Joaquin Miller (1837-1913) Oregon poet/liar/literary sensation.
Writing about Oregon film history, I have encountered a strong headwind of resistance to the idea that Oregon’s film history is in any way exceptional. Presenting the case quantitatively does nothing to soften the resistance.
How can you appraise a film history with no standard of comparison? What about, Richard Blue asked me, Minnesota? All American filmmakers have to come from someplace. Minnesota, for example, produced the Coen Brothers.
I have learned from experience that people are not impressed by the length of a list of names. They want to understand the situation qualitatively, and here we come to the heart of the matter. We don’t claim Oregon artists because qualitatively we do not know what that means.
What’s “Oregon” about them? Their subject matter? Their street addresses? Their birth certificates? Their historical moment?
We are comfortable calling Gary Snyder a Pacific Rim poet because he translates Chinese poetry and practices Zen Buddhism. We know what Pacific Rim means, and he fits. We don’t know what to call Snyder’s mixture of Wobbly/Reedie, anthropologist/poet, logger/social visionary which pre-existed his first trip to Japan. There is no word for this extremely regional set of characteristics, so it goes by the wayside, as if it doesn’t exist, or is important only insofar as it helped prepare Snyder to be a Pacific Rim poet.
Similarly, we don’t know what to call a Portland raised Dust Bowl refugee/filmmaker/actor/journalist/educator who could not make heads or tails of Madison Avenue or Hollywood. James Blue’s French film school education and his awards, the accomplishments for which he is most well known, give no sign of the intensity of his commitment to the classroom or to regional film. They leave out any accurate sense of his background. In fact it would be easy to mistake Blue for an international playboy or blueblood, based on the most skeletal reading of his life. Until the NARA restoration of The March triggered national reevaluation of his career, James Blue was most famous for having achieved fame.
Creating film artists who are independent, internationally known, writer-director-producers is Oregon’s regional specialty.
James Blue and James Ivory marked this trail. Bill Plympton and Gus Van Sant followed it. Each of these film artists placed such an emphasis on maintaining control of his work that it shaped his entire career. Are we supposed to ignore their independence, and the international scope of their careers, because to acknowledge those traits is to invite charges of exceptionalism?
I have come to believe that we do this to make real the image we want to have of the West. The West of our imagination is a frontier. It has no history. By refusing to write about, think about, and understand our history we actively keep alive for ourselves the wide open pristine emptiness of the “second chance” Western landscape we want to believe is our home.
Joaquin Miller, Oregon’s first internationally acclaimed author (and a man who knew a thing or two about second chances, having survived multiple scandals of assorted size), knew that the empty, pristine West was a fantasy.
His first book, Unwritten History: Life Among The Modocs, addresses the issue right in the title. If Joaquin Miller, who experienced the wide open frontier, could relinquish the idea of Oregon as a history free zone, why can’t we?
I dedicate this post to Walt Curtis, Oregon poet and literary historian, who insisted I read Joaquin Miller. Thank you, Walt!
Stay tuned for films of Harry Smith, James Ivory, James Blue, and Homer Groening which will be screened at the Hollywood Theatre during the upcoming Mid Century Oregon Genius screening series.
Notes On James Blue is a blog kept by Anne Richardson, of Oregon Movies, A to Z, to cover the 2014 James Blue Tribute, a six month retrospective at the University of Oregon.
Notes On James Blue is supported by The James and Richard Blue Foundation, a 501 c3 non profit organization dedicated to preserving the legacy of filmmaker and film educator James Blue. All thoughts, opinions, and errors, however, belong to Anne Richardson, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.