Gonzaga professor Matt McCormick's documentaries explore the strange side of American culture

The Great Northwest, which screens at the Magic Lantern on April 9.
The Great Northwest, which screens at the Magic Lantern on April 9.

Matt McCormick's documentaries tend to view recent American history through the prism of personal history, films inspired by old photos and family anecdotes passed down through the generations.

It's a trajectory that began when the filmmaker and current Gonzaga University professor was still working in the advertising industry. In 2001, he directed a documentary short called The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal, a sort of tongue-in-cheek visual dissertation about the destruction of urban art. It was programmed at Sundance and screened at the Museum of Modern Art and, as McCormick describes it, "kind of went viral" in the days before YouTube.

This led to more commercial work, collaborations with artists like Calvin Johnson and Miranda July, and gigs directing music videos for the Shins, Sleater-Kinney and Broken Bells. He also made the 2008 narrative feature Some Days Are Better Than Others, which starred Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein and the Shins' James Mercer.

He began teaching film at Portland State University, and now he's an assistant professor at Gonzaga, instructing students on the basics of narrative and documentary filmmaking and working on building a more comprehensive film program at the university.

Next week, McCormick will be screening two of his recent nonfiction features at the Magic Lantern Theater, and he'll be on hand to answer questions after both films.

Showing on Tuesday night is 2012's The Great Northwest, which was inspired by a scrapbook that McCormick found in a thrift store, a meticulously detailed photographic document of a road trip embarked upon by four women in 1958.

"They piled into an old Chevy and drove from Seattle, came through Spokane, went to Idaho, Montana, Yellowstone National Park and up to Glacier [National Park]," McCormick says. "They then drove down into Oregon, did the entire Oregon coast, and then back up to Seattle. So they were on the road for over a month, drove over 3,000 miles.

"They took photographs, they collected receipts, brochures, postcards, any kind of paper ephemera that they could find. And then at the end of the trip, they put it together in this beautiful scrapbook."

Because they left behind such a thorough itinerary, McCormick decided to recreate their trip, visiting the sites they did and seeing how the landscape has changed in the decades since. The Great Northwest will be paired with The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal, the film that got McCormick's career rolling in the first place.

The next night's feature is 2017's Buzz One Four, which McCormick describes as being about "the night my grandfather nearly blew up the Eastern Seaboard."

It starts like this: McCormick's grandfather was an Air Force pilot, flying B-52 bombers in a military mission called Operation Chrome Dome. In 1964, his fleet hit a storm and the tail of the plane he was flying snapped off, knocking him into the side of a mountain near Washington, D.C. Oh, and it was carrying a dozen nuclear bombs.

"It was a story I obviously grew up with," McCormick says. "And I just kind of forgot about it. A few years ago, I was reminded of it, and I Googled it and realized, wow, this was actually a really big deal.

"It changed significant things with these airplanes. The B-52 was a plane that Boeing was making, and it turned out the tails of these planes were tearing off all the time. So it's not too different from what Boeing is experiencing right now."

Preceding Buzz One Four is the short Future So Bright, an experimental documentary about abandoned industrial spaces in the Northwest.

Right now McCormick says he's working on a short inspired by the urban legend about a Russian drilling project that supposedly discovered the underworld. Until that's completed, this program will serve as something of an introduction to his work, and as another step toward expanding Spokane's still-evolving film community.

"In a lot of ways, this is sort of my, 'Hey, Spokane, let's hang out,'" he says. ♦

The Great Northwest • Tue, April 9 at 7 pm • Buzz One Four • Wed, April 10 at 7 pm • $8 • Magic Lantern Theater • 25 W. Main • magiclanternonmain.com • 209-2383

All Sorts @ Magic Lantern Theatre

May 20-25, 7 p.m.
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About The Author

Nathan Weinbender

Nathan Weinbender is the Inlander's Music & Film editor. He is also a film critic for Spokane Public Radio, where he has co-hosted the weekly film review show Movies 101 since 2011.