URSULA K. LE GUIN'S WORLD EXPANDS TO BIG SCREEN
On Sept. 14, the filmmaker Arwen Curry premieres "The Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin" at a special screening at the Whitsell Auditorium. The film explores the creative life and biography of the groundbreaking science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, who died at age 88 in Portland in January.
Curry's background is in print and radio. She began working on her film 10 years ago, funded by an army of 3,100 Kickstarter backers and a National Endowment for the Humanities grant.
Her first shoot was in 2008. "I had an initial vision to make this about Ursula's life and legacy, and it developed into something deeper and evolved over time," the director says.
Viewers can't help but feel the warmth of this film. "Print and radio are wonderful media, but what they can't do is really bring someone in a room and see what it's like to actually be with someone."
From the film, Le Guin is portrayed as a commanding subject. At times open, earthy, and funny, she doesn't suffer fools. She encourages her flock with a firm hand. In one scene she tells a group gathered at Powell's, "There are so many books on writing here saying do this, do that." Le Guin, of course, always told writers to go their own way. In another part of the film we see the rejection letters from publishers with underscored passages: You write well. And: We don't know what to do with you.
Le Guin's rich voice and intelligence flow in the film, but was she ever difficult to draw close to?
"I wouldn't say that developing that intimacy with Ursula was difficult — once she decides that you are worth talking to, that is," Curry says. "She was always thoughtful about the things that she said and always measured, except when she was letting loose and being silly. Our relationship deepened and became a friendship over time as the story began to come together. She was engaged throughout."
There's no improving on the mind's eye, but animated sequences by London-based artist Em Cooper come close. The effect of her "Earthsea" animations is "sort of like being inside an oil-painted landscape, which we felt was very in tune with Ursula's work," Curry says.
New York City-based Molly Schwartz works in a different style, animating scenes from "The Dispossessed," "Left Hand of Darkness," and the Ekumen space animation, a consortium of planets. "The style is more realistic here," Curry says. "These are places that you could potentially imagine as real places that did not look like traditional science fiction covers."
Creating visual representations of a writer's book is tricky, Curry says. "We weren't telling people how to see the books."
The director interviewed many people for the film, including Le Guin's children and the writers Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, and Michael Chabon.
"All had a deep admiration for Ursula on a number of different levels," Curry says. "Some knew her well and others didn't know her at all but were influenced by her."
The younger writers who appear in the film, Curry says, express how Le Guin was "foundational to their work. Most describe their encounter with her books as changing the course of their work, and how it let them follow a path that their heart yearned for — even if it went outside the norms of a traditional writer."
Others speak of Le Guin as a peer and what it was like to watch her rise to the top of her field. Of her profound decency and warmth as a human being, and the degree to which she gave back to readers, writers, and libraries.
In one of many striking images, the viewer follows Le Guin as she walks along Cannon Beach, trailing a long strand of seaweed. "I begin with place," she says in a different scene, and the scene changes to a rocky landscape in eastern Oregon.
"These real places were incredibly significant and a direct inspiration for her fantastical places," says Curry, adding that Ursula's daughter told her that her mother's connection to place was unlike anyone she has ever met. That connection was most rooted in Steens Mountain, Cannon Beach, and Napa Valley.
While something essential about our city has left along with Ursula K. Le Guin, this tribute to her life debuts here for a reason, the director says.
"I know what she meant to the city and what it meant to her," Curry says. "It's not every day you meet someone who in their life can see the biggest picture imaginable, and at the same time retain a sense of time and playfulness, a connection to the weather, cats, flowering trees and plants."
"The Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin" will air on PBS's "American Masters" series in the spring of 2019
"The Worlds of Ursula Le Guin" debuts at the Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 S.W. Park Ave. Tickets: $10-$15 for 7:30 p.m. Sept. 14 opening night, $5-$10 for other times, www.nwfilm.org. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 14; 7 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 15; 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 16; 7 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 16.