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X-Ray Visions

Other // Unrated // July 14, 2008
List Price: $14.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Kurt Dahlke | posted August 14, 2008 | E-mail the Author
X-Ray Visions:
My friend D and I were driving west on Burnside to get to the X-Ray, I think we wanted to see Big Milk Bath and maybe Tao Jones - two bands which we loved. We weren't going too fast, when what do you know, a transient stepped right out in front of her Volvo, and, you know, ended up riding the hood of the car for a dozen feet or so while I screamed and D tried to find her brakes. He was sort of swirling on the windshield, looking in like the creature from that Twilight Zone story Nightmare At 20,000 Feet. (Later we heard the man's hip was broken, and we're sorry, of course, but that's what you get when you step blindly and drunkenly out into a busy street with a moving car about 5 feet away from you.)

So, yeah, f*ck it, there's no way I can review this documentary in any normal style. The flick crunches a universe of 'you had to be there' experience into a short, sweet ride. The X-Ray café was a club run by two singular Portland Oregon souls - Benjamin Arthur Ellis and Tres Shannon - for a few glorious years in the late '80s and early '90s. It was an all-ages music club that is/ was arguably a contender (with its booze-serving brother Satyricon) for the title of Portland's CBGB/ OMFUG, a type of significant, ground-breaking musical-cultural, formative establishment that might never be seen (understood?) again.

As a docu, X-Ray Visions travels that familiar road, contemporary interviews (for when it was made around the turn of the century - you heard me) combined with grab bags of archival footage - because pretty much everyone who performed at the X-Ray videotaped at least one of their shows. PDX (and greater Pac NW) scenesters will either know-of, recognize, or have been interviewed for the movie, but notables include the owners, (Ellis made the film) Fred Cole, Reuben Nisenfeld, Jim Redden, DK Holm, Jody Bleyle, Fred Nemo, Daniel Riddle, Travis Kurtz, and the list goes on. Yeah, you had to have been there.

So yeah, I played there a few times too, and also at the pseudo-club Thee O that took over from the X-Ray after it was clear that Ben and Tres were too good to actually profit from such a venture. And what's clear from X-Ray Visions - and why the overdue DVD release of this documentary should be in the collection of anyone who ever set foot in there (or anyone who still harbors the flame of community and creativity) - is that the X-Ray welcomed without question everybody. People danced like freaks, people performed like freaks and freaks performed. When food arrived, it was dirt-cheap. People's bare-bottoms were spanked for salvation. One set of clips shows (Ben, I think) calmly talking to, respecting even, a belligerent roughneck who wanted to beat up the band or anyone who opposed him. Kids danced the hokey pokey. A band of toddlers named The Rapsberries played a set (they were probably named The Raspberries, but I'm leaving in the typo because it's awesome). The X-Ray even played unwitting host to an Anarchist Riot. (Attica! Attica!)

The fondness with which those who were there talk about the X-Ray is contagious, and if I must get critical, this document never rests for a minute, with ludicrous or electrifying clip after clip streaming by, sandwiched in between loads of quirky, thoughtful sound-bites. I can even imagine my mother-in-law being entertained by this disc. Oh yes, and footage of a Crash Worship show, with swaying half-naked bodies and flaming wands, I wish I'd been there for that one. Fact is, I'm all misty-eyed right now, and I think what Ellis has managed to do in a few cinematic minutes is sling together the elements that will make even music fans who've never set foot in the US understand how protean the X-Ray was, how at that place in time a self-styled nerd and outcast could put on a size two polyester dress, shoulder a bass guitar and get up on stage there to sing (while getting shocked by the microphone) and feel totally at home - and feel like he belonged to something bigger and more important than just getting by.


The X-Ray was the epitome of DIY culture. The movie shows it. Presented in fullscreen 1.33:1 ratio, the best images on display are circa 2000 Sony Hi-8 interviews, which are pretty clear and sharp. The most notable thing seems to be the fact that rain or heavy cloud-cover is never shown, so colors are pretty bright in an almost over-exposed, acidic-video way. It should go without saying that most of the archival footage is much worse, murky, noisy, washed-out and soft. Who the F cares, though, right?

Sh*t, I don't know, Dolby 2.0? Ben, when you read this, shoot me an e-mail and I'll adjust accordingly. I'd like to buy you a pint or two, also. Anyway, audio for the performances isn't great, but should give you an idea of the insanity that went on there. For what it's worth, it's all mixed fine, talking parts are balanced with the music well, so you'll never have to do anything but crank it at the start and just enjoy the ride.

Time, Place: Bloomington is an uneven but fascinating 30-minute documentary put together by Joe Biel, focusing mainly on an anarchist bookstore - Boxcar Books - in the Indiana college town. Splitting about 70/30 between bookstore volunteers and a bass guitarist named Nate, (a juxtaposition that never seems entirely clear, other than as a device to add variety) a wistful portrait is drawn about the town and its ability as a small liberal bastion to support young idealists. Damn, I hate the fact that I grew up. Three other Trailers for Cantankerous Titles/ Microcosm Publishing complete the mix. One for a docu about small press publishing, $100 & A T-Shirt, that features Portland's IPRC, (Independent Publishing Resource Center) one about the game of Risk (with more Bloomington habitués) and one about Plan It X records. All of them should make you staid bastards want to get back up off your ass and believe in something. (Yeah, I'm talking to myself.)

Final Thoughts:
X-Ray Visions is an exceedingly specialized documentary, but then again, it's for anyone who ever understood what folks meant when they said rock and roll is about 'the kids.' Ellis, in memorializing his own club, has concocted a potent elixir that should revitalize and energize anyone who believes in art, beauty, creativity and self-expression. Yes, we're kicking against the pricks here. Shabby, shambolic and utterly of its time, X-Ray visions is a beacon of hope. If you ever handed Vinnie Las Vegas a few bucks at the door, this release goes in the DVD Talk Collector's Series, but for anyone looking for (or wanting to relive) the wild side, it is at the very least Recommended.

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