Even by his own hyper-productive standards, experimental filmmaker Matt McCormick is having a busy month.
This First Thursday, March 1, future so bright opens at the formidable Elizabeth Leach Gallery. It's McCormick's first solo art show, featuring a complex new film work accompanied by a series of recent photographs. The lanky local artist won't be on hand for his own opening, though—he's currently in Moscow, where three of his films are being shown at the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art. McCormick will be home just in time for his big night at Holocene on Wednesday, March 7, where he'll screen a slightly different version of future so bright and provide a live musical score to the film. After that, he'll get cranking on new music videos for the Shins and YACHT, and oh yeah—wrapping up a solo music album for Marriage Records.
NOT WAITING FOR OPPORTUNITY TO KNOCK
Like most stories of this kind, though, Matt's success was anything but overnight. Moving here from Albuquerque in 1995, McCormick found the local film scene lethargic, if not dead, especially compared to the community of rock musicians he had just left.
One night McCormick was talking to the booker of the O—an old rock club—who suggested that Matt host a night of film. He did, with a hodgepodge of local filmmakers, and even though only 14 people showed up for the first night, he persisted with the screenings, which he called Peripheral Produce, and the idea caught on.
"It started doing exactly what I hoped it would do," Matt says. "It became a center point for this network of filmmakers to come together. The DIY thing was exploding for artists and musicians, and I knew that it could happen for filmmakers, too."
Soon, Peripheral Produce screenings were packing the Hollywood Theatre with short films from the likes of Miranda July and Vanessa Renwick, and McCormick incorporated the screenings into a sort of record label for films, a distribution company that he also called Peripheral Produce. A few times a year, a new DVD or VHS tape would come out featuring the best films from the screenings, and audiences across the country were able to keep up with a burgeoning experimental film scene. Ultimately, the screenings became so popular that McCormick folded them all into the PDX Film Fest, which remains the most exciting weekend in town for fans of truly independent cinema.
Lots of people were impressed with Matt's tireless devotion, including Gus Van Sant.
"Matt is one of the most energetic filmmakers in Portland," says Van Sant. "I took a film distribution class from him two years ago, which was a starter course in different types of film distribution, mainly internet distribution... [Matt's ideas] sounded like something Robert Altman might want to do. I don't know whether Matt is interested in Robert Altman, but it sounded like him, or some of the other filmmakers of the '70s."
Throughout this enterprise of promoting other filmmakers, McCormick continued to create his own films, and received massive amounts of critical praise in the process. 2001's The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal, which humorously suggests an art historical context for the city-applied patches of paint that cover graffiti, went to Sundance and was named one of the year's 10 best films by Art Forum and the Village Voice. Praise continued to flow in for his endearingly quirky documentary American Nutria (music by the Postal Service) and the more abstract tugboat film, Towlines (music by James Mercer of the Shins).
FUTURE SO BRIGHT
McCormick's most recent venture is one of his most ambitious yet, and certainly the furthest from his comfort zone. Averse to the preciousness of most gallery-world video art, and possessive of a populist streak that favors coffee shops and makeshift screening spaces over official art institutions, McCormick has never created an installation to be shown specifically at an art gallery. (After the success of Graffiti Removal, museums started showing Matt's videos, but by his own admission, they weren't created to be shown on a loop, where visitors could stick their heads in halfway through and wander out a few minutes later.) But that's exactly what he's done with future so bright.
Future is a haunting and lonely portrait of the remnants of westward expansion. Over the course of several years, McCormick spent countless months on dirt roads and empty highways in the American West, shooting old ghost towns, abandoned buildings, and the structures that people leave behind in search of the American dream.
"I've always been fascinated with architecture and development," McCormick says. "The West is so new—many of the oldest structures are less than 200 years old. As a result, you can almost see—beginning to end—remnants of the earliest stuff and create a mental image of how the country developed. The West has always been the cutting edge, and when I look at these buildings and remains that are still there, I'm reminded that these were once the newest things. They were building the world of tomorrow with these structures, and that's where the name future so bright comes from."
On screen, images of quiet desolation and abandonment dissolve into one another, accompanied only by the sounds of buzzing insects and lonely wind. But there's also a faint sense of hopefulness in the empty scenes. Maybe these dreams didn't stand the test of time and progress, but it's easy to imagine them serving their creators well in their prime. McCormick seems lost in the wide spaces on the screen—perhaps thinking about his own ideas of progress and the future we create.
"What's so cool about Matt is he came to town 12 years ago and just started doing what he wanted to do—making really thought-provoking, playful experimental films," says Andrew Dickson, an on-and-off Portland filmmaker who showed his work at the very first Peripheral Produce screening.
"And he created a whole infrastructure for them and like-minded artists: a screening series, a label, eventually a festival. An audience was here, but he found it and grew it to the point where experimental screenings in Portland outdraw similar events in New York a few times over. I think he's really empowered and helped sustain a lot of local filmmakers and drawn a new generation to town."
Having laid such a foundation of generosity, work ethic, and creativity, McCormick seems more poised than ever to move on to that ever-elusive "next level." Portland has been reaping the fruits of Matt's efforts for years now, and it seems that the rest of the world is paying more attention than ever. For McCormick, the future does indeed seem ever so bright.
future so bright is on view at the Elizabeth Leach Gallery, 417 NW 9th, from March 1-30. On Wednesday March 7, McCormick will screen a new version of the film while providing live musical accompaniment at Holocene, 1001 SE Morrison, 9 pm. For more info, go to rodeofilmco.com or peripheralproduce.com.