Lucky Bum Film Tour
Thurs July 25 at the Little Theatre.

In The Yodeling Lesson, a three-minute film by Vanessa Renwick, a woman dressed in baggy street gear cycles no-hands up a winding, hilly road. She's working hard, but gracefully, and behind her rises the twisted mess of a highway interchange, gritty and gray and modern. The soundtrack is echoing thunder of bagpipes and the thin sound of a women yodeling. Then the rider coasts down the hill, still no-hands, and now naked. She takes the curves with breathtaking, beautiful speed, and the yodeling reaches a sliding crescendo. The yodeling goes nuts. The image and sound come together in a peak, and then the rider rides out of the frame, and the film is over.

I watched this film a number of times, including a few times in fast-rewind mode. After a while it dawned on me that it was a visual representation of effort, with the building, and the achievement, and the long joyful slide toward relief. I suppose you could describe the act of sex quite similarly. I put this theory to director Renwick, and she agreed. "That's what I think all of my movies are about, actually. About that feeling, about doing what you want to do with your life, about people who are passionate."

Passion, as manifested in Renwick's films, comes out in all sorts of funny, obsessive ways, and at their best they are transfixing; eminently social but deeply personal, observant and compassionate without a trace of sentimentality. The best of the best is her by-now much-discussed documentary about Centralia artist Richard Tracy (who re-christened himself "Richart"), an eccentric visionary who lives surrounded by towers of his own work, assembled from junk that he scavenges here and there. He's like Howard Finster relocated to the Watts Towers; he's like Ed Harris in Pollock, stilted and unbelievable until he starts to make art, at which point he becomes graceful and saintly.

It's an interesting thing, a film about an artist, because your encounter with the art is completely dictated by the filmmaker. Renwick and co-director Dawn Smallman make smart choices, mostly by letting Richart speak for himself, so you slowly get a sense of his very oddly arranged world. You see this world in details rather than in big structural shots. Richart's rules revolve around the number five--you are asked to arrive at his house in groups of five, you can opt for the five-minute tour or the 55-minute art class, you can buy a work for five dollars. It's unclear what happens if you violate the rules; at one point Richart booms out, "I'm gonna write you up!" He's bossy, inconsistent, and aggressive, by turns encouraging and threatening, and he emerges as this perfectly round and complicated person, not a persona, not simply a crazy artist.

There are hints of the latter, however. Another wise decision on the part of the filmmakers was to leave this information until toward the end of the film, when Richart starts to talk about having been in a mental hospital--all the while manipulating a rotating sculpture of a sleeping figure--and about how art set him free. Not in a spiritual sense, but a literal one: "If you want to get out of the mental hospital, start building artwork like this," he instructs, almost dryly. "They will get rid of you immediately." And this is where his rules and stipulations come into focus--as a way of exerting control over his world and keeping it manageable--and the artist himself becomes a passionate, heroic figure.

On this stop of the Lucky Bum Film Tour, which has hauled itself all over the country and stops here in the Northwest for shows in Olympia, Seattle, and Vancouver, BC, Renwick will show a series of her short films (including Richart and The Yodeling Lesson and about 44 minutes' worth of others) and Bill Daniel will set up his installation The Girl on the Train in the Moon, an improvised campsite that includes footage--flickering, like a campfire--from his freight-train-riding travels and investigations into hobo art. Both Daniel and Renwick (whose film company is called the Oregon Department of Kick Ass) are deeply involved in the Portland DIY-film scene, with tons of awards to their names and credits that include (for Renwick) videography for Miranda July's excellent The Amateurist, lots of films shown on Portland Cable Access, and an upcoming longer work on efforts to save Portland's Lovejoy columns, which were painted by a railroad stopman in the 1940s; and (for Daniel) an installation film-history of growing up punk in Texas, called Texas Skatepunk Scrapbook. Between them they know a hell of a lot about making art and getting by, so it's not much of a surprise that their work focuses on communicating in subterranean modes, on alternate ways of living, on passion and strangeness and effort.

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