The best narrative fiction films have at their center the war between two necessary and contradictory impulses: the impulse to observe and the impulse to declaim. I’m not talking about the Screenwriting 101 distinction between “telling” and “showing” (these seem to me to be ultimately the same thing); I’m talking about the relationship between showing and seeing. The truly adventurous director navigates an aesthetically twisty road between, “Here is the world at my command!” (the assertion with which most fiction films, showing us much and seeing little, begin and end) and, simply, “Here is the world—including what I don’t know about it.” It’s like talking and listening at the same time. No other medium can pull it off! Nor can every director.
Matthew Porterfield is one of those rare filmmakers whose calibration of these impulses looks effortless—so effortless, in fact, that at first glance his films may seem devoted to a shopworn notion of meditative authenticity as an end unto itself. He uses non-professional actors. He often keeps his camera at a distance from them, letting scenes play out at length without any apparent concern for dramaturgical economy. There are long shots of people doing things like mowing lawns. There is mumbling. But the pseudo-documentary strain is just the half of it; watched closely, the films reveal a rigorously formal sensibility that’s obsessive, fetishistic (someday someone will write a study of Porterfield’s work called “The Girls in Their Denim Shorts”), and increasingly, thrillingly complicated.
In the course of three remarkable movies—Hamilton, Putty Hill, and now I Used to Be Darker—Porterfield has moved closer to the people he’s interested in. Each successive work has given them less room to breathe, even as he continues to insist on the ultimate unknowability of anyone. Hamilton is an elliptical story of two days in the life of teenaged parents in a Baltimore suburb; immersive sound design and immaculately composed shots do the expressive heavy lifting while the actors, to moving effect, do Bressonian opacity. Putty Hill is a quietly radical departure in which Porterfield himself does behind-the-camera interviews with a succession of characters connected to a young man who’s recently died from an overdose. Interspersed with largely improvised scenes from each of the players’ lives in the days leading up to a funeral, these interviews are both inquiry and assertion; Porterfield is to some extent playing an outside observer, an intruder on the terrain of his own characters and narrative—his performance as probing documentarian serves, as the film goes on, to remind us that what we’re watching is carefully constructed fiction.
There’s no similar paradox in Porterfield’s newest film, I Used To Be Darker, his first from a full-on screenplay (by Porterfield and Amy Belk). I must admit, during the first ten minutes or so I had the feeling that he’d succumbed to the kind of narrative obligations that he’d previously—and productively—eschewed. A young Irishwoman named Taryn, working at an Ocean City amusement park, discovers that she’s pregnant. She flees in distress to the Baltimore home of Bill and Kim, her aunt and uncle, who are finalizing a messy separation as their daughter, Abby (angry, confused), visits after her first year away at college. These circumstances are rendered with total, worrisome competency; the film initially feels as though Porterfield’s grafted his deceptively simple style onto an earnest boilerplate narrative of domestic strife, and in doing so has somehow neutered that style, made it serviceable: showing, telling.
But then Taryn and Abby go to see some music, and the movie blows wide open. A tracking shot follows them from behind into a loft as they pay admission, get their wrists stamped, order some drinks, and bum cigarettes; at the other end of the room, a shirtless dude screams unholy hardcore strife into the mic while the band wails away behind him. We haven’t yet been inside a shot of this length or mobility, and as the camera penetrates the crowd, finally moving past Taryn and Abby to concentrate on the performance itself, a new emotional register starts to emerge; the film’s tone—up until now muted, “sensitive” —darkens and spreads out to include the feral rage and physical abandon of what’s happening onstage. The indie-innocuous first movement suddenly reveals itself as a slow-burning fuse moving toward Porterfield’s calculated detonation of his own particular brand of forceful observation.
From this moment on, I Used to Be Darker turns into a kind of kitchen-sink musical in which song is both distillation of and relief from the hothouse of pain that the story describes. The context Taryn has crashed is filled with musicians; Kim and Bill both used to play professionally. Kim still tours but Bill runs a cement company, and there’s an intimation that their split is based in part on their inability to collaborate artistically anymore. Each get a full performance—Kim at a rundown club, Bill in his basement, singing a soft private dirge after Kim and her new boyfriend have come to collect her amp, before smashing his guitar to splinters.
Though we don’t see everything through Taryn’s eyes—Porterfield is not the kind of director to ally us solely to any single character’s field of vision—her invasion of the household affords him his subtly complicated narrative thrust in more ways than one: steeped in anxiety, her point of view is necessarily limited, but her status as a kind of fraught exile, literally pregnant with equal parts potential and regret, make her the perfect audience surrogate for the kind of story Porterfield wants to tell. She wants to forget whatever will come in order to see what’s in front of her now—in order not to make a choice. She abdicates the role of protagonist, and in so doing becomes a part of the world.
I Used to be Darker opens October 4th at the IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue NY, NY 10014
PAUL FELTEN is a screenwriter based in New York City.