DIFF 2011 Review: THE OREGONIAN
You can’t really walk into your local multiplex and have a truly unique cinematic art experience. Even in the art houses they shy away from the fully surreal. They aren’t really to blame, the market is very niche and they are, after all, there to make at least some money. This is why at film festivals it’s good to see the strange and small films that may never get distribution except for a DVD on the filmmaker’s website. Going into DIFF, veteran Cliff Lee Reeder’s first feature length film THE OREGONIAN I knew very little. Coming out, I didn’t know a hell of a lot more but it was quite a visceral experience.
There is not much of a synopsis to give. How do you explain the unexplainable, something that was made more for a visual and auditory assault with no real narrative? The best I can give you is a woman (Lindsay Pulsipher, TRUE BLOOD) wakes up behind the wheel of a crashed car with blood coming from her face and a man and woman sprawled out on the ground, unconscious or dead, before her front bumper. From here she navigates her way down rural streets trying to figure out where she is and who she is. Along the way she meets a rather motley assortment of characters and shares much confusion and very little dialogue.
Reeder takes on an acid trip journey through, presumably, Oregon (though none of the film was actually shot in that state), with every turn adding more and more confusion. The characters our lost girl meets range from an omelet-obsessed man whose urine changes colors and a hypersexual blond man channeling Phillip Seymour Hoffman from BOOGIE NIGHTS. There are a few other assorted wackos, including some sort of cowboy/hippie cult, but the strangest by far is a tie between the evil laughing woman in red and an unknown figure dressed in a green Cookie Monster-esque costume that watches through windows and masturbates in his suit.
What this film really focuses on, and I guess all surreal films do, are strong visuals and a very effecting soundtrack. Most of the shots are full of very expressive color (a lot of green) and have this buzz of ambient noise and other unnerving sounds. The film definitely succeeds in taking the viewer on a journey into a rather nightmarish place. Though most of the time I would say that the nightmares are just of confusion and not too much shocking, overly grotesque or truly frightening imagery is used. This, of course, could just be due to my own high tolerance of the dark side of cinema. The real unease comes from the wildly erratic camerawork and harsh audio. I discussed this practice with others who saw THE OREGONIAN and most everyone could not deny the uncomfortable feeling Reeder was going for definitely worked. But how could it not? Is this really a hard thing to accomplish or smart filmmaking? At some point you have to ask yourself if these choices are brilliance or if the filmmaker just has common sense that a grating soundtrack and shaky visuals will leave the viewer feeling a bit out of sorts.
For me the experimental/surreal route in films really works well in shorts but a hard sell at feature length. It has to be a damn fine example of artistic filmmaking to hold one’s attention for around 90 minutes. This is no different. If you cut it down to about 20-30 minutes, I think there would be something really effective and not too drawn out. Still, it is full of some quite lovely cinematography and a few creepy moments. If you have the palate for the surreal give this one a go, but if you’re new to the genre this is not the place to start.