Film: Putty Hill (2010)

June 1, 2016 | By

PuttyHill_poster_sFilm: Good

Transfer:  n/a

Extras: n/a

Label:  n/a

Region: n/a

Released:  n/a

Genre:  Drama

Synopsis: Friends and family of a young man dead from a drug overdose gather for his imminent funeral in gritty Baltimore city.

Special Features:  n/a




When financing for proposed coming of age film Metal Gods fell through, writer-director Matthew Porterfield used the assembled actors for a newly drafted vision in which friends & family gather for the funeral of a young man, dead in his early twenties from a drug overdose. Porterfield mined his childhood Baltimore environs of working class neighbourhoods in rather beat up states, with vestiges of manufacturing infrastructure rusting in glaring, visible corners. No one’s rich, people are struggling to get by, and everyone has a tough past and errant pathway they’re working on correcting.

Putty Hill was reportedly shot in 12 days, an ambitious production with a huge cast of local actors, and more than a few fresh faces to film; everyone contributes to the genuine look and feel of sweaty, gritty characters, especially the teens, saturated with a deeper level of ennui than rivals in manicured suburban neighhoods.

Porterfield’s fictional film is also the closest a filmmaker’s come in recent years to echoing the style of British director Peter Watkins (Edvard Munch, Punishment Park). Porterfield covers his characters like a documentary ENG crew, following his subjects and periodically asking plain and sharp questions from off-screen to set up almost everyone’s relation to the dead young man named Corey. Watkins pioneered this unusual narrative style (which he dubbed ‘the monodrama’), and although it’s not for everyone’s tastes, it’s clear for Porterfield, the documentary look, plus the off-camera questioning, the distant, locked camera setups, and sometimes darkened faces of his subjects were helpful in taking a scripted concept and improvised dialogue to flourish within an 85 min. running time.

The problem with Putty Hill lies in the very loose scene structure, where whole scenes either work or kind of work, depending on how long it took the actors to hit interesting character beats. Porterfield solved most of the tempo and content issues by just cutting to better takes or sections, creating jump cuts akin to gritty 70s documentaries shot on soft and grainy reversal film. (When voices are completely drowned out, as happens in a tattoo parlour, their dialogue is subtitled like a news piece.) The character intros in the film’s early scenes are measured and multiple, delaying the finale considerably, which isn’t the actual funeral but the wake where everyone’s gathered for a final send-off in a karaoke bar.

It’s only at the wake when we see a huge picture of Corey, but he’s kind of buried amid the bar’s existing background clutter, and that alone cements Porterfield’s determination to focus on his fractured characters than the dead guy, who can only be described as a good kid who finally succumbed to an addiction.

A tattoo artist / uncle regards the tragedy as a lack of control and will, something he himself learned through experience while in prison; others are more ambiguous about their relationship with Corey, distilling him as a personality who would appear and vanish, leaving a faint yet glowing impression of a decent soul.

The film’s ambiguities force audiences to fill in holes and take from the central tragedy whatever they can, but the narrative is too heavy in the gathering of characters during the first hour; the funeral we never see isn’t an issue, but it’s the meandering tone that affects more than a few scenes prior to the wake.

Less effective and affecting, for example is a nighttime fire escape argument between estranged daughter and the tattoo artist that runs on with its locked camera position and teenage screaming.

At the other end of the spectrum is a great scene that’s filled with ennui and muddy audio. Four girls in a graffiti-splattered bedroom soon separates into pairs, and as the dialogue of the main character drones on, Porterfield swerves his camera to the other two who’ve assembled to smoke and commiserate in the dim, amber living room; the shot lingers on the smokers a bit long, but it takes a while for the audience to realize we’re not privy to their discussion, and just as we realize the source of the nattering is the first pair of girls, the camera swerves back to them for their final onscreen exchange.

The inconsistent intelligibility of the dialogue mix weirdly works for the film, again adding to its documentary tenor, while the cinematography ranges from grungy to underexposed. The only music material that could be branded as score is a recurring solo string piece that drifts in & out before unfurling in full over the end credits.

Putty Hill was reportedly shot on 720p Red and blown up to 35mm. The print screened at the Royal Cinema May 29, 2016 is likely from a handful that were struck in France, and it’s a very different experience than a watching a cleaner digital version. Right from the opening scenes, intentional or not, Putty Hill in 35mm looks like an indie documentary that’s been sitting in a distributor’s basement for 30 years, untouched, barely screened, and waiting to be discovered – qualities wholly absent from the digital master.

The DVD released in America by Cinema Guild uses the digital master, and comes with (unsurprisingly) deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes footage, screen tests from the aborted Metal Gods, and Porterfield’s debut, the 65 min. feature Hamilton, shot on 16mm film, plus similar extras.



Take What You Can Carry (2015)

Preceding the print screening at the Royal was Porterfield’s recent short, Take What You Can Carry (2015), a Berlin-shot, German-funded drama that’s more loose in structure than Putty Hill.

From what the stitched scenes inform us, Lily (Hannah Gross from Porter’s I Used to Be Darker and Nathan Silver’s recent Stinking Heaven) is recovering from an unspecific addiction while studying in Berlin, drifting from the beds of companions to a rehab workgroup where ‘loose’ interpretive dance helps colleagues confront and expunge demons, fears, and secrets.

When a group member feels ready, he / she grabs a mic and admits a flaw in judgment or viewpoint directly to the camera, cueing the far off DJ to spin a new piece, and anyone who shares in the personal flaw does a new dance until a fresh topic is broached. Porterfield covers the entire session in one shot, and the concept works brilliantly because the actors engage in solitary and collective gestures and conversations; the need for close-ups and cutaways is eliminated because within the wide frame we can drift and focus on other moments, like Lily chatting with a member, sometimes cheerfully, sometimes with apprehension.

The short’s final section has Lily house-sitting for a family, and as in a prior scene, she reads aloud personal correspondences which hint at a troubled past from where she’s gradually, and confidently, moving away. The ending smacks of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) in which Lily stands in a park, observing others from a far distance – the final shot which gives audiences no closure, but allows them to impose their own conclusions to Lily’s use of time and place, and whether she’ll recede into a more introspective state, or advance toward the families in the park.

Porterfield’s second feature film and recent short aren’t wholly satisfying, but they’re filled with unusual cinematic approaches which force a specific view on characters – especially slices of their emotional vulnerabilities – yet leave explanations, personal closure, and futures completely unresolved, which can be infuriating, or quite rewarding.



© 2016 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
Editor’s Blog — IMDB: Putty Hill (2010) / Take What You Can Carry (2015)
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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