The world is a big, sometimes wonderful, sometimes terrifying and fatally screwed-up system, and as we get older we often find, if we hark from someplace other than the major hubs of the Left and Right Coasts, that the places we come from, those places we sometimes sought so desperately to leave behind, were far richer, more interesting places than our grass-is-always-greener state of mind would ever have allowed us to believe. (This basic knowledge is an integral part of that inevitable process known to independent filmmakers and the audiences that flock to them-- or at least shower them with awards at film festivals-- as the coming-of-age story.) I grew up in the sparsely populated desert of Southeastern Oregon, where at the time lumber and ranching were king, in the governmental seat of Oregon’s Lake County, a small town called Lakeview. My hometown, population approximately 2,000 (the accuracy of which fluctuated depending on whether you were looking at the sign on the north or the south end of town) comprised 2/5 of the population of the entire geographically vast county, which takes up a giant chunk of the corner of the state bordering Idaho and Nevada. Throw a rock in any direction and you were liable to hit a cow or a big guy in a cowboy hat, at which point, especially if you were of slight build like I was growing up, the benign image of Roy Rogers and all those singing cowpokes morphed into one more like that giant son of a bitch Nasty Canasta. If you were a young kid, there were plenty of outdoor activity options to keep you occupied. But if your interests extended much beyond sports (including rodeo riding), cars and or the burgeoning drug culture (I was a teenager in 1973, just about the time the freewheeling ‘60s finally arrived in Eastern Oregon), there weren’t too many choices in the amusement department. Of course I always had the option to retreat into my drawing and writing hobbies, and eventually I would discover like-minded pals who were fascinated with movies and monsters and monster movies.
And fortunately for us, we also had a local movie theater, a wonderful if slightly run-down art deco movie palace called the Alger, named after the father of the theater’s owner, local entertainment impresario (and eventual mayor of Lakeview) Donald R. “Bob” Alger. The Alger operated during the fall, winter and spring months, when weather in Lakeview was dependably bad. And during the summer, when weather was not-so-dependently seasonable, Donald R. “Bob” ran the Circle JM Drive-in, which might have been one of the single worst places to actually see a movie—those carbon-arc projectors could be counted on to start out dim and gradually fade completely to black at least once per showing, and it didn’t help that Donald R. “Bob” and his wife Norene (whose deadpan dry demeanor perfectly matched that of her husband’s, blink for slow, nonplussed blink) liked to get home before 11:00 on those summer nights, so they would often instruct the projectionist to crank up the picture long before the last of the evening pink had disappeared from the sky. But despite their technical shortcomings, both the Circle JM and the Alger were beloved mainstays of growing up in my hometown, even though it wasn’t unusual back in those pre-home entertainment days to have to wait as much as a year before movies made it to our part of the Oregon outback. If you actually wanted to see Jaws during the summer of 1975, you had to head out of town to do so, and the first movie theater in any direction was at least 100 miles away.
(I saw Jaws a week after it opened in Reno. When it finally arrived in Lakeview the following summer anticipation among the cowpoke cognoscenti, who wanted to see it but who obviously didn’t want to see it that badly, was still running high enough that Donald R. “Bob” jacked the regular admission price up to an astronomical $3.50 per adult. This fleecing of his captive audience was a hot topic around town the week the movie played, and nowhere hotter than in the literally half-mile-long line of cars backed up on Highway 395 waiting to get inside the drive-in to see that 25-foot shark chow down on Amity Island swimmers for themselves.)
Life in Lakeview, for kids growing up and, I suspect, the adults who lived their entire lives there, was nothing if not insular. I grew up thinking that the outside world was a place that existed and operated quite separate from the experiences that defined my formative existence. (I had all the monster and movie mags I needed to prove that point, at least to myself.) So it was a very welcome eye-opener to discover, as I did when I got a little taller, came of college age, and even after I’d settled into my roly-poly adulthood, that Oregon, including the desert surrounding my own hometown, had indeed been touched by the dream factory. The Beaver State had, in fact, not only played an integral part in a goodly portion of the American film industry, it had also given birth to some genuinely great films.
One of the best places to head in order to dig up information on the classics and the clunkers of Oregon film history, as well as any and all research into past and current Oregon film production, is the Web site for the Oregon Film Office. Within that voluminous site is located Oregon Confluence, a terrific multi-author blog dedicated to “bringing together the creative streams of film, television, and media in Oregon.” Casting director, film producer and ambassador of Oregon film extraordinaire Katherine Wilson is a frequent contributor to the Confluence-- she recently wrote a couple of lovely pieces about Jack Nicholson’s legacy to Oregon filmmaking and a tribute to Michael Douglas, both of which touch on Oregon’s strong connection to Hollywood and provide fascinating insights into the production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, on which Katherine served as local casting director. (The Oscar-winning movie was filmed primarily at the Oregon State Hospital in Salem.)
It was Katherine who gave me my first job in the film industry (not that there have been many others) as well as my personal entry into film history when she and casting director Michael Chinich hired me as one of a handful of pledges to the Delta Tau Chi fraternity, surely on the strength of the outdated wardrobe that I wore (which came straight out of my closet) to a cattle call casting session at the University of Oregon during the autumn of 1977. She was also a part of the team that operated the Cinema 7, Eugene’s premier outlet for art-house and repertory cinema when I was a student there. Katherine tirelessly advocates for Oregon film and filmmakers and is currently putting together the Oregon Film Factory Film Museum, which will unveil its first formal exhibit in September. She has also written Blanket of the Sun, a screenplay about Chief Joseph’s nephew Jackson Sundown, which has attracted the attention and enthusiasm of writer-director John Milius, and has a new documentary premiering in the fall entitled Animal House of Blues.
My other go-to source for information on what’s happening, and what has happened, in Oregon’s film history is Anne Richardson, who lives in Portland and documents the Oregon film scene for her blog Oregon Films A to Z. A quick click to her home page will get you up to date on The Mel Blanc Project, Stan Hall and the local film project MIMBY (Made in My Back Yard) and even George Cosmatos’s hit western Tombstone, which Anne, in a signature move, “claims” as an Oregon film “on the basis of Sam Elliott’s performance as Virgil Earp.” (Elliot graduated from a Portland high school and attended college in Vancouver, Washington, so there’s your qualification. In 1972 Elliot had a small role opposite Ray Milland in the nature-gone-berserk opus Frogs (1972), and when the movie opened in Portland the ad in The Oregonian’s movie section was topped by a cut-and-paste banner which trumpeted: “Starring Portland’s own Sam Elliot!”) Anne has her finger on the pulse of all things Oregon in film history and along with the Oregon Film site she provides terrific and valuable insight into what’s happening now, especially on the streets of Portland. With these resources and the insights of these people at their fingertips, those investigating the history of the motion picture as it applies to Oregon will be well armed.
A perfunctory glance at a list of movies made in Oregon compiled by the Oregon Film Office, with important contributions from The Northwest Film Center, The Oregon Historical Society, The Oregonian, The American Film Institute and Leonard Maltin, confirms however that, no, they were not all classics. And a quick e-mail to the Oregon Film Office (one which I was not quick enough to send before writing this piece) would put anyone interested on the trail of which of the earliest of the films on this list, dating from 1908, are readily available to see. According to Oregon Film, the first documented film made in Oregon is a movie called The Fisherman’s Bride, which was made in 1908 in Astoria and eventually released in November 1909. Little seems to be known about The Fisherman’s Bride (and if someone knows anything about it, I’d love to be enlightened) other than its historical significance as the starting point of Oregon’s dalliance with film history, and it may well be that the movie is of little interest other than historical. In fact, the list of movies made in the state over the next 20 years or so is littered with titles like Where Cowboy is King (1915), an early document of the still-popular Pendleton rodeo, a Jackson County travelogue entitled Grace’s Visit to the Rogue Valley (1915; left), The Underground Trail (1922), The Vow of Vengeance (1923), Shackles of Fear (1924) and Youth’s Highway (1925), all of which individually are undoubtedly fascinating historical artifacts that may have fallen victim to neglect and joined the ranks of the thousands of movies made in this era that have been lost forever.
One Oregon-made film of that period which has definitely not been lost is Buster Keaton’s The General (1925), certainly the first film of major historical significance in the history of Oregon-based filmmaking. The movie, which ranks high on most every list of the greatest movies ever made, was a flop and a critical bomb upon its initial release (so much for the value of breathless first-out-of-the-gate reviews). Keaton filmed the movie’s spectacular locomotive bridge collapse just outside Cottage Grove, Oregon, and the wreckage was left intact as a tourist attraction for 20-some years after the production wrapped.
If The General marked Oregon’s big-time calling card introduction to Hollywood, the invitation was most certainly accepted. The next few years, as the silent era came to a close and sound was being ushered in, Oregon saw two more major movies produced within its borders. The first production was filmed in Pendleton and in the small town of Athena, both of which stood in for rural Minnesota in a film with the working title Our Daily Bread (1928). It is under this title, with the production date of 1928, that the movie is listed on the Oregon Film list, which unfortunately might contribute to a bit of confusion regarding that title. King Vidor directed a well-known film called Our Daily Bread, but that one was released in 1934, filmed in Tarzana, California, and has absolutely no relation to the film made in Oregon.
To use Anne Richardson’s phrase, the movie with the working title Our Daily Bread that Oregon can lay claim to is in fact F. W. Murnau’s City Girl, the great director’s altogether stunning, penultimate film of ill-fated romance, a spectacularly moving visual essay of urban/rural conflict. The movie’s production is dated 1928, but its release date is 1930. The inclusion of this indisputable film classic under the title Our Daily Bread on Oregon Film’s list is, unfortunately, misleading, especially since the title City Girl, by which it was released and is exclusively known, is nowhere to be found on that list. The second major movie produced in Oregon up through 1930 was Raoul Walsh’s influential western The Big Trail (1930); its locales, of which Oregon is but one, are listed by Oregon Film and the Internet Movie Database as being “statewide,” certainly an appropriate designation given the movie’s scope and grandeur.
Another curious glitch on the presumably comprehensive Oregon Film site is the absence of one remarkable historical footnote that can be credited to nascent Oregon filmmaking chutzpah of the period. In 1928 two students at the University of Oregon, James Raley and Carvel Nelson, returned to school from summer jobs as extras on the set of Murnau’s City Girl fired up by their experience and eager to undertake the ambitious task of making their own film. They rallied fellow students, planned the production and eventually filmed a movie that is widely presumed to be the first independent student film ever made in this country. It’s called Ed’s Coed (1929) and is available to view at the University of Oregon’s online archives, where it is mistakenly dated (due to a typo, no doubt) 1919. I have included the link to those archives even though, try as I might, I have not been able to get the movie to stream from that source. Fortunately, I was able to find it on YouTube and have cut out the middle man altogether. Here’s is Ed’s Coed, in its entirety, for you to enjoy:
There is another chapter in the Ed’s Coed story as well. Fascinated by this near-forgotten milestone of film history, University of Oregon journalism students John Rosman and Eric Rutledge are trying to revive interest and inspire awareness of Ed’s Coed with a film that tells the behind the scenes story of this groundbreaking movie created over 80 years ago. The documentary is entitled Reinventing Ed’s Coed and you can watch it right now below.
As that Oregon film history list surely attests, the following 40 years certainly saw film production in Oregon ramp up considerably. The ratio of shit-to-sapphires is as out of balance as it is when talking about Oregon-produced movies as when Hollywood is the subject, so you do have to do a little sifting to get to the jewels. Even many of the notables titles aren’t necessarily classics-- The Way West (1967, filmed in Crooked River, Lane County and also in my backyard, Christmas Valley, in northern Lake County) and Paint Your Wagon (1969, filmed in Baker) aren’t entirely charmless, but few would rate them at the top of the class in their respective genres, the western and the musical. But Anthony Mann’s Bend of the River (1952), filmed near Mount Hood and Palmer Glacier, most certainly is, and movies like Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940; Eugene, Mackenzie River), Thunderhead, Son of Flicka (1945; Gresham), The Great Race (1965; Gearhart) and Shenandoah (1965; Marcola) ain’t half bad either.
And just like Hollywood, Oregon saw its own golden age of filmmaking emerge in the 1970s. The relatively high-profile collegiate affiliation of Eugene attracted the attention of a lot of filmmakers and studios eager to capitalize on the unexpected success of Easy Rider and tap into what was perceived as a large, previously dormant demographic. And the fact that the University of Oregon campus, with its heavy foliage, storied architecture and dependable rainfall, could easily pass for a location situated somewhere east of the Mississippi made it a desirable location for studios looking for campus verite without traveling far from Los Angeles. The counterculture vibe in American filmmaking was perpetuated, with various degrees of artistic and box-office success, through such Oregon-centric productions as Getting Straight (1970; Eugene), Five Easy Pieces (1970; Eugene) and Drive, He Said (1971; Eugene).
At work in the culture at the same time was the continuing presence of Oregon writer Ken Kesey, whose novels One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) and Sometimes a Great Notion (1964) were still reverberating through the sensibilities of the disaffected children of Vietnam and American civil unrest even as Kesey himself and his band of Merry Pranksters held court at the center of a national counterculture conversation/shouting match.
Paul Newman, as actor and director. eventually tackled the daunting task of adapting Notion into a movie (known both by the novel’s title and also Never Give an Inch), one which was met at the time largely with indifference everywhere except Oregon, where its literary cachet in urban areas like Eugene and Portland, and its subject matter for rural Oregonians—the story of a defiant family of loggers— assured its must-see status. But the next Kesey adaptation was more successful, even if Kesey himself publicly grumbled. Jack Nicholson, who starred in Five Easy Pieces and directed Drive, He Said, returned to Oregon and eventual triumph in Milos Forman’s film of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which managed the unlikely feat of translating much of the desperate comedy, anguish and even some of the poetry of Kesey’s book to the screen, with Nicholson himself becoming the recipient of one of the film’s five Oscars.
By 1977, the anti-establishment vibe of Randall P. McMurphy’s institutionalized resistance had morphed into something equally defiant but much more heavily reliant on at least the literalized spirit inherent in the name “Merry Pranksters.” When National Lampoon’s Animal House was filmed on the campus of the University of Oregon in the autumn of that year there was heavy resistance from the campus Greek community, who mounted a campaign against the movie which they thought surely would bring further stress upon a fraternity/sorority system already experiencing a downswing in popularity. The film was released at the end of July in 1978, and by the time classes reconvened for the fall fraternities and sororities at the university, to say nothing of those all around the country, had fully embraced the movie’s no-holds-barred hedonism and disdain for authority, which had its roots in the kind of experimentation and nascent political awareness that informed the generation of its characters, many of whom might have been reading Kesey, if they bothered to read at all, on the Faber College campus.
But anti-establishment attitudes tend to become establishment very quickly, especially in Hollywood. The scent of money assured umpteen Animal House clones, some of which were terrific-- Stripes (1981), parts of Caddyshack (1980)-- most of which-- Meatballs (1979), Up the Creek (1984; filmed in Bend)—um, weren’t. Only a year later Steven Spielberg’s Animal House-influenced 1941 (1979; some sequences filmed in Cannon Beach and Gold Beach) debuted to decent box-office and some of most derisive reviews of Spielberg’s career to date, but by then the antiauthoritarian vibe of Kesey and Animal House had already begun to fade into a future so bright that Tom Cruise was forced to wear Raybans.
Fittingly, that counterculture street cred has been reclaimed somewhat in the ‘90s and ‘00s by Oregon-based filmmakers like Gus Van Sant (Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Elephant, Paranoid Park, all filmed in his native Portland), Mike Mills (Thumbsucker) and mumblecore survivor Aaron Katz (Dance Party USA, Quiet City, Cold Weather), all of whom have helped to redefine Oregon, and in particular Portland, as a center of culture for a new generation of convenienced young people who have technological advantages but also some of the same confusion and troubles as their precursors when it comes to uncluttered communication and personal expression.
And director-writer Kelly Reichardt, along with her regular collaborator Jon Raymond, has established herself as an Oregon filmmaker in spirit, if not in genealogy (she’s a Florida native who was educated on the East Coast), with a distinctive, arresting and seductive trilogy of films that capture specific aspects of life, history and experience that will be familiar to many Oregonians even as they speak to viewers all over the world. Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008) were among the five best movies of their years, and this year’s beautiful, ghostly Meek’s Cutoff already sits high atop the pile of 2011 releases you’ve already forgotten as the movie to beat (at least in my book) for year-end honors. Reichardt’s movies whisper to the viewer, gently suggesting, alluding, never insisting, yet they contain the sometimes exhilarating, sometimes awful power of regret, destiny and revelation in their genes. They make me look at the world differently, the same way that I began to look at the world differently, with more eagerness and fascination and even hope, when I began to understand how my Oregon life was connected to the world at large, that there was something beside the everyday, or at least a way of illuminating it, that was accessible in the place that I came from. These are the movies that are made in Oregon that continue to make and remake the state in my mind. It is, after all, a wonderful place to be and to be from, as all the contributions to film history that have originated or produced in Oregon tend to make clear, clear as one of its rivers, teeming with hidden treasures and fascinations and other worthy aspects of life.
A BRIEF AND INCOMPLETE CHRONOLOGICAL GUIDE TO SOME OTHER NOTABLE MOVIES MADE IN OREGON
Call of the Wild (1935; Mt. Baker Lodge)
Lost Horizon (1937; Mt. Hood)
Canyon passage (1946)
Rachel and the Stranger (1949; Eugene)
The Great Sioux Uprising (1953; Pendleton)
Ring of Fire (1961; Vernonia)
The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972; Jacksonville)
Kansas City Bomber (1972; Portland)
Lost Horizon (1972; Mt. Hood)
Napoleon and Samantha (1972; John Day)
Emperor of the North Pole (1973; Cottage Grove
Closed Mondays (1974; Portland)
The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975; Bend)
Rooster Cogburn (1975; Bend, Grants Pass)
How to Beat the High Cost of Living (1980; Eugene)
The Lathe of Heaven (1980; Agate Beach)
The Shining (1980; Timberline Lodge)
Personal Best (1982; Eugene)
The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985; Portland)
The Goonies (1985; Astoria, Cannon Beach)
Short Circuit (1986; Astoria, Portland, Columbia River Gorge)
Stand By Me (1986; Eugene, Cottage Grove, Brownsville)
Come See the Paradise (1989; Portland, Astoria, Willamette Valley)
Kindergarten Cop (1990; Astoria)
Point Break (1991; Wheeler, Ecola State Park)
Body of Evidence (1992; Portland)
Dr. Giggles (1992; Portland)
The Temp (1992; Portland, North Coast)
Free Willy (1993; Portland, Astoria)
Maverick (1993; Columbia River Gorge)
The River Wild (1993; Grants Pass)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (1993; Astoria)
Dead Man (1994; Grants Pass)
8 Seconds (1994; Pendleton)
Free Willy 2 (1994; Astoria)
Mr. Holland’s Opus (1994; Portland)
The Postman (1997; Central Oregon)
Zero Effect (1997; Portland)
Double Jeopardy (1998; Salem)
Without Limits (1998; Eugene)
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2000; Gresham)
Pay It Forward (2000; Portland)
The Hunted (2001; Portland, Oregon City, Salem)
The Ring (2002; Newport, Columbia River Gorge)
Mean Creek (2003; Estacada, Troutdale)
The Ring 2 (2004; Astoria)
Into the Wild (2006; Astoria, Cascade Mountains)
Coraline (2008; Hillsboro)
Twilight (2008; Portland, Estacada, North Coast, St. Helens)
The Road (2008; Portland)
How to Die in Oregon (2010; Statewide)