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Teri Ann Nelson
A Worthy and Interesting Failure .. Here's Why, Exactly
A young man dies of an overdose. The day before the funeral, someone unknown (not necessarily a documentary filmmaker) asks his family members and friends about him, and about their lives, and we see small pieces of their everyday activities. That's actually, I think, a terrific idea for a micro-budget indie film.
And in fact I was prepared to love this movie. I have no problem with slow and/or "plotless" movies (see my most-useful review here of Greenberg) and I've adored many art-house movies with relatively low IMDb ratings. Even more promisingly, the film's two greatest champions have been Roger Ebert (only **** review at Metacritic) and Andrew O'Hehir of Salon (author of the DVD booklet essay)--and I think they're unquestionably the two best critics in America.
So what went wrong? Why did I give this movie a C+ grade and a 4/10 (equivalent to a 5 or 6 for most other graders, I think)? It's the cognitive psychology of the storytelling (yes, I'm the guy who has been threatening to start a blog called "This is Your Brain at the Movies").
Human brains are storytelling machines. We edit and re-cut our memories to make better stories than the actual reality. I'm sure that most people reading this above a certain age can think of a story they've told about themselves that they later discovered (by reading an old letter or journal entry, etc.) wasn't quite right or true, that had been turned into a *better, more dramatic story* by their brain.
Narratives in fiction have traditionally been these kinds of stories (call them Stories with a capital S). A relatively recent and, I think, tremendously admirable goal of cutting-edge narrative has been to get past Stories and give us true stories (with a small s) -- to show events as they really happen in life, with all their actual messiness and lack of cohesion. And note that while real life may not have capital-S Stories, it still has small-s stories. There are still events that cause other events. They just form a less satisfying pattern than we remember.
The trouble with Putty Hill is that it is so insistent on avoiding Story that it actually goes out of its way to avoid (small-s) story, too. It is, by turns, unrealistic and manipulative in avoiding story.
One of the points director Porterfield wants to make about the deceased Cory is that he's essentially a cipher that no one knew well. But no one interviewed about him talks about him as real people would talk about someone they knew, no matter how remotely. And that's because we remember people most vividly not by generalities, but by *anecdote*. There isn't a single anecdote told about Cory. In fact, the only information we get about him beyond his drug problem comes from fellow skateboarder Cody, who tells us that Cory was terrific ("insane"), but in any kind of real life, this assertion would be followed by "there was this one time where Cory ...". Because the generality is derived from specific incident, from anecdote. Fifty years from now, it's possible (though still unlikely) that Cody may remember only that he thought Cory was "insane" without being able to remember the stunt that made him think so, but two or three years later? No way.
The film is also manipulative in its selection of information. If you've interviewed the brother of one of (if I got this straight) Cory's cousin's friends, who admits to barely knowing Cory, you really have to interview Cory's mother. There's a point in the film where this is obviously coming next, but then it doesn't happen. (Since all these interviews were apparently improvised, my guess is that it was shot, but then was decreed to be not worthy of inclusion. If so, Porterfield should have realized this during the shoot, and asked for another take.)
I would have loved a movie where everyone who knew Cory told their favorite anecdote about him, and the anecdotes *failed to congeal as expected, and failed to reveal anything about him.* You would have created an expectation in the viewer that these anecdotes would at least paint a coherent portrait, and might even reveal a secret, discernible only to us who had heard them all. Defying that expectation would have made a terrific point about the difference between Story and mere story, would have shown that many lost souls remain unknowable no matter how much we learn about them. (And if you've read "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" and/or "Seymour: An Introduction," you know exactly what I'm talking about.) We would have gradually realized that the secret being revealed to us about Cory was that there was, sadly, no secret to reveal. But making Cory unknowable by not providing us with a realistic amount of information about him is, to me, profoundly unsatisfying.
(I'm both a psych major and a bit of a theorist about narrative, so I find it credible that all this might strike me as grossly unrealistic while not striking the likes of Ebert and O'Hehir that way. But based on the IMDb rating distribution, I think there are many other viewers who liked many of the art-house elements, but had the same or similar problem, even if they couldn't put their finger on what exactly was missing.)
It seems likely that this movie will remain a favorite of a small minority of smart viewers but remain unsatisfying to the vast majority, everyone, that is, who demands at least small-s story from a film that purports to be naturalistic. In the meantime, I'll be watching Porterfield, because he's a real talent. He just needs a better understanding of story, and a better grasp of his own stylistic strengths (see my message board post on that).
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