I called Baltimore filmmaker and Johns Hopkins University professor Matthew Porterfield to ask him about his film Putty Hill, which will be playing at the Chesapeake Film Festival and the Rehoboth Beach International Film Festival. I told him that a few days ago I listened to a podcast called The Film Talk where hosts Jett Loe and Gareth Higgins interviewed Francis Ford Coppola. In that July 2009 interview, Coppola admitted to liking films that he described as narrative-less or films that have no plot and don't conform to a traditional story structure but are more observational.
When Coppola started talking about these narrative-less films, I was reminded of the movies written by Harmony Korine or those by the so-called "mumblecore" directors. They're movies that I would describe as human zoos. If you've ever been to a real zoo, you go and observe animals in their habitats, not acting or performing but just living their lives, doing nothing really exciting. That's what these narrative-less films are. They're like human zoos where you watch people in their habitats, not acting or performing along any plot or storyline but just living their lives, doing nothing really exciting.
That's what Porterfield's film essentially is. It's a human zoo. Over the phone, Porterfield cited more artistic filmmakers like Andy Warhol as his inspirations and he called his genre or type of film cinematic realism. If I had to describe it, cinematic realism is more akin to documentaries because it's more about trying to capture reality under as it is rather than trying to manipulate things like puppeteer. Even though his camera is focused on actors hired to play roles, Porterfield is trying to capture reality or some truer representation of it. It's why this movie had no script. It's why the actors were encouraged to do improv. It's why a lot of the people in it aren't even professionally-trained at all.
One character known as Spike was a guy that Porterfield happened to meet outside a bar. He was a tattoo artist who Porterfield decided to include in the movie and actually cast as the father of another character whom he already had from a previous project.
In the case of actor/character Dustin Ray, his riffs just happened to be stories of his real life. Porterfield gave him a concept and that concept was a young man dies alone of a drug overdose and now his family on the eve of his funeral or memorial gather to remember him. Dustin took that concept and only that concept, again was fed no dialogue or script, and related experiences that echoed it. Drawing from his real life, Dustin included his own drug abuse and even his own time in prison.
I'm not sure if Porterfield was aware of this, most likely he was, but what he didn't know perhaps is how poignant and powerful this revelation would be. Dustin sounds so heartfelt and genuine because he's speaking a truth, an actual truth from his life, yet he fuses it with this fictional concept so perfectly that the audience can either think that both are true or both are false. It resonates that well.
Shot in a bedroom, Dustin basically sits and answers questions from an off-screen voice. Presumably, this is a person that he trusts, perhaps the filmmaker himself or a character close to him like a family member. The audience is never really told to whom this voice belongs, but the tone of the voice is so creepy. It creates a feeling of awkwardness or off-putting, but it does allow the characters to monologue and reveal things that they might not have, almost like they're in a confessional.
The only exception to this is Cody who we meet at a skate park and the scenes involving the group of girls who wonder a wooded area until they encounter rifle-carrying cops and who later hang out in a pool and after that sit around a house. There are some scenes here, which are designed to invoke odd or awkward emotions and that make no sense as part of any bigger idea or message. They're just banal, everyday occurrences that in the grand scheme of things don't add up to much but transpire and are most of what make up people's real lives. Porterfield in this film and his previous Award-winning picture Hamilton seeks to show these occurrences.
Also, a movie credit you don't often see is the one for "location sound." In most big-budget films, that particular credit is usually buried among the list of hundreds during the end credits, but not here. The location sound credit is forefront because in this movie the location sound or what's commonly known as the background noise or ambience is important. In fact, this movie is nothing if not ambience. From the beginning till the very end, this movie strikes you with its location sound, almost literally with its opening, which is a bombardment of paintball explosions. Yet, whether it's crunching leaves, a lawnmower, tattoo gun, cars on a highway, or music, either guitar or karoake, even without surround speakers, the ambience of this movie does envelop you.
Porterfield shot this piece sparsely, limiting his takes, refraining from too much coverage and maintaining long-running, wide shots. This technique, which I have seen before, has the effect of not distracting the audience with camera or editing tricks. We're instead left to absorb an entire frame fully and experience it in real time. It's apart of his cinematic realism. We sit with a character or walk with them and never cut or break the continuity of most of the scenes not even for close-ups, which forces us more into the reality of it.
This could potentially throw off movie-savy viewers who are used to MTV-style editing and faster pacing. Porterfield's sparseness could also leave many wanting more, but it's closer to honesty than a fictional film can get.
Three Stars out of Five
Not Rated but recommended for 13 and up.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 26 mins.