Category Archives: Joaquin Miller

The Importance Of Being Famous: Joaquin Miller, Gary Snyder, James Ivory, James Blue, Bill Plympton & Gus Van Sant As Oregon Artists

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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?

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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.

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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.

How To Read James Blue

Where did James Blue come from? Here are some way stations I visited on my own journey to understand his work.

1630

John Winthrop’s City On A Hill

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“for we must Consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world…”

Winthrop’s concerns prefigure those of public diplomacy, the arm of filmmaking which gave James Blue his professional start, first in Algeria and then in the US.

1789

William Blake’s Little Black Boy

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My mother bore me in the southern wild/And I am black, but O! my soul is white. The ironies and double meanings of this poem, which, tellingly, Blake vacillated between placing among his Songs Of Innocence or among his Songs Of Experience, are essential to the understanding of Kenya Boran, the ethnographic film which documents the learning curve of James Blue and David MacDougall as they discover how little they understand about the impact of the 20th century on the Boran people in Kenya.

1854

Henry David Thoreau’s Walden

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“Thoreau’s Walden is a capital reading, but very wicked and heathenish… After all, for me, I prefer walking on two legs”. John Greenleaf Whittier

Thoreau retreated to Walden Pond in 1844, doubling down on locavore everything, just as the Oregon Trail was getting underway.

1874

Joaquin Miller’s Unwritten History: Life Among The Modocs

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Joaquin Miller arrived in Oregon in a covered wagon. He dedicated his most famous book, Unwritten History: Life Among the Modocs, “To the Red Men of America”. Like Blue, Miller went to college in Eugene. Like Blue, his career began overseas.

1930

Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail 

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“We can’t turn back. We’re blazing a trail which started in England!” Raoul Walsh made his 70mm Oregon Trail epic in 1930, the year James Blue was born.

1935

H. L. Davis’ The Honey and the Horn

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Two orphaned lovers keep secrets from each other in the barren anti-Eden of Oregon’s sagebrush interior, in H. L. Davis’ Pulitzer Prize winning novel.

1945

Roberto Rossellini’s Open City

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Non-professional actors + war ravaged city + illegal production, all elements which reemerge in James Blue’s The Olive Trees Of Justice.  Blue might have seen Rossellini’s masterpiece at the Guild Theater in Portland.

James Ivory told me he remembered traveling to Portland from Eugene to see films at the Guild. That’s a two hour drive, four hours round trip!

1947

Carl Barks’ Only A Poor Old Man

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Richard Blue told me James Blue and his mother fought a running battle over James’ love of comic books. Carl Barks, who wrote and drew all the comic books in which his irascible miser duck appeared, was born and raised in Oregon.

1952

Anthony Mann’s Bend Of The River

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Arthur Kennedy plays the role of the snake in Anthony Mann’s despoiled Eden. The long list of 1950s Oregon Westerns includes Bend Of The River, shot on Mt. Hood, and James Blues’ 16mm Silver Spur, shot in his parents’ NE Portland backyard.

1955

Thomas Vaughan’s The Last Salmon Ceremony

The vitality of this Native American community testifies to the Pacific Northwest pluriverse in 1955.

1962

Tom McCall’s Pollution In Paradise

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Oregon elected Tom McCall governor five years later.

1962

Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

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“They’re out there. Black boys in white suits….”

Kesey’s first novel begins with these words. Chief Bromden, the mute mental patient whose interior monologue narrates Cuckoo’s Nest, is half Native American and half European American.

1962

James Blue’s The Olive Trees Of Justice

James Blue dedicated The Olive Trees Of Justice to the people of Algiers.

1963

The Kingsmen’s Louie Louie & Paul Revere and the Raiders’ Louie Louie

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Lead singer Mark Lindsay remembered Paul Revere and the Raiders as a “bunch of white-bread kids doing their best to sound black”. The Raiders and The Kingsmen covered Richard Berry’s faux Jamaican ballad within a week of each other at a recording studio in downtown Portland.

1963

James Blue’s The March

On the opposite side of the social justice universe, James Blue documented Marian Anderson commanding the hushed attention of 200,000 demonstrators with the spiritual “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands” just before Martin Luther King Jr preached the sermon of his lifetime “I have a dream.”

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Notes On James Blue is a blog kept by Anne Richardson, of Oregon Movies, A to Z, to cover the 2014 James Blue Tribute. The six month long Tribute celebrates the bequest of James Blue’s films to the University of Oregon 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.

Notes On James Blue is supported by The James and Richard Blue Foundation. All thoughts, opinions, and errors, however, belong to Anne Richardson, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.