Henry Hills

Experimental Filmmaker

Henry Hills

Porter Springs


1956 1956 My first film (San Francisco, 1975) was Porter Springs, an exalted home movie shot on summer vacation in the North Georgia mountains at a place I have spent every August of my life including the month before I was born. The next summer I shot Porter Spring 2 (1976), focusing more formally on a few of the elements presented in the first film, and the following summer I made Porter Spring 3 (1977), my most “painterly” work, basically one image: reflections of trees on the lake broken by a line of waterlillies, an hallucinatory love poem (“elegant and serene experience” --Pat O’Neill). I thought I would continue to make one per year as a way to gauge my development as a filmmaker, but I wasn’t fully satisfied with the footage I got in 1978 and I was involved in other projects. Then I moved to New York and became interested in making a different kind of film, continuing to record Porter material only on a sporatic basis. Last Spring I had 3 weeks off from a then-grueling Avid editing job at Broadway Video and was aching to get back to hands-on work on the Steenbeck. I had a few extra dollars from the job cutting college cable shows, so I made a flipped internegative of the best of my Porter reversal and transferred all my Porter video to 16 neg (after trimming and modifying it on the Avid at work). Being in the middle of a divorce, I was feeling sorry for myself and quickly cut an emotionally-drenched 8 minutes; I wasn’t sure then if what I had made was a possible Henry Hills film or just therapy.

1956 Porter Springs 4 A “remake” of my first film, Porter Springs 4 (1999) is composed from footage shot over 20 years (reversal, negative, 8 mm, super-8, 8mm video, mini-DV, & old photos), with an audio track composed from the video sync, ambient recordings, and a tape I made in highschool of my uncle telling stories and playing piano & of selections from his record collection that we listened to on family vacation in my childhood. My father growing old & feeble, my only footage of my dead sister and grandmother (Gonga) and of my log cabin (the Bug House) which was struck by lightning and burned to the ground in 1990, memories of my two ex’s, eternal nature, endless walks in the woods, building my new cabin and dream time there, the rotting boathouse, and various typical family scenes, assembled and presented in the rhythms of my mind and body.

Porter Springs, Georgia, “the Queen of the Mountains”. Although its history extends back somewhat further, its future, as we enter the next Millennium, is as threatened as that of film itself, and by similar economic forces. These films, however, are concerned with the past, the dramatic, the beautiful, the local, the personal, the mythological, and the organic. This place, to which my consciousness and emotional well-being is so intimately attached, situated in the rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains at the base of the Appalachian Range, is crawling with ghosts waiting to be immortalized on celluloid. I spent my first August there the month before I was born and have been there every August since. Thus it serves as a focal point for viewing discrete events of my personal and family history, births and deaths, triumphs and tragedies; while the annual turning of summer into fall, which happens somewhat earlier in the mountains, is a constant reminder of the continuity of being, both humbling and uplifting: there are always children, there are always adolescents, there are always old people, there are always dogs, there is always the ever changing play of light on the surface of the lake, the rippling wind in the trees and nature ever asserting herself in any quiet moment. Sitting around the dining room table at night, the elders talking of times past and people nearly forgotten would blend in my mind with the more exotic-seeming local personalities and legends as well as disruptive historical events whose traces can often still be read in the landscape. I think it’s a Southern tendency, to see life as a Faulknerian epic, this dwelling on the past, comforting at times, but ultimately smothering, something to escape in order to create a future. And then maybe to return to for a moment of solace.

This highland area was Cherokee land from time immemorial. It was visited by Hernando deSoto in 1640. Upon the discovery of gold, the Cherokees were forcibly expelled, driven west of the Mississippi by U.S.Army troops under Gen. Winfield Scott in 1838 along a “Trail of Tears” where great numbers died (a violent cultural disruption something like the partition of India in the year I was born). Geographical names, a few burial mounds, and a little mixed blood are all that remain. A man named Basil Porter purchased land containing a supposed “magic spring” sometime not long after this. Princess Trahlyta (whose father pitched his wigwam on the peak of nearby Cedar Mountain) had daily bathed in this spring to retain perennial youth and beauty until she was kidnapped by a rejected suitor, Wahsega, and carried far away to a rapid decline. Her final wish was to be returned to her beloved spring where her bones now lie buried under a stone pile at a gap in Hwy 19; you can still throw a rock for good luck.

The ensuing Gold Rush, America’s first, ushered in a wild and woolly era of saloons (it’s been a dry county since Prohibition) and shoot-um-ups (there was a U.S.Mint for several years in nearby Dahlonega), which was overshadowed a decade later by a much larger discovery in California. The wildcatters departed, the revivalists arrived. After the creeks were panned out and the richest veined tunnels exhausted, the mining companies turned to more environmentally devastating methods. The red dirt Appalachian land was so severely damaged by hydraulic mining, you can still easily follow the old mine ditches through the woods. I remember the woods, so lush today, being kind of scrappy pine growth even in my childhood (looking closely at old family photos seems to confirm this), though this might also be due to clean-cut lumbering during the First World War and the Depression. There wasn’t much slavery in the area as the terrain was unsuitable for large plantations and no Civil War battles took place nearby, although a very large percentage of the local farmboys have served as cannon-fodder in all of our wars as visits to the graveyards behind the numerous scattered Baptist churchyards attest.

1956 Colonel Farrow A retired Civil War Colonel, Henry Pattillo Farrow, who built the lake which bears his name, ran a successful spa at the spring around the turn of the century. The History of Lumpkin County contains pages of testimonials to the curative powers of the water. The ruins of the Old Hotel were still there in my childhood, guarded by an old recluse, Mr. Montague. There was a grand ballroom, with the rusted wreck of a Model-T parked under it, and an abandoned post office where we used to read undelivered mail. There was a gazebo around the spring then and I have a dim vision of an elegant lady there dipping water for us in a tin cup. It was all bulldozed the day before the auction. Highway 19, the main escape route north from the Atlanta penitentiary to Chattanooga, was still lined then with old abandoned gas stations that had become poor dirt farmers’ homes during the Depression. Why were there so many? Last summer I could only find one and it had been recently rejuvenated for a Hollywood location shoot.

One of Col. Farrow’s descendents, Joe Whitner, had loaned his cabin to his minister, my grandfather, for the month of August every year beginning in the late 30s. It seems unbelievable now how many people used to sleep and eat there. On late night walks to the Haunted House with flashlights off, Uncle Richie would scare us with tales of Grab-Trees and the Bottomless Pit. Granddaddy cut the head off a snapping-turtle once that got caught in his fishing line and it continued to walk a quarter mile up the garbage dump road. In 1960 the land, much ravaged by lumbering, was auctioned off and my father bought the lake. It was pretty exotic and backward around there when I was a kid; there were still moonshiners and rattlesnakes (we ate one once) and cars were always getting stuck in the ubiquitous red mud.

I remember characters who seem almost mythological now. Old Miz Corbin, nobody knew how old, endlessly rocking on her porch, who had bred a dozen children and buried most of them, who took out her chewing tobacco to kiss my grandmother, Gonga, when she came to visit. Hub White who ran a small ramshackle mill where we bought cornmeal on the side of the road which he hobbled to each morning on the stubs which had been his feet before he had stumbled onto a still in the woods and passed out in the snow awakening with gangrene; some vandals burned down that shed one night and he fell over dead when he heard the news. And especially Tom MacDonald, formerly our closest neighbor, formerly the toughest man in the county; denounced as a reprobate from all the local pulpits, he once walked to the county line to meet the challenge of the toughest man from the next county; they fought from sun-up to sun-down until they were both hauled off to the hospital. I once saw him lift a boulder over his head that my father and I together couldn’t even budge. He terrified me in my childhood and especially in my hippie days (he hated hippies), though we became big buddies later. He rolled his own cigarettes and his hands shook terribly after he had been on one of his frequent moonshine binges with his pal Emery Anderson. I have a photo of his father, a notorious moonshiner, operating a still.

1956 Granddaddy’s Turtle But finally just the magic of nature taking over when the screaming kids and barking dogs are gone and the ski boat and fishing boats are quiet. Nature, the same all along similar temperate zones, but here is where it speaks to me (although once in a while my dreamtime is rudely interrupted by a roaring jet from the nearby army camp practicing low flying to avoid radar detection and using the lake as a guidance coordinate or by the sheriff’s helicopter looking for pot patches). Here I see deer and rabbits and blue heron and squawking Canadian geese and snapping turtles and toads and beaver, rotting wood and brilliantly colored weeds and glistening ferns and insects of every description, a million types of grasshopper, flowing water, still water, waterfalls, water lilies, dramatic thunder showers that knock out the power, a giant black snake seeking shelter from a weeklong rain, moths and beetles buzzing around the candle at night, and hear the constant din of cicadas and crickets punctuated by the occasional roar of a giant bullfrog or shrill of a screech owl or a woodpecker’s African drumming or an endlessly repetitive whippoorwill.I keep seeking a filmic equivalent, at least a means to express the sense of wonder they inspire, however familiar always strange and magical. Film can have a like magical quality; I’m not convinced video can.

Now it’s filled with weekend houses for an expanding Atlanta population and Dahlonega has Walmart and MacDonalds. It’s still beautiful, though, and I still go barefoot.


Porter Springs 4
Colonel Farrow
Granddaddy’s Turtle