Putty Hill Review

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

I was fortunate to catch a recent screening of Matt Porterfield's Putty Hill at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. While all the headlines and news spots are dedicated to showings such as Toy Story 3, The Illusionist or Sean Connery. I firmly believe that it’s the unknown offerings that are the true heart of the event and its real purpose.

This may be your only opportunity to see films such as Putty Hill or Girl With Black Balloons on the big screen or in any form. Distribution being what it is nowadays, few manage a return and many I’ve seen over the (gulp) decades have vanished without a trace.

The premise is that we follow the build up to a funeral of a young heroin addict in Baltimore and the aftershocks. Through the film we are introduced to his family and friends, who paint vivid and candid pictures of their situation and their own environments. The economic situation and restraints placed on individuals are as visible as the work of the tattoo artist featured in the story.

Putty Hill is a film with atmosphere. This is arguably its strongest quality as it combines the stillness of Slow Cinema (not one of my favourite genres) with a documentary style. However those onscreen are cast in their roles and are often questioned by a voice from behind the camera, while at other times acting out their role. A varied assortment of characters drop in and out of proceedings as we build a picture of a grieving fractured family. The community at large also forms a major part of this snapshot, as friends close and distant offer their thoughts and recollections. Putty Hill does not seek to provide an insight into yet another overdose victim in Baltimore, or where his life went wrong. We're left to make our own judgements in this respect along with the characters who all feel a sense of loss and particularly those who witnessed the vicious circle of drug abuse.
Baltimore is well known for The Corner, an excellent book that was made into a mini-series by HBO. As I sat in Filmhouse 1 I tried to drag from my memory where I had seen a rich tapestry of characters painted against a canvas of economic despair and living on the cracks of society. Yes, The Corner. Particularly the style of questioning from behind the lens that brings a first person dimension to the experience.

Putty Hill is a film that only a modest few will be able to stomach for its empty atmosphere and lack of traditional plot signposts. There is a wonderful dynamic at play here; one rarely used in cinema. It is a memorable film but sadly for many I presume the wrong reasons, given the departures during screening, from what was already a scant audience.  

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