strand movie house in Britton, S. D., filmed random passers-by to entice them into the theater. Ivan Besse's footage sat in a warehouse for 50 years until it was picked up for $600 by the Prelinger Archives. The silent pictures of babies in prams smiling in the sun and businessmen in homburgs rushing to work are startling in their innocence and clarity.
At the Hollywood Theatre, this vintage Depression footage will be brought to life Ñ or possibly to its knees Ñ by Portland artist Johnne Eschleman. He is one of several musicians playing live soundtracks to found footage on three consecutive Friday evenings. Others include oddball Portland duo Quasi and even odder Hans GrŸsel's KrŠnkenKabinet from San Francisco playing along to a 1928 version of 'The Fall of the House of Usher.'
Local filmmakers Bill Daniel and Vanessa Renwick have organized the evenings as a benefit to raise money for Renwick's documentary about wolves. (That's how it works around here. Make friends, make money, make films.)
Renwick has enlisted the help of such cineastes as Dennis Nyback of the Clinton Street Theater, Craig Baldwin of San Francisco's Other Cinema, Rick Prelinger of the Prelinger Archives and Bill Daniel of Funhouse Cinema Ñ all of whom know how to get their hands on good celluloid, be it industrials, home movies or musical clips.
One industrial film being shown is 'Master Hands,' a 1936 epic of capitalist realism, which shows the making of a Chevrolet automobile from beginning to end. It was conceived with a Wagner soundtrack, but at the Hollywood it'll be accompanied by Jupiter, whose music is described as 'electric voices in human hands.'
Projection will be mostly in 35 mm and 16 mm film and will take advantage of the Hollywood's big screen. Ê
Another film is a home movie from a hunting trip in the 1940s. Eschleman, who will score this one, too, describes it as 'old dudes, beer, cool trucks, dead animals.'
In the late 1990s, Eschleman made films to project behind a San Diego band, Julia. He came upon the idea of separating the music from the movies by playing music offstage. It's a formula from the beginnings of cinema Ñ the silent movie pianist Ñ which Renwick and Daniel consciously are playing off of and updating.
Eschleman, 30, is the classic Portland starving artist, scraping by on his janitorial job at the Pacific Northwest College of Art and living in his work space on the industrial east side. He prefers it that way, able to roll off his mattress and start creating, or pack his guitar and projectors into a van for a month to tour, usually under the name the Distance Formula.
Everything in his apartment is salvaged from Goodwill or a Dumpster. It's tidy, though. A typical Eschleman work: He takes five seconds of Super 8 footage of a circus horse dancing on its back legs and scratches white Pegasus wings on to its back, frame by frame. He then literally makes a loop of it and projects it at a party, or across the street onto a white wall, mesmerizing passers-by.
He used to play offstage or even hide in a box so as not to distract from the film footage. For longer pieces he must sit up front watching the screen. He plays along on his guitar and Casio keyboard, sampling himself as he goes and adding sound effects from 33 rpm records. The end result is a cut above the sloppy, D.I.Y. art found in microgalleries all over Portland. He has enough talent to keep the execution on a par with the idea.
The live soundtrack 'is now getting attention, a lot of people are starting to do it,' Eschleman says. With musicians coming in from outside, the series will be a chance to judge how this town's signature film-band-art crossover stacks up.
'I was really surprised to find when I went on tour with (local filmmaker) Matt McCormick and Peripheral Produce that people are amazed at what I do,' he says. 'Which kind of amazes me because I've been doing it for years.'