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Doggin’ on Portland ... among other things

By Peter Crimmins Special to the Daily Planet
Thursday November 22, 2001

It’s a historical drama without period costumes. An underworld crime story with nary a gunfight. A car salesman’s tale without any car chases. It is a tight little civic mystery thriller that’s too polite to raise its voice. 

“Birddog,” opening for a week-long run at the Fine Arts Cinema on Friday, is an independent film made on an independent’s shoestring budget, which unleashes a tempest of corporate grudges and city destruction with the production muscle of a teapot. 

Harv Beckman is an earnest used car salesman (a “pot lot,” nothing more than $1,000) who gives his customers a fair shake. He is an honest but failing businessman reading a dog-eared Upton Sinclair paperback, and on the side he’s a writer who has published two books, both of which sold badly. (A writer’s group admirer asks breathlessly, “What’s it like, being published?” She is as disappointed by the answer as he is.) 

He checks himself when his temper flares.  

When his slow-witted assistant bids on a pristine 1948 Kaiser at an auction, his slipping fortunes takes a fast downhill slide. While Harv tries to get the $35K to pay off the auction house, the car gets stolen. Out of cash and out of collateral the only bargaining chip he has is a novelist’s erratic instinct and his good standing with the local Kiwanis Club.  

The intrepid do-gooders at the community-service Kiwanis add up to a lot as Harv’s small-business troubles drift into dangerous open waters. 

This is a working-class story with working-class style. Portland-based writer-director Kelley Baker used to run with Portland’s golden boy Gus Van Sant (who made River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves into P-Town street hustlers in “My Own Private Idaho”). A self-proclaimed angry filmmaker (check out his industry rants at, Baker has gone on record with his fervent dislike of Portland as a filmmaking town. He told the Oregonian, “I am a filmmaker who lives in Portland. I will never be a Portland filmmaker.” 

Although Baker worked on Van Sant’s last several pictures his debut feature shows none of Van Sant’s art house-cum-Hollywood flair. There is a pronounced preponderance of medium-frame shots, the sky is evenly-lit overcast, and the story moves at a clock-puncher’s pace.  

Slow and steady, the story does indeed keep moving. Those troubles with the car escalate into uncovering a tragic disaster. It seems during WWII a temporary city was built between Portland and Vancouver, called Vanport, which housed the mostly black and lower-class shipbuilders for the war effort. This is all true. Shortly after the war a flood destroyed Vanport. Harv wonders if the flood wasn’t intentional. 

He doggedly pursues the stolen car and the obscure historical catastrophe. The scenes are calm and determined. The plot progresses slowly and sure-footed as the evidence and events neatly stack up; it’s a solid, if a bit sedate, piece of work. The script gets a bit creaky when it pivots on a couple somewhat tentative plot turns – Harv’s out-of-the-blue instinct to connect the missing car with Vanport, and his uncanny ability to recall a car owner’s history. But chalk those up as whimsical zing on an otherwise concrete writing job. 

For all Baker’s ire and spite he projects as the card-carrying Angry Filmmaker, his film is essentially kind-hearted. It’s centered on the nearly angelic Harv, who does have a weakness but even his vices are virtuous: he’s a sucker for the Kiwanis Club and their well-intentioned rummage sales. His commitment to charity – sometimes forcibly committed – threatens to sidetrack his efforts to save his own business. This film has a subtle sense of humor for non-profit fundraising drives, its subtext, if such a thing can be read, is flagrant propaganda for community service nonprofits. 


Indeed, the character’s most tellingly weird quirk – and the thing that becomes his saving grace – is that he’s nice to his neighbors. In the middle of the storm of deceit and duplicity Harv takes the time to have a cup of coffee with a helpful woman. Nice guys might finish last, but the central character Baker has created here is a guy you’ll want to buy your next used car from.