For this impressionable cinephile in the Nineties, Hal Hartley was nothing less than a revelation. His handmade movies were at once diffident and precocious, a deft fusion of the literary, the theatrical, and the cinematic. Poker-faced performances, witty aphorisms, exquisite pratfalls, and Godardian flourishes sat side by side, dissonant pieces that somehow fit together into a coherent style. Like the movies or not, one thing you couldn’t call them was impersonal, so insistent was Hartley’s authorial voice in every frame.
The decade that gave birth to indie saw Hartley, for a moment, assume the vanguard of a movement. Kevin Smith, in the end credits to Clerks, lumped him in with Richard Linklater, Jim Jarmusch, and Spike Lee, thanking them all for “leading the way.” By 1997’s Henry Fool, Hartley fans were giddily (yet also warily) anticipating a mainstream breakthrough, a leap that seemed all but assured by an appearance on Janet Maslin’s top-ten list and a screenwriting award at Cannes. Then…nothing. His next feature, 2001’s No Such Thing, was a major disappointment, leaving even his loyal cult unmoved. By then, the Nineties Sundance ship had sailed on to bigger ports, while Hartley was left stranded on his own island.
Which was probably just fine with him. Part of Hartley’s appeal was his adamant refusal to participate in the scene he unwittingly helped build. He seemed the kind of guy who just wanted to be left alone to do his work, who had little use for tastemakers and trendsetters. (It wouldn’t surprise me if Hartley finds that Clerks credit less poignant than I do now.) In some ways, Fay Grim seems exactly the kind of thing we tend to praise—a personal, uncompromising movie by an outsider making the kind of picture that he wants to make. And if movies were judged by only the convictions behind them, then Fay Grim would be an unqualified success, instead of the forlorn reminder of past relevance that it is.