Matt Porterfield brings Baltimore’s working-class to the big screen

Director’s ‘Putty Hill’ goes to city neighborhoods where no moviemaker has gone before

May 01, 2010|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

Just before flying to Europe to show his new film, "Putty Hill," at festivals in Copenhagen and Lisbon, Matt Porterfield acknowledged that he's taken aback whenever fans find his movies about Baltimore's white working class "so sad." Porterfield draws vital energy from his characters.

"Their lives are so singular and surprising," he says. When reviewers or audiences point out how unusual Hamilton or Putty Hill are as movie settings, he thinks that speaks to the banality of other movies.

"‘These are the neighborhoods I grew up in and people I know. I try to portray white working-class families, in Baltimore, authentically. None of what I do is some big, shocking secret."

"Putty Hill" has played at the Berlin Film Festival and South by Southwest, but Porterfield calls the Maryland Film Festival, which begins Friday, "the most important festival we will play, without a doubt. I expect to have the best crowds and the most fun and the most interesting conversations." He's trying to round up as much of his mostly nonprofessional cast as he can to appear with him at the festival. "It's the greatest local platform we could hope for."

In other countries, or even in other American cities, he says his films sometimes "get responses like ‘The Wire,' as if any vision of Baltimore is exposing some new dark, grimy world. My movies are not about that." They're about finding big and small, dark and light epiphanies, whether in the spattering of colors at the scene of a paintball fight or in the horror of a spider's web that hangs over an OD victim's deathbed.

Porterfield leaped into the front ranks of American independent filmmakers with "Hamilton." This 2006 portrait of a 20-year-old father and a 17-year-old mother distilled the title neighborhood to its poetic essence. People who didn't know the area found the movie doubly revelatory. Porterfield exposed a sort of city life that was half urban, half rural. He turned his locations into visual sonnets of constriction and release. He drew characters of limited means (and vocabulary), but limitless emotional depth.

"Putty Hill" adds oomph and a seize-the-day vitality to the "Hamilton" blend. He shot it in a headlong two-week stint last summer. For another film that fell apart, he had assembled a youthful yet expressive amateur cast, along with tried-and-true collaborators such as ace cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier. He swiftly put in place a five-page treatment about family and friends coming together after the overdose death of a 24-year-old man. You know how most directors refer to the script as a mere "road map"? For Porterfield, that's all this treatment really was. The film's success would depend on improvised interviews with his cast members in character.

The outcome is bracingly fresh. It finds the underlying forms in what outsiders consider shapeless lives. When skateboarders streak up and down and over a course of concrete dips and valleys, and a teenager tags a wall with a spray-paint baroque version of "Rest in peace, Cody," they prove that they have poetry in them. The director isn't imposing his poetry on them.

Porterfield discerns the limpid beauty in a quartet of teenage girls giggling their way through the woods, and a melancholy vitality in the way the dead man's loved ones celebrate his life at a cozy bar, singing karaoke. Ex-cons determined to go straight or at least stay out of prison, younger men still selling drugs, boy-men acting out their fantasies on skateboards or with paintballs, girls thrashing out their feelings in songs or wails and talking about life in tentative whispers — they make up his cast of characters. A tattoo party, a senior-living facility, a tavern wood-paneled like a recreation room — these are where Porterfield finds comedy and drama.

For Porterfield, the reactions to his movie underline "how divided by class we are in Baltimore, and in the U.S." His own vision is porous: It drinks in nuance and complication.

For example, he says, "For ‘Putty Hill,' I knew my male characters were white, because the Southeast side of the city is largely white." But one of his main characters lives close to Cherry Hill, "and people mix there more than in other parts of the city. … Younger people there just get used to sharing space with people who look different from you; it's no longer any kind of thing at all. And I think that's true on the west side, too."

As for any "generation gap" between cast and filmmakers, "the teenage girls in this movie are basically no different than the teenage girls I knew." The one big difference comes from wired technology. "Being 16 in a very media-conscious world has changed the way they see themselves. They're very conscious of how they compare to the media's image of beauty and youth. That's super-sensitive and heightened now that we're so connected."

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