THE OREGONIAN - 11/15/2000


'X-Ray Visions': Weirdness lives on

Sign for Old Town's X-Ray Cafe, the wild early 90's nightclub memorialized in the documentary "X-Ray Visions."

Grade: B+
Directed by: Benjamin Arthur Ellis
Rated: Not rated, contains occasional profanity and scenes of ritualistic spanking
Running time: About 90 minutes
The lowdown: An entertaining: documentary about the early '90s: anything-goes, all-ages nightclub the X-Ray Cafe. The documentary captures the energy and creativity of the scene, but also places this lost wild kingdom in context.
A common phrase used in reference to particularly colorful past places and events is "you had to be there." Perhaps in the case of the X-Ray Cafe, you did.

In order to fully comprehend the weirdness and glory of a place once described by one of its many devotees as "Shangri-La on a shoestring," maybe you need to have spent some time there dancing the hokeypokey, getting your dinner from the little window known as the "House of Snax," and playing guitar whether you knew how to or not.

But for those who missed the experience of the storied, all-ages Old Town nightclub, didn't soak it. in fully or just want to refresh some cheerfully chaotic memories, the new documentary film "X-Ray Visions" captures much of the history, context and creative essence of the place.

Open from 1990 to '94, the X-Ray was Portland's wildest and most unpredictable entertainment outpost of its time, featuring everything from punk ' to country to avant-garde music, plus weekly sewing circles, slumber parties, Spanish lessons, Sunday brunches, etc.
Benjamin Arthur Ellis, who coowned the club with the voluble Tres Shannon, recently completed "X-Ray Visions," compiling the 90minute film from vintage video footage and wide-ranging 1999 interviews.
Considering the exploding kitchen-sink aesthetic that ruled the club, the X-Ray movie is surprisingly well-structured, even if the editing - particularly of the interviews - often hops around like a hyperactive fourth-grader. Through the observations of everyone from bizarro rocker Roger Nusic to respected advertising expcutive Pierre Oullette, Ellis places the X-Ray in the context of other era-defining Portland hangouts, from the Headless Horseman in the 1960s to the Blue Gallery in the late '80s. Ellis sketches the club's origins as a Greek pizza joint called the UFO Cafe, spends the bulk of the film recalling many of the colorful characters, bands and incidents that made the place unique, and winds down with the decision to close because of mounting debt.

The film makes a case for the valuable role the club played as a hive of good-natured energy in a rough Skid Row locale and as a nonjudgmental haven for neighborhood eccentrics" and youths with problems ranging from middle-class boredom to mental illness. ("It was a home for the homeless and a mind for the mindless," quips one unidentified interviewee.) It also connects the X-Ray to the larger rock culture, with the Last Pariahs recalling sharing bills there with the likes of Green Day and Everclear, and with testimonials from the heads of the influential underground labels K Records and Kill Rock Stars.
But what really helps the X-Ray make sense as a phenomenon is the array of pure nuttiness that went on: the elaborately ritualized Earnest Truely's Barebottom Spanking & Salvation shows; the time Ben and Tres (as the owners were most commonly known) chained themselves together for a 72-hour fund-raising show; an infamous bacchanal featuring the industrial band Crash Worship that reportedly included fires on stage and fornication in the audience; and so on.

Accepting of almost all cultural expression or character type that wasn't mean-spirited, the X-Ray championed a kind of inspired amateurism and a participatory environment that's unlikely to be equaled for audacity or fun. In the words of one former regular, "the X-Ray was the cat's potato."

And so is this film.

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