Putty Hill (Matthew Porterfield, 2010): USA

Reviewed by Paula Gomez. Viewed at the AFI Film Festival 2010, Hollywood.

Imagine making a narrative film out of a documentary. With its vast interviews Matthew Porterfield does that in Putty Hill. With a five-page treatment but with no written script, he interviews the characters and tells a story through their answers, very much like a documentary, but not quite. A taste of melancholy and aloofness resonate throughout the film for it tells the story of a few characters from Baltimore who somehow are connected to each other through one person who has recently passed away. Putty Hill, is about the way a few characters live in Baltimore, act, and their attitudes towards the recently diseased.

We never see the person who is asking each character questions, only the characters themselves who mainly look to the side of the camera when answering each question. We, as the viewer, are given close ups and medium shots of each character’s facial expressions and a lot of dialog to work with in order to decipher what the movie is about. “I want to make films for the kids,” the director said at the Q & A, and indeed this movie portrays a lot of teenage vibe.

Using the questionnaires is a brilliant idea. The soothing voice of the narrator represents the viewer. He is you. And, those intruding questions he asks allows the audience to enter the private space of each character and instigate their actions without them “acting them out.” It’s as if instead of following the rule of: if you can tell it with visuals don’t include dialog, narration, or voiceover, just let the actions speak for themselves and tell the story, Porterfield does the opposite and happily succeeds. He does not tell the story with visuals other than close ups of facial expressions, but rather verbalizes it all. I wonder what kind of movie it would be if the sound were turned off.

This is an excellent movie because the viewer gets to ask the characters questions. It has a great innovative way to tell a story but the story itself is a bit depressing. People from Baltimore might enjoy it more than others who are not from there. And pessimistic people might find it amusing too for the attitude of the characters is not bubbly at all and they prepare to go to a funeral. Overall, this documentary turned into narrative film was very interesting to watch for its storytelling technique. I would very much recommend watching it.

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