I Used to Be Darker (2013)
★ / ★★★★
Taryn (Deragh Campbell) calls her aunt and uncle to inform them that she is on the bus to Baltimore. She sounds desperate and says she has nowhere else to stay. But Kim (Kim Taylor) and Bill (Ned Oldham), musicians, are in the process of separating. Still, they welcome Taryn into their home until she figures out what to do next. Her situation is not made any better when Kim learns that her sister’s daughter is supposed to be in Wales.
Movies like “I Used to Be Darker,” based on the screenplay by Amy Belk and Matthew Porterfield, which use realism as a central device to propel a story, are a challenge to pull off gracefully. It is often that the camera lingers, seemingly without purpose, to capture whatever is going on—even if what is caught is not necessarily interesting or engaging. Such is the problem in this picture: a series of scenes that feel like anybody could have shot. As a whole, the events feel very scattered and it begs one to consider the point the filmmakers are trying to convey, if any.
Taryn is, for the most, a bore to have to endure. Perhaps the only moment when she demands attention is when she admits that she thinks she is not very smart. Are we supposed to feel sorry for her lack of self-esteem? I must say I did not disagree with her self-assessment. Halfway through, she remains to be vapid, hollow shell who sleepwalks through the days. When she takes action, it is because she is pushed. How did this person manage to get on a plane from Europe and find her way across the East Coast?
I suppose the point of the film is that Taryn must function as a catalyst for the couple in transition. However, it does not work because, for the reasons cited above, the protagonist is a lump. There is no vitality to her. Putting an incorrect or non-functional catalyst in a chemical reaction is tantamount to not having one at all.
It a shame because Kim and Bill do not get enough screen time. When they end up in the same room, we feel their hurt, anger, and frustration. These emotions are still raw and the wounds are opened when they interact. Even though they no longer wish to be around one another, it is apparent that they remain to have feelings for each other. And since they are both musicians, they express the things that cannot be said through songs. When the camera fixes on a character with only his or her voice and an acoustic guitar, it has moments of genuine emotion. It becomes a movie worth investing in.
Directed by Matthew Porterfield, “I Used to Be Darker” is, for the most part, a trial to sit through. The main character lacks extreme or magnetic qualities that force us to want to get to know her and her circumstances. I would rather have observed the fallout of a marriage without any distraction than a dull girl who carries a secret.
Putty Hill (2010)
★ / ★★★★
When Cory dies from heroin overdose, his family, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances gather for his funeral. There is an innate sadness in “Putty Hill,” written by Jordan Mintzer and Matthew Porterfield, that attempts to go beyond the death of a teen who was hooked on drugs. In a handful of ways, the core of the film is not Cory’s death. There is a man behind the camera who asks questions that are surprisingly right to the point. Questions like “How well did you know Cory?” and “How do you feel about his death?” reveal that maybe nobody knows who the deceased really was.
Even his family has no idea. They have words but the their words make it seem like the teenager they knew was an entirely different person. The Cory they knew or clung onto did not have a drug addiction. These characters are more relatable than we might think. We, too, tend to want to remember, instead than the bad, the goodness of the person who has passed away.
The picture is also about a community desperately struggling to flourish. The camera spends a lot of time indoors. There is barely anything on the wall. It is a rarity to find books laying about. People hang out and talk about anything casual, like the weather and he-said-she-said. People communicate but in a minimal manner. They exist only to take up space. What is their purpose? What are their dreams? Do they wish to make an impact in the world?
There are two scenes, one indoors and the other outdoors, that stand out. First, there is an ex-convict who makes a living as a tattoo artist. The electric buzz hides his soft voice and it makes us pay more attention to the words he says and how he says them. Even though he has spent some time in prison for murder, he is never shown to be a violent or bad man. He is very guarded and that is enough for us to imagine what he must have gone through in the correctional facility. And yet there is a very real possibility that, if necessary, he can flip a switch inside his head and turn from a soft-spoken tattooed man to a bellicose beast.
The second involves a group of teenagers who are stopped by the local police officers in the forest. When asked if they have seen a bearded man, who robbed a bank and hurt a few people during their escape, the adolescents fail to take the questions seriously. They laugh, they are sarcastic, and they treat the situation as a joke. There is something about their apathy that made me feel rotten inside, disgusted. Is this where our youth is heading?
Unfortunately, the rest of the film is plagued with scenes that go nowhere. The karaoke during the funeral is somewhat moving but it lacks control. It should have been the strongest or most memorable scene because it is at the point where all the characters converge.
I think “Putty Hill,” directed by Matthew Porterfield, has a message it wants to say about people being a product of their environment. But it should have been more generous in excising laborious shots that come off pretentious. It feels like three quarters of the film is an act of staring into nothing. Instead of extended takes, perhaps it could have found subtler ways to highlight and invoke the hidden emotions from the people being asked by questions.
I was especially interested in Cory’s sister who feels obligated to return to Putty Hill because her brother has died. They were not close and it shows. Does she care? We wonder because when she talks about her brother, it is almost like listening to how much she finds it a chore to wash the dishes.