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“We’ve gotta realize it’s the Seventies. Nothing comes for free,” admonishes one of the members of a hastily assembled south Portland community-action group in Penny Allen’s buoyant satire Property (1979), a film that reminds us that before Rose City was a brand, it was an actual place. This loose, low-key bohemian rhapsody screens at Metrograph as part of its complete Allen retrospective, a list of titles that can be counted on one hand. However slender, Allen’s filmography — which consists of two other features, a medium-length work, and a short — is defined by a sensibility not easily pinned down.
Inspired by Portland native Allen’s own battle against an urban-development plan in her hometown just a few years prior, Property follows a coterie of nonconformists who band together in the summer of 1977 to save their block, located in one of the city’s few historically African-American neighborhoods, from a landgrab (all except one of these various Victorian renters or owners are white). The first of the nine charismatic counterculturalists we meet is Walt (Walt Curtis), tapping away on his typewriter at his kitchen table in his sun-drenched top-floor apartment and reading some of his dippy verse aloud. While always an affectionate portrait of this shambolic crew, Property also wryly points out the extreme self-regard of some of its members, especially evident in Walt’s greeting to a friend who phones during his stanza-creating: “You interrupted me writing a poem, but that’s OK.” (Curtis, a longtime literary hero in Portland, published his novel Mala Noche the same year Allen shot Property; the book served as the basis for the 1986 debut film of the same name by Gus Van Sant, who worked as a soundman on Property.)
The person on the other end of the line is Lola (Lola Desmond; many of the cast members, a mix of actors whom Allen met while working in Portland’s theater scene and nonprofessionals, lend their real first names to the characters they play). Resembling a cross between Shelley Duvall and Aladdin Sane, Lola, who’s raising a kid with an ex-con, may be the most lucratively paid of this economically marginalized bunch; the funds from her part-time prostitution go toward their effort to buy their block and prevent it from becoming the playground of rapacious realtors. For as much as they’d like to stick it to the Man, though, no one clamors to lead this heroic effort, some claiming burnout from all the activism of the previous tumultuous decade. Others try to beg off by announcing their zodiac-dictated managerial style: “If I did it, it would be straight Virgo consciousness,” proclaims Michael (M.G. Horowitz), a Brooklyn-accented fop who, along with Lola, eventually spearheads the mission. Like a much more playful version of Robert Kramer’s Milestones, an epic dirge from 1975 on the failed dreams of Sixties radicals, Property recounts the contradictions inherent in most utopian schemes, particularly at a time when communal efforts were ceding to individual desires. “I’m tired of organizing. I wanna be alone. I wanna be a poet,” Walt says. His declaration of independence is as familiar as this complaint, a variation of which has been uttered by demimonde dwellers ever since the birth of cities: “Portland isn’t the same as it used to be.”
Walt Curtis and Lola Desmond turn up again in Allen’s second film, the carnal cannabis-caper Paydirt (1981), another project about troubles on the land and collective organizing (and also based on real-life incidents), this one set in Oregon wine country. Desmond plays Nancy, a viticulturist whose grape-growing enterprise — and pretty much everything else — is subsidized by her pot crop. The plants attract the interest of a narco-capitalist who hires a coed trio of stylish young thugs to tie up Nancy and the two men she lives with — one the father of her two children, the other with a less clearly defined role — and steal their sinsemilla stockpile. Although the writing isn’t as sharp as in Property, Paydirt continues the earlier film’s casual, captivating observations about unconventional relationships; the overwhelming beauty of the Pacific Northwest vineyards serves as insta-aphrodisiac.
Not too long after Paydirt, as she explained in a 2013 interview with the Oregonian, Allen left Portland and filmmaking to live with a lover in the isolated, terrifically named town of Sisters, in the center of the state. In 1991, she moved to Paris (where she’s still based), working for the French environment minister and as a translator; her seatmate on a 2004 flight back to Portland — an army NCO fighting in Iraq all too eager to share the horrors of the battlefield — would prompt her return to directing. Just shy of an hour, The Soldier’s Tale (2007) features the vehemently anti-war Allen gently interrogating that stocky man she met on the plane, identified only as Sergeant R., who meets her in a dismal motel room to click through the photos of blown-up bodies and other atrocity exhibitions stored on his laptop. “I’m like a big sister. I listen to him,” Allen says in voiceover, accurately describing this documentary’s greatest appeal: the chance to witness a dialogue guided by genuine curiosity and compassion, not foregone conclusions.
In a roundabout way, The Soldier’s Tale would lead to Allen’s most recently completed film, Late for My Mother’s Funeral (2013). Blending fact and fancy, the work is anchored by the recollections of Abdeljalil Zouhri, who attended a screening of Allen’s war documentary in Paris and approached her afterward. Part of a Moroccan family reared in Algeria, Abdeljalil and his brothers and sisters are still reeling from the death of Zineb, an outsize matriarch whom the siblings take turns performing as, an element in the film that’s part rite of remembrance, part emotional purging. As Allen and her crew travel from France and northwest Africa and back again, national borders mean less than familial ones. “Our country was Zineb,” one of Abdeljalil’s sisters says — a psychogeography that Allen makes just as specific as the Oregon of thirty-plus years ago.