It was a father-and-son bonding experience, one that would forever chart the arc of a kid's life, but it wasn't exactly playing catch in the backyard.
"Dad would rent a print of Lili from the Pratt Library, set up a projector, and show it over and over again," says Baltimore filmmaker Matthew Porterfield.
Porterfield calls the 1953 film, the story of a waif adopted by a circus troupe, "a tragic, doomed love story. . . . I connected with it emotionally, maybe because I'm a secret romantic, even though I hate sentimentality. But what I understood at a very young age is that cinema could be an obsession."
It was at the Porterfield home in Hamilton that his father, a playwright who also teaches the art of teaching at The Johns Hopkins University's School of Education, obsessively screened Lili. It's the same house where Matthew filmed one of the more touching moments in his 2006 feature debut Hamilton. In the scene, a young woman named Lena leaves a note for her child's absent father, who lives in the basement. The note reminds the teenage father that he needs to see his kid.
It has been almost three years since The New Yorker called Hamilton—an hour of cinematic meditation built around non-professional actors and the simplest of story lines—"a minor miracle."
"It's one of the most original, moving, and accomplished American independent films in recent years," wrote critic Richard Brody. "[It] leaves the viewer astonished, hungry for more, and eagerly anticipating what Porterfield, still in his 20s, will do next."
Now a married man of 31 living in Ednor Gardens, the neighborhood near the YMCA where Memorial Stadium once stood, Porterfield decided to do what any Baltimorean worth his above-ground pool would—he's making a heavy metal, boy-meets-girl, love story set in Dundalk.
"Metal Gods is like Hamilton, just with sex, drugs, and rock and roll," wrote Porterfield in a fundraising e-mail to friends and family. "I'm tired of flirting with the industry and waiting for someone else to green-light my project. Metal Gods will shoot this summer."
But it's not cheap to film a shoplifting chase scene in the basement of the Eastpoint Mall.
"I hope he gets the money, because he's already made a movie on nothing once," says John Waters, who named Hamilton one of his favorite movies of 2006 and calls Porterfield, "the best filmmaker to come out of Baltimore in a very long time . . . a real artist."
Porterfield, a student of Waters's early work, is both grateful and keenly responsive to the dean's interest: "I learned more about the film industry in a 10-minute conversation with him than I did in three years at NYU. When he makes a suggestion, I take it."
Waters points out that Hamilton and his 2004 film, A Dirty Shame, both take place along Harford Road, but could not have been more different in their portrayal of Northeast Baltimore.
"Hamilton was beautiful; it made Harford Road look like a [Robert] Bresson movie," says Waters, noting that, like Porterfield, he must also hustle financing to get his films made. "I didn't know who he was before I saw Hamilton, but I liked it enough to send him a note. He's making very arty movies about blue-collar Baltimore, where people stop their cars in the middle of the street just to talk. No one has ever done that."
Sooner or later, the question is asked of anyone who makes films, or any kind of art, in Crabtown: Why Baltimore?
The answers are virtually codified: cheap rent and good food; a polyglot of cultures interbreeding in a port city straddling the Mason-Dixon line; and a surplus of genuine eccentrics unaware that they are half-a-bubble off plumb.
"There's a playful, 'who gives a f***' aesthetic to film and art in Baltimore, all owing to a lack of fancy," says Kristen Anchor, director of the Creative Alliance MovieMakers program at The Patterson Theater in Highlandtown. "This is a place where you can experiment and it's cool."
Compared to places like New York and Los Angeles, where a thousand actors and wannabes might show up to an open call for a deodorant commercial, nothing quite sums up Baltimore's film aesthetic like Porterfield's "Dustin" story.
"I cast this great kid named Dustin Renshaw—very smart, charismatic, and likable, he really took the material to the next level—as [Metal Gods'] antagonist," says Porterfield of the 19-year-old, whose still photo from the audition shows a ripe hickey on his neck the size of a Susan B. Anthony dollar. "But he's been difficult to track down since I gave him the part. He works a night shift in Curtis Bay and he either keeps losing his computer or he never checks his e-mail."
A lack of pretense can be charming—it's a big part of why Porterfield has gotten good performances from untrained actors—but there's nothing fun or easy about chasing financing to make films in Baltimore, which Porterfield describes as being "not stuck, but isolated" from the industry.
While "flirting" in vain with studio backing for Metal Gods, Porterfield had in mind a budget of a half-million dollars, a fraction of what a studio spends to promote a big Hollywood movie. He has yet to nail down substantial financing for the project, but because Porterfield is resourceful, respected, and relentless, few in the local film community doubt that Metal Gods will be made.
"When you work within your means and devise a specific narrative logic that benefits from an economical approach, you can nail what you want to do with limited resources," says Porterfield. "Even if it's only with $25,000."
Surrounding Porterfield in the constellation of young Maryland filmmakers are dozens of aspiring auteurs, most of them unlikely to spend even $25,000 on their next project.
An exception is Jeanie M. Clark, who hopes to debut her feature Smalltimore this month at the Maryland Film Festival (May 7-10 at The Charles Theatre). Smalltimore stars Towson resident Cheryl Scungio; features Joyce Scott as an eccentric, wealthy widow; and jumps off the screen with a cameo and music by Baltimore poet and Apathy Press publisher Tom DiVenti in the guise of T.T. Tucker and his Bum Rush Band.
"Baltimore equals production value," says Clark, who shot her entire film within a five-mile radius of her Mount Vernon home.
Locations included private mansions around Mount Vernon, an artist's loft near Penn Station, a classic rowhouse in Waverly, a sushi restaurant, an Irish pub, Fells Point art galleries, parks, War Memorial Plaza, and Federal Hill. "I spent about $40,000 to $45,000, but it looks like we spent more than $100,000 because of the range of locations," she says. "And a little respect and decent food for the people helping you goes a long way."
Other notable up-and-comers include Catherine Pancake, known for a documentary about mountain-top coal removal called Black Diamonds, who's promoting a new short called Jay Dreams, based on haikus written by Baltimore poet Jai Brooks; Bryan "Grasshopper" Robinson, the 2009 film fellow at the Creative Alliance, who's at work on an action serial about two cousins whose failure to return a video gets them in hot water with an underground kung fu theater cult; and the B-horror juggernaut of Chris LaMartina and Jimmy George, the makers of Dead Teenagers and Grave Mistakes.
On a more experimental bent, Karen Yasinsky creates hand-drawn cell animations and stop-action films with handmade puppets, and Mary Helena Clark shoots on a vintage Bolex and prints her own films in her basement.
Is anything more Baltimore than setting up a mad scientist laboratory of cinema in the basement?
There's also Steve Ruback, who graduated from Towson University last year after a four-year hitch in the Navy, and made a post-apocalyptic western called The Gunslinger Grifter Logan for a cool $3,500. "I've found it very easy to shoot just about anywhere in Baltimore," says Ruback. "I'm usually welcomed with open arms."
Of the very young local filmmakers around town, North Baltimore's Nicky Smith is among the brightest lights. "It's what I want to dedicate my life to," says the 16-year-old Friends School student. "In my head, I see what the world would look like on film."
Young enough to say things like "I haven't made a narrative film since the 8th grade," Smith attended Steve Yeager's "5th Wall" summer film camp for the past few years.
"I learned everything from him, from what a wide shot was to figuring out that a director has to be everybody's best friend who can do a million things at once," says Smith of Yeager, a lifelong Baltimorean whose Divine Trash documentary about John Waters's early career won a Sundance award in 1998.
Primarily a maker of documentaries—from shorts on the world of "noise music" to videos about unlicensed, independent music venues across Baltimore—Smith is currently writing a script about teenagers called Roman.
Unlike his earlier drama, this one will have dialogue. "I'm trying a lot of different styles of movie-making," says Smith, born in New York but claims full credentials as a Baltimorean. "I don't want to do the same thing twice in a row."
As contradictory as it sounds, success could preclude these filmmakers from continuing to work in town. Barry Levinson, with a 1960 diploma from Forest Park High School and a 1989 directing Oscar for Rain Man, is a case in point. Levinson hasn't made a film in Baltimore since Liberty Heights a decade ago.
Especially beloved here for his 1982 film, Diner, Levinson's most recent hometown star turn occurred in January when he lobbied the General Assembly for broader support for the Maryland film industry. "I cannot shoot movies in Maryland," Levinson told legislators, noting that he wanted to make the 2006 Robin Williams movie Man of the Year here, but instead went to Toronto, where production costs were cheaper. The musical version of Hairspray was also filmed in Toronto, rather than Baltimore, for the same reason.
With big budgets come accountants making decisions to set up production in foreign countries. Next-to-no budget brings the freedom not only to shoot where you please but, in Porterfield's case, where you must.
Porterfield grew up a middle class kid with a working class mentality, someone who attended the privileged Park School in Greenspring Valley, moved to New York, and then came home to dinner in Hamilton.
He isn't leaving anytime soon. "I left my whole life in New York and moved back to Baltimore to write a screenplay," says Porterfield, who teaches screenwriting and film production at The Johns Hopkins University. "I lived in New York for eight years and I didn't want to tell stories there," he says. "I was writing scenes and they were all set in Baltimore.
"Thankfully, this is a town where it's still possible to get a bunch of creative people together and make a film on the cheap."