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The Janet and Walter Sondheim Prize 2010

Posted 7/7/2010

The Sondheim Artscape Prize: 2010 Finalists

Through Aug.1 at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

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Matthew Porterfield's Hamilton (still)

Matthew Porterfield

Matthew Porterfield works in American filmmaking's realist tradition. Although he gushes about Robert Bresson or Tsai Ming-Liang in interviews, his movie are heavily indebted to Terrence Malick, Ross McElwee, and, more recently, David Gordon Green. On the strength of two features, 2006's Hamilton and this year's Putty Hill, Porterfield has shown himself to be a patient filmmaker with an eye for detail. His images are seductive, filmed at the magic hours of sunset and sunrise and focused on unlikely people and places. But Porterfield's Baltimore is neither bathed in nostalgia nor clothed in eccentricities. Instead, he sees Baltimore as a collection of what American cultural critic Joel Garreau once called "edge cities," suburban neighborhoods populated by urban refugees who try to recreate their past lives in inhospitable conditions. Porterfield's characters cross four-lane highways to get to private creeks and wait hours for the bus to arrive.

For the Sondheim show, Porterfield offers two views of his work. The first, a 50-minute edit of Hamilton, strips much of the dialogue from the already sparse movie, turning it into a series of well-executed scenes of working-class life. By placing the movie in the middle of the exhibition, rather than in one of the two theaters, the curators have almost guaranteed that museum visitors will only see a section of the movie rather than its entire run. Porterfield has set up Hamilton as a loop, with no marker to indicate when the piece starts and ends. The best scenes--a mother and child at a laundromat, a boy and his grandmother in her garden--work well in isolation, as if the movie was a collection of William Eggleston photographs instead of a fictional narrative. When viewed from end to end, though, the repetition of characters becomes frustrating and the digital artifacts, most troubling in a scene of a girl bouncing on a trampoline, are distracting. A 16mm film loop, even if it were only 10 minutes, would have been much more satisfying.

Porterfield's other contribution, a digitized compilation of Super8 footage, is much more interesting, in part because it shows aspects of his work that often get ignored. Although the footage is not identified, and the piece itself is untitled, you presumably watch images from Porterfield's past lives. In 10 minutes, you see images of rock bands, trips to urban beaches, and all-terrain vehicles. Instead of Hamilton's long takes, everything here is shot in a hurry and the editing further compresses time, as if Porterfield is trying to show everything he wants us to see in his films in a single reel.

While very few of these images are as nicely composed as Porterfield's later work, you realize that one important, if unspoken, claim he makes in all of his movies is that the urban and rural worlds aren't so far apart, that the suburbs are just as likely to be noisy and uncertain as they are to be quiet and peaceful, that you find new spaces in American cinema not by looking for new frontiers, but by looking in-between the spaces that have already been mapped by others. (MJ)

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