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Creative manifesto

Capturing Portland's collaborative spirit, with $90 and a borrowed car
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  May 27, 2009

48 main
VICIOUS BLOW Andrew Barron, one of three drummers in an ad-hoc band.
Photo by Samuel Cousins

"Is it fair to say we're a Marxist city in spirit if not law?"

David Camlin, the director of The 48 Hour Music Project Movie, posed this rhetorical nugget to me in an e-mail conversation this past weekend, before I sojourned through a mass of tourist shoppers moving in slow, easily-distracted motion through the Old Port. At that moment, the idea seemed ridiculous — it's not just our trees but our capitalist economy that's in annual bloom right now — but Camlin's film, and the story behind it, lend it some credence.

The film (screening twice at the Nickelodeon June 4, followed by a late-night reception at Local 188) documents a long, cold mid-February weekend, when 30 local musicians, led by organizer Leif Sherman Curtis (guitarist of Conifer), volunteered to be randomly assigned to six bands and, in those new configurations, compose and perform with 25 minutes of original material in two days.

The footage I've seen is simultaneously dingy and rousing: the documentary is set almost exclusively at dirty, dimly lit clubs and studios littered with beer bottles (and the occasional Red Bull can), and musicians are interviewed outdoors in front of bleak landscapes as snow drifts by. Everyone seems stoic but resilient and determined. It looks, yes, a little like the Soviet Union.

Camlin's production was as low-budget and fast-paced as the event itself. While he was originally slated to take part in the festival (he is Conifer's bassist), the idea of making a film about it became more enticing. (Camlin has previously directed the local documentaries The Sacred and Profane and the Portland Phoenix Short Film Award-winning Smelt Fishing in America, among other projects.) He "bowed out as a participant and started asking around for a decent camera to borrow. The idea quickly evolved into a crew of ten volunteers (eight camera operators, one sound engineer, and a production assistant) ... The entire budget for production was $90 for the tape stock."

Camlin spent the weekend overseeing the production, arranging "for the sound engineer (Pete Nenortas of Satronen Sound) to cover interviews and driving some of the crew to locations (with a borrowed car)." The interviews subtly illuminate the contradictory allure and practicality of Portland: it's hard to make a living as an artist here, but the living is affordable; it's stark and lonely and nasty for eight months of the year, but that's a great time to produce a lot of work, and you've got plenty of peers to collaborate (and commiserate) with. Zach Howard, guitarist of Conifer, calls Portland a "good place to live if you're poor" in the film, and the weekend's format, with musicians rehearsing in donated studio spaces and sharing instruments while creating new music, bears that out.

"These people are living here because of a certain quality of life that is available," Camlin says, "one that provides the elements of support necessary to pursue creative endeavors for genuine and sincere reasons. [T]he benefits of living here make whatever we need to 'suffer' through all the more bearable." Among those benefits: a crowd of hundreds at a triumphant, sold-out show (well documented in the final cut) cheering for bands they'd never heard before.

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