Local filmmaker Matthew Porterfield mines community through the camera’s lens
Published: March 2, 2011
Imagine being transported into a strange community in America. Your goal is simply to know it—see its soul, find its stories—as much as possible in as little time as possible. What’s more, your task is to take this information back and deliver it to the world: What I am presenting is what this place is. If you lived in this place, here is how it might feel. Where, then, do you go in this community? Over tea on a recent February afternoon, this is the question that Matthew Porterfield, the director of the powerful, quietly gorgeous Putty Hill, is considering. “I like to go where . . . public places where youth gather,” he answers finally. “The skate park, the strip mall. Churches. Bars.”
Putty Hill is a movie that is so much about place. A young man, Cory, is dead from an overdose, and the movie offers only the days before the funeral and a wake, a collection of snapshots of those who knew him—family, friends, or otherwise. How they come together is best described as how a person can be more than a sum of his or her parts, and this is a thing that a person can never fully know or understand.
Like Porterfield’s 2006 debut Hamilton, Putty Hill’s story—or characterscape—is set mostly in the fringes of Northeast Baltimore, the city’s uncelebrated margin that’s not quite suburb yet not quite city either. And we are soaked in that place. It’s not something pressed on the viewer in the way a movie like Taxi Driver is about a place. Yet neither is it ambiance. At the end you just know something more, something important about a community that feels honest and real—which has to be one of the higher compliments a filmmaker can get.
“This is the very heart of why I make films,” Porterfield says. “I’m very interested in exploring the world through the process of filmmaking. I get to know a place better through the proximity I find through working on a project. Just like I get to know people better through working on a film.”
The Northeast suburbs are where Porterfield grew up, so telling their stories in Hamilton and Putty Hill—and in a third screenplay just finished—is natural. And much of the cast consists of local non-actors, something to which the movie owes a great deal of its success as a document-of-place: real people, acting without scripts.
It’s this element that takes Putty Hill past fiction. After all, can you call a movie populated by real people reacting as real people to a made-up story purely a work of fiction? An extreme example: A scene near the end that is possibly the most emotionally powerful depiction of karaoke ever committed to celluloid is rounded out with real-life regulars of the setting’s bar, unaware at first that what they signed up for—singing karaoke for a film—is actually singing karaoke at a wake in a film. The reactions to the brief good-bye speeches are, well, genuine.
What you see through the rest of the movie is at its core the same thing, albeit less deceptive. “You say it’s a film about daily life,” Porterfield says when asked how a director goes about presenting something like this to a cast. “It’s a film where I’m going to be asking you questions, questions that have no right or wrong answer, and you can draw on your own experience or make something up out of thin air to equal effect. Those are both valid.”
From the viewer’s perspective, those real people not acting but reacting feels very much a part of how Putty Hill succeeds at translating a community to the screen: taking a story and lensing it through the collective experiences, emotions, and points of view of real community members.
“It was something that everyone, myself included, could relate to, could draw from in a really personal way,” Porterfield says. “[Everyone] could draw upon the experience of having lost someone they knew, lost someone to drugs, lost someone in their family. It was very personal to everyone, I think, on the project. And that’s why they were able to use their imagination to make connections to this young man—draw upon their own experience to sort of make it . . . whole.
“I feel relatively lucky that there are realistic images of Baltimore,” he continues. “I can reference The Wire and, to a lesser extent but still relevant, Step Up and Step Up 2. I feel like young people today are very media savvy and aware of their own cultural cache, that there’s a lot of . . . that they’re a big market and a lot of entertainment is geared toward them. The converse is true too. There’s a lot of proximity and familiarity with, I guess, the notion of exploitation.”
The process of releasing an indie movie like Putty Hill is, for better or worse, not unlike a band touring the country to support a new record. Every night different cities, people, and communities. Thinking again about this idea of peeling back the layers of a place, Porterfield remembers a bar in Duluth, Minn., since burned down, almost as if he’d stumbled into the vaults of the city’s secret history: “There’s so many stories there,” he says. While noting that maybe “I could keep telling stories [in Northeast Baltimore]” forever, Porterfield mentions that he’d like to do something in Detroit, and he’s scouted locations in Reno.
Which returns to this question of how you get to know a place, or get to know a place well enough to live it through a camera as witnessed in Putty Hill—a place that is not you, as Northeast Baltimore is Porterfield, yet one that will need to be felt and experienced in the same way. “There would be an extra level of research involved,” he says. “One has to be careful, transplanting one’s self for like three to six months or even a year before shooting, if you’re trying to tell a story about a particular experience tied to place, and particular characters tied to place, as it is in Putty Hill. You want to do more than take a stance as a tourist, as a cultural tourist.”
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