an essay by richard brody

PUTTY HILL [poster]
The first mark of a good filmmaker is to make good images, ones that are as indelibly his own as his signature and that embody a worldview—images that are as revelatory about what is seen as about the seer; that conjure a sense of life beyond the frame, both as a synecdoche for a whole world and as an implicit image of the filmmaker and his range of experience. It’s from its images that Matthew Porterfield’s first feature, Hamilton, got my attention, and the way it did so—and the way that this experience fits into the career of the movie overall—should strike fear into critics and programmers alike.

In 2006, Hamilton was booked in a series of premières at Anthology Film Archives. As I looked through the venue’s printed catalogue, I was struck by the naturalness and the relief (the three-dimensional suggestion) of the photo used to illustrate the title, and I contacted the publicist there to request a screener. No sooner did I begin to watch it, that very night, than I
recognized, from the shot used in the credit sequence—of a boy riding through the frame, crossing a street adorned with greenery and broken asphalt—that its director, whose name was unfamiliar to me, is a master of the art.

As the film unfolded, I was increasingly impressed, delighted, astonished by Porterfield’s amazingly simple yet dynamic compositions; and several sequences—one that features children on a set of swings, in two shots where the rhythms of their rising and falling arcs go in and out of sync like a visual version of music by Steve Reich, and another, of a young man’s trip, en route home from work, in a single long pan shot that carries him through a wooded park that is seemingly transformed into a primordial forest—struck me as anthology pieces for the great volume of exemplary scenes in the history of cinema.

And my ecstatic amazement at Porterfield’s artistry was soon shadowed with shock upon learning of the film’s absence from such prime independent-film showcases as Sundance and New Directors/New Films—and then, for that matter, at recalling my own recent near-miss of the film and the spotty, hedging coverage in most other publications. Few stepped up to acknowledge the grand accomplishment of this small-scale, low-budget film.

That week, I caught a screening of Hamilton and have seen it many times since then; and, over time, other aspects of the film have come to the fore, alongside Porterfield’s keen sense of composition, and, in the process, have revealed its creation to be all the more wondrous.

Hamilton presents Lena, a young woman who wants Joe, the young man who is the father of her infant daughter, to visit them before they head off the next day for a trip to see relatives out of state. The title of the film is the ethnically mixed, economically modest, surprisingly wooded Baltimore neighborhood where the movie takes place, and, without a trace of sociological sermonizing or sample-seeking, Porterfield (who grew up there) tells his story by way of a frank and avid embrace of the locale’s spectrum of life. He imbues the movie with all kinds of work (Joe mows lawns; Lena works in a bakery, where she fills and tends an industrial strength mixer)—the physical particulars of a job, the inevitable relations with a boss, and even the routine contingencies of travel to and from the workplace. He pays attention to the demands of domestic life, including laundry and child care; to the complex and tangled ties of family and extended family (Lena and Adeline live with Joe’s family, from which, for unspecified reasons having to do with the question of his “responsibility,” he is estranged); to the bonds of friendship and the ties of community, from the private sharing of secrets among young women at a creek in the nearby park to the public affirmation of churchgoing) and, for that matter, to the neighborhood’s untroubled diversity, by way of Joe’s family (his half-sisters are African-American, as are Lena’s closest friends).

Quite as importantly, Hamilton catches, with a quiet assurance, the wide range of moods that fill a single day and night, opening with the adolescent romanticism of Lena’s break-in, with her friend Brianna, to the basement room where Joe lives, and including the instant nostalgia for the shimmering water and misty air of long summer days, the daily ecstasies of free time and stolen moments (whether on a trampoline, in a swimming pool, in a yard roughhousing with a dog, on a set of swings, or in a nearly-empty bar by day where a guitarist cuts loose), or the disturbing—and disturbingly authentic—blend of intimacy and remoteness of the young couple’s nighttime encounter. Showing young women looking at forgotten toys and family photos, orterfield imbues his characters, and indeed the entire film, with the sense of a life that’s mbued with the past.

The film’ exquisite sensitivity to the particulars of place, and, for that matter, of light—and here
much credit is due to the cinematographer, Jeremy Saulnier—suggests Porterfield’s alertness to the deep inner imprint made by landscape and locale, by the sense of wonder and surprise that he brings to houses and streets that usually become familiar to the point of oblivion. For that matter, the movie has an assured sensuousness—when Joe’s great-aunt cuts flowers in her garden, a viewer can smell the flowers; when Joe lights up a cigarette in a car, a viewer may want to blow away the smoke.

What’s remarkable about even the possibility of an enumeration of such a range of inner and outer events—and the reason why such an enumeration is useful—is that Hamilton runs a scant hour and its action unfolds with a serene and ambling calm, shared by its actors (most of whom are non-professionals), so that even its climactic, brief and passionate chase scene also onveys a contemplative tenderness that will come as no surprise to those who have heard Porterfield’s voice on the soundtrack of his second feature, Putty Hill. His images indeed reflect his world and himself. His unfolding of a day’s events is more than a chronicle—it’s a journal, comprising a panoply of feelings of a novelistic nuance and amplitude that implies the emotional fullness and richness of his own daily life. It’s an awesome achievement for the artist to convey it and a feat of daring for him to reveal it; it’s also worth considering that it may also be ineffably difficult, in its rapid succession of exaltations and anxieties, for him to experience it.


Richard Brody is an editor and a writer at The New Yorker. He is the author of Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard.