Friday, December 23, 2011

Putty Hill, The Arbor

Innovative Cinema

A character is busy doing something but suddenly the character stops what they are doing and looks towards the camera to answer questions by an unseen interviewer. Once the character has answered the questions, the camera steps back allowing the character to jump back into the fictional story that continues until the next stoppage to address the audience.

Such a unique and innovative approach in Matthew Porterfield’s Putty Hill manages to blur the line between documentary and fiction by incorporating interviews within the framework of scripted cinema.

This same technique of addressing the audience directly can also be found in Clio Barnard’s The Arbor where actors talk directly to the camera before the film continues.

However, there is a difference in the technique between Putty Hill and The Arbor. Porterfield’s film is fiction that uses mostly non-professional actors but The Arbor uses professional actors to lip-sync a true story. This technique is needed in The Arbor because this method is similar to the work of Andrea Dunbar on whose plays the film is based on. Clio Barnard describes this direct address technique in the film's DVD booklet:

Andrea’s fiction was based on what she observed around her. She reminded the audience they were watching a play by her use of direct address when The Girl in The Arbor introduced each scene.

I see the use of actors lip-synching as performing the same function, reminding the audience they are watching the retelling of a true story.

My work is concerned with the relationship between fiction film language and documentary. I often dislocate sound and image by constructing fictional images around verbatim audio. In this sense, my working methods have some similarity to the methods of verbatim theatre.

Verbatim theatre by its very nature (being performed in a theatre by actors) acknowledges that it is constructed. Housing estates and the people who live there are usually represented on film in the tradition of Social Realism, a working method that aims to deny construct, aiming for naturalistic performances, an invisible crew and camera, adopting the aesthetic of Direct Cinema (a documentary movement) as a short hand for authenticity. I wanted to confront expectations about how a particular group of people are represented by subverting the form.

I used the technique in which actors lip-sync to the voices of interviewees to draw attention to the fact that documentary narratives are as constructed as fictional ones. I want the audience to think about the fact that the film has been shaped and edited by the filmmakers.....

This verbatim theatre and direct audience technique results in a rich work that is a fascinating blend of improv theatre, scripted cinema and a documentary. Often, examples of all three methods take place in just one sequence.

For example, an actor describes the context of the scene the audience are about to observe.

The actor then jumps into character in a theatrical set constructed in the middle of the exact same living space the story is based on. So reality feeds into fiction which in turn reflects reality.

This direct address technique also gives the appearance of interactive cinema. In both Putty Hill and The Arbor, the camera pans across the screen before slowly stopping on a character who then addresses the audience. On first glance, this looks to have the same level of control as when a user clicks on an object of interest when scrolling across a user interface. However, this level of control is a bit misleading since it is not a two-way interaction because the audience does not have full control to listen from any character. Instead, the characters that speak up do so as per the film director’s discretion. The directors carefully adjust the audience attention on a particular character via the camera movement (pan combined with a slow focus) thereby arousing curiosity in the mind of viewers. As a result, when a character speaks up, it is not unexpected nor intrusive. In fact, the character’s words are welcome because it allows viewers to learn a bit more about events in the story.

The following example from The Arbor shows how such a one-way interactive moment takes place. This scene shows characters engaged in a heated debate which threatens to get out of hand.
A policeman leads one of the characters away.
The camera tracks the two characters and settles in on a face in the crowd
who then gives the addresses the audience directly.

Both films share a direct address technique although The Arbor has roots in Verbatim theatre while Putty Hill is a fluid blend of documentary with fiction. The two films are innovative works that break free from the conventional cinematic mould and are essential viewing.

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