The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

Green

Sophia Takal’s Green delves into the lives of a young urban intellectual couple from New York. Sebastian (Lawrence Michael Levine) and his girlfriend, Genevieve (Kate Lynn Sheil), retreat into the country, presumably somewhere down south, for an extended period. Sebastian is a writer, whose project is improbably about sustainable farming, while Genevieve has tagged along to be with him. Fissures begin to appear in their relationship, especially when a neighbor, Robin (played by Takal), in her own naïve way, exacerbates the hidden tensions between them. Interviews with the director suggest that the film is about female jealousy, but, for me, Green also explores class difference, which, as we all know, has recently developed into class warfare. Given the current polarized political climate in this country, this is precisely what makes Takal’s film resonate so deeply.

We get a sense of Sebastian and Genevieve’s relationship in the pre-credit sequence when they sit around with peers (Alex Ross Perry, the director of The Color Wheel, and Dustin Guy Defa, the director of Bad Fever, among others) and compare Philip Roth to Proust. Although it occurs early on, so that we don’t yet have a grasp of the characters, Sebastian puts down Genevieve’s difference of opinion by suggesting that she only read the first 30 pages of Roth’s novel When She Was Good. She claims otherwise. In defending his love of Roth, Sebastian drapes his arm around her, winks to the others, and smugly tells them, “I’ve read a little bit more.” This cuts to a wide shot of two lawn chairs on the bottom left of the frame of a rural landscape, as their car pulls up and they begin to unpack.

As Sebastian writes, Genevieve quickly becomes bored by life in the country. Suddenly left on their own, the two are revealed to be utter strangers, whose hip intellectual snobbery is the only glue that holds their fragile relationship together. Once Robin shows up – they initially find her asleep on their front lawn – she becomes an easy target for their ridicule. A southern working-class country bumpkin, she intrudes upon their lives, without quite realizing that she’s the object of their scorn (as well as their desires). Early on, Robin comes over with some groceries and a magazine. When Robin asks Genevieve what she’s reading, she answers, “Georges Bataille.” The clueless Robin responds, “Oh, cool.”

Sebastian and Genevieve’s stint in the country begins to feel like a regression into ’60s nostalgia, especially when Sebastian begins to wear a headband. But the hippie idyll has its dark side. In one telling scene a good forty minutes into the film, Genevieve and Sebastian make love. Her refusal to play along with his sexual fantasy exposes a deep personal rift between them and appears to trigger what follows. Green may take its sweet time to get going, but once it does, it moves with the swiftness of a natural disaster. As Green continues to unfold, Genevieve gradually bonds with Robin, before beginning to unravel. She views her relationship with the older Sebastian with a sense of disdain mixed with extreme insecurity, especially when she starts to imagine him being sexually involved with Robin.

Genevieve wants to go back for an art show, which has gotten a good review in Artforum, but Sebastian pontificates: “Honey, I knew this guy at Dalton. Okay? He couldn’t even string a complete sentence together; no less create a coherent piece of art.” As Genevieve shakes her head in disagreement, Sebastian insists, “He basically fills a room with junk and then a group of moronic quasi-intellectuals come in, mentally masturbate, and decide it actually has some meaning to it.” As he tries to explain installation art to Robin, Genevieve becomes openly rude to her. When Robin unexpectedly shows up with a date one night, Genevieve finally loses it. In a field, the film reaches an ambiguous climax, but the film’s resolution is cruel enough to spark a class uprising.

Shot in a mere two weeks, Takal’s directorial debut won a prize at SXSW and has been playing the festival circuit. Some scenes were initially improvised and then later scripted – a technique that’s being used more and more these days. Takal is not interested in naturalism, but what lies beneath its surface. In an interview in Hammer to Nail, she commented: “I think mumblecore movies are really honest and natural, but I wanted to use the medium to explore someone’s psychology, and what was going on inside of [Genevieve]. That was important to me. So I definitely did want to step away from handheld naturalism.”

Takal, who has a budding career as an actress, conveys such genuine sincerity as Robin that she exposes the mean-spirited flaws of the other two characters every time she opens her mouth. A psychodrama with overtones of the horror genre, Sophia Takal’s Green has the feel of a sharp spike rammed into an unsuspecting heart.

Posted 12 December, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene

The fragility of the human psyche seems especially pertinent at this particular moment, as evidenced by recent zeitgeist films such as Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelter and Miranda July’s The Future. Sean Durkin suggests in an interview: “I guess I’m most afraid of conforming. Groups that conform in a blind way without understanding what’s happening to them, that terrifies me. That was a major fear of mine as a child.” Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us then that fear permeates his debut feature Martha Marcy May Marlene, a riveting character study of a young cult victim, which might be the most disturbing film I’ve seen this year.

Martha Marcy May Marlene begins with scenes of a rural commune, in which dinner is segregated by gender – not surprisingly, the men eat first. While everyone is sleeping, a young woman named Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), who has been renamed Marcy May, suddenly bolts into the thick woods. A male voice calls out, “Marcy May, where are you going?” As she runs frantically, others soon follow in pursuit. At a small-town diner, she appears paranoid as she makes furtive glances and wolfs down her food. Sure enough, she is confronted by another member, Watts (Brady Corbet), who has tracked her down. Martha manages to use a payphone to call her sister, who begs her to come home. We feel relieved when she’s rescued from the Catskills and transported to her older sister’s lakeside retreat in Connecticut. Once there, she learns that Lucy (Sarah Paulson) has recently married a developer named Ted (Hugh Dancy).

When quizzed about her whereabouts – it turns out she’s been missing for two years – Martha offers a vague story about a boyfriend with whom she’s broken up. If something seems “off” about Martha’s responses, the same could be said about Lucy’s. Claiming to feel guilty, she has accepted her sister’s disappearance with an odd sense of nonchalance. “Get a good night’s sleep,” she tells Martha, “and you’ll be as good as new tomorrow.” Lucy, who’s clearly in denial, tells Ted, “She seems okay.” Whereas Curtis in Take Shelter is tormented by images from the future, Martha is haunted by memories from her past. Signs that things are not okay become obvious when she begins to talk and act inappropriately. The first comes when Martha impulsively strips off her clothes and goes skinny-dipping in the lake in front of Ted. She also wonders why their house is so big, and blurts out, “Is it true that married people don’t fuck?”

The film uses a parallel structure in shifting between the present and Martha’s past life in the commune, which is slowly revealed to be a bizarre cult, run by a skinny Charles Manson-like figure named Patrick (John Hawkes), who has sex with all the young women. Shortly after he initiates Martha, she falls under his spell after he sings a song about her in front of the others. Whether it’s the result of the juxtaposition of scenes, there seems to be a sexual undercurrent between Martha and Ted as well. When Lucy goes into New York City, the two are left together. There’s something about the way he slips behind her in showing her how to navigate a speedboat that feels smarmy. The two also drink beer together afterward. When he confides that he and Lucy are trying to have a baby, Martha bursts out laughing. She tells him dismissively, “I can’t imagine Lucy holding a baby. She wouldn’t know what to do with it.”

In a flashback, we watch Martha slip into bed with Patrick during the middle of the night. Right after this, she gets into bed with Lucy and Ted while they’re in the heat of making love. Lucy insists that there are defined boundaries. Flustered, she explains to her, “It’s private.” She gets Martha to admit that what she did was wrong “because it’s private and not normal.” As a result of the intrusion, Ted is forced to spend the night on the sofa. In the morning, Lucy thanks him for his patience, but he flat out tells her that her younger sister’s behavior is “fucking insane.” Martha talks about being confused about the difference between memories and dreams. When she acts as if this is natural, Lucy suddenly asks, “Do you blame me?” Martha insists, “I’m a teacher and a leader and I know who I am.” Lucy answers, “What are you talking about?”

When Ted questions Martha about her career plans, she asserts that there are other ways to live. She tells him, “People don’t need careers. People should just exist.” She has an ideological defense for her lack of ambition and becomes more vocal in her criticisms of her sister and husband, who define success in terms of money and possessions. After Ted chews her out for being a freeloader, Martha explodes: “You don’t know anything about it.” The temporal shifts between past and present become more revealing as the film progresses. If we question how Patrick holds power over his followers, there’s a key scene where he teaches Marcy May to shoot a gun in the forest. “Think of someone who has hurt you,” he tells her, as she aims her weapon. The tension increases as Patrick’s sociopathic nature suddenly becomes manifest.

The members of the commune, who eat a single meal a day, talk about creating a sustainable farm, but in the interim Patrick has them hit up their parents for money and also break into lavish houses to get what they need. There’s a scene in which Lucy gives Martha a makeover before a party, which seems to reference Bergman’s Persona, but Martha has a meltdown during it. When Lucy tells her that they want to have a family and she can’t stay with them any longer, Martha tells her: “Lucy, you’re going to be a terrible mother.” Lucy and Ted’s decision about Martha sends the film toward what feels like an inevitable conclusion.

Sean Durkin was part of the team that created Antonio Campos’s Afterschool (2008). Durkin gets a terrific performance from Elizabeth Olsen in her acting debut. Her face exhibits an inscrutable innocence that also harbors deep pain and unfathomable secrets. In short, she captures the schizoid nature of Martha, whose fractured identity is reflected in the title of the film and her three different names. Martha Marcy May Marlene is a psychological thriller, with overtones of the horror genre. The latter reaction seemed to surprise Durkin, who deservedly won the Best Director award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. Maybe the sense of horror we feel in Take Shelter and Martha Marcy May Marlene merely reflects the sense of the abnormal that has become a part of our everyday lives. It’s little wonder that the genre is having a big resurgence.

Posted 13 November, 2011

The Future

The idea that things in the world are not quite right seems to be pervasive these days. Economic recessions and global crises will do that, but something much deeper appears to be at work. Jeff Nichols’s new film Take Shelter takes most people’s anxieties about health insurance, job loss, and climate change and turns them into a powerful apocalyptic drama about an Ohio construction worker named Curtis, who’s either clairvoyant or going bonkers. Nichols explained the genesis of the film in an interview in indieWIRE: “Bush was in the White House, the economy was collapsing, there were wars everywhere, towns were getting destroyed by storms. It was just like, what’s going on? It felt like the world at large was losing its grasp of keeping everything together. That was just in the air.” Take Shelter, which features a heart-wrenching performance by Michael Shannon, is a conventional genre film in many respects. Miranda July’s The Future deals with similar subject matter – those same anxieties about the future we all carry around with us while we navigate our daily lives. July’s enchanting new film presents the unconventional version, but it’s equally dark and disturbing.

As should come as no surprise to Miranda July fans, The Future is weird in highly imaginative ways. For one thing, it begins with a voice-over narration by a cat named Paw Paw, whose raspy voice is unmistakably July’s. “Have you ever been outside . . . never been inside . . . Then you know about the darkness that is inappropriate to talk about,” the cat tells us knowingly. Paw Paw, whose life outside has been a nightmare, is about to be put to sleep, but gets a reprieve when his rescuers, a couple named Sophie (Miranda July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater), agree to adopt him. In their mid-thirties, these two people live inside, but rarely go outside. When we first meet them, they lie on the sofa with their Apple laptops, too lethargic even to move. Like Dasha Shishkin’s painting Glory of Choice (which was part of her May show at Zach Feuer Gallery in Chelsea), the outside world is full of threats. Jason is a computer tech specialist, who works from home. Sophie teaches dance (which might more accurately be described as “hopping”) to young kids.

When Jason and Sophie, in an intimate moment, suggest, “I think we’re ready,” we think they’re referring to sex or trying to get pregnant, but they’re actually discussing adopting Paw Paw, who, due to renal failure, has only six months to live. The two of them reason that it’s not too big a commitment – they’ll be able to go on with their normal lives afterward. At the animal shelter, Jason views a drawing of a young girl holding a cat. The subject, Gabriella (Isabella Acres), is disappointed that her dad’s drawing hasn’t sold in the fundraiser, and asks him bluntly: “Do you want to buy it?” Jason buys the drawing, but Gabby has included her separated parents’ phone numbers on the back should he want to return it. Paw Paw is excited that the nice couple has returned and, after they pet him, he accidentally purrs. In cat terms, he understands the implications – he now belongs to them – admitting a feeling that would be “unwise to feel outside.” But, due to his injuries, Paw Paw must stay at the shelter for the next month.

Sophie and Jason end up adrift as a result of the unexpected delay in adoption. As they ponder their lives, the fact that they are five years from being forty creates a panic, because, after fifty, they consider the remaining years to be nothing more than “loose change.” As they discuss their aspirations, they feel an acute lack of achievement. Jason laments the fact he’s not richer or smarter or a world leader, while Sophie wishes she followed the news more closely. Sadly, they conclude: “It’s too late for us.” Facing an early mid-life crisis, they two try to re-prioritize their lives by imagining that they have only a month to live. They immediately quit their jobs. Despite an aversion to the outdoors, Jason canvases for the environmental group “Tree by Tree,” while Sophie decides to do a YouTube dance piece every day for 30 days. She also takes the drastic step of cutting their connection to the Internet, which they hope will make them more alert to what’s happening in the world. Sophie, however, soon becomes frustrated and restless. She obsessively calls Marshall (David Warshofsky), who made the drawing of Gabby and the cat, and the two begin an affair.

The Future is based on oppositions: inside/outside and tame/wild, in which Sophie becomes equated with Paw Paw. When she comes home, she tells Jason, “I’m wild,” which mirrors Paw Paw’s confession that he is theirs by day, but wild and alone at night. As Sophie tries to confess her affair to Jason, he frantically tries to stop time, a long scene in which he talks to the moon. The moon speaks in the voice of an elderly man named Joe (Joe Putterlik), who earlier sold him a reconditioned hair dryer. Yet Jason’s stopping of time winds up having disastrous consequences.

Like July’s previous feature Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), The Future presents a world where human beings are subject to irrational forces beyond their control. In fact, Jason’s efforts to stop time in order to spare himself the pain of losing Sophie only make matters worse. In July’s world, children, like Gabby, have the power to manipulate adults (she orders Sophie to act naturally and wave to her father), and time is anything but linear. There are other quirks: a cat narrates the story from beyond the grave, an old man writes dirty limericks to his wife, Gabby buries herself neck-deep in the ground at night, two pregnant women’s children keep aging until they replace their parents who have died, the moon talks, and a yellow shirt becomes animate and grows to the point where July climbs into it to perform a strange womb-like dance. And what other feature would overtly reference Andy Warhol’s Sleep (1963)?

As he’s canvassing for his environmental cause, Jason addresses the sad state of the world. He tells a stranger: “It’s probably too late.” He compares the situation to a cartoon where a building gets hit with a wrecking ball. “We’re in that moment,” he contends, when the wrecking ball has already hit and everything is about to fall down. The Future captures the texture of what it feels like to be alive at a time when we all sense that the world might be on the verge of collapse, and how that affects us on an emotional level. Jason’s personal loss at Sophie’s betrayal is made all the more poignant by the sad fate of Paw Paw and his naïve but profound narration – his enduring love for these two messed up humans, until the moment when he confronts the void. “It’s just light,” he says, “and it goes on and on and on.”

Posted 30 October, 2011

Bad Fever

Dustin Guy Defa’s debut feature Bad Fever, set in the director’s home town of Salt Lake City, presents a fascinating study of contrasting characters: Eddie, a lonely misfit living under the thumb of his mother, and Irene (Eléanore Hendricks), a harsh street hustler, with whom he gets involved.

Eddie is a wannabe stand-up comic, who’s not the least bit funny. It’s a role perfectly suited to Harmony Korine, but Defa cast mumblecore director Kentucker Audley in the part. The choice proves oddly intriguing because Audley, who directed and acted in Team Picture (2007) and Open Five (2010), has been a strident advocate of naturalistic acting based on a performer’s own life. For him to play such a stylized role is clearly out of character. The irony turns out to be the fact that Audley is often improvising, whereas Hendricks appears to be working closer to the page. Both are credited with providing “additional material” to the film’s script.

Bad Fever begins with a closeup of Irene making a phone call. When there’s no answer, she strolls over and stands in front of a convenience store. As someone approaches, she asks the person to buy her a pack of cigarettes. Irene seems desperate, as she circles around nervously. She opens the door and yells, “Marlboro Lights!” Eddie, a young man with long hair and a blue cap pulled down, as if he’s trying to appear invisible, exits and hands her the pack. He gets in his car and drives off, as she lights a cigarette in the background.

They come together roughly ten minutes later when Eddie picks up Irene while driving through the city one night. She tells him, “Maybe you can buy me something to eat or something like that.” She asks Eddie, “Are you hungry? Do you want to get something to eat with me? You want to share a plate of food with me? You want to get a milkshake together? Do you want to get two straws in a milkshake?” Even poor Eddie surmises that Irene is coming on to him.

At a restaurant, Eddie asks Irene, “Do you have a boyfriend?” The awkwardness of their conversation is a bit unnerving – like watching a spider spin a web to ensnare a naive and unsuspecting victim. That becomes clear later when Irene begins to film herself in the back seat of Eddie’s car with an antiquated video camera. When he inquires what she’s doing, she mentions making videotapes for a guy in Idaho Falls she met on the Internet. We begin to wonder, but Irene assures Eddie, “I don’t do anything sexual, all right?” But when Eddie watches her VHS tape at home later on, the sexual connotations of her eating a bowl of cereal are unmistakable.

The next day, Irene takes Eddie to an abandoned schoolhouse. As the camera is running, she asks seductively, “Do you like me?” After a pregnant pause, he answers, “Yeah, I think I do.” She asks him to take off his jacket. He wants her to turn off the video camera, but she insists, “No, that should stay on.” She takes his hand and begins to suck on his index finger. Irene orders him to lie down and take off his clothes. She becomes more abusive and barks, “Are you fucking deaf and dumb? Take off your fucking shirt!” She pulls off his pants and tells him, “Take off your underwear, you stupid bitch!” When he freaks out, she calls him a “pussy.” In leaving, Eddie apologizes, but insists that videotaping him sexually isn’t terribly romantic.

Even though Eddie is flustered by what’s happened, he’s smitten with Irene. He decides she’s someone he’d like his mother to meet, along with his imaginary comedy club fans. Eddie puts on a sports coat and tracks her down. Back at the abandoned school, Irene spray paints “dick” under a lewd drawing she makes of one. She then begins to direct Eddie in a home video and quickly turns into a dominatrix by making him pretend to have sex with a pink mop. Dressed in Eddie’s clothes, she then forces him to participate in a mind-boggling gender reversal that is so humiliating it’s truly painful to watch – not unlike what occurs to another social outcast, Keith Sontag (Dore Mann), in Ronald Bronstein’s Frownland (2008). This unlikely romance follows its inevitable trajectory, which is to suggest that more humiliation awaits poor Eddie.

Defa, who’s been making film since he was a kid, has an incredibly strong visual sense that feels effortless. There are some wonderfully subtle shots, such as when golden light reflects intermittently off the back of Eddie’s head as the camera follows behind him. Shots of railroad yards and deserted city streets at night suggest the desolation of an alien planet, which is reinforced by the sound of howling wind. The pacing of the film, which Defa attributes to his editor, David Lowery, who reshaped the structure of the film, is pitch-perfect. Yet, because Bad Fever is essentially a character study, the film succeeds largely due to the riveting performances of Audley and Hendricks (along with Annette Wright as Eddie’s mom and Allison Baar as Yoko in small roles).

Having seen Audley in his own films, what he’s doing performance-wise in Bad Fever feels incredibly risky, especially his use of idiosyncratic speech patterns and willingness to engage in embarrassingly unfunny comic skits. Hendricks, who appeared as the lead in Josh Safdie’s The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2008) and in Josh and Benny Safdie’s Daddy Longlegs (2010), proves terrific once again – a master at rolling her eyes. She manages to convey the pathology of Irene’s character through very small gestures, such as the way she holds and then carries a gray and white cat. Irene has adopted a hard edge as a means of survival – a defense mechanism that Eddie sadly lacks. But, even more importantly, Irene appears well-versed in feminist film theory. She clearly grasps the gendered dynamic of cameras and power, especially how to undercut the visual pleasure of the male gaze.

Bad Fever premiered at SXSW in March. The film is playing as part of a series, “Inside Jokes,” programmed by Mike King, at the UW Cinematheque. Defa’s film will have its Madison premiere on Thursday, July 28 at 7 PM. Local fans of indie cinema should not miss the opportunity to see it. The Brooklyn-based filmmaker will be in attendance.

Posted 9 July, 2011

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

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