Taking its name from a white, working class neighborhood in Northeast Baltimore, Putty Hill is the second film by ruggedly independent filmmaker Matt Porterfield. Although this latest effort shares some similarities with his first film, Hamilton, namely in terms of style (both films gorgeously shot by DP Jeremy Saulnier) and setting (Hamilton is also the name of a B-more neighborhood), the similarities end here. Where Hamilton revolved around two protagonists, Putty Hill has been atomized, constructing a unified narrative out of a series of enigmatic character-portraits, eventually leaving us with a Brueghelian tableau of life in post-industrial America (and what better place than Baltimore, one of the more tragic examples of Western decline). The film is currently on the festival circuit, recently winning the Grand Prix du Jury at the La Roche-sur-Yon Film Festival, and will be premiering in New York in February (details below).
The story is ostensibly about a funeral for a young local named Cory, who has died of a heroine overdose, and the two days in the lives of friends and family leading up to the burial. But one quickly realizes that the micron-thin narrative is simply an excuse to trap and pin down a few fleeting moments in a broken community.
There’s a desire for realism that is palpable in every frame of the film. Porterfield’s camera wanders around Putty Hill, following characters as they go about their daily lives, playing war games, swimming in a creek, doing tricks at the local skate park. It enters and exits intimate spaces and situations as it pleases, capturing the balmy atmospheres of a Baltimore summer along the way. With the exception of one actress, the “characters” are non-professionals: they all use their real names and the stories they tell about themselves are true (the two ex-cons, for instance, are “real life” ex-cons). However, the camera does not content itself with simply being a distanced observer of quotidian existence. On the contrary, Porterfield goes out of his way to administer low-voltage shocks to the spectator by directly intervening in the film and doing man-on-the-street interviews with his actors.
Hiding off-camera, the director-turned-documentarian jumps into the film without warning, questioning characters about life, death and high school. The gesture is quite radical. It is not clear where this is going, and the director himself seems unaware of what final shape the interview will take. One is reminded of La Chinoise-era Godard, where JLG grills Léaud, Berto and co. in order to achieve a higher dialectical truth. The difference here, however, is that there is nothing outwardly political about these interviews. No ideological stake is being driven in the viewer’s head. The daily existence of these Baltimoreans screams political without necessitating further commentary.
What results is an odd mixture of narrative artifice and documentary portraiture that feels as much Lynchian as it does realist. Porterfield does not fall into the traps so common to “indie” directors whose portrayals of American poverty are either cheap excuses for gratuitous crime films, or so tragically monumental as to be out of a Stalinist handbook on Socialist Realism. Instead, he lets them express themselves on their own terms, refusing to force his actors into prefab ideological moulds. This is, no doubt, linked to Porterfield’s having grown up in a similar Baltimore neighborhood (cf., Interview below). But, whatever the reason, the end result feels new – a difficult word to take seriously, given how many “new” films and filmmakers seem to be spreading across the blogosphere like a bad disease.
None of this is to say that Putty Hill is not without flaws. Though beautifully shot (Saulnier does wonders with an HD cam), it occasionally feels overly concerned with clean art-film aesthetics (perfect tracking shots, off-centred framing), and some scenes go a little long (especially the final drive to the house where Cory died). But these are mere quibbles. Watching Putty Hill, one feels that it is doing what independent narrative cinema should do – and, given the current state of the American economy, I am inclined to say, must do: act as a counter current to a “mainstream” which seems only too happy to ignore any and everybody not stunning, rich, or living in either Manhattan or Los Angeles.
In a time where cinema (and all forms of recorded culture) has become disposable, there is something about Putty Hill that stays with the spectator. Be it the leafy idylls of Baltimore’s suburbs or the lumpen beauty of a wake in a truck-stop karaoke bar, there is something undeniably raw and untamed here which one could only hope to find echoed in future independent films.
Putty Hill will premiere at Cinema Village in New York City on February 18th. For more details, see the website: puttyhillmovie.com.
INTERVIEW WITH MATT PORTERFIELD
Christopher Silva: How have critics and festivals received Putty Hill?
Matt Porterfield: It’s gotten a lot more attention than I expected, and almost wholly positive. International festivals have taken particular interest in the film because it’s a version of America that you don’t usually get to see on screen.
CS: Although your film seems to explore the lives of everyone from young people to senior citizens, particular attention seems to be given to adolescents. Why is this?
MP: The “teen years” are the focus of a lot of media attention in the United States, but little of the television or cinema created for and about young people in America is particularly sensitive or authentic, so there’s a political or social agenda to my focus on youth. But more importantly, I draw inspiration from adolescence, from my own experience growing up in a working-class neighborhood in Baltimore, through my continued exposure to young adults in my role as a teacher. Adolescents act as barometers of the times. They experience societal changes in a palpably emotional way. The false logic that characterizes much of our behavior in adulthood has proven less interesting to me, at least thus far.
CS: Your last two films are named after Baltimore neighborhoods (Hamilton, and Putty Hill). Why is the city so central to your films?
MP: Baltimore is just the “illest” place. There’s no other word for it. If you spend any time here you know. It’s the best and worst of the northern and southern States rolled all into one.
CS: Looking at your films, certain filmmakers come to mind: on this side of the pond, there’s Antonioni and Godard, and in the US, people like Charles Burnett and L. Rogosin. Could you talk about your influences?
MP: I share a preference for minimal dialogue and wide, open spaces with Antonioni. When I first saw L’Atalante and L’eclisse they made a big impression, and I love The Passenger. But Godard is the one. He’s my favorite living director. He continues to inspire. There’s a sense of discovery every time I see one of his films — Robert Bresson, too. I admire Bresson’s ascetic approach to realism, and Pedro Costa’s deceivingly less-minimalist approach by way of Straub-Huillet.
I only recently discovered the UCLA gems from the 50’s and 60’s: On the Bowery, The Exiles, and Charles Burnett. Now I teach them in my film history classes. I also draw a lot of inspiration from filmmakers of the American avant-garde, in particular Jonas Mekas, Andy Warhol, Bruce Baillie, Hollis Frampton, and Ken Jacobs. I’m most excited by filmmakers dealing with questions of form over narrative, from the Soviets in the 20’s to artists like Michael Robinson and Elad Lassry.
CS: Parts of the film feel improvised (interviews, the karaoke scene, etc.). How much of the film was scripted? What was your approach to directing actors?
MP: None of the dialogue was scripted. It was all improvised or developed on location by the cast and me, each of us performing versions of ourselves. The fictional element of the film, the death of a young man named Cory, was written ahead of time by me and my producer, Jordan Mintzer, as was the basic trajectory of each narrative scene. We filled in the details together each day.
Arriving on location with the crew, we would first spend a little time assimilating. I worked with my DP, Jeremy Saulnier, to discuss the master while my production team put everything in place. Then I went about talking to the cast: discussing the material, their characters, helping them feel comfortable with the whole process of production, which was new to all of them. After the frame was set, we’d block the scene, then tweak for lighting and sound. Throughout this process I’d encourage my actors to play with dialogue by tossing out ideas, trying different lines, keeping it fresh while downplaying its importance in the scene. My goal in every instance was to encourage them to speak in their own voices. And they did, always coming up with better lines than I could have written myself.
CS: Many scenes are simply vignettes: a young teen picking his sister up from library, a mom singing a song she wrote on a midi guitar, kids doing tricks at a skate park… many contexts are evoked, but few seem to serve a narrative purpose (i.e., they are not linked to Cory or his funeral––the central “theme” of the film). Why include them?
MP: Cory is just a McGuffin, to borrow from Hitchcock, a narrative excuse to weave all these separate stories together. All the scenes you mention were written first. They existed on paper in a certain chronology well before we came up with the idea of an overdose or a funeral.
CS: Any new projects in the works?
MP: I just finished writing a feature script called I Used To Be Darker. It’s a story about family: what pushes us away from our own, what draws us back, how we negotiate new terms of engagement as we carve our own space in the world. I wrote it with my partner, Amy Belk. She’s a fiction writer, but new to the screen, so the process of collaborating felt very fresh and exciting. The other project in the works is a film about a man on home arrest, set in the same northeast Baltimore neighborhood as Hamilton and Putty Hill.