Metro Retro Movie Love In Conversation

Hal Hartley from A to Z: Folders from the Fool Files

January 22 2020

The world is chaotic, and the films of Hal Hartley often depict the struggle to impose some kind of structure or organization, to suss out the meaning of it all. So perhaps it would behoove us to do the same. Let’s take it from the top.

A is for ADRIENNE.
Although there are many actors who got their start with Hal Hartley, there is probably no one as closely identified with Hartley’s cinema as the late Adrienne Shelly, who died in 2006. The lead in two of Hartley’s first films, The Unbelievable Truth and Trust, Shelly brought a unique dissonance to Hartley’s work, seeming at times both naïve and world-weary. In both films, Shelly played young women who were outsiders, not quite capable of fulfilling the roles that life in suburban Long Island laid out for her. She was able to deliver Hartley’s deadpan, often disaffected dialogue without irony, bringing to both films a tinge of sadness tempered with hope. Her performance opposite Martin Donovan in Trust is particularly vivid, his clipped, businesslike tone serving as a foil to Shelly’s calm, even dreamy equanimity. Of course, Shelly went on to write and direct her own films, including Sudden Manhattan (1997), which perhaps most clearly displays Hartley’s influence, and Waitress (2007), by which point she had found her own artistic voice. The loss of Shelly is immeasurable. But Hartley’s first two features (and the short film Opera No. 1) are a testament to her singular gifts.

B is for BOOK OF LIFE.
In 1998, Hartley was commissioned by the French production company Haut et Court to make a feature dealing with the concept of the millennium. The 2000 vu par… project also included contributions from Tsai Ming-liang, Laurent Cantet, Abderrahmane Sissako, and several others. For his film, Hartley turned to digital video. Among filmmakers of the period, Hartley was an early adopter of digital, and instead of simply trying to replicate the look of his earlier films with new technology, Hartley chose to embrace the specific idiosyncrasies of the medium. The Book of Life employs hand-held cinematography and a slow shutter, resulting in a washed-out, atmospheric look reminiscent of watercolor. In the film, Jesus (Martin Donovan) returns to Earth on the eve of the year 2000, intent of bringing about the end of the world. (He is accompanied by Mary Magdalene, played by PJ Harvey.) The film contains a number of cinema jokes. For example, Jesus and Magdalene check into a luxury hotel as Mr. and Mrs. D.W. Griffith, and the hotel is called The Kitano. So, considering his use of new tools and a radical change in his image-making techniques, Hartley seems to consider the end of the century, the end of cinema, and the end of the world as coextensive events. In this regard, The Book of Life might be Hartley’s most direct nod to the cine-philosophy of Jean-Luc Godard.

This entry has a double meaning. Of course, Hartley’s work has a very distinctive look. Much credit should, of course, go to Michael Spiller, Hartley’s colleague from SUNY Purchase and his D.P. on eight features and five shorts. But “cinematography” also refers to the unique strategies of Robert Bresson. If Hartley’s films can seem “flat,” in terms of their diction, their environments, their overall affect, this could be considered in terms of Bresson’s recommendations for composing in cinema. He wrote, “to create is not to deform or invent persons and things. It is to tie new relationships between persons and things which are, and as they are.”

D is for DONOVAN.
From Trust through The Book of Life, Martin Donovan has been an axiomatic presence for Hal Hartley. Although he has only appeared in one Hartley film since then, playing a Reverend in Ned Rifle, Donovan remains as firmly associated with the director as Robert De Niro is with Scorsese, or Kyle MacLachlan with David Lynch. Donovan’s speech cadence and physical presence function almost like the template for Hartley’s tense, ambivalent brand of masculinity. His clipped intonation betrays just a hint of exasperation or confusion, and he comports himself as if he were born wearing a suit. Above all, Donovan tends to portray men who seem at ease on the surface but underneath are bristling under the weight of misplaced expectations. Whether it’s as Matthew in Trust, trying to forge an identity independent of his overbearing father (John MacKay), Jude the hapless professor in Surviving Desire, or even as a somewhat reluctant Jesus Christ in The Book of Life, Donovan always delivers Hartley’s complex, intentionally stilted dialogue as if he were saying one thing, already thinking something else, and all the while observing those around him who, it seems, never quite get it. He is the perfect Hartleyan Man: overthinking the small stuff, and insufficiently reflective where it counts.

“Knowing is not enough,” Jude (Donovan) writes on the chalkboard just before giving up on his career as a college literature professor. In Surviving Desire, Jude takes a shine to Sophie (Mary B. Ward), the one student who doesn’t completely dismiss his course as a waste of time. And while much of the featurette is centered on the fledgling relationship between the two, it is the classroom scenes that are most evocative. The students aren’t just bored; they are rioting. One young man throws Jude against the wall. What is the professor’s crime? He has been trying to coax them into a close reading of a single paragraph of The Brothers Karamazov for six weeks, and the students are upset. They want “answers.” They want to know what will be on the final exam. But of course, Jude has no answers, only questions. And by the end of Surviving Desire, there is no indication that Jude possesses even a rudimentary understanding of the Dostoyevsky passage: “Above all, avoid falsehood, every kind of falsehood, especially falseness to yourself.”

F is for FOOL.
In 1997, Hartley released Henry Fool, starring Thomas Jay Ryan as a mysterious rogue who meets Simon Grim (James Urbaniak), a taciturn garbage collector, and inspires him to discover his inner poet. The film debuted in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the screenplay award. Although no one (including Hartley) knew it at the time, Henry Fool would become the first film in a trilogy about Fool and the Grims. Whereas in Henry Fool, the title character is depicted as a liar, a braggart, and a cad, with no discernible literary talent, he evolves in the second film, Fay Grim. His wife, Fay (Parker Posey), is contacted by a CIA agent (Jeff Goldblum), who claims that Fool is actually involved in international espionage. His unreadable “Confessions” are allegedly some form of deep code. Henry Fool, then, is a shapeshifter, a conceptual protagonist whose defining characteristic is just how little we know about him. (We could compare Fool to Peter Greenaway’s frequent avatar, the “professional prisoner” Tulse Luper.) Fool (“there used to be an ‘E’ on the end”) is a Rorschach blot, reflecting back what others want or need him to be.

G is for GRIM.
By contrast, Simon Grim is a psychological subject in the classic Western sense. He is quiet and unassuming, but beneath his inexpressive exterior lay deep reserves of thought and feeling. Or does it? As Urbaniak portrays him in Henry Fool, Simon seems to exemplify Robert Bresson’s concept of the cinematographic Model. Models are not actors. They do not pretend to be someone they are not, and they do not operate according to the surface/depth model of conventional psychology. Rather, Models are all surface, or “all face,” as Bresson put it. They speak their lines as if they are delivering quotations, which of course they are. But they do so in a rote, automatic way, so as to produce a juncture between text and image within the cinema, as two coterminous “things.” Where Ryan portrays Fool with a hint of mock-spookiness, and Posey’s Fay is hard-edged and sardonic, Urbaniak plays Simon as a flat, unflappable presence. The fact that this depthless figure is the author of an epic poem that we never hear is a kind of ironic joke.

H is for HUPPERT.
In Hartley’s 1994 film Amateur, Isabelle Huppert plays a former nun who has left the convent after 15 years. Although a virgin, she claims to be a nymphomaniac. (“I’m choosy.”) She is attempting to make her way in Manhattan as a writer of smut, but her prose is dismissed by publishers as being too poetic. By chance, she stumbles upon Thomas (Donovan), who has been thrown out a window and is suffering from amnesia. Hartley’s first film following the completion of the Long Island Trilogy, Amateur adopts the outward trappings of an urban thriller, but seems to really be about a deeper form of alienation. Made just after the election of Rudy Giuliani, the film depicts a New York in transition, mostly comprised of anonymous lofts and empty, under-construction office spaces. Even crime seems to have gone corporate. One henchman goes to lunch as the other prepares to torture a man, and the torturer reminds his colleague, “get a receipt.” Everything (including the independent film scene that nurtured Hartley) is becoming unavoidably professionalized, so the title raises the question. Is there anything left that we might do simply in the name of love?

The Girl From Monday is a film about the corporatization of desire, the infiltration of capitalism into our daily lives and identities. In the future, the government is replaced by a multinational corporation called Triple M. An executive for the firm (Bill Sage) comes up with the idea of monetizing sex, but not in the old fashioned way. Rather, each person is a brand, and each time you have sex, your value increases. The Girl From Monday is one Hartley film in dire need of reevaluation. Received with tepid appreciation upon release, it now seems highly prescient of our particular moment of seemingly benign right-wing hypercapital and consumer “choice” substituting for actual democracy. The film also seems to have influenced other artists, most notably Richard Kelly (Southland Tales) and Charlie Brooker (Black Mirror). But above all, The Girl From Monday is an example of form following function. Hartley and cinematographer Sarah Crawley use freeze-frames and painterly color smearing not only to depict an unstable world, but also to highlight the move to digital image-making as both a gain in tactility and a loss of substance.

J is for JAPAN.
Among the various sources and antecedents for Hartley’s unique way of making movies, one does not often hear mention of Eastern influences. This is curious, particularly since Hartley’s films have referenced Japanese culture on several occasions. The third segment of the triptych Flirt takes place in Tokyo, and that iteration of the script could be perceived to be one of Hartley’s most personal works. It represents his sole acting credit, performing opposite his wife Miho Nikaido. And Hartley’s 2000 medium-length film, Kimono, also starring Nikaido, is a near-silent dance performance that contains elements of kabuki theater and butoh. (Butoh performance also appears in Flirt.) But aside from these specific citations of Japanese artforms, Hartley’s cinema seems to share as much in common with the highly structured domesticity of Yasujiro Ozu as it does with Godard or Bresson. The two filmmakers share a fascination with the spaces and rituals of daily life. Hartley discovers enlightenment by fixing his gaze on the ordinary.

K is for KOOL THING.
Simple Men, where the Hartley universe collides with Public Enemy. See also: Madonna, (self-) exploitation; oppression (male, white, corporate).

Long Island is a terminal moraine. What are you waiting for?

The very title implies something transitory, a way station between other more definitive points. It’s about biding time. D.J. Mendel receives his first starring role after appearing in five previous Hartley films, in small roles like "Lawyer," "Teacher," and "Agent." Here, Mendel plays Joe Fulton, a Renaissance man who can fix a sink, generate capital for an import/export scheme involving bringing vertical, "European" style windows to the Manhattan construction industry, and sometimes help you get your indie feature off the ground. He also wrote a novel. The crux of Meanwhile, though, is that Fulton's near-omnipotence is matched only by his poverty and lack of stable success. (Hartley helpfully provides Fulton with a younger brother as a foil. He "works in finance.") Whether Joe consciously abjures money is an open question, although the sexy naked lady whose sink he fixes (Danielle Meyer) tries to slip him some cash. Joe surreptitiously hands it back. More to the point, Joe is a "connector," the type of guy who puts the right people in touch with each other, who moves things from one place to another, but does not necessarily leave a physical substrate of his contribution. In short, Joe is a manager, maybe even a producer, but he works out of the limelight. To a certain way of thinking, Joe would be a mere middleman or even a hanger-on, someone who merely orbits the lives of creative types. But Meanwhile indicates the exact opposite. Joe’s absolute generosity extends to his own lack of ego, his being content to serve as a fixer and a conduit. And again, we must admire Hartley’s prescience, making a film about the “gig economy” in 2011.

A misshapen Minotaur of a film, but certainly worthy of reappraisal, No Such Thing seems to struggle under the weight of too many demands. This was Hartley’s first, and to date only, studio film, made for United Artists and co-produced by Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios. There was also Icelandic production money involved, and the action is split between Hartley’s home turf of NYC and the rocky coastal villages outside of Reykjavík. This is the story of a violent, indestructible monster (Burke) whose greatest desire is to simply cease to exist. But instead, he is exploited by the global media, at the hands of a cartoonishly Machiavellian network executive (Helen Mirren). There’s a Beauty and the Beast subtext as well, since the monster is befriended by sweet young Beatrice (Sarah Polley), whose fiancé he had only just recently torn limb from limb. Ironically, No Such Thing is the sort of high-concept lark that demanded less, not more. Hartley’s low-budget fantasy feature The Girl From Monday more convincingly expressed the clash between monetization and the mythological. And it’s regrettable that most of the actors in No Such Thing (Polley, Mirren, Julie Christie, Baltasar Kormákur) have not worked with Hartley since. Still, whatever its flaws, the film more than justifies itself when the hotel clerk (Urbaniak) utters the immortal line, “He was spirited away by the ingénue.”

O is for OMISSION.
Perhaps following Bresson’s philosophy that what is kept offscreen is as important as what is shown, Hartley’s films have a tendency to allude to objects and artworks that we never see. The most dramatic example of this strategy occurs in the Henry Fool Trilogy. One of the major narrative engines of Henry Fool is writing, specifically the “Confessions” of Henry Fool and the untitled epic poem by Simon Grim. The former is understood to be a massive written work, filling dozens of notebooks, but all we ever learn about it is that it is bad, at least as far as Simon and his publisher are concerned. Conversely, Simon’s also-unrevealed poetry is supposed to be very, very good, so much so that Grim wins the Nobel Prize and the text may be imbued with supernatural properties. (One reader claims that Simon’s poem made her ovulate.) This tactic of invisible artwork goes back at least as far as Hartley’s lovely 1991 short film Ambition, in which an artist (George Feaster), whose work is never seen, is beset by a number of physical challenges, most of them having to do with selling out his vision and capitulating to the capitalist system. So there are several ways to understand Hartley’s decision to avoid showing these artworks. One is simply a preservation of mystery, the assumption that whatever we imagine them to be is greater, in the end, than anything Hartley could actually show us. (This is kind of the case in Amateur, where the excerpt from Isabelle’s pornography is fine but underwhelming.) Or it could also be that, since these artworks are ensnared in capitalist relations, they are always elsewhere, commodities that instantiate desire but can never actually satisfy it.

P is for POSEY.
There is an edge to Hartley’s dialogue. It’s not exactly hard-boiled. Rather it’s direct, matter-of-fact, particularly as relates to those aspects of the human adventure – love, danger, jealousy, rage – that most other filmmakers tend to underline with unnecessary histrionics. For this reason, Hartley’s work is sometimes mistaken as having a “masculine” tenor. Not only is this incorrect on its face – the stereotype of the “manly man” would not be caught dead with Hartley’s words in his mouth – but it also overlooks the specific timbre that various actresses have brought to Hartley’s work. Actresses have found no shortage of ways to occupy the Hartley universe, to articulate the characters beneath the verbiage. But when Hartley began working with Parker Posey on the Henry Fool Trilogy, it represented one of the most natural fits between an actress and a directorial style. As the gruff, heartsick Fay Grim, Posey operates in an elided, adenoidal register, the cello in Hartley’s verbal string quartet. Hers is the mien of a woman with all emotional defenses up, working so hard to show you how inured she is to it all that, paradoxically, you know how much she cares.

I spoke with Hal Hartley in 2015 for Filmmaker Magazine, just before the commercial release of Ned Rifle. Among the several questions I asked was this one, pertaining to fate. “Many of your films, beyond the Henry Fool Trilogy, seem to be about family resemblances, genealogy as destiny, or the question of freedom versus fate. Ned Rifle complicates this in new ways by making Ned a devout Christian. Hartley answered, “Among other things, I think my films are about responsibility. How are we responsible to and for one another? And how does that determine the choices we make? Henry is a character whose lack of responsibility has far-reaching effects. This is part of why I thought that the Grim family could be at the center of a group of films. How can the same central set of problems be examined through different angles of the prism?”

R is for RIFLE.
Ned Rifle is the third film in the Henry Fool Trilogy, and focuses on the title character (Liam Aiken), the young adult son of Henry and Fay Grim. He is looking for his long-absent father for the sole purpose of killing him. Working at cross-purposes to Ned is the mysterious Susan (Aubrey Plaza), who is also searching for Fool. Ned, a devout Christian, believes that his father is irredeemable, whereas Susan – someone with plenty of reasons to despise the man – views him with unexpected sympathy. Hartley’s most Bressonian film, Ned Rifle is an inquiry into faith and forgiveness. But “Ned Rifle” is also the composer who has been creating Hartley’s soundtracks since the start of his career. Rifle “exists” in the grand tradition of cinematographer Peter Andrews and editor Roderick Jaynes: he is of course Hartley himself. This prompts the question of whether Hartley feels a unique identification with this young character and his disappointments, or if the name is just fun to deploy whenever the chance arises. It is a good name, after all: “rifle” implies illicit dangers, its slickness all but cancelled out by the lumpenprole image conjured by “Ned.” Another study in contradictions.

In Simple Men, two brothers are united by their shared anger at their father for abandoning the family. The man, William MacCabe (John MacKay), was a beloved major league baseball player until he abandoned it all to become a Weather Underground-style radical. People refer to him as the “radical shortstop.” As a fielding position, the shortstop is highly unique. He or she has no home base; they are not assigned to a plate or a particular division of the outfield. Rather, the shortstop occupies the space between Second and Third Base, the zone where most batters will send the ball, statistically speaking. So much like a radical, who serves a crucial function in society while never exactly being a part of it, the shortstop is in a liminal space, there to protect what those more in established positions cannot. As for Simple Men, I have long had a pet theory that I have never articulated until this very moment. William MacCabe, the pillar of mainstream entertainment who has abandoned that role to follow radical, unpopular principles, might be understood as an allegorical stand-in for Jean-Luc Godard, a very important filmmaker to Hartley. Like MacCabe, Godard had a radical, unpopular period with the Groupe Dziga-Vertov, and those films were bookended by early films driven by action, and later films driven by discourse. These Godardian styles seem analogous to MacCabe’s sons: Bill the criminal and Dennis the philosopher. But then, perhaps I am getting ahead of myself. They are, after all, simple men.

T is for TRUST.
The title does not just pertain to faith or reliability, although that is certainly part of it. At one point, Maria (Shelly) and Matthew (Donovan) perform a classic trust exercise, as she stands on a high precipice and falls, relying on the fact that he will catch her. But there is also the promissory fiduciary sense of “trust.” Parents invest love and care in their children, we assume. And they expect some kind of return on that investment: security, filial deference, or perhaps pride. Trust provides a comparison between two families in which that investment model has failed. Instead, the beginning of life (in the form of children) is simultaneously the harbinger of death. Maria announces her pregnancy, stands up to her father (Marko Hunt), and he dies of a heart attack. Earlier, when Matthew was born, his mother died, something for which his father (MacKay) cannot forgive him. Both Matthew’s dad and Maria’s mom (Merritt Nelson) treat their children like slaves, determined to extract from them the value they feel is their due. When Matthew and Maria meet, they opt to form a new family unit, but no model beyond the economic, they may have to start a revolution. In the present day, that resembles terrorism.

Looking today at Hartley’s debut feature, certain things immediately leap out. There is of course the highly stylized nature of the dialogue, which is more overtly comic here than in later films, and frequently possesses an incantatory quality, as if the characters are simply saying things that they heard somewhere else and half-believe, for lack of any other, better ideas. This is what makes Josh (Burke) such a compelling presence in the film. He is taciturn, a quiet man who works with his hands and can fix real, tangible problems. He’s a mechanic, and Audrey (Shelly) gravitates toward him because she recognizes that her world is, in fact, broken. All anyone seems to care about is money, business, “the art of the deal.” But for her part, Audrey faces a conundrum that has only deepened in the intervening years. In the face of global catastrophe, what does it mean to imagine a future?

In Flirt (1995), Hartley presents three versions of the same script. The stories take place in New York, Berlin, and Tokyo, in English, with German and Japanese, respectively.
In Flirt (1995) präsentiert Hartley drei Versionen desselben Skripts. Die Geschichten finden in New York, Berlin und Tokio auf Englisch, mit Deutsch und Japanisch statt.

W is for WALDO SALT.
Salt was a screenwriter, born 1914, died 1987. He is best known for writing Midnight Cowboy and Coming Home. In 1991, the Sundance Film Festival inaugurated its annual Waldo Salt Award, honoring the best screenplay in the festival’s competition. That first award was given to Hal Hartley for Trust. A major prize at such a crucial early juncture in one’s career is always significant, but this praise for Hartley the wordsmith may have given an impression, still not entirely dispensed with, that he is a literary or “writerly” filmmaker (cf. Todd Solondz, Whit Stillman, Kenneth Lonergan). But like those others, Hartley is not a mere filmer of scripts. If anything, Hartley’s rigorous, economical visual style is a kind of visual equivalent to his clipped, exacting prose. The scripts are beautifully wrought, but could not achieve their full power without their cinematic substrate.

X marks THE SPOT.
Hartley’s films are emphatically about the specificity of place, even when that aspect of the films is not foregrounded. The Long Island films are unthinkable without their unadorned kitchens and bathrooms, the parking lots and train stations, and the late-50s suburban sprawl. His Manhattan films emphasize life in the city, but from street level, the twitchy discomfort of being surrounded on all sides by asphalt and glass. Anthropologist Marc Augé has described such locations and “non-places,” zones of transit situated between “real” destinations. Hartley’s cinema is one that dramatizes the liminal, indecisive quality of such non-places.

Y is for YO LA TENGO.
The Hoboken, New Jersey trio has appeared on a number of Hartley’s soundtracks. They also have a cameo in The Book of Life as a Salvation Army band. Hartley directed a music video for “From a Motel 6,” from the group’s 1993 album Painful. In the video, the band set up, play, and then pack up their gear. Simple, straightforward, totally Hartley.

Z is for ZEALOTRY.
The nature of belief is one of the primary themes in most of Hartley’s films, and given that the young century has proven to be increasingly characterized by religious and political flexibility, these works continue to resonate. While Hartley explicitly dealt with apocalyptic fervor in his 2001 play Soon (inspired by the Branch Davidians of Waco), there always seems to be a conflict between rigidity and openness that animates his finest work. Whether it’s Matthew and his father in Trust, the radical William McCabe versus his sons in Simple Men, or the deluded Henry Fool against the world, Hartley’s cinema very often serves as a proving ground between visions of life as it ought to be as opposed to how it actually is. The films certainly display a recognition that change is possible and desirable. But they emphasize connection and interdependency, not the simplistic relationship between leader and follower. Hartley’s “heroes” are Existential; they take responsibility. And if it is true, as Bill (Burke) claims in Simple Men, that “there is nothing but trouble and desire,” then it is up to us to fight for the things and people we love.

Metrograph's Hal Hartley series begins January 24th, 2020.