Architecture on Film: Property + Q&A

Activist-director and independent cinema trailblazer Penny Allen’s satirical docudrama follows a collective’s attempts to save their neighbourhood


08:40pm, Monday, 14 March 2022


10:45pm, Monday, 14 March 2022


Cinema 1
Barbican Centre, Level -2
Silk St, London, EC2Y 8DS



AF Members:
£9.60 (Please contact AF for promotional discount code)


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Tel (9am-8pm):
+44 (0)20 7638 8891

This is a past event

We are delighted that this UK premiere of Property will be followed by a conversation between its director, Penny Allen, and film critic and scholar Dr. Elena Gorfinkel.

[A transcript of this conversation is now available at the bottom of this page]

Property [UK Premiere]

After a lot of nine home goes up for sale – in a historically African American neighborhood now home to a diverse mixture of Black families and countercultural newcomers – its soon-to-be-evicted residents attempt to band together and collectively buy back their lives, after an idea sparked at a drunken birthday party. A part-time prostitute becomes the group’s agent, seeking to charm the bank and local government, whilst the reality of community organization and the group’s dreams encounter internal and external obstacles.

Allen has referred to the film as her "land-use movie about the urban situation". Adapted from her real life experience of a local community’s fight against their neighbourhood’s pending sale, demolition and erasure, and dramatized through bohemian local characters and members of the theatre troupe with whom Allen was working at the time, the film conjures, in fellow Oregon director Kelly Reichardt’s words: “A freewheeling adventure on the violence of economic relations; a genre for our time, yet born in another”.

A prize-winner at the first ever Sundance Film Festival in 1978, the film’s legacy to independent American cinema includes the introduction of a young Gus Van Sant (the film’s sound recordist) to Portland poet and Property protagonist Walt Curtis – whose book, Mala Noche, Van Sant would later adapt as his first feature.

An acutely playful and political timecapsule of 1970s social and cinematic ideas and ideals, Property talks directly to contemporary realities and crises – of speculation, community organisation and the fight for the city – and does so with verve, rye humour and a fierce manifestation of independence.

(USA, 1978, Penny Allen, 92 mins)

Regions of Eccentricity: Penny Allen’s Property (1978), by Elena Gorfinkel

Although often overshadowed by other features, one of American independent cinema’s definitive traits is a penchant for regional specificity. Grounded in a deep anchorage to details of place, independent films’ expression of spatial materiality interrogates social and cultural margins, alternative modes of living, classed, gendered and raced existence and the vagaries and inequities of the American social experiment. Portland native Penny Allen’s Property (1978) is an important yet too little-known milestone in this tradition, shot on vibrant 16mm with a gregariously mobile lens. It is a freewheeling portrait of an Oregonian collective of raconteurs, misfits and bohemians, who try to reclaim a South Portland city block from which they are about to be evicted, in the predominantly African American neighbourhood Corbett-Terwiliger-Lair Hill. Narrating a project of communal restitution and a battle against forces of real estate development, the story is drawn from Allen’s own experience, a few years prior, when she became involved in a land-use dispute in her neighbourhood. Anticipating the work of other US independent filmmakers who attend carefully to the Pacific Northwest, such as Gus Van Sant and Kelly Reichardt, Allen utilised a cast of local personalities and members of a theatre group she was involved with, loosely playing themselves.

Property poses a fundamental question: can collectivity be forged and sustained through the repossession of the property form? In his book The Spectacle of Property John David Rhodes asserts that the hidden crucible of film spectatorship and a core pleasure of filmic mise-en-scene has long circulated around the spectacle of private property, condensed most notably in the form of the American house, especially as imagined by Hollywood. The house serves as a medium for the traversal of fantasies of class, possession, nuclear and other kinds of families, social capital, mobility, security, and ease. Cinema has long been besotted by the desire for space and its capture: the “temporary tenancy” as Rhodes describes it, of vicariously inhabiting the living space and domestic interiors of other’s lives, produces a grabby, possessive spectator who hungers for replenishment in the aspirational illusions of the screen environment. 

Thinking cinema through the prismatic ground and material exigencies of real estate complicates any neutral or purely formal understanding of cinematic space, as the economic labours and intrinsic displacements of domestic space signal its fundamental instability as idea and ideal. Penny Allen’s Property takes cinema’s romance with the domicile and drives it in another direction, one that questions the conditions of private property and its potential to be seized and redistributed, not according to the measure of wealth but that of need. Yet her assembly of bohemian misfits and rambling eccentrics soon discover that in the washed-out idealism of a post-countercultural political environment, as one character avers, once money needs to be borrowed, that “it’s the 70s, nothing comes for free.” 

Property’s insouciant, shaggy dog aesthetic relishes in the peculiarities and cacophonous voices of a cavalcade of artists, performers, and malcontents drawn from Portland’s artistic scene – Lola Desmond, playing an occasional sex worker whose lover Jack has just been released from prison, the willowy hippie Marjorie with her vibey conviviality, and Corky Hubbert, a local comedian. Most prominent and legendary among them is the charismatic poet and artist Walt Curtis, an important figure in the Portland literary and artistic landscape. His novella Mala Noche would be later adapted by another Oregonian and collaborator of Allen’s on the film, Gus Van Sant, in 1986 (Van Sant served as sound recordist on Property). 

The film’s opening announces the dynamic energy of local dwelling, as life, work and warm domesticity are held in a mellifluous suspension. Eric Edwards, Allen’s cinematographer (who would later lens Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Larry Clark’s Kids), traces a circular pan around a one room apartment in a Victorian house, as we hear Curtis’s typewriter and his self-dictation, as he bangs out a sardonic poetic litany in stops, starts and comic retorts. Curtis’ syncopated scatting in voiceover is placed against the lived in and burnished materiality of his cheerily cramped studio, where thickly slathered paintings in green and blue landscapes rest on counters alongside jars of grains, spices, stove-top and tea kettle, tucked under a sloped roof and opened up by the breeze and sun of a balcony view. The full revolution of the camera finally reveals Walt astride the typewriter, his curly pate dappled by sunlight as his phone rings, lyrical flow interrupted. He ambles out of his room and down the stairs of a shared house, as piano music wafts from the landing below, his housemate playing a mid-afternoon tune on an upright, seen from the stairs above. 

A thickly sketched and observed mode of life made possible by the affordances of cheap rent, this picturesque diorama of creative autonomy, group life and hard-won idiosyncrasy is shortly disclosed to be under threat. Walt wanders out to the street to find a banker’s realty sign hammered into the ground on an overgrown green lot at his street corner, where his neighbour Butch talks about the impending evictions, and his family’s long history of residence here. Holding an empty window frame and aiming to take pictures, Butch speaks of the need for the place’s preservation. Walt galvanises action, as he and comrades knock on doors to see if neighbours might want to fight back together by buying back the block as a cooperative. A rollicking series of meetings, arguments, dinners, and conversations structure the film, redolent with multivalent energy of the organising meeting and the bawdiness of the group hangout, one impulse at times thwarting the other. Delightful in its indulgence of multiple tracks of interruptive talk and convivial banter, Allen’s approach invites a listener attuned to the density of social gathering and the pleasure of simultaneous and conflicting strands of colloquy. Allen seeks to embody the density of urban proximity through this approach to sound, and her film devotes itself to loquacious sociality, as multi-directionally expressive and essentially anarchic. 

How can a film represent the tensions, conflicts and difficulties of political and social organising? Property’s breezy, satirical approach to the affinities, alliances, and arguments that emerge from collective action attests to the shifted ideals and aporias of the moment, along with exhaustion and burnout of the 60s Left. Most in the group demur from spearheading the project, citing the limits of their own capacity and commitment. Walt, for one, announces that he wants the space because he seeks to drop out and pursue the lonesome vocation of poetic absorption. Fault lines of race and economic privilege also emerge – Butch remains the only Black member of the group. The financial and bureaucratic obstacles towards reaching their goals indicate the arbitrariness of capitalism’s values – as Lola dresses up fancily to be the group delegate with the banker (in her own description to look like a “cardboard cutout”), as Corky negotiates his measly benefits at the Social Security office and Marjorie haggles with a haughty clerk at an antique store in order to hock some of her prized vintage possessions to find hard cash for her contribution to the group's pool for down payment. Yet the metric of value rests with cynical institutions that hoard liquidity. As a compromised path emerges, one which requires routing their cooperative endeavour towards a model of individual ownership and a cooptation by wealthier co-signers, other tensions surface – which houses properly belong or must stay with whom, relative to the claims of longstanding residents such as Butch’s grandmother and the neighbourhood’s other Black occupants who are unable to be involved in the collective. The irony of group ownership rebounds back to the problem of property as a privatised economic form, one which this ragtag collective’s quest for securing some model of ownership paradoxically contests. 

From the present moment, when gentrification and skyrocketing rents have become an incontrovertible reality in the metastasis of real estate interests and in the expansion of what queer underground filmmaker Jack Smith called the obscenities of “landlordism,” what might the promise of ownership or possession mean for those on the margins, perennially displaced or dispossessed? Property points to no easy resolution. As the deadline nears and many other evicted tenants move out, some of the displaced abscond with windows or other fixtures, a subject of debate in the organising meeting. The claims of what of a place belongs to who are difficult to reconcile, not least by those who wield a check book or hope to secure a mortgage loan. 

Allen’s boisterously trenchant film asserts the creative necessity of finding a way to live otherwise, of occupying and claiming space, motivated by a spirit of community activism and the potential of solidarity that abrades and upends capitalist hierarchies of value. As the eviction deadline nears, group member Karen proceeds to sweep the stripped away interior of her house, its bones and walls visible, wooden floors bare. She suddenly wields the broom like an otherworldly instrument, sweeping in broad strokes, swinging it in the air around the space, as if casting a spell. This theatrical moment of domestic labour turned buoyant habitation suggests something else of the desire for dwelling, an urge towards self-definition that hews towards the improvisatory and expressive – drawing a line, cutting a rug. Sheltering small revolutions, a house is also for dancing. 

Q&A Transcript: Penny Allen in conversation with Elena Gorfinkel

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity

Elena Gorfinkel: What an amazing film, and what a revelation to watch this on the big screen. This film really speaks to our moment. It’s a film about displacement, and gentrification, in a time when gentrification as a term didn’t necessarily exist.

Penny Allen: Not at all.

EG: So I’m curious what are the things that motivated you to make the film? I know that you were an activist, that you were involved in running a theatre group, and that you were also collaborating with Eric Edwards, the cinematographer, and that you were making a cable access show together with Eric for the community, about the community. So I wondered what led you to the making of this film, which came out of those moments of your life? How did the alchemy of those things lead to the wonderful film we just saw?

PA: Well it was just the circumstances. I had a great collaborator, Eric Edwards, who had just finished Rhode Island School of Design, in film. He was eager to make a film, and so was I. And I had the subject matter, because I had lived through it for three years or so. And I had a theatre troupe with some very talented actors. So everything seemed perfect.

EG: And the neighbourhood, Corbett-Terwiliger-Lair Hill, is a historically African American neighbourhood, that still exists and still has a Black community living there. I’m curious about how you worked with the location. Was the location the location of the film, and what we see on screen?

PA: Yes, it really was. Although you don’t really see, in the film, the circumstances of that rather strangely shaped neighbourhood. In Portland, on the West side, the city kind of rises to hills, even mountains. And that cuts off all sorts of things. It cut off the signal, so that people there didn’t receive television. And so they were eager to watch our local cable programme, once a week – a show on the neighbourhood, and destined for the neighbourhood. The neighbourhood is parallel to the river, so it is very long, and that’s why it has such a long name – Corbett-Terwiliger-Lair Hill – it’s a long, skinny neighbourhood. It’s also very close to downtown, to the city centre, which made it very attractive to developers, that’s why it was in the situation that existed just before the movie starts actually. As an activist, and there were plenty of us in the neighbourhood, we had managed to push through the city council a regulation that would not allow exactly what the developers wanted to do. No high-rises. So the neighbourhood was down-zoned, meaning that it was going to stay what it was. So what happened is that most of the neighbourhood was put up for sale, all at once, because it was useless for these developers after this. So that’s the situation the movie begins with.

EG: The sense of space in the film is rather intimate, both in terms of our sense of domestic space, and in the shooting of houses. Could you say more about the houses themselves? One of the locations was your own house, seen in the opening sequence with Walt Curtis. Could you say more about your approach to shooting, or working with Eric. What was your approach to the particular spaces you used? In some ways there’s a real closeness to people, rather than vistas, and that to me is interesting.

PA: Well I lived in the space, so I was very familiar with it, and had lived in it for some time before we shot the film. Eric Edwards also lived in the neighbourhood, and had been very drawn to it because of a little ramshackle Victorian house that he put into good condition. We appreciated all the Victorian houses, but they are mixed in with houses that are not Victorian, which is just the natural thing; when a neighbourhood is not protected, well it grows the way it grows. Now, actually, it is a protected area. It cannot be altered, which is interesting.

EG: Could you tell us a bit more about the people in the film? Were these people members of your theatre group? One of them obviously is Walt Curtis, who is a figure – a poet and an artist – who was important to the Portland scene. I’m wondering if you could tell us a bit more about the particular personalities in the film, and how you chose those people to work with?

PA: Well actually, it was written for them. They were selected to fill a certain need in the group. Walt was not a member of my theatre group, but Corky [Hubbert] was, and Lola [Desmond]. And Corky and Lola and I had even done improv together before that, we had been working together for some time and so we knew how to do that.

EG: There’s a real great humour that seems to come from Corky too. He’s a comedian in the film, and this gives the film an interesting tonal quality.

PA: Well he was a brilliant guy, he was really one of the smartest people I ever met. And I miss him terribly. He was a spectacularly spontaneous performer, and would come up with things right before your very eyes, really wonderful to work with.

EG: There is this incredible improvisatory quality to the film. Did you have a script or an outline for this? The outline of the story sounds like it came from your own experience, several years prior, but it seems like you gave actors a lot of room to improvise. What was that process like?

PA: I wouldn’t say it was improvisation. I would say that we would develop scenes together. It was not improvised before the camera. Yes I had a script, with a beginning middle and an end, and it included all of the scenes.

EG: The film is very interestingly structured. The first half is a lot about the momentum of the collective, and the ideals of the collective. And then the second half is about the facing of the bank and all the bureaucratic processes; there’s a real confrontation with the bank and all these institutions that bestow value, which I think creates a really lovely arc within the film, in terms of our investment in these characters.

Property is also the first film that was made in Portland – the first feature film set in Portland?

PA: The first feature film, yes. And then after that, gradually, a very large community of filmmakers developed, which was wonderful.

EG: Some of whom have been mentioned, like Gus Van Sant and Kelly Reichardt. It’s quite interesting to think about the way we have an idea of the Pacific Northwest, through cinema or popular media, in terms of its eccentricity. But I think what’s so interesting about your film is the way that it really gives space to the charismatic personalities of the people who lived there, at that particular moment, people on the margins of more normative society. And I’m curious: has your relationship to Portland, vis a vis this film, changed? Watching this film again, seeing the film re-circulate in the present, have you thought about Portland as an idea? Obviously a place changes – as Walt says in the film, in the mid-70s already, Portland isn’t what it used to be. And then there’s the cinematic imagination of a place, as opposed to a lived reality of a place.

PA: There’s probably nowhere that is like it was before. Yes everything changes, and certainly we’re in a period of great development. Gentrification is an issue now, and it wasn’t at the time. It wasn’t even happening particularly at the time. As to my relationship to Portland, well, that’s not what it used to be either!

AUDIENCE: You instilled in the film a fantastic amount of ambiguity, a sort of moral ambiguity - whether you look at the collective as organising and resisting gentrification, or as a bunch of buffoons who sort of come together, use their parent’s wealth to become landlords in themselves, and also potentially drive out the black community that was there. I wonder has your perspective shifted on those two extremes as time’s worn on, and questions of race are more prominent?

PA: Well it is a film that is full of ambiguity, and intentionally so. Especially the ending, because it is really not clear whether or not Butch [a Black protagonist in the film] is saying yes or no, whether he’s going to stay there or not. And that is intentional. So it’s not a polemical, political movie, in the sense that it’s trying to put forth one side or another, one moral issue over another. It was intended always to be much more like real life, which is full of ambiguities and questionable morals and honourable people. It’s intentional that it should be that way.

EG: The character of Butch is an interesting one. I think we are very aware of this question of exclusion, of that process of who gets excluded, as the film wears on. The costs of private property ownership create these rules of engagement in the group. It’s interesting thinking about, and also in relation to the history of real estate in the United States – practices of red lining and other forms of segregation that happen at the level of zoning and real estate. I think that is very much there in the film. I think Butch kind of represents that line of exclusion, that is in the process of happening – those tensions in the group about who is owed what, and who owns what; ownership in a more cooperative sense or ownership in a more individual sense.

AUDIENCE: I really enjoyed the film and I feel like I don’t see so many films like this made today – films full of this same sort of energy, engaging with political questions in the same way, but also filled with lightness and humour and based within local communities. Do you feel like there was a space in the 1970s for that kind of filmmaking, and what’s happened to that space? 

PA: I don’t know whether or not there was a space for that in the 70s. I couldn’t possibly generalise that way. It’s been said that this film is difficult to place, and it’s true, it is difficult to place – and that has a lot to do with the people who were making it. And things have got a lot tougher since then, only tougher. So perhaps it becomes more difficult to make a joyous film about a difficult aspect of society.

EG: How did the decision come about to end with the poetry reading? I was curious about it, because I think that contributes to that element of ambiguity as well.

PA: Well the film starts with with Walt reciting a poem, and so it ends with him reciting a different kind of poem. He did not write this poem for the movie, but I knew about that poem because I had heard him recite it many times by then, and, for me, it sort of resumes the situation that they find themselves in: it is a red neck story, that capitalism is, I think. So it was an appropriate thing to have as an ending. But it isn’t really quite the ending, the ending is really on Butch.

EG: And that’s an interesting collision - between one narrative of the West and another kind of settler narrative – the logger and his masculinity. It’s dealt with in a humorous way but then also, in a much more pointed way, addresses the cost of that claim on space, on land. I think there is that sense of a balancing of those two things.

JUSTIN JAECKLE: You were talking about the public access cable TV series that you produced with Eric Edwards prior to the development of Property, and I find the relationship between these two projects very fascinating. Particularly in relation to this conversation about community – working with, or for, the community, and what that is. It would be interesting if you could share more about the public access TV show you were working on before, and how that show was perhaps a bridge to what we saw on screen tonight.

PA: Public access television was an issue at the time. It was being developed and was just exactly what the words say – ‘public access’. And our situation, as I said before, was that we were in an area that had no signal. And so, before either Eric or me, someone decided that they would create a cable system that would speak only to the people in the neighbourhood – a captive audience. It was very important in the sense that we did all kinds of things in that programme. Sometimes it would be a meeting that was going on with the various people that were in the neighbourhood. Sometimes it would be about a certain person that lived in the neighbourhood. Sometimes it was about the houses in the neighbourhood, or the little creeks that flowed down from the hills through the neighbourhood and down into the river. There were countless things that we could do, and we did them, for about a year or so. It was just that the quality of 1/2 inch video tape was very bad, and it was very frustrating – particularly for Eric, who had just been in film school, where a lot of what they talk about is how to make things look good! And by the end of the year the situation was that we wanted to make a film, and the situation had presented itself. But what that time with public access did is reveal people to each other, reveal the situation they are living in to them, and to talk about, and encourage them to talk about, the situation they are living in, and how it is evolving, how you want to intervene in the way it is evolving. All of those things were important in public access, and I think they show up very much in Property.

EG: It’s interesting what you’re saying about that structure, about engaging community audience and also modelling questions that emerge out of the community, because that also calls to mind earlier 70s documentaries, consciousness raising films, films that were meant to be discussed in a particular space.

I’m curious about the reception of the film in Portland, when it was originally made. It played the first Sundance festival, but…

PA: In Portland it showed in a theatre for a few weeks, and that’s really all that happened in Portland for it. It was in festivals in other parts of the United States, and so its life took off in that direction. But you would be surprised about how people in Portland were actually not interested in it – other than the kind of people that were in the movie, they were all interested in it – but it did not spread larger than that. I don’t think it had any influence on the city really. I know that disappoints you, but it’s the case! 

AUDIENCE: Can you say a little bit about what the neighbourhood is like today?

PA: Well it looks very much the same, because, as I said, it is protected now, having been down-zoned, and I’m sure that will persist. It’s still a very mixed population, just the way it was before. I would say the percentage of Black people has dropped, but they have not disappeared. But I also have to say that I haven’t lived there for 35 years, so I am not a good witness. I do go there to look around and go see people I know who still live there, but that doesn’t mean that I know or feel the area the way I did at the time.

EG: I’m curious about the scene with Karen, where she’s sweeping, which I wrote about in my essay. I think it’s such a beautiful, buoyant scene, even though it’s a moment in which the deadline is looming. There’s this real sense of the stakes in both the film as a whole and its investment in thinking about the problem of the property form, but also the attachments we have with places, and the home. But there’s an aspect also of interpretative dance, or playing in a space. I’m curious if you could talk about the genesis of that scene, and how it emerged as an element of the film.

PA: Well it was very important for me to have screen time devoted to each one of the characters, so that you would know them, but also because they were interesting. They were chosen because they were interesting, and I wanted to encourage them to make use of the way in which they were an individual. And I also have to say that my experience in theatre came out of admiration for Bertolt Brecht and for his distancing theory, where a narration goes along and is then broken. The way he often did it was that the play would be going on, and then an actor would break the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience – mostly to point out what you have just seen, or even to ask ‘did you get what you just saw?’, to get people thinking. I’m still very much of a Bertolt Brechtian person, and I think what I was trying to do in Property was to have the story go along, and then have a pause where a character, each character, would do something, or relay a particular issue, and then the story goes on after that. And it is kind of a distancing in that sense, because it causes you, as you just described, to reflect on what that person was doing, or what that person said, and how it plays into the larger picture.

EG: Speaking of speech, this is a very loquacious film. It’s one in which there are a lot of multiple lines of talking, often overlapping. I really love this about the film. I’ve heard you talk about this connecting to the film’s urban qualities. I wondered if you could talk a little about that, about the sense of these multiple voices, which you’ve described elsewhere as a kind of form of multiplicity. I’m curious if you could talk about that approach to speech, that approach to vocal expressivity.

PA: Well you’ve just said it! The fact that people talk all at once, or over each other, I think is a kind of urban factor. But really you said it very well, I can’t improve on what you just said.

EG: But I’m sure it created certain problems in terms of shooting, in terms of how you keep attention, in terms of sound too. There’s an interesting question of how to level the sound between the characters that we see, whilst also keeping all those lines of action in play. I think it’s really delicate.

PA: Well yes. I think there’s a lot of stuff in there that you miss out on. When you’re in post-production of course you can lift a particular sentence, a particular phrase, that is buried, and we certainly did a lot of manipulation like that. But this is a movie that was made with no crew whatsoever – we were a crew of three, so it was kind of a feat to accomplish all that without any help.