Vanessa Renwick in the American Northwest



Britton, South Dakota (2003) begins without titles. When the screen fills with even-toned black and white images of children posed on the main drag of some small American town, you must rely on contextual clues to situate this scene. The film’s texture, and the scratches and tears that sometimes obscure it connote the early-to-mid 20th century, and the kids’ formal dress bears this out. One child succeeds another, followed by pairs, all pictured on the same patch of sidewalk in front of a dark and heavy wooden door, any identifying markers of which lay beyond the cinematographer’s low-angle frame. The film chugs forward for nine minutes; little changes but the children themselves, and with them the frame’s composition. Some fidget or cry or ham it up like the kids you usually see on camera, but most of them aren’t so willing to play along. A few avert their eyes from the lens, not bashfully, but with a kind of dignified composure. Others meet our gaze head-on, brows furrowed in Cro Magnon intensity, hands on hips, totally unflappable. This is the most remarkably self-possessed group of children you have ever seen. It is not just the baleful drone of Johnne Eschleman’s organ score that makes them seem menacing: there is a hardness in their eyes that suggests real malice. They are like henchmen in a Western, warning you to keep far away from this place.

The credits confirm that this is indeed the West — the eponymous town in 1938, as pictured by Ivan Besse, a local movie theater owner. The woman who reshaped this footage is a Westerner herself: Vanessa Renwick, a filmmaker born in Chicago, but based in Portland, Oregon for nearly thirty years, and who depicts her adopted region with all the convert’s notorious zeal. Last weekend, Renwick paid a rare visit to New York for two shows: a mini-retrospective at UnionDocs, and a set of more recent work at Anthology Film Archives, both presented by the Flaherty NYC and curated by Penny Lane. The two programs surveyed a three-decade-long career so varied as to defy sensible categorization. Renwick’s work is often described as “punk”, which is true if one grants that word the metaphysical proportions it has taken on, but it does not usefully encapsulate her aesthetic; of the films which appeared last weekend, only Cheap Cheap Toxic Shock (1983), an angular, expressionist narrative fragment, bears resemblance to the formal traditions of punk filmmaking. Unconcerned with stylistic consistency, Renwick is a responsive and self-effacing portraitist of the American Northwest with the freedom to locate the form best suited to the subject at hand.

In Crowdog (1998), Renwick narrates one of her first westward journeys: a barefooted hitchhike from Chicago to South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Renwick recorded this reminiscence in the late 90s, but the Super-8 footage dates back to her 1984 trip. Dismissed from the reservation’s daily chores, Renwick and her German shephard wander a long yellow dirt road, searching for water in the wilting heat. The camera is pointed indifferently at the dusty ground, her bare feet and the dog’s slender torso gliding in and out of the ocher frame. Dirt clings to the lens, separating the image into two distinct planes. Renwick’s voice, surfing waves of tape hiss, sounds small and distant, but not weak: this is a story of willful autonomy that, like so many Westerns, finds an individual attempting to participate in a community without sacrificing hard-won personal freedom.The program’s other diaristic work, 9 Is A Secret (2002), recapitulates some of this dynamic, but in more formally sophisticated and psychologically complex terms. In a confessional whisper, Renwick describes assisting a friend’s suicide and riding out the emotional repercussions in the empty front room of a shared Portland house. Renwick is surrounded by people, but the action is all internal. She bears her sadness alone, finding solace in the divination games she plays, counting the crows and ravens that cross her path. The impressionistic montage conjures some of the spaces she describes, but focuses on the birds, framing them in silhouette against the dark night sky and then inverting the image, foreground and background changing hues with the movements of her heart.

In her character studies, Renwick gravitates toward people who share the isolation she expresses in the diary films. Richart (2001), made with Dawn Smallman, is a more-or-less straight documentary short about a once-institutionalized folk artist who has turned his Centralia, Washington yard into a dense jungle of wood, clay, and Styrofoam-based scrap sculpture. True to type, Richart is a cranky and stubborn autodidact. Renwick and Smallman milk his eccentricities for a few laughs, but they refuse to reduce him entirely to his prickly aloofness.  Their film revolves around a workshop he teaches for area kids — Renwick again finding satisfaction in the tentative embrace of community. Woodswoman (2010) is a structural work, its duration determined by the time it takes a book to turn to ash in a burning fireplace, but the titles that run throughout describe the life of another Renwickian type: Anne LaBastille, a pioneering ecologist and author of the titular Waldenesque memoir that smolders on screen.

Even more than the people, it is the landscape of the American Northwest that has captured Renwick’s imagination. In 2005, she began her first film series: a set of portraits of places throughout the Cascade Range, all of them so far concerning abandoned man-made constructions. Portrait #1: Cascadia Terminal (2005) is a lyrical tour through a grain terminal that was once Vancouver’s largest, shot on 16mm and hand-processed to look as neglected and fragile as the place itself. The second two, both shot on 35mm short ends by Hollywood DP Eric Edwards, treat the more recent past at a grander scale. Renwick and Edwards consider these sites from all angles, turning them over, poking at them to see what their surfaces reveal.  Portrait #2: Trojan (2006) examines the Trojan Nuclear Power Plant in Rainier, Oregon, on the eve of the final stage of its demolition. Renwick had been an active participant in the protest movement that contributed to the plant’s decommissioning in 1993, but in the years since grew to love the site of the inactive cooling tower along I-5 between Portland Seattle. Edwards captures the tower, and the plant’s other standing facilities, on and across from the adjacent Columbia River at different times of day, in a variety of lights, in nearly-loving tribute to its grandeur. The camera pulls back across the river for a wide angle as the tower falters and collapses after a single explosion, the shot lingering on the smoke and debris that hover in its wake while Sam Coomes’ score decrescendos, simulating all of Renwick’s ambivalence about the source of this beauty.

This sense of ambivalence pervades Renwick’s filmography, particularly in the nature films. She marvels at the Northwest’s ecological magnificence, but does not feign understanding. In FULL ON LOG JAM (2010), her camera lolls among the charred tops of Cascadian Douglas-firs, burned in a recent fire, before cutting to a medium shot of a middle-aged Native American man laconically splitting wood in a gravel driveway. The camera holds on him for nearly five minutes, contemplating the odd mixture of lassitude and precision this man embodies in the stroke of his hand sledge. It is unclear how we are meant to respond this man, hard to tell what contrast, if any, is represented in this diptych on the death of trees.

Order Hope and Prey Buy Order (2010) is a three-channel video drawn largely from footage shot by wildlife cinematographer Bob Landis. Ravens and eagles soar across an endless sky while wolves and coyotes prowl the snow-covered ground below, the three small boxes of image working in and out of sync, the boundaries between them dissolving and then reasserting themselves as some natural feature bisects the blank expanse of snow and sky. It isn’t long before an elk appears, spurring the ragged wolf pack to chase. For a few minutes, the suspense is overwhelming. The wolves nip at the elk’s heels as it weaves through the open plain, the shrill yowl of Daniel Menche’s score increasing in volume with every step. But each time it looks like he’s cornered, the elk somehow escapes, and the chase drags on for ten, fifteen, nearly twenty minutes. The initial thrill gives way to desperation, Menche’s score still keening, now signifying grinding necessity. Renwick does not allow us to experience the chase as an adrenaline-soaked departure from mundane life, but instead reveals it as that life’s very substance.

From the audience at Anthology, UD pal Chi-hui Yang suggested the films Renwick had shown there were all, in one way or another, action films. It is true the selection of work in that screening tended towards the depiction of physical feats and acts of nature, but Renwick’s attention favors the reverberations that follow rather than the events themselves. She is uninterested or incapable of telling a story — narrative is the one form she has abjured. She filters incident through subjectivity, fragmenting and distending it beyond recognizable structure. But, captivated by nature and culture alike, she does not reduce the outside world to our impressions of it. Perched between the interior and the exterior, Renwick shows us to how live quietly and attentively at a particular time in a particular place.