Maryland Film Festival offerings compared to French New Wave

Festival directors suggest film's Golden Age might be right now

  • Not quite fact and not quite fiction, "Putty Hill" is a feature by local filmmaker Matt Porterfield. The Baltimore neighborhood provides the setting for grieving friends and family after a death.
Not quite fact and not quite fiction, "Putty Hill"… (Handout photo courtesy…)
April 04, 2010|By Michael Sragow | | Sun Movie Critic

Baltimorean Matt Porterfield's "Hamilton" received its East Coast premiere at the Maryland Film Festival and became a breakaway critical success just a few years ago. Now he's being heralded as a standout director in a rising generation of groundbreaking moviemakers.

Greta Gerwig, who had festival fun at the Charles Theatre while promoting the no-budget "mumblecore" films "LOL" and "Nights and Weekends," currently stars with Ben Stiller at the Charles in "Greenberg," the season's most acclaimed and high-profile comedy.

The 2010 Maryland Film Festival will make the case for a cinematic renaissance comparable to the one that started 50 or 60 years ago with the French New Wave and led to the American movie revolution of the early 1970s.

With films like Porterfield's latest, "Putty Hill," and the post-mumblecore film "Daddy Longlegs" already cult items in New York, the programmers have put some push behind their argument.

Festival director Jed Dietz says "the accessibility of moviemaking equipment has allowed people all over the world to pop out." Programming director Eric Hatch points to Greek director Giorgos Lanthimos' "Dogtooth," which he describes as "a David Lynch sort of narrative" concerning a father who confines his three teenagers to their rural home (a gated community for one family). Programming administrator Scott Braid has a particular admiration for the Russian husband-and-wife team Yelena Renard and Nikolay Renard and their film "Mama," which has also been called Lynchian for its painterly exploration of the complex tensions between a mother and her massively obese 40-year-old son.

The availability of movies by older independent masters like Lynch, and the ubiquity of the Internet, have helped seed global creativity.

But America's native filmmakers have shown the most immediate and positive effects of a new digital sensibility, even in movies shot on celluloid.

New Yorker critic Richard Brody notes that the lower price of making character-centered films has erased the line between what used to be underground or strictly art-house movies like Gerwig's early festival hit, Joe Swanberg's "Hannah Takes the Stairs," and Hollywood-funded productions like "Greenberg." American actors, directors and writers now bop from independent movies to television or stage, and even to big-studio extravaganzas. Fifteen years ago, the auteur behind "Greenberg," Noah Baumbach, would have been considered an underground figure, too. Now he appears on "The Charlie Rose Show" with Stiller.

Brody, author of "Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard," has been an attentive and incisive critic of Porterfield and other new American independents, like Ronald Bronstein ("Frownland"). Brody proclaimed "Hamilton" a "minor miracle" and "one of the most original, moving and accomplished American independent films in recent years."

Over the phone from the New Yorker, Brody was happy to report last week that Porterfield's new film and festival entry, "Putty Hill," was "magnificent" - and magnificent in entirely different ways from "Hamilton."

Working with the same gifted cinematographer, Jeremy Saulnier, on "Putty Hill," but this time on video, Brody says Porterfield "is able to use light, rather than lighting," with spontaneity and a remarkable sensitivity to shading. Porterfield employs interviews to get at the lives of the friends and relatives of a young man who has fatally overdosed. "This is something video is made for," says Brody, "something you can do well on a very low budget. The text is spare in 'Hamilton.' The text is wonderful in 'Putty Hill,' and much of it is improvised."

Brody draws several parallels between the young Americans of this fresh new tide and the French New Wave, including a documentarylike care for their heroes' and antiheroes' "material and social circumstances." The directors of the French New Wave, says Brody, "paid attention to the practical situations of the characters - and sometimes their characters resembled them, very much." They made their films with friends and about friends, and acted in them, too.

Similarly, today's independent filmmakers "are filming a reality that's their reality, eroding the barrier between life and work. And that's something video permits: Working in video, you can shoot every day, and shoot casually. And you can observe the lives of the people closest to you, even in a feature film. These directors tell stories that are personal. They say, 'Here I am now, this is my work, these are my friends.' "

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