Noah J Nelson on Wednesday, Jan. 25th
Inspiration can come from the oddest moments. For Keith Miller, the director of Welcome to Pine Hill, a meditative film that follows a reformed drug dealer on an odyssey to shed his past while living under the shadow of a cancer diagnosis, inspiration came in the form of an argument over a dog.
The director ran into Shannon Harper while walking his dog one night. Harper recognized the dog as the one he had lost weeks earlier, and the encounter spawned an hour and a half argument.
“I didn’t sleep that night,” Miller tells me. The next morning he asked Harper “if he wanted to make a movie about it because of the issues of race and class and love” that were raised in their discussion.
“He was suspicious at first, but we talked for another hour and a half about it.” The fruit of those discussions became the short film Prince/William, which screened as part of New York’s legendary Rooftop film series. It was around that time that the Brooklyn film community was hit with a tragic loss. Miller’s good friend and fellow Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective member René Peñaloza-Galvan died of a rare form of stomach cancer.
Miller combined what he knew about the cancer with what he had learned about Harper’s life and created the story’s arc, with Harper playing a fictionalized version of himself in the film.
Harper is an engaging screen presence, especially for a first time actor (second if you count the short, but since Prince/William has been recut as the opening of Pine Hill it pretty much counts as the same). The diagnosis of cancer becomes the trigger for Harper to revisit old friends and pay off old debts to both family members and loan sharks alike.
While watching the film this progression reminded me of the myth of Inanna, who sheds her garments as she makes her way into the underworld, as a way of shedding her surface identity on the way to confronting a deeper truth about reality. Miller says that he sees the picture in archetypal terms as well, using the phrase “odyssey-like” to describe the story. Harper leaves the city behind on an almost instinctual quest to finding solace out in the rural tranquility of the titular Pine Hill.
“All these things are kind of shedding external conditions that were made by him,” says Miller. “The character’s not an angel, he’s made a number of bad choices. The process… it’s geographic, but it represents a kind of metaphysical move.” Harper’s quest from New York City to the Catskills is “not about the town of Pine Hill but about transcendence.”
Welcome to Pine Hill, directed by Keith Miller. Starring Shannon Harper. An official selection of the 2012 Slamdance Film Festival.