The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

Putty Hill

After financing fell through on a scripted feature about teenage metal heads in Baltimore, entitled Metal Gods, Matthew Porterfield put together a five-page treatment based on people and locations he discovered while developing it. Shot guerrilla-style in 12 days, the result turned out to be Putty Hill. Porterfield’s semi-improvised second feature mixes a simple fictional premise – the overdose of a twenty-four-year-old drug addict named Cory – with documentary elements, such as direct interviews. Porterfield uses Cory’s death to explore reactions of relatives and friends within a working class neighborhood of Putty Hill on the outskirts of Baltimore. In the process, he captures a sense of dysfunction and alienation that rivals that found in Chris Fuller’s dark vision of his home town of St. Petersburg Florida, Loren Cass (2009), or Harmony Korine’s celebration of white trash culture, Gummo (1997).

Porterfield’s impressive first film, Hamilton (2006), about an unwed teenage mother and the baby’s father set in Baltimore, screened at a number of film festivals and independent showcases, including the Wisconsin Film Festival (which is where I saw it), before seeming to fade away. Putty Hill shares the same formal rigor of Hamilton. It consists of a series of loosely connected scenes that occur the day prior to Cory’s funeral, as well as one shot in his pad afterward. The film is less a portrait of Cory (whose photo we finally glimpse at the wake) than of the people who knew him and the places he inhabited. Only gradually does his younger cousin, Jenny (Sky Ferreira, the film’s only professional actress), emerge as the central character of this group portrait.

Although she wasn’t really close to Cory, Jenny returns from Santa Monica, California for the funeral. Earlier, her father Spike (Charles Sauers), a local tattoo artist, discusses his nephew’s death and his own troubled past with a client. In a long interview in which she rides in a taxi cab, Jenny, like Clarissa from River’s Edge (1987), worries about not being able to cry at the funeral, but reveals sad details about her conflicted relationship with her dad. Later that night, she breaks down after watching him apply a tattoo in subdued light as he and three black men do drugs. As she weeps uncontrollably on the porch, he claims not to understand her behavior.

In a sense, Spike’s bewilderment epitomizes the detachment that these characters seem to experience in the face of everyday life. None of them can really fathom Cory’s death. They know it’s a tragedy, but are incapable of mustering any semblance of emotional loss. As human beings, they’ve become deadened by alcohol and drugs, or distracted by paintball skirmishes, tattoos, BMX bikes and skateboard parks. All of them seem to live with their mothers – their fathers are conspicuously absent from their lives. After Cody and his brother, Dustin, return from paint balling, their mom sits at the kitchen table with Cody’s black girlfriend and baby. She strums a guitar and sings a song for him (about “looking for your brain”), but Cody stirs his coffee loudly and rudely leaves to go to the bathroom. And the assembled group at Cory’s funeral gathering can’t even let his mother, Cathy, deliver her eulogy without creating loud distractions that nearly drown out her words.

The pre-funeral party turns into a bizarre event. It’s held in a karaoke bar, where folks drink pitchers of beer. Someone does an off-key version of “Amazing Grace” (a last-minute replacement for the Rolling Stones’ song “Wild Horses” that created copyright problems), but it soon lapses into empty testimonials and spirited dancing that might seem more suited to a wedding. Cory’s grandmother, Virginia, who resides in a retirement home and smokes cigarettes, refuses to attend. She prefers denial to having to grapple with her feelings. If some of this at times contains an undercurrent of humor, it’s because Porterfield so clearly understands and appreciates the nuances of this subculture and has been able to nail the milieu so accurately.

Porterfield’s poetic sensibility is reflected in the film’s stunning shot compositions. His scenes unfold at a languid pace, but each is a feast for the eye, as well as the ear. Jeremy Saulnier, who, like Porterfield, attended NYU film school, has to be one of the most gifted indie cinematographers. In Putty Hill, he uses a dark muted palette and as little light as possible, so that you can’t help but be reminded of the work of Gordon Willis. One of the strongest scenes in the film is one of Spike giving a tattoo by flashlight. And the final one where Cory’s sister, Zoe, and a friend visit his deserted housde contains so little light we can’t really make out their identities for certain. The scene, however, provides a fitting bookend to the film’s opening shots of Cory’s place, in which light creates reflections on the wall.

Porterfield’s staging of scenes is extremely imaginative in terms of image and sound. In an early scene in which Spike gives the guy a tattoo, the buzz of the tattoo gun nearly drowns out their dialogue, so that Porterfield resorts to subtitles. In another early scene, four teenage girls hang out together on a couch. Two of them get up to have a cigarette.  The camera follows and frames them, but the remaining two offscreen are miked instead, causing a weird disjunction between what we’re hearing and seeing. When Zoe arrives in town for the funeral, she’s interviewed in front of a busy highway. In the night scene of the tattoo at Spike’s place, music drowns out the dialogue.

The director’s decision to use the documentary technique of interviewing the fictional characters is perhaps one of the most controversial aspects of Putty Hill. Who is the person asking the questions, and what is his relation to the narrative that is unfolding? Our local critic didn’t think it worked because he felt it created emotional distance from the characters. But with non-professional actors, who are not emotive to begin with, it tends to draw out the subjects, confusing the divide between subject and role in fascinating ways. Porterfield explains the strategy: “I guess I think about it as a disembodied voice – a voice coming from the camera – asking questions in the voice of the filmmaker, maybe the voice of the camera, but also the voice of the audience; but not as a physical body needing any reason to be there.”

Putty Hill provides additional proof of how digital cinema continues to transform indie film. It allows filmmakers such as Porterfield the liberty to shoot cheaply and quickly. In moving away from the written page, he’s been able to combine improvisation and visual storytelling as a means of providing a vitality that’s so often lacking in many conventional films today.

The film, which is being distributed by Cinema Guild, opened at the Sundance Cinemas Madison on Friday, two months after premiering in New York City. It will play for a week.

Posted 16 May, 2011

Beautiful Darling

Photo by Anton Perich

Candy Darling (1944-1974) was a later Warhol superstar from the period after the Pop artist was shot by Valerie Solanas and became the producer of Paul Morrissey’s films. Born James L. Slattery, Candy appeared in Flesh (1968-69) and starred in Women in Revolt (1971), Morrissey’s satire of the women’s liberation movement – a film that parodied Solanas and the SCUM Manifesto in every way imaginable. James Rasin’s poignant documentary about the tragic life of Candy Darling, Beautiful Darling, opened in Manhattan last week. It joins the growing list of documentaries about Warhol performers and associates, such as Nico Icon, Pie in the Sky: The Brigid Berlin Story, Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis, and A Walk into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory. For true Warhol fans, Beautiful Darling, is not to be missed.

In Women in Revolt, Holly Woodlawn and Jackie Curtis decide that they need to enlist real beauty to their feminist cause. They manage to rope Candy Darling into the PIG (Politically Involved Girls) movement. After she decides to become a movie star, Candy gets taken advantage of by an agent (Michael Sklar). By the end of the film, she has managed to sleep her way to the top, only to be exposed by a tabloid reporter, who brings up the dirt about her – the suicide of her parents, her incestuous relationship with her brother, and her sleeping with various directors to get parts in foreign films where she does very little. Alluding to the title of her new film, the columnist concludes, “I don’t think you’re a Blonde on a Bum Trip; I think you’re a Bum on a Blonde Trip.”

The former might better describe Candy’s actual life story. Beautiful Darling begins with Jeremiah Newton, Candy’s former roommate and the default executor of her estate, as he forges a certificate from the Garden State Crematory in North Bergen, New Jersey. After we watch her gravestone being transported, Candy appears in old footage and announces buoyantly: “Hi, I’m Candy Darling. I’m an actress here in New York. I’ve been in eight pictures – small parts in big pictures, and big parts in small pictures.” In the company of Jane Fonda, who hoped to land a part in a Warhol film, Candy, looking like some sort of fashion-crazed pirate, announces, “I call myself Candy Warhol now,” as everyone laughs uproariously.

The actress Helen Hanft describes how Candy managed to “fool” her father and uncle, who acted “very courtly” when they met her. We hear Lou Reed’s song “Walk on the Wild Side,” in which she was immortalized, along with Holly Woodlawn, Jackie Curtis, Joe Dallesandro, and Joe Campbell, aka the “Sugar Plum Fairy,” who appeared in My Hustler (1965). Candy shared Warhol’s love of movie stars. She sent a fan letter to Kim Novak, and was smitten by the missive she received back from the Hollywood actress. Fran Lebowitz views Candy as obsessed and living in the past, but Paul Morrissey claims that she was essentially a humorist, who was merely poking fun at stars.

Bob Colacello points to the paradox of Candy within Warhol’s more avant-garde circle, namely that she was a throwback to another era when the movie studios still existed. Gerard Malanga, however, claims that Candy was “very avant-garde in terms of who she was and how she invented herself.” Despite the juxtaposition of the two contrasting views, in a sense, Colacello and Malanga are talking about two different things. Colacello is discussing Candy as a performer, whereas Malanga is referring to Candy’s choice of sexual identity. To Glenn O’Brien, Candy, like Warhol, was her own artwork. The film cuts to footage of Candy at Warhol’s retrospective at the Whitney in 1971, where they both have great fun by putting on the press – a Warhol trademark.

Cloë Sevigny’s readings from Candy’s diaries represent some of the most compelling material in Beautiful Darling. The sense of gender difference that Candy felt early on led her to turn to the fantasy world of movies – James Slattery aspired to become a female movie star. Whereas Malanga indicates that “there was nothing fragile about Candy,” underground film star Taylor Mead describes Candy as “too gentle . . . too gentle for the bullies.” Newton met Candy when he was only 15-year-old. A devoted fan, he began his own audio diary after Candy’s death. Newton interviews a bigoted childhood friend. Once the person discovered Jimmy Slattery in drag on the Long Island train, she refused to have anything to do with him again and thought “he should be put away.” It’s a response indicative of the times.

Holly Woodlawn explains the dangers that cross dressers experienced in the 1960s before Stonewall, where men could be arrested for wearing woman’s clothes in public. Through Jackie Curtis, Candy, who went by the name “Hope” at the time, became involved in theater, which is where Warhol first saw her in Glamour, Glory and Gold. Holly describes Candy as attracting a coterie of groupies. She includes Newton among them, whereas Sam Green, who curated Warhol’s infamous early show at the ICA in Philadelphia, describes him as kind of her “younger brother” – someone who was merely star struck by her incredible beauty. Newton doesn’t deny that hanging around with Candy brought him acceptance with the hipsters at the Factory and eventually at Max’s Kansas City, where Candy, Jackie, and Holly held court in the back room.

Colacello discusses the early 1970s as a period when “a surge of Hollywood nostalgia came in.” He adds, “And Candy was right in there, somewhere between the past and the future.” John Waters comments, “She was like a real movie star from MGM . . . only in a world that was filled with LSD, and speed really.” Warhol mentions that Candy and the others weren’t really drag queens because they actually believed they were women. Jayne County insists on the fact that Candy was a transgender person. Friends seem unclear about her actual romantic relationships. Melba LaRose, Jr. mentions that Candy was in love with Gerard Malanga, who responds with surprise: “I’m flattered. I didn’t know that.”

Candy claims that she never had to pay for anything, but the truth is that Candy lived hand-to-mouth, as her diaries clearly indicate. When it’s suggested that she had to do certain things to get money, Jeremiah becomes indignant, even if his own interviews provide contrary evidence. We see rehearsal footage for Women in Revolt (so much for Morrissey’s claims about improvisation), along with the trailer, with praise of her highly theatrical performance from both John Waters and Paul Morrissey. Candy eventually appeared as Violet in Tennessee Williams’s Small Craft Warnings at the time when the playwright’s own career was in free fall.

Along with starring in Women in Revolt, this marked a highpoint in Candy’s career. Her success proved short lived. Penny Arcade explains, “And then all of a sudden, it turned out to be this ephemeral thing, and the carnival had moved on.” Shortly after this, while staying at the Diplomat Hotel, in June 1973, Candy felt abandoned and alone. She writes: “All I know is: I love, and I am not loved. I do not know happiness. I know despair, loneliness, and longing. My biggest problem is I have no man to love me. So nothing else matters or makes much of a difference.”

More and more, Candy’s gender issues made her feel as if she were “living in a veritable prison.” There’s no question that Candy Darling was gorgeous, but beauty didn’t translate into love (especially for a transgender individual), just as her limited fame as performer didn’t translate into enough money to eat properly or pay the rent. Rasin’s documentary makes the most of its archival material, even if, structurally, Newton’s burial of Candy’s ashes in Cherry Valley, New York seems a contrivance for the sake of the film.

After Candy discovered she had a cancerous tumor, most people felt she accepted her fate as a final role to play. Lebowitz discusses Peter Hujar’s famous picture of Candy on her death bed. Candy staged the way she wanted to appear in the photo – a beautiful actress dying in her prime. Over the final photographs of Jimmy Slattery as a young boy, including a very sweet one of him wearing a woman’s wig, which reminded me of Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation (2003), Sevigny reads from Candy’s diary: “I will not cease to be myself for foolish people. For foolish people make harsh judgments on me. You must always be yourself, no matter what the price. It is the highest form of morality.”

Posted 1 May, 2011