American Nowhere

Hal Hartley on realism, surrealism, and Henry Fool

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.

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