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The Films Of Hal Hartley: A Retrospective

The Films Of Hal Hartley: A Retrospective

Imagine if Woody Allen, Whit Stillman, Kevin Smith and the Sundance Institute had a love child. This ungainly creature, speaking in witty, heightened, unnaturalistic sentences, and ambling, sometimes shambling between comedy, tragedy and pretension, might very well go on to make films that greatly resemble those of Hal Hartley.

Hartley is the man behind such beloved (at least by some) ‘90s indie films as “The Unbelievable Truth” and “Trust.” But to put him into proper context, we find ourselves casting around for parallels: he simply never made enough of a dent in mainstream sensibilities to be able to describe his work to a neophyte without reference to other, more overtly successful filmmakers. Or musicians, perhaps – if we play the equivalents game with the alt-rock explosion of the ‘90s, we get Quentin Tarantino as Nirvana, Jim Jarmusch as Sonic Youth and Kevin Smith as, maybe, Smashing Pumpkins (revered early on, but became a joke), and so perhaps Hal Hartley was The Breeders: promising, but never quite catching fire like those others, and sometimes guilty of adding up to less than the sum of its parts. Or wait, no, he’s Hüsker Dü, an adored-by-the-diehard-few college rock band who paved the way for the ‘90s alt-rock scene, only to be swept aside by those who attained greater success by making their sound just a little sweeter, by being just a little sexier.

But if Hartley is kind of unknown to mainstream film audiences (and even a lot of critics), he’s about as true a representation of the independent filmmaker as you can get. His debut was made for just $75,000 and the aforementioned Kevin Smith cited Hartley as a “major influence” on his comedic writing before he even started making movies. Amusingly, an aghast Hartley subsequently disavowed Smith and his films, but there are similarities. Hartley’s beyond-deadpan style features characters who talk in a self-reflexive, consciously philosophical manner and often his arch, playful examinations of relationships, desires and (failures of) communication play out like filmed stageplays. And yes, his films can be described as offbeat and quirky, frequently veering into intentionally pretentious territories. But the differences are telling, too. Probably central to both the distinctiveness of Hartley’s voice and his systematic lack of breakout success is that he, unlike Smith, for example, doesn’t seem overly interested in pop culture: he may experiment frequently with genre, but his filmic universes are entirely his own in tone, tenor and aesthetic; they refer to little outside themselves. And there’s a clipped, brisk rhythm to his work, embodied by actors as stonefaced as Buster Keaton and by a mise-en-scène often uncluttered to the point of emptiness.

As specific as he is, Hartley is resoundingly not for everyone and his style hasn’t always aged well, but he is very much an original. With his twelfth feature “Meanwhile” hitting in limited release today, February 29th (oddly appropriate that it’s a leap day, for such an off-kilter filmmaker), we thought it a good opportunity to run through his films. For some of us that meant a trip down memory lane (oh, college!), and for others the chance to discover the films fresh and unclouded by nostalgia, but for all of us, it was kind of a strange, downbeat blast. Here you go, then: the films of Hal Hartley. Long may they live, mainstream indifference be damned.

The Unbelievable Truth” (1989)
Coming from nowhere at Sundance 1990, Hartley’s debut, “The Unbelieveable Truth,” was quite unlike anything else on screens at the time. It follows Audry (Adrienne Shelly) a recent high school grad and would-be model, who becomes infatuated with a mysterious ex-con mechanic (Robert John Burke), who, as the rumors around town go, is a murderer. In the context of the rest of Hartley’s career, it sometimes feels like a test-run or a sketch, principally for follow-up “Trust,” outlining early expressions of themes he’d later fill out more comprehensively. And it’s very much a product of the late 1980s, from Audry’s post-Cold War nuclear paranoia to her father’s Reaganite politics. But while it might not be as well-developed as later projects, it remains a delight, with the first demonstration of the intricately rhythmic, almost theatrical dialogue, full of wit and invention, that would come to characterise Hartley’s style. But while Hartley’s dialogue is what he is most known for, the film demonstrates that he had a keen visual eye from the first, with regular DoP Michael Spiller pulling in nice work on a meagre budget. It also marks the discovery of two figures who would feature heavily in Hartley’s later work: Shelly (the victim of a tragic killing in 2006, as she was completing her directorial debut “Waitress“) and Burke (who went on to TV roles in “Rescue Me” and “The Sopranos,” as well as, um, “Robocop 3” ), and both are superb — the former giving an indelible portrait of a girl adrift, no longer wanting the life she’s been heading for, the latter the film’s heart as the gentle soul with an undeniable violence inside him. Keep an eye out too for cameo-sized roles from Edie Falco and even “Meek’s Cutoff” director Kelly Reichardt. [B+]

Trust” (1990)
The similarities between Hal Hartley’s sophomore film and his debut are immediately obvious: “Trust,” like “The Unbelievable Truth,” stars Adrienne Shelly as a recent high school grad, the unexpectedly pregnant Maria, who forms an odd relationship with a brooding young man with violence in his past — in this case Matthew, played by Martin Donovan in his breakout role. But while what were fast becoming Hartley’s trademarks are very much in evidence, the film is funnier, more moving, more technically adept and generally more fully formed than its predecessor. Shelly is again superb, and has a ton of chemistry with Donovan, who comes across as a kind of Generation X James Dean, walking around with a live hand grenade that he’s continuously tempted to detonate. The pair fall somewhere between Bonnie and Clyde and Romeo and Juliet, with their awful families (including excellent turns from Merritt Nelson as Maria’s mother, who challenges Matthew to a drinking contest, Edie Falco as her divorced sister, and John MacKay as Matthew’s OCD father) working hard to keep them apart. The title is absolutely apt: in a world where Maria sees a woman try to snatch a baby and is nearly raped by a store clerk, they’re united, despite their differences, by the fact that they can trust in each other absolutely. Hartley would move away from this template after this film, and it’s understandable: it’s hard to imagine him getting it more right than he does here. [A-]

Surviving Desire” (1991)
Originating as a TV featurette (Hartley’s first) that clocks in at under 60 minutes, it’s tempting to overlook “Surviving Desire” — essentially a tight series of vignettes — as an early minor project in Hal Hartley’s body of work. Taking cues from Robert Bresson and Jean-Luc Godard and utilizing a veritable grab bag of literary and film references from Fyodor Dostoyevsky to “West Side Story,” Hartley was cementing what were to become his filmic signatures, including his non-naturalistic dialogue.

 “Surviving Desire” follows a floundering literary professor (Donovan again, the frequent anti-hero of Hartley’s films) as he falls into that kind of obsessive surface love, known as limerance, with one of his students, the removed and ambitious Sofie (Mary B. Ward). What their relationship lacks in physical connection they make up for in a banter that is, naturally for Hartley, short, sharp and ratatat-esque with its quips. The narrative non-sequiturs peppered throughout the film, such as the silent choreographed dance that expresses Jude’s joy at his burgeoning romance and the live appearance by the band The Great Outdoors serenading a giggling girl on the street, are just some of the ways Hartley plays with form and lifts the serious tone of the film.  Employing a lot of $10 words, but also a sly, stylish sense of fun, “Surviving Desire” is a passionate examination of big ideas, including faith, ambition and the dangers of the over-examined love life. [A-]

Simple Men” (1992)
Hartley’s third feature and in many ways his international breakthrough (it was his first to play in Cannes), “Simple Men” also contains the sequence that is perhaps most emblematic of his career: the infamous “Kool Thing” dance number (set to the Sonic Youth song) that seemingly comes out of nowhere and invests the film with an early Godardian zest that is as invigorating as it was perhaps unnecessary: the movie was already kicking ass! Two brothers, one a small time hood (Robert Burke), the other a naive student fresh out of college (Bill Sage), go on a motorcycle road trip into the wilds of Long Island in search of their father. Once a great shortstop for the long-since-relocated Brooklyn Dodgers who subsequently became an anarchist, at the film’s beginning, Dad has just escaped from prison. The two brothers get stranded in an off-the-beaten path community near a roadside diner/gas station and slowly get pulled involved with the locals: their feuds, their love lives. Indeed, one brother finds love, although having had his heart broken mid-robbery during the film’s opening scene, he’s vowed to break the heart of the next woman he falls in love with. Watching it again twenty years on, one is struck both by the home-made quality the film exhibits and by how accessible it is; despite his famous po-mo verbal pyrotechnics and occasionally disorienting film grammar, it remains a surprisingly pleasant, heady melodrama full of genuine laughs and the melancholy of spurned filial affection. [A-]

Amateur” (1994)
Hartley was in Cannes for the second straight time with his fourth film, 1994’s “Amateur,” this time with a big French star in tow. Isabelle Huppert plays a fallen nun who has taken to writing pornographic stories and smoking too many cigarettes in a dilapidated diner, when in strolls Martin Donovan as a man with amnesia. As the two of them begin to unravel the secret of his identity, a mysterious woman of Romanian extraction (Hartley regular Elina Lowensohn) insinuates herself into their circle. Although she may provide the key for figuring out just who this mystery man is, she refuses to relinquish it, holding a bitter grudge for his actions in his unremembered past, even as dangerous characters begin to surface who mean harm to them both. “Amateur” has a simply unbeatable soundtrack (Yo La Tengo, My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth and Pavement among others) and was the first of Hartley’s films to integrate seemingly realistic violence into his cerebral, absurdist style. As it’s aged it seems more and more like some kind of perverse riff on the concerns of Antonioni‘s “The Passenger” filtered through Hartley’s peculiar preoccupations. Don’t blink or you might miss early appearances by Michael Imperioli (as a bouncer in a Sonic Youth tanktop!) and Tim Blake Nelson. If only Quentin Tarantino had been hit by a car or taken up rowing instead of showing up on the Croissette with “Pulp Fiction” at that same Cannes, we might be talking about this film as one of the central American crime pictures of the era. [B+]

Flirt” (1995)
For all the comparisons raised between Hartley and Woody Allen over the years, there’s a crucial one that’s been overlooked: both filmmakers like to play with formal conventions. And that’s never been more true for Hartley than with “Flirt.” Expanded from a half-hour short that makes up the first third of the film, it begins with commitment-phobe Bill (Bill Sage) whose lover (Parker Posey, in her first appearance for the director) presses him to make a proper committment, or she’ll leave for Paris. Hedging his bets, he goes to find another woman he’s also been seeing, but is instead confronted by her gun-wielding husband. Once that wraps up, we see the same story again, firstly with Bill replaced by Dwight (Dwight Ewell), an ex-pat in Berlin choosing between two male lovers, and then by Miho (Hartley’s wife Miho Nakaidoh), whose film director beau (Hartley, playing himself, and at one point carrying a canister of film labeled “Flirt”) has given her the same ultimatum in Tokyo. Each short, individually, is classic Hartley stuff (the first being the best), and the project’s an undeniably fascinating exercise, more or less a must-watch curio for any aspiring moviemakers or screenwriters. But all three watched back-to-back is a fairly trying experience; while there are slight differences (including a cute moment in the Berlin section where construction workers debate whether Hartley will be able to pull off his experiment), it gets pretty tired as a whole, your patience running out long before the Japanese-set segment (which is probably the least impressive of the three, which doesn’t help). As we said, film students or Hartley obsessives will eat it up, but newcomers should start elsewhere. [C]

Henry Fool” (1997)
Perhaps Hartley’s most ambitious film, the picture also arguably marks the before-and-after turning point of his career (he never got this close to widespread acceptance again). The most financially successful of all his films (pulling in $1.3 million), distributed by Sony Pictures Classics and the winner of the screenplay prize at Cannes, “Henry Fool” focuses on the titular character (Thomas Jay Ryan), a reprobate louse who rolls into town and encourages uneducated, socially inept garbageman Simon Grim (James Urbaniak) to express himself in writing and opens him up to a world of literature. What pours out is an incendiary epic poem dubbed pornographic and socially destructive that rises in notoriety until it becomes a Nobel Prize-winning tome much to Henry’s chagrin. A scoundrelish lowlife through and through, Henry insinuates himself into the Grim family including impregnating his sister Fay (Parker Posey), but like a cancer, he infects and ruins everything he touches, especially once his criminal past begins to catch up with him. But don’t let the film’s relative success fool you: there’s no denying that at two hours and twenty minutes (Hartley’s longest film), “Henry Fool” is almost thirty minutes too long, and lead actor Ryan delivers a divisive performance that many find simply grating. That said, the picture ultimately overcomes its sluggish pace with some particularly powerful and effective scenes including perhaps the most ridiculous and disgusting unintentional marriage proposals ever committed to celluloid (the Farrelly Brothers would be proud). [B+]

The Book of Life” (1998)
Working with French TV money (“The Book of Life” was financed and produced by the French television company ARTE), Hartley found himself turning to theological concerns — a theme that would arguably consume the rest of this career — in this surprisingly spry, biblically infused tale of a turn-of-the-century Apocalypse upheld by Jesus’ ambivalence. That Jesus and the Devil are represented by Hartley regulars Martin Donovan and Thomas Jay Ryan, in dueling suits and temperaments, on December 31st, 1999 in New York City is a tough pill to stomach, but it proves pleasant enough to watch. But it does feel tremendously dated, and not just by the very slender, sixty-two-minute-long production’s most interesting aspect: its use of almost hallucinogenic early miniDV-grade video. Hartley blissfully engages a low-rent, “Wong-Kar-Wai in one press of a button!” aesthetic for the scenes of Donovan and the otherworldly P.J. Harvey (as a sultry but ultimately dry Mary Magdalene) gliding across the streets of New York, while Ryan’s Devil drinks red wine and muses on his relationship to God and human frailty with detached bemusement. That certain ironic distance is characteristic, of course, but less welcome are the seemingly endless dutch angles, awkward jump cuts and legalistic ramblings that began to hamper much of Hartley’s work throughout the next decade. This film appeared in the same Cannes as “Henry Fool” and in many ways seems just as significant a marker in his career, as his films from here on out turned darker and broader thematically, if seemingly less vital to the citizens of Cannesistan at large. The Yo La Tengo cameo is fun, but don’t we all wish he had let P.J. Harvey sing more? [B-] BH

No Such Thing” (2001)
If Hartley’s cult popularity started to wane in the late ‘90s (it was clear at that point, he wasn’t about to reach the mainstream), it was evident by the time the aughts rolled around that some significant actors had, in fact, been paying attention — “No Such Thing” features Helen Mirren, Julie Christie and Sarah Polley — but it all arrived a little too late. It perhaps didn’t help that Hartley’s style is of  a time and place and with a new decade dawning, this comedic monster drama felt wildly out of step. Set in New York and abroad, the rather preposterous picture centers on a monster located off a remote island of Iceland that has killed a New York news crew. Turns out the monster (Robert John Burke) is a surly, drunken misanthrope who can talk and just wants to end it all, but his curse is he’s essentially indestructible so he takes out his suffering on humanity. The fiance of one of the deceased cameramen (Polley) turns out to be the intern for the New York news outlet and she convinces her ruthless, headline-hungry editor (Mirren) to send her to Iceland to investigate. While it’s high-concept in nature, “No Such Thing” is another typically talky and philosophical Hartley dramedy, but at this point in his career, his mien was beginning to yield diminishing returns. Not entirely worthless, still the picture is inessential and for the die-hards only. [C]

The Girl from Monday” (2005)
Perhaps everyone needs a bottoming out. Looking back it’s hard to see “The Girl from Monday” as anything but the nadir in Hal Hartley’s career; his 2005 science fiction movie, which took quite the critical drubbing, will take its spot alongside the mid-career stumbles of many otherwise pretty consistent auteurs. In this labyrinthine, “Alphaville”-esque tale, Corporations are the new states, Triple M being the biggest and baddest, and our protagonist, played Hartley regular Bill Sage, looking positively Brad Pitt-like with his frosted tips and a grizzled quality that’s as affected as it is effective, was instrumental in the corporate takeover. But once he starts encountering gorgeous aliens played by vaguely European women and has his desirability rating (the new form of credit) lowered for sleeping with the wrong woman, the narrative he finds himself in reaches a Pynchonian level of complexity and dread. The terrific scores that powered so many of Hartley’s earlier features had evaporated by this point and nothing in the thing seems to have much conviction, although there is a bizarro cameo by Hartley alum/fellow Purchase College grad Edie Falco as a judge who sentences a woman to “two years teaching at a high school” for going to a club where people have sex for fun. Plus there’s a nice little supporting turn by Leo Fitzpatrick as a counter-revolutionary whose death scene is positively campy — we wish that were the compliment it could have been — and some genuinely searching formal choices that, even if they don’t quite work, were probably worth a shot. [D+]

Fay Grim” (2007)
Picking up seven years after the events of “Henry Fool” (and shot nine years later, after Hartley had exiled himself to Europe), the unexpected and surprising sequel (Hartley’s first), in retrospect, when watched back to back with its forbear, is rather brilliantly spun-off in the new direction of espionage. Nothing prepares Fay (Parker Posey), Simon (James Urbaniak) or us the audience, for that matter, for the film’s central conceit: Henry’s memoir “confessions” — revealed to be unintelligible and unpublishable blather at the end of “Henry Fool”– are apparently a brilliant secret code for clandestine information that could compromise the security of the U.S. CIA agents (Jeff Goldblum and Leo Fitzpatrick) attempt to coerce Fay, Henry’s wife who is now a fugitive from the law, into turning over the notebooks that she doesn’t actually possess. A single mother in Queens (her brother Simon rots in jail for helping Henry flee the U.S. in the first film), Fay’s determined to raise her 14-year-old son to be the exact opposite of her lousy husband. But soon, Fay’s dispatched to Paris to find Henry, where she quickly becomes embroiled in an international espionage intrigue involving several nations vying for the same intel. Shot with dutch angles aplenty and employing Hartley’s increasingly alienating scores (this time a form of pretentious/experimental orchestral timpani and wandering flutes), while cleverly conceived, the conspicuous style eventually gets in the way of what should be an off-kilter spy story. But it’s certainly a first for the director and Goldblum and Parker take to his distinctive deadpan style like ducks to water, so in the scheme of things it is a semi-return to form and probably Hartley’s best film since “Henry Fool.” [B-]

“Possible Films” and more.
On top of his many features, Hal Hartley also directed many shorts over the years, exactly seventeen of them, in fact, and eight are included on the “Possible Films – Short Works by Hal Hartley 1994-2004” DVD. Curiously not included is “Flirt” (1993) the short film that marked his first collaboration with Parker Posey and made way for “Flirt” the feature-length effort in 1996 (also with Posey and the same cast playing the same characters). While many of them are shot on what looks like lo-fi VHS-quality video and aren’t exactly memorable, “Opera No. 1” is worth mentioning as it’s Hartley’s first and only musical, an ambitious mini-opera that he wrote starring Posey and Adrienne Shelly. “The Sisters of Mercy” also stars Posey and is a playful experimental riff on the 1994 short “Iris,” starring the same cast and featuring lyrics and music from The Breeders‘ “Iris,” co-starring Sabrina Lloyd who would go on to star in the “The Girl from Monday.” But perhaps the most interesting of the bunch is “Regarding Soon,” a first-person interview documentary with Hartley about his 1998 stageplay, “Soon.” A serio-comic drama dealing with the confrontation at Waco, Texas, between the religious community (the Branch Davidians) and the U.S. federal government, it is an important entry in his oeuvre, if only for how once again Hartley shows himself preoccupied with themes like the nature of religious truth, upcoming apocalypses, and the comedic end-is-nigh alarmism that generally comes when examining the the joys, sorrows, and disasters of “creative religiosity.”

For all Hartley has been neglected or outright ignored by large swathes of the moviegoing public, his is the kind of career that inspires the initiated few to often deep devotion. And this also seems true of his actors, many of whom return to feature in his films time and again, forming almost a theatrical troupe around him, willing to go where he leads. One such actor, Liam Aiken who played the young son Ned in both “Henry Fool” and “Fay Grim,” said to us when we spoke with him in Berlin recently: “Hal is such a gentle and kind soul and it’s such an interesting juxtaposition for the movies he makes, full of the most rough and brutish characters you can imagine.” And to a certain extent, perhaps that speaks to his continuing appeal for the Hartleyites among us: in his best work undercurrents of violence war with trust and thoughtfulness; kitschy characters on the make ponder deeply philosophical dilemmas; and some of the most profound human insights are delivered in staccato bursts of, well, nonsense. It’s contradictory, confounding and it doesn’t always work. What’s not to love?

— RP, Brandon Harris, Sam Chater, Oliver Lyttelton, Jessica Kiang

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