Welcome Back, Porterfield
When He Was a Kid, All He Wanted Was to Escape. Now, Filmmaker Matt Porterfield is Back And Paying Tribute to His Old ’Hood With His Feature Film Debut, Hamilton
The old neighborhood, however, wouldn’t let go. Quickly disenchanted with what he saw as a heavily conventional NYU curriculum, Porterfield came back home in 2001 to purge the lingering doubts about his neighborhood with Hamilton, a feature-length movie now on the cusp of completion. All he needs is the money to wrap up in time for fall film festivals, and the possibility of screening Hamilton from the Charles Theatre’s digital projector before the end of the year.
“I absolutely want to screen the film for Baltimore audiences,” Porterfield says. “This has been such an awesome city to make a movie in. From the Baltimore Film Commission helping me out, to people donating their homes for sets and local companies donating time and services for fundraisers. In New York, the attitude was, ‘Another fucking movie? Get out of my face.’”
That New York State of Mind (or lack of it) did much to drive Porterfield’s Hamilton concept. After two years honing his chops at NYU, the budding filmmaker says he found himself spending more time away from the conservative, big-studio atmosphere of film school.
“I was feeling limited by the emphasis on traditional narrative filmmaking,” Porterfield says. “I was going to Anthology Film Archives, Millennium, and the Whitney and seeing all these great avant-garde, experimental, personal films, and I thought that’s what I wanted to do—quit school and just start shooting film, start seeing things on film.”
In the end, NYU wasn’t an investment Porterfield was interested in making. He dropped out of his classes and spent several years slumming around the city, picking up restaurant jobs and a few gigs teaching kindergarten, his spare time consumed with crafting scripts and scenes that were all set in the Hamilton of his youth, slowly realizing that the films running around in his head all led back to Baltimore.
“There is just great beauty in [Baltimore] neighborhoods during the summer months,” Porterfield says. “The long days, the sun and the speed of the heat, the way it hangs humid above the trees and pavement, the sounds of birds and insects, of automobiles and lawn mowers. . . . Summer here is a palpable action. It’s detailed in the color of night and the colors of skin and the combination of water and sky that I wanted to see move on film.”
In 2001, Porterfield finally acquiesced to the dual lure of shooting a nonnarrative feature and addressing his past. He packed a camera, gear, and all his belongings into his car and hauled back south, a thick script with Hamilton in black block letters riding shotgun.
On the surface, Hamilton follows Lena and Joe, unwed teenage parents searching for themselves and each other against the backdrop of a hot August weekend in Northeast Baltimore. Porterfield, however, dispenses with exposition, aligning himself with the experimental filmmakers—like Lithuanian director Jonas Mekas and New York-born cinematographer Marie Menken—whose work originally encouraged him to drop out of the NYU film scene.
Hamilton, in fact, was first conceived as a silent film, and in rough cut it still largely features nonverbal storytelling, relying instead on shot selection, composition, scene structure and sequence, and physical gestures of the film’s mostly amateur actors to unfold the tale. We are introduced to Joe (played by local actor Chris Myers, sometimes seen on The Wire), for example, when Lena (portrayed by Stephanie Vizzi), baby in tow, and a friend break into the basement where he is living, sequestered from family and friends who wonder why he has yet to fully accept fatherhood. Joe is absent, but his clothes hang neatly on a water pipe, a boom box sits on a shelf, and a television faces a small recently slept-in bed. Lena doesn’t chime in with a “Where’s Joe?” for the audience. Instead she writes when are U coming over to the house? in black felt-tip pen across the centerfold of a porno mag and positions it on Joe’s pillow.
“I hate exposition, even in comic books,” Porterfield explains. “It always takes me away from the moment. I’m talking about verbal exposition, dialogue, when you know the only reason a character is speaking is because the writer needs to introduce plot elements or character history or define the relationship between two people. This film is about a family, so relationships are important, but they can be established with either one word or no words at all.”
Challenging viewers, Porterfield even suggests that it may not be important for an audience to immediately get the relationships between characters in a film, or understand why action is unfolding in a particular space or time. It’s a pretty big gamble for a feature-length debut, but Porterfield keeps the screen visually engaging with voyeuristic photography (looking through windows or observing characters through foliage), unique shots of ordinary events (the kicked-out feet of children entering and exiting the frame as they play on a swing set), and wide-angle views of Hamilton’s natural geography (including a great scene at Herring Run Park that involves separate action on three separate horizontal planes of the screen).
Porterfield’s gamble pays off, and viewers with a modicum of patience discover Lena and Joe, and their friends and family, at the filmmaker’s pace. The movie is anything but slow, however. The opening scene involves a baby precariously balanced on the edge of a pool and the aforementioned break-in. A scene in which Joe’s mom finally hijacks him into a bonding moment with his child bleeds with tension, as mother and son drive through the streets of Hamilton without looking at each other or speaking a word, a shot that Porterfield begrudgingly cut down from a full 10 minutes to a mere 90 seconds.
Hamilton ultimately delivers a fine story of a family struggling with the conflicts and emotions of teenage parenthood. But the fun is in the journey, and local viewers, in particular, will be quick to hop on board Porterfield’s cinematic trip through a summer weekend in Baltimore.
“Hamilton is a small film in its scope, but Baltimore loves to see Baltimore on the big screen, so folks are really excited about this project,” he argues. “But it’s not connected to Baltimore in a grounded way, it’s more personal. It’s really very nostalgic, romantic. It’s my embrace. It’s the Baltimore of my dreams, as silly as that sounds.”
Porterfield is spending the rest of the summer holed up in the Hamilton Film Group studio on St. Paul Street, a couple of blocks from the Charles Theatre, squeezing the last pennies out of a $50,000 budget originally gathered from family and friends of himself and his colleagues—cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier and producer Jordan Mintzer—who have been sending back final edit notes while working on projects in New York and Paris, respectively. Other than a title sequence, the last hurdle before a final cut is the film’s sound mastering. And that’s where money comes into play.
Solely on the merits of his rough-cut and word-of-mouth buzz, Porterfield has received a surprising amount of backing for a Hamilton fund raiser, organized by Chameleon Café owners Jeff and Brenda Smith. While the Smiths understandably want to back up Porterfield, a longtime waiter at the Lauraville restaurant, support from elsewhere in Hamilton and beyond is lending credence to Porterfield’s developing stature as a homegrown talent. Both the Charles and Senator theaters as well as Theatre Project have donated blocks of tickets as door prizes, adding to contributions from numerous local businesses. “Pretty much anyone we have asked have made contributions without hesitation,” says Jeff Smith. “Baltimore has really taken Matt into their arms.”
Porterfield wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. “‘Hamilton is truly a Baltimore film,” he says, “not the Baltimore film, but I couldn’t have done it anywhere else.
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