American Nowhere

Hal Hartley on realism, surrealism, and Henry Fool

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."

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