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American Nowhere 

Hal Hartley on realism, surrealism, and Henry Fool

Wednesday, Jul 8 1998
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These are the kinds of people who show up in Hal Hartley films: a nun who writes pornography; a surly, amnesiac hit man; a gas-station attendant who plays Elizabethan ballads on his electric guitar and greets customers in French; a "radical shortstop" who capped a decade playing for the Dodgers by bombing the Pentagon.

Hartley himself has been called many things -- outlaw, revolutionary, deadpan comic genius. To his supporters (the pointy-headed ones, anyway), he's an American inheritor of Bresson and French art films; to detractors, he's a cold, precious filmmaker whose movies pursue little more than abstract patterns. Hartley says he listens to neither critics nor fans; his films, he says, are explorations of "religion, sex, and money" -- movies in which he becomes, behind the camera, a laboratory assistant conducting an experiment, working to make his audience care, even while revealing his movies' artifice. Part of what draws people in, most likely, are his distinctive characters. Hartley's world of cagey nonconformists seeking freedom -- often played by such regulars as Martin Donovan, Adrienne Shelley, and Parker Posey -- is as brilliantly incongruous as that of another oddball Long Islander, Thomas Pynchon.

Hopeful critics and fans have been looking for this eccentric director to reach beyond his cult. Presumably, among those placing their hopes on Hartley's new film is Sony Classics, which has flown the chinless auteur to Los Angeles to promote his latest, Henry Fool, which won best screenplay at Cannes this spring. It's the first time that this director -- a lifelong New Yorker who's been fairly plain about his dislike of L.A. and Hollywood -- has made it to the West Coast to peddle his wares.

As it happens, those anxious to see Hartley break out of his mannered, Brechtian style will draw little consolation from Henry Fool. This long, ambitious film -- about a poetic garbage man and the felonious stranger who unlocks his gift -- displays the director's characteristic tendencies writ large: Like the Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowski, it will remind detractors what they hate about its maker and recall for fans what they liked about his early work.

Hartley's first films, '90's Trust and '91's The Unbelievable Truth, drew comparisons to early Talking Heads records for their mix of the stark and the radical. 1994's Amateur was a flawed, intriguing attempt to make a real studio film, and '95's Flirt a misguided academic experiment. Henry Fool shows Hartley operating with a bigger budget and a wider scope -- and not compromising, as he did in Amateur, his own, deeply personal style.

It's a style he's developed in opposition to what American film has thrown at him over the decades. "I think I was always unsatisfied with movies, and books and plays," he says, over dinner at a Sunset Boulevard hotel. Hartley -- as deadpan and controlled as his films, if significantly less pretentious in manner -- explains that much of his frustration with other films came from their naturalistic acting. "In watching films and then making them, I started to pinpoint better what I wanted to do. I realized it wasn't obvious emotionality. It wasn't empathy."

Film enthusiasts with mixed feelings about his work wonder if his movies could combine head and heart by allowing some old-fashioned acting -- characters who express themselves emotionally, for instance, or even occasionally crack a smile. But Hartley's not interested.

"At about the same time [as his early dabbling in film] I hit Brecht, and I hit Godard, and I hit Warhol. You know, Brecht says that empathy [on the part of an actor for a particular role] is just an illusion -- it's just pride to think you can know another character. People talk about identifying -- 'I didn't identify with the main character' -- that is the biggest piece of hubris. I mean, I go to movies to see things I haven't seen before. I want people to surprise me."

As a result, it's entirely possible (if not common) to appreciate Hartley's films -- to enjoy their minimalist visual imagination, taut dialogue, vaudevillian physical humor, and lurking sense of psychological threat -- and still find the director's work a little cold. In fact, this combination of pleasure and icy, ironic distance almost seems to be what Hartley's striving for. The director disagrees, offering instead that he's trying to express emotion and narrative -- just like everyone else -- but in more bare, unorthodox ways.

"My films are just comedies about American life," he says. "I know I'm not a weirdo. I have an audience in my head, and I try to imagine when they would laugh. I can't understand why films like mine can't have a really broad appeal -- I'm not trying to be obscure. But the general mode of distribution makes everything the same. Popular art of all kinds strives to homogenize."

The reason his films are still mostly known to a cult, he says, is that the movie business -- whether at the studio or indie level -- is deeply conservative, and driven by slavish pursuit of what Hartley calls "the center." "So you're constantly dealing with these people who have a kind of relaxed paranoia. They don't want to commit to an opinion until they've read the trades."

With Henry Fool, he's trying to make his first film that starts with a specific environment and looks at its effect on the movie's protagonists; by contrast, Hartley's past films have always had a distinctive, even problematic relationship to their settings. The director hails from Lindenhurst, Long Island, and most of his films are shot or set in the island's suburbs or in the city that looms over them. ("Most of my personality comes from there," he confirms; he describes his parents as "Long Island pioneers" who pointed their wagons east "when suburbias were growing like mushrooms right after the war.") Hartley has rarely budged from the area -- after a youth in which "I was almost unconscious I was so shy," he went to college at the State University of New York at Purchase, where his focus shifted from music to art to film.

Despite the director's real-life geographic grounding, there's precious little to locate us in most Hartley films; this sense of floating in space adds to a disorientation produced by his movies' flat tones. (He's especially fond of long shots of banal, unromantic desolation; "I've always got my eye out for flat spaces to have someone fall down on," he has said. "Empty highways have this almost narcotic attraction for me.") The lack of sense-of-place in Hartley's films is deliberate.

"I didn't want to be culturally or geographically specific," he says. "I've always strived for the general. It was a little frustrating in the early films -- 'the director from Long Island.' I wanted to talk about American culture, not my particular neighborhood."

His characteristic locale is a postmodern American nowhere, with no local color and little that's culturally or geographically distinguishing. With Henry Fool, he still offers few cues, but he's shooting to highlight the space, much as experimental composers write pieces that explore the acoustics of their rooms or studios. "I'd always been dissatisfied with one aspect of my filmmaking, which was rendering environments. It was really a matter of making shots that weren't establishing shots -- but that were meaningful and established setting."

Besides handling the camera differently, he's altered his casting for Henry Fool. Most of his movies feature Martin Donovan, an actor Hartley discovered working in New York avant-garde theater; Donovan, with his combination of brooding, almost somnambulant good looks and nervous physical energy, has become a hallmark of the director's work and has had some success elsewhere. (He's appeared, most recently, in The Opposite of Sex.) Henry Fool has no Donovan, but puts Posey, a friend of Hartley's from college who has had minor roles in other of his films, in a starring role. The movie's two male leads are Thomas Jay Ryan (Henry) and James Urbaniak (Simon); the latter looks like the bastard offspring of Joyce and Beckett. Both Ryan and Urbaniak, downtown New York theater guys, make their film debut with Henry Fool. (Donovan, Ryan, and British rocker PJ Harvey have recently completed Hartley's next film, a biblical allegory called The Book of Life, of which Jesse Helms is unlikely to approve.) In his casting, as in his choice of locales, Hartley says, "I go for generality; I like archetypes."

So why all this strangeness? People falling down, goofy-looking folks, weird camera angles, Godardian speechifying, and Bressonian gestures? Hartley has said that his films are designed to counter the country's growing homogenization, that they're as bold as they are because they're meant to disturb the peace. Despite their mostly hetero settings, he sees them as the cinematic equivalent of ACT UP's troublemaking: "films that consciously impede a good night's sleep."

The result is a movie about a garbage man's poetry becoming the latest youth craze. "If poetry was as popular with high school kids as rock 'n' roll," Hartley says of the movie's premise. "That's the science-fiction element of the film."

All in all, though, he says he's made Henry Fool "a very realistic film." "Our actual culture," he says, "is much more surreal.

About The Author

Scott Timberg

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