Matt Porterfield’s portraits of his Baltimore hometown hit home video
Published: November 9, 2011
Cinema Guild DVD
It’s a bit jarring to see the words two disc collector’s edition emblazoned across the keep-case art for Matthew Porterfield’s Putty Hill. After all, Porterfield’s 2010 film is a much fawned-over (including by City Paper) art-house flower, a thoughtful enthusiasm of a small but growing number of viewers and critics who have encountered it at screenings and festivals, not the sort of multiplex fodder that usually gets “collector’s edition” hype. But then again, Putty Hill (and Porterfield’s debut feature Hamilton, contained on that second disc) has arrived at that point where what passes for a theatrical first run for a low-key indie in 2011 is now over. From here, the Cinema Guild DVD issue of Putty Hill (and Hamilton), out this week, will make its way in the world outside the cosseted context of the cinephile and scrum it up with all the other DVD titles on the shelf at Best Buy (or, more likely, Kim’s Video). From here, it belongs less and less to Baltimore, and in many ways, to Porterfield. And it bears taking another look before it embarks on that journey.
Even viewers familiar with Northeast Baltimore may find Porterfield’s vision of it in Putty Hill surprising: The deeply wooded ravine of Double Rock Park is every bit as incongruous onscreen as it is snaking through Parkville, butting up against backyards and modest ranchers and bungalows. But even those backyards are surprising—glowing green in cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier’s lens, slightly overgrown, divided by chain-link fences and dotted with the utilitarian backs of houses. All are recognizable but unusually shaggy-looking in this context, maybe the way your own home looks a little less together when people visit unexpectedly. But it’s what’s inside those houses, and how Porterfield observes it, that sets Putty Hill apart.
If you’ve read anything about the film before, by now you know that it was devised as a last-minute save for a more ambitious project called Metal Gods. Convening much of the same (almost wholly amateur) cast in the locations scouted, Porterfield abandoned the Metal Gods script and asked the cast members to improvise, more or less as themselves, their response to a fictional tragedy: the overdose death of a young man named Cory. Asking questions in voice-over, a la documentary talking-head interviews, Porterfield gets them talking about themselves, their lives, and Cory. (The closest antecedent that comes to mind is Floyd Mutrux’s sui generis 1971 cult fave Dusty and Sweets McGee.) What emerges is a portrait of a community—not in the large-scale, comprehensive sense favored by, say, John Sayles, but a more intimate view. And since they are nonprofessionals more or less pretending to be characters somewhat like themselves, rather than actors playing entirely invented roles, they are remarkably vivid.
The setting and the characters are the building blocks here; there is almost no plot in Putty Hill. It is, instead, Porterfield’s patient observation of these people in this place in this situation that animates his conceit, from the way Saulnier’s camera lingers on a rosy dawn tinting the off-white wall of a grimy bedroom to the way a memorial service held at Dimitri’s Tavern manifests all sorts of emotions in all sorts of atypical ways, from unspoken rapprochements to ear-splitting, heart-rending karaoke. It’s this watchfulness, this ability to capture something like actual life, in all its untidiness and beauty, that makes Putty Hill, for all its languor, feel alive in a way few films do anymore.
The new set not only does the service of bringing Porterfield’s 2006 debut Hamilton to DVD after five years in limbo, it places it in context alongside Putty Hill—his own career-launching de facto box set—offering an unusual opportunity to compare the two. The quiet watchfulness of Putty Hill was already in place five years ago, as was the resolute focus on real people in a real setting, also in Northeast Baltimore. Christopher Myers’ character, a very everyday Joe, is somewhat estranged from his family and from Stephanie Vizzi’s Lena, the mother of his daughter. (Myers is no relation to the City Paper photographer of the same name.) There’s more plot here in their inchoate attempts to bridge the distance; although Hamilton works toward something like a big conclusion, the payoff is in the closely observed details along the way: Joe’s isolation as he walks here and there, Lena’s dull job, the boredom of a summer afternoon.
Though not concocted on the fly, Hamilton feels more formative than Putty Hill, as Porterfield tries to mold his way of looking at things into a comprehensive look at these people and this place. But that way of looking at things is already there (as was his collaboration with Saulnier). The long takes feel longer here, in fact, the deep silences even deeper. By holding on the mundane, he forces you to look past the mundanity, at what you’re actually seeing. Far from trapped by the everyday, however, Porterfield includes a number of scenes featuring people moving in, out, and across a stable shot—Joe zipping around on his bike, kids kicking their feet on a row of swings—mini-metaphors for restlessness, joy, and, most of all, the complex life outside the frame that will never fit comfortably within it. That’s what Porterfield seems to be shooting for so far, based on his first two films. Baltimore-based viewpoint aside, if that’s possible, so far he’s getting closer than most.
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