The real is in a period of reinvention. In the cinema, the “new nonfiction” of Lisandro Alonso and the verité incursions of the Safdie brothers are treated as contemporary illustrations of a fresh and forever-impending, even necessary species of verisimilitude, one that makes distinctions between documentary and narrative fiction seem untenable. While the alleged “return of the real” is hardly a novel diagnosis, its latest incarnation in the cinema has been the occasion for critical reactions that often feel perfunctory, reductive.
Among the new “real” films, Matthew Porterfield’s Putty Hill is an attractive candidate for all kinds of designations: minimal realism, hybrid film, fictional documentary, docu-fiction, regionalist cinema. A film located on the periphery of working-class Baltimore with a cast of nonprofessional actors, Porterfield’s is a mourning story that surveys a bereaved community as it moves tentatively between past (the death by overdose of the incarcerated and twenty-four-year old Cory, whom we never meet) and future (Cory’s funeral). Jenny (Sky Ferreira), Cory’s younger cousin and a recent émigré to Baltimore, reluctantly returns to her father’s home, while Cathy (Cathy Evans) joins her remaining three children (Zoe Vance, James Siebor, and Marina Siebor) and their childhood friends—a mix of skaters and drifters, of down-and-out classmates and acquaintances, often soft-spoken and vulnerable—in anticipation of this young man’s funeral. For ninety minutes, we watch Porterfield’s characters—mostly young, largely disadvantaged—skate and play music, drive their cars, swim in pools and creeks, take prolonged walks and talk listlessly, in sequences that feel more like visual tone clusters than coordinated vignettes.
The documentary element, or the technique that lends this film its documentary strategy, is Porterfield’s seven separate interviews with his performers, his off-screen voice directed toward the young faces in front of the camera: “Where do you go when you die?”; “Have you ever known anyone that died before?”; “When’s the last time you saw your brother?”; “How long have you known Jenny?” These interviews—conceived as static shots, the actors appearing either in parking lots, skate parks, swimming pools, or at home—are the film’s structural parentheses; their temporary relocation from Porterfield’s otherwise studied and observational aesthetic is less an attempt to learn something about these kids than it is a chance to unify discrete voices and feelings. The inauguration of mourning in Putty Hill coincides with a series of questions and answers.
What happens when complicated, private feelings are distributed in this way? Do Porterfield’s techniques document or allegorize? A few recent examples from American independent cinema, similarly interested in exteriorization: romantic indecision as epilepsy (Bradley Rust Gray’s The Exploding Girl); urban disaffection as psychosis (Ry Russo-Young’s You Won’t Miss Me); youthful insouciance as kleptomania (Joshua Safdie’s The Pleasure of Being Robbed); quarter-life maladjustment as neuroses (Ronald Bronstein’s Frownland). Each of these films converts congenital problems into thematic solutions; the goal is not necessarily—or not only—the formalization of an inner life, but also the concentration, the reduction of otherwise private feelings into symptoms with distinct etiologies. Watching Zoe Kazan in the midst of a seizure in The Exploding Girl or, from one of the best of the recent films, listening to Dore Mann’s staccato speech impediment in Frownland, one is tempted to reply: “Yes, this makes sense. It’s because she feels trapped,” or, “It’s because he can’t get his life into any kind of order.” The goal, particularly in the Russo-Young and Safdie pictures, is to give these characters—indeed, to give the entire film—an allegorical handle, a set of features with a thematic shortcut.
In Porterfield’s film, recurring events (long walks, skateboarding, singing, and swimming) are not surrogates for feelings. This is why, among other reasons, Putty Hill is successful; characters are not so much metonyms as they are residents of a film-world that already contains their own anxieties and temperaments, not ours. Jenny’s nighttime argument with her estranged father on a tiny apartment patio, the wonderful sequence of young men and women lying on creek rocks and swimming, Cory’s karaoke memorial—each of these moments play like syncopations of very different, often divergent selves with common environments. And the environments themselves, under the careful jurisdiction of Porterfield’s cinematographer, Jeremy Saulnier, becomes a succession of crisp, unfussy images and colors supplemented by a soundtrack of chirps, motors, traffic, and skateboards. It is an environment of long takes and wide shots, of images of empty rooms and walls sliced by sunlight, a reticent style that feels like a tonal corollary to the film’s performances.
On this account, one could consider Porterfield’s an absorbent aesthetic, and a reflective one, too; it wants to consume the feelings of its characters—to distribute the contents of their inner lives across the entire frame—and to provide a venue for the solicitation of our own. The film’s seven interview sequences, then, should be experienced less as a set of occasions to learn more about Porterfield’s characters, or as evidence of the film’s enthrallment with documentary traditions, than as a collective contribution to the film’s stylization of mourning.
And it’s precisely this interest in the stylistic consequences of mourning that makes the realist or docu-fiction classifications feel untenable. No one could doubt that many of the constitutive elements of Putty Hill—the observational mode, the improvisatory performances, the relegation of narrative, and, of course, the interviews—are drawn from, are indeed amplifications of, the documentary. But the origins of Porterfield’s technique are the less interesting, the less exciting element of his film. What Cinema Scope critic Robert Koehler has called the “cinema of in-between-ness”—that preference for the collapse of narrative and documentary forms discoverable in Nikolaus Geryhalter’s Elsewhere and C.W. Winter and Anders Edström’s The Anchorage, among others—is an immersive, incantatory cinema (and least of all because of its documentary allusions). One only has to think of the films of Michael Snow or Peter Hutton, or the Chantal Akerman of the 1970s and the Marguerite Duras of Nathalie Granger to be reminded of the stylistic heritage of the “new nonfiction.” Like these films, Putty Hill wants to extend duration, to intensify spaces with prolonged and static shots, to shrink the narrative; unlike these films, however, Porterfield’s is too curious about the inner lives of his characters, too invested in the form and shape of their feelings to exclude them from the picture altogether.
The mourning, again, is what counts. Far from being a thematic alibi, Cory’s death and his impending funeral are Porterfield’s recognition that silence (whether the silence of the deceased or the living) is often a fundamental precondition for the articulation of feelings. The community in Putty Hill is proficient in silence; the content of their conversations, their interviews with the director, don’t need to be particularly informative or revelatory, for Porterfield’s images have already absorbed every inch of their feelings, as though style begins with the exhaustion of self-expression. In Porterfield’s film, each shot of an empty room, each cutaway to a tree or wall, each image of a roadway has ethical import; the voices, the feelings of these characters are what matter.
The operative sensibility of Putty Hill is a preference for intensification and stylization (of inner lives, or private selves, of complex feelings). The tenderness we feel for these characters, the sympathy we have for this community, isn’t the result of Porterfield’s faith in their ability to express themselves (cf., mumblecore movies, with their taste for authenticity over sincerity, their shallow belief that one can convert the maxim be true to yourself into a lifestyle choice, into a substitute for an inner life); nor is it, again, the result of the film’s combination of documentary and fiction. No, the strength of Putty Hill is, above all, its conviction in the stylization of experience; behind those unexpected shots of trees and creeks, those beautifully-lit interiors and impeccably recorded sounds, is an honoring of the community they touch. The exchange in Porterfield’s film is not between documentary and fiction, but between aesthetics and ethics. Feeling our way through, we inhabit, if only temporarily, dispositions that are not our own, that are ordinarily the resident feelings of the lives of others. They mourn, and so do we.