Carrie Brownstein’s face is expressive and quirky, more interesting than beautiful, making her an ideal symbol for the city of Portland, Oregon. Although she’s not a Portland native, she came of age in Grunge-era Seattle and formed the band Sleater-Kinney while in college – pretty good credentials for living in the Northwest’s hippest city.
Portland is the subject of two recent projects fronted by Brownstein: the indie movie Some Days Are Better Than Others, which is playing in theaters around the country, and the IFC sketch comedy series Portlandia, available on iTunes and Amazon’s instant video service.
Some Days tells the story of three troubled Portlanders: a broken-hearted animal shelter employee who dreams of appearing on reality TV (Brownstein), a temp worker whose ambition is to become a substitute teacher (James Mercer, [The Shins/Broken Bells]), and a depressed woman whose job sorting donations at a thrift shop presents her with an unexpected quandary (Renee Roman Nose).
The stories are separate but ultimately interconnect. This type of movie has become a genre unto itself, and it works best when the real subject is something bigger – in this case Portland, which is portrayed as a city of well-intentioned people with little money but rich inner lives. Although they can and do act foolishly, we like the characters because they care about big things like art and family. First-time writer/director Matt McCormick wants us to see Portland as a gentle and genuine place where people are trying hard to just get along.
What I like most about the movie (although many won’t) is its self-conscious tone. The actors are mostly non-professionals, which calls attention to the script; the story is occasionally interrupted by beautiful shots of Portland’s landscape, which highlights the cinematography; and the haunting minimalist score by Matthew Cooper (which I am listening to right now) maintains a poignant mood. It all feels very hand-crafted.
McCormick confirmed this when he spoke about the making of the movie during a recent appearance at the Northwest Film Forum in Seattle. Although he considered using professional actors and even held auditions, he finally cast Brownstein and Mercer as the leads because they personified the characters so well. Also, he had previously directed them in music videos. “I don’t have a lot of experience as a director,” he said, “so I thought I should surround myself with creative people that I’m comfortable with.”
McCormick also talked about one of the real-life inspirations for the movie – George Andrus, an elderly outsider artist who makes films of soap bubbles. McCormick met Andrus at a film festival and wanted not only to immortalize him in Some Days, but also to cast him. As it turned out, though, Andrus was a bit too old to play himself, but his films do appear in the movie.
The score for the film was written during the editing process, which resulted in a close collaboration between McCormick and Cooper. Cooper wrote music to match the story that emerged during editing, and McCormick changed the ending of the film based on a bit of music Cooper composed. “Before that, the ending was not clear,” he said.
While Some Days gives its oddball characters a fond pat on the back Brownstein’s other project, Portlandia, is more likely to slap them upside the head. A sketch comedy show in the absurdist tradition of Kids in the Hall and Upright Citizens Brigade, Portlandia shines a light on the self-absorption and fuzzy thinking of politically correct Northwesterners.
Brownstein is joined by co-writer Fred Armisen (of Saturday Night Live) and a delightful parade of guest stars including Steve Buscemi, Heather Graham, Gus Van Sant, and, in a clever episode about our love/hate relationship with celebrities, singer Aimee Mann. Brownstein and Armisen, who both have great comic range, play a gaggle of goofy characters, including the owners of a feminist bookstore, a socially concerned foodie couple, members of Portland’s Adult Hide & Seek League, teenage Japanese girls, and two friends named Fred and Carrie.
Some skits are short, and follow the traditional set-up/punchline formula. For example, a couple outraged to find a dog chained up at a cafe are later revealed to keep their child on a leash. Other stories unfold over an entire episode, as when Mann, playing herself, is shown working as Fred and Carrie’s new house cleaner because no one actually pays for music anymore. Others are just funny ideas that don’t need much unpacking, like artisinal light bulbs, or Bring Your Guitar to Work Day.
If Portlandia sounds like your cup of chai tea, you may be glad to hear it has been picked up by IFC for a second season.