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Putty Hill -- Film Review

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BERLIN -- The potential pitfalls of cinema verite are vividly on display in "Putty Hill," the second film from American indie director Matt Porterfield. Points must be awarded for nerve, but virtually every aspect of this misbegotten film misfires. Festivals which vaunt themselves for showcasing "cutting-edge" cinema will gobble it up, but following that brief flurry, a quiet but quick death will ensue.

When the film opens, a Baltimore working-class kid named Cory has died of a drug overdose. A wake is to be held, and the film, using a mix of implausible interviews and unconvincing dramatic scenes, documents the feelings of the various participants that have come together in Cory's honor.

Via this slice-of-life, apparently random wandering through these people's lives, director Porterfield seems to be seeking a kind of truth. Alas, we end up knowing no more about Cory than we did before, apart from cliches like "he was a good guy." Various people connected to him, mostly young, are interrogated by an unseen and inexplicable interviewer who insists on posing the most banal questions he can think of. The few "dramatic" scenes in the film seem completely phony.

"Location sound" is listed among the credits, but the sound mix is so amateurish that sometimes the sound effects (e.g., the crunch of feet during a walk in the woods) are louder than the indistinguishable voices. Perhaps this was done on purpose, but one hopes not. Extremely low lighting conditions are featured in the last third of the movie, and this too may be meant to carry thematic meaning, but will simply enrage most viewers.

Porterfield seems to be overly ambitious rather than merely inept. But he forgets the core truth of the cinema verite method, that meaning must gradually gather through the slow accumulation of incremental, apparently meaningless detail. Instead, people talk, or are artificially interrogated by the unseen interviewer, and all that results is banality. The director also seems to forget that non-professionals "acting" in a film aren't necessarily interesting in themselves, but must be made so by the shaping, if invisible, hand of the artist.

 

Perhaps the movie's worst fault is the pretentious classical music track occasionally heard that has been added to inflate the meaning that should arise from the dialogue and the interaction of the characters. During the wake itself, however, when the mourners are singing karaoke songs in Cory's honor, there is a moment when things seem to be coming together. Is this an appropriate way to act at a funeral?, one asks oneself. There's a glimpse of truth in this choice by these inarticulate mourners that resonates -- perhaps banality is the only response possible in the face of death? -- but unfortunately, it's the only time anything of this nature ever occurs. The effect is to give a sense of what the whole movie should have been like but, alas, is not.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival -- Forum
Production: Hamilton Film Group
Director: Matt Porterfield
Screenwriter: Matt Porterfield
Cast: Sky Ferreira, Zoe Vance, James Siebor, Jr., Dustin Ray, Cody Ray
Producer: Jordan Mintzer, Steve Holmgren, Joyce Kim, Eric Bannat
Director of photography: Jeremy Saulnier
Production designer: Sophie Toporkoff
Costume designer: Sara Jane Gerrish
Editor: Marc Vives
Sales: Steve Holmgren, Jordan Mintzer
No rating, 89 minutes