Sunday, April 08, 2012

Uneasy Riderless: THE OREGONIAN (2011)

If you're ever driving west, across the northern part of this great country, to the mighty Pacific, do skip northwestern Oregon, if you can, or at if you can't, never get off Interstate 90. Back in 1989 my girlfriend and I decided to take the road less traveled, a smaller, woodsier alternative route and soon found ourselves creeping along twisting crumbling two-lane blacktops, snaking around gnarled tree trunks, roots buckling up through the crumbling asphalt; past weed-filled pastures with broken barbed wire, collapsed barns, boarded-up strip malls with the burnt-out husks of pick-up trucks still in the parking lots, boarded-up motels, caved-in mailboxes, unlit neon bar signs dangling on their last chain and long since unplugged, scraping plywood-covered doorways, and big trees edging up against the twisty road, their branches interlocking overhead to block out the sun--not that there was any thanks to a thick blanket of blue-gray clouds. No life, not even a bird or a bug. We kept on, debating turning around even as we sped ahead, the coming night lengthened the shadows cast by our headlights into Nosferatu shapes. The road seemed to be pulling us forward into the sheer blackness of the next turn like a twisting yellow line-tentacled land octopus, as if its giant maw waited for us behind some approaching corner in the darkness behind the tall trees. It was coiled to spring on us with either in some Lovecraftian all-consuming gulp, or just manifest in hillbilly violence. I could feel the suppressed ghostly rage, the hick evil lashing its genitals like a red traffic light that would never turn green--just daring us to go ahead. I could imagine townsfolk drooling over my pretty traveling companion while rocking the car, abduct her. Me speeding away, losing her to some grabbing hands, gone in the night, forcing me to spend panicky hours asking for help from unsympathetic locals at the one dead-eyed bar still open; I could hear my progressively hysterical voice as I navigated their The Vanishing or And Soon the Darkness-style scenarios--my brains already paranoid and scrambled from a day--or week, if you want to be honest--of near constant weed-smoking. 

If you're a guy, you know that's the worst thing you can imagine, being too high to make life-or-death decisions while scummy locals paw your ladyfriend. It's bad enough having to ask for help to begin with, even if those you're asking it from are well-scrubbed, church-abiding, and all that crap. 

Sharing my experience of western Oregon as a Lovecraftian mire: Calvin Reeder, who has recently blown some festival circuit minds, and irked others, with The Oregonian (2011). A landmark debut of high 16mm film strangeness in the Alice in Wonderland / limbo / post-apocalyptic / dream world / experimental mode, without half trying, it joins the ranks of works by David Lynch and Herk Harvey in the nightmare logic American indie pantheon, but with the tactile American flannel shirt dread of Coscarelli and Carpenter as a backdrop. With it's droning electric guitar score and refusal to explain itself or offer any stable reality to measure the warp against, Reeder's film turns to the groundless ground previously inhabited only by Eraserhead, and then goes deeper down into the muck, attacking along the fault lines between avant garde 'le bad cinema' and psychedelic Xtreme horror, between waking reality and nightmares and a grunge-tinted road movie. It's Dementia AKA Daughter of Horror if it wanted to be Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me on a Plan Nine budget and instead took too much acid and wound up stumbling through Carnival of Souls in search of a midnight show of a panic movement Easy Rider x Repulsion retooled as a Dali nightmare in flannel by the dirtbag Pacific NW trailer-raised twins Alejandro Jodorowsky never knew he had. 

The story progression centers around the experiences of a blonde hippy-ish smoker (Lindsay Pulsipher) chilling at an isolated lama ranch; a creepy stalker fuels her boyfriend's jealous insanity. After her boyfriend passes out drunk, she bails in his car. Suddenly she's waking up in a car that apparently crashed into a father and son who were having a picnic by the side of the road in the dead of night. Now they're lying dead, and her forehead is covered in blood. No one is around anywhere to help. She staggers down that lonesome road looking for someone to help, or a pay phone, or anything. But.... there is no phone to call the cops and the Northwest Oregon desolation of which I spoke stretches for miles. It's where she is! Everyone she meets, standing out by their mailboxes, just stare and smile insanely. They laugh like eight pages of LSD just kicked them in the head like a tidal wave leaving only a gibbering mess behind. She hitches a ride with a gross trucker, and eventually becomes kind of traveling buddies with a degenerate in a big, dirty frog costume. The phones, when she finds them, connect nowhere-- buzzing in her head seems to be activated by the signals. She later she hooks up with a bunch of weirdo musicians who drink gasoline (?) and spend their free time staring at her and laughing. 

Luckily she finds a shotgun on the road, and a few guides who advise her to just relax and, as Martha advises in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, "sink into it."

I love that Reeder refuses to pick a side, to explain the madness, to have some root answer to whether it's all a nightmare in a car accident victim's brain, or a Phantasm-matic inter-dimensional death drive film school experiment. Unlike most other weird cult-aspiring films, it maintains its madness with the patience of a gardener. For my money, The Oregonian is way better than a lot of over-praised existential stuff like Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive (though Refn's awesome Valhalla Rising compares well).

I'd warn that there is a very strange bit of sexual dream violence in case you're squeamish, and one too many eggs frying. Kind of gross in parts, to be honest. Me, though, I'm super sensitive to those things and found it to be far too into nightmarishly surreal to be misogynistic or genuinely upsetting. There is a chance everything our looking glass Alice heroine sees and hears is all just cover memories to mask the trauma of a past rape (ala Last Year in Marienbad) but that's no more valid an interpretation than the one wherein she's dead and this is all limbo, or Hell, or if she's just lost in western Oregon and this is what it's really like up there. Whatever your interpretation, it's new to itself and thus beyond your mortal critique. Imagine if Louise Bourgeois and Edward D. Wood collaborated on a 1972 road odyssey Repulsion ---would you dare call it misogynist? Or pretentious?

Fuck you if you said yes, even if you're probably right. That's the problem with us, not the movie. The movie is Art, and we exist only to see it and try not to flinch. Let's be tough. There's a great moment that says it all. After enduring a psychotic, lengthy yelling at by her rabid meth-addled boyfriend out at the lama ranch, rather than running or crying, our heroine looks at him and lights a cigarette. She may be in hell, but at least she has some butts left in her pack. It's such an unusual touch and so very right. If we ever drive across the northern part of the country again, out to Portland or Eugene on the Pacific coast, and we decide to veer off the safety of Highway 90, to visit the vast wasteland of rural interior Portland, along ye quaint Oregon local roads, drifting through the damned interior, hoping to see some local charm on our way to Portland or Eugene.... which we did only that one time, then run! Run back to 90! For god's sake keep on the big black road!

1 comment:

  1. Hi there,

    We started a new fanzine and would really appreciate if you can add us on your bloglist. In the future days we will publish an interview with Fred Vogel (August Underground) as the first post. You blog is already added on our blogroll. Thanks!


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