Category Archives: life

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

Joaquin-Miller-Poet-Laureate-FSDM2

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.

Understanding Blue: Politics, Pluraversality, and the Muse of Form

Rosalie Kunoth-Monks never met James Blue, but she is a member of the pluriverse he loved.

She lives in Utopia (true!). I saw her on the internet, where I also saw this:

debate

Both videos are examples of regional film.

Rosalie Kunoth-Monks addressed her remarks to a live audience in Australia. Toni and Candace first deployed their withering lack of respect for logic in a no-budget web series, Thunder Ant, shot in Portland, not far from the house where James Blue grew up.

Blue believed that regional film = democratized media = increased diversity of voices being heard. As a member of the NEA’s first media funding panel, he voted to fund a network of regional film centers, all four of which still exist today. One of them is the Northwest Film Center, where The  March and A Few Notes On Our Food Problem screened on April 25, 2014 as part of the James Blue Tribute.

Blue believed stories could change things. He was fascinated by the exercise of power which came with access to a camera, and never resolved his ambivalence about his privilege as a gifted filmmaker. His awareness of privilege fueled his activism as an educator. It drove him to leave Hollywood. It inspired him to place cameras in the hands of his subjects. He incorporated it into his work.

Was James Blue a political filmmaker?

In the discussion which followed the screening, Brooke Jacobson, an NEA colleague of James Blue, was startled to hear the audience conclude he was not.

There are, it seems, two muses: the Muse of Inspiration, who gives us inarticulate visions and desires, and the Muse of Realization, who returns again and again to say, ‘It is yet more difficult than you thought.’ This is the muse of form. Wendell Berry

worryblue

Blue shot Who Killed The Fourth Ward?  on 8mm with a two person crew for community television. By contrast, he shot The March, fourteen years earlier, on 35mm with seven two person Hearst Metrotone newsreel crews and the mandate of the President.

The March and A Few Notes On Our Food Problem, made by Blue for USIA and USIAD respectively, deliver a sense of the world as troubled but benign. In Who Killed The Fourth Ward? and The Invisible City, made for KUHT community television, that surety is gone. In them, Blue, following a new muse of form, relinquishes his duties as omniscient, unseen narrator, and enters the film as a participant. He is asking questions, and bringing along a camera to make sure he gets answers. It is easy to imagine if the same Northwest Film Center audience had seen those two later documentaries, they would have had no trouble labeling Blue a political filmmaker.

But was Blue, in Houston, a newly political filmmaker?

The full title of the March On Washington was March On Washington For Jobs And Freedom. Employment, voting rights, the elimination of Jim Crow – these are not minor demands. The organizers had been preparing for this event for decades. In Blue’s voice over narration, he speaks about the potential for violence, and shows the steps the organizers were taking to keep control of the crowd. Feed people, use walkie talkies, maintain a chain of command.

Blue understood what could happen if thousands of citizens squared off against police. He knew what it was like to live in a world where violence had overtaken the civic order. He had directly experienced the war behind the recent Paris Massacre. Disaster, for Blue, was within the realm of the possible.

The narrative Blue chose for his coverage of the March focused on the arriving marchers. It focused on the leadership, including young black men, who, at that time, were never seen in media as being calm, purposeful and in charge, but in Blue’s film are shown to be just that. They were entrusted with keeping safe the 200,000 Americans who had arrived to exercise their constitutional right to assembly. Blue leaves out guest speakers Burt Lancaster, Charlton Heston, Bob Dylan and Harry Belafonte and shows us the politically engaged nobodies who came to walk, talk, listen, sing, and cool their feet in the reflecting pool. He photographs them as if they are a miracle, because to him, perhaps, they are.

the march 3

They are the pluriverse he has come to recognize as valuable.

The March is about them.

Is that political?

For perspective, James Ivory, James Blue’s friend and near exact contemporary, when asked which of his own films he thought was most political, retorted that they all were, or at least he hoped they are all were.

The March and A Few Notes On Our Food Problem were screened at the Northwest Film Center on April 25, 2014 as part of the James Blue Tribute. Brooke Jacobson, co-founder of the Northwest Film Center, was in the audience.

So was Sheldon Renan, the author of the proposal that the NEA fund a network of four regional film centers, of which the Northwest Film Center was one. Sheldon Renan, Brooke Jacobson and James Blue all share two distinctions. They all came from Portland, and each one served as an advocate for regional film at the NEA.

Richard Blue, who advised James Blue on A Few Notes On Our Food Problem, and Gill Dennis, who wrote the voiceover narration for A Few Notes, participated in an onstage panel discussion following the screening as did Christina Kovac, who led the NARA restoration of The March, and Gerald O’Grady, a long time Blue colleague and friend, who is an historian of films of the Civil Rights Movement.

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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, organized by 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.

James Blue, Richard Brautigan, Don Carpenter: Creative Arts Conference, San Diego, 1969

rb-poster1969

This terribly fuzzy image is of a poster for a twelve day arts conference at the United States International University in San Diego. Found on the tightly researched Brautigan website.

The conference presented The Filmmaker (Jim Morrison, James Blue), The Writer (Don Carpenter, Richard Brautigan) and The Poet (Michael McClure, Robert Creeley), among others.

Admission to each event was $1.00!

I post it here as evidence of James Blue’s and Jim Morrison’s post-UCLA friendship. It is worth noting, however, that three of the featured speakers appear on Oregon Movies, A to Z.

James Blue (1930-1940)

Don Carpenter (1931-1995)

Richard Brautigan (1935-1984)

Carpenter produced Payday (1973), starring Rip Torn, from his own screenplay. Brautigan appeared in James Broughton’s The Bed (1967), although his footage was left on the cutting room floor.

Little known fact: Richard Brautigan was in high school in Eugene during the years James Blue was attending UO. So was Ken Kesey!

Coming up next in the James Blue Tribute:

At 7:00 PM on April 23, 2014 in Eugene, at the Schnitzer Museum of Art, reknowned ethnographic filmmaker David MacDougall will introduce Kenya Boran, which he co-directed with James Blue in 1972. The screening is free.

More information about other James Blue Tribute events can be found here.

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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.

Strange but true: Godard, Snyder, & Blue

I included Jean Luc Godard and Gary Snyder in my post about James Blue’s Who Killed The Fourth Ward? without knowing all three artists share a birth year.

jean-luc-godardJean Luc Godard, born Dec. 3, 1930

UnknownGary Snyder, born May 8, 1930

swamp-citzen-filmmaker-300x220James Blue, born April 5, 1930

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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.

Who’s James Blue?

There is no book about James Blue. Most of what I have learned about him comes from his films, his print interviews, and from people who knew him.

Here’s where I was in October 2012:

James Blue (1930-1980) grew up in Portland. He studied speech and theater at University of Oregon, graduating in 1953. After some years of military service, he entered film school in Paris where he was influenced by Jean Rouch. (Anne’s  note: now I am not sure this is true – not sure if he studied with Rouch or not) Although he first distinguished himself by winning the Critics Prize at Cannes for The Olive Trees Of Justice, a feature length narrative film, he spent the rest of his life making socially engaged documentaries.

Blue was a man of firsts. First Oregon director to go to Cannes, and the first to receive an Oscar nomination. First person ever to receive Ford Foundation funding for a film project. He helped start the Center for Advanced Film Studies at American Film Institute. The documentary programs at Rice University and at the Center for Media Study in Buffalo were both established by him. He served on the 1972 NEA media funding panel which launched the first network of regional film centers, as proposed by Sheldon Renan. Northwest Film Center is the result of that NEA initiative.

Two years later, I see how much this thumbnail portrait leaves out. Who was this man?

All personal accounts are in agreement that there was very little separation between Blue’s professional life and his personal life. His friends became his colleagues. His obsessions became his films. Reading a fuller list of his accomplishments,  you begin to understand that every minute of his day was involved in some kind of work, but work that he loved. He held down two parallel careers, as a filmmaker and as a film educator, and excelled in both.

By writing in more depth about each of his films, I hope to discover exactly what I think about this mysterious, forgotten, and influential American filmmaker from my hometown.

Who was James Blue? What impact did he have?

Gentlemen, start your engines.

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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.