In Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes claims we’re descended from Janus-headed, four-armed, four-legged forefathermothers, humanoid creatures so mighty that Zeus chopped them all into halves. The dialogue’s supposed to say something about romantic love, an attempt to validate how much priority we give to finding the perfect partner and how much time we spend plastering ourselves onto them.
But I like to pretend Aristophanes was talking about some weird predecessor to movies, an intimidatingly indefinable blob that a film exec with a Zeus complex just didn’t know how to market. He cut the ungainly thing into halves and one got sent to arthouse cinemas and the other to multiplexes. Since then, most of the best filmmakers — or at least the most vital — have been struggling to stitch art and trash back together.
Or something. Like my extended metaphor, The Oregonian is a mess, albeit a much more impressive one. Director Calvin Lee Reeder’s debut film has plenty of easily-recognizable elements, most notably in its allusions to genres as disparate as road trip, stoner comedy (intentional or not), gross out (lots of vomit, exploding face pustules), Urban Outfitters ad (in spirit, at least), horror, art film, and Americana (“What’s yer name, sweetheart?” said by a stranger at a campfire), but the resulting filmic goop is as unfamiliar to film as a four-legged, four-armed, two-headed being is to humankind. And as with the limbs on a humanoid, just because you can see all its filmic parts doesn’t make The Oregonian a composite. Reeder’s film is primordial, not pastiche: instead of fusing art and trash back together again, he shows us the single amoeba they both descended from. What’s the difference? Well, a four-legged, four-armed humanoid with two faces looks a lot weirder than two humans fucking.
The film opens with a series of grainy, oversaturated shots of trees and verdant landscapes, including a slightly-over-long portrait of a topiary of a horse. For a few seconds at least, nature has all the familiar comfort and safe longing of an instagram (or, if you’re old school, a Polaroid). A young woman (Lindsay Pulsipher, who plays a werepanther on the TV series True Blood), dressed in an appropriately practical flannel shirt, feeds a horse. Aww. Soon, though, she wanders over to the stables and is unsurprised to find a man passed out face down with a bottle of booze nearby, and somehow Reeder manages to change the mood of his nature shots from nostalgia to paranoid dread as the camera zooms into a tangle of branches.
Next thing we know, the woman is driving and, before we know it, has crashed. The opening ranch scene, we find out, is a flashback, and as it develops, it turns out to be the most normal narrative piece of a film that otherwise develops formlessly. As the woman encounters a succession of freakish characters when she stumbles down the road and into the Northwest’s countryside and towns, our bearings are constantly shifting. People we thought were dead (including a creepy Christian Palmer, director and star of TMT favorite, William Never Married, who helped produce The Oregonian) turn out to be not. Characters from previous scenes reappear in different forms serving different purposes. As The Oregonian transforms into a road trip, there’s definitely movement (the landscape transforms from Pacific Northwest to Southern California), but it’s hard to claim there’s progress in the woman’s present. Rather, it’s her past — a brief flashback of life on the ranch — that keeps developing, reversing the typical filmic dynamic between the remembered past and the experienced present.
The temporal wormholes, monsters (most notably, one in a fuzzy green suit), mystery cowboys, and blond lead will likely draw comparisons to David Lynch, which wouldn’t be far off if Lynch were more into dayglo vomit and endless, color-changing streams of urine. That’s not just a joke, either: Lynch’s weirdness is ultimately grounded in language, not in image. But in The Oregonian, language is almost absent. Speech comes primarily from the protagonist and is mostly unanswered. Reeder’s inventive and pervasive “soundtrack” notwithstanding, the film’s eloquence is visual. As weird a compliment as it is, The Oregonian has more — or at least more interesting things — to say about the color green than perhaps any other film, even if there are plenty of distractions along the way. But like language, the film’s visuals are all the more meaningful for their impurity: the projectile vomiting and overly hip owl decorations are just the idiomatic markers of a culture that’s both fluent in and saturated with images, the visual equivalent of the “fucks” and “ums” in any realistic scene of dialogue.