Thursday, 16 June 2011

Putty Hill - review

Matt Porterfield's breakthrough Sundance fested award winner gets a UK release with a limited run at the ICA.

Following the death of a young man, his family and friends congregate in Baltimore, Maryland to commemorate his passing at his funeral as is the custom.  Using handheld techniques, we follow these late teenagers and young adults as they go about there day to day lives as is the custom of documentary realism narratives.  However, then the fourth wall is broken seemingly, when an off-camera presence makes himself known by asking the youth in the frame questions about his life, the funeral and the boy, Cody, who passed away. 

The interviewer is in the same vein as Nick Broomfield would be, provocative in his questioning and leading with his meaning.  Unlike Broomfield though who would inject himself into the frame whenever possible, on this occasion the interviewer remains off-camera and serves merely as a therapist for the people he talks to.  It allows these young people, who are constantly put in their place by society and hierarchial structures of family dynamics, to speak for themselves.

The interviews are never confrontational or antagonistic, Porterfield is making a subtle reference and political comment about these people.  Sometimes they just want to talk, and if they are afforded the time to talk and shown due respect they can speak freely, openly and with suprisingly clear clarity.  Unlike the usual fame hungry people so often thrust before the camera in other documentary films and programmes.  The need to communicate face to face in this age of instant messaging and contact has never been more prevalent.

Credit for these to camera dialogues should go to Porterfield and his co-writer Jordan Mintzer (who also produced) as they give these young people proper things to say allowing them to be intelligent yet with under the surface complexities waiting to burst out; the performances from the young cast go hand in hand with the effectiveness.

When there are not interviews on screen we are given some beautiful photography by Jeremy Saulnier, especially the woodland of the Baltimore area portraying a stillness in the surrounding Maryland state, lets not forget this is a funeral movie after all - the chill and still of funerals are portrayed with great humanity and subtlety.  This is helped by the sound design as evidenced by the paintball scene that opens the film, the hum and bang of paintballs impacting on tree bark, metal and flesh gives us a sonic spectrum for the mind and eyes.

Following in the footsteps of Cold Weather, Catfish and the obvious debt of the influential works of Gus Van Sant, especially Elephant, the combination of naturalistic performances and documentary realism genre are woven together to creditable effect.  It tells you so much in an interview, yet a look can say so much, a film that never gives its full hand away; but there is no danger of it bluffing, this is the real deal.

If you can get to the ICA in the next two weeks, you shall not be disappointed.

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