A collection of reviews of films from off the beaten path; a travel guide for those who love the cinematic world and want more than the mainstream releases.
Tuesday, January 7, 2020
Hal Hartley at the Metrograph
A Retrospective of the American Independent Giant, with Films Starring Isabelle Huppert, Adrienne Shelly, PJ Harvey, Martin Donovan, Sarah Polley, etc.
"Hal Hartley’s films are slow meditations. They create on screen an aura of stillness that invites audiences to pause and reflect – to really hear what the characters are saying, to really look at actions close-up." – bell hooks
"Mr. Hartley taps into a universe ignored by a Hollywood obsessed with precocious juveniles and expensive extravaganzas. His loners and outsiders are passionate about the idea of love and desire and survival, even while knowing they might very well end up looking ridiculous." – New York Times
Beginning Friday January 24, a retrospective of Hal Hartley (Trust, Henry Fool, Amateur) will open at Metrograph. Hal Hartley appeared on the scene in the “indie” movie boom of the early ‘90s, but even in these years of mainstreaming, he remained an outsider’s outsider; his independence not a temporarily convenient brand, but an entire ethos. His milieu was a blue-collar, bridge-and- tunnel New York, populated by workaday philosophers expressing themselves in a deadpan, declamatory performance style heavy on aphorism and unusual articulacy. This, combined with Hartley’s austere, geometric mise-en-scene, has invited comparisons to Robert Bresson, but his singular combination of off-kilter humor and throbbing romanticism can really only be called “Hartley-esque.” From breakthrough early works introducing stars Adrienne Shelly and Martin Donovan to latter-day masterstrokes like Ned Rifle, join us in following this remarkable artist through the different-drummer march that his career has been.
The Unbelievable Truth (1989/90 mins/35mm) Hartley’s first feature announced the arrival of a profoundly idiosyncratic and original filmmaker, an all-American blue-collar Bressonian who found a peculiar beauty and balefulness in the tattier corners of his native Long Island. Here his great early collaborator, Adrienne Shelly, stars as a teenager fixated on nuclear Armageddon, drawn into the orbit of a stranger in town (Robert John Burke), whose air of mystery conceals a dark backstory.
Trust (1990/107 mins/35mm) Adrienne Shelly returns in Hartley’s strange, sweet, and stark sophomore outing as Maria, a 17-year-old in suburban Long Island who, to the horror of her parents, comes home one day pregnant, and unleashes catastrophe. She finds comfort of a sort with Martin Donovan’s self-taught Mr. Fix-It electronics whiz, and together they try to help one another—he in giving her a home, she in getting him out from under the thumb of his abusive father. A ringing riposte to Reaganite values, and a love story that gives its own definition of love.
Surviving Desire (1991/55 mins) with The Book of Life (1998/63 mins) Dostoevsky-obsessed lit lecturer Martin Donovan becomes infatuated with one of his students (Mary Ward) in Hartley’s experimental film musical, which features some of the writer-director-composer’s most piquant and grandiloquent dialogues on the topic love and ambition, and gives a remarkable visual richness to its small-town university setting. With pop musical The Book of Life, Hartley’s first DV film, featuring Donovan as the resurrected Christ returned to earth via JFK airport on the eve of the new millennium, and PJ Harvey as his assistant, Mary Magdalene.
Simple Men (1992/105 mins) Robert John Burke and Bill Sage are two very unalike brothers—a brokenhearted bank robber and a fresh-faced, bookish college boy—reunited when their ex-baseball star-cum-anarchist activist father escapes from a hospital and goes on the lam. Following him, they break down in a backwater town, and become enmeshed in the life of the locals, played by Martin Donovan, Karen Sillas, and Elina Löwensohn. Using the familiar form of the classic American road movie, Hartley constructs something wholly unexpected and completely clued into its time, a movie about “average” Americans that reminds us that no such creature exists.
Amateur (1994/105 mins/35mm) Set in a disappeared downtown Manhattan of twenty years ago, Hartley’s absurdist comedy introduces a never-better Isabelle Huppert as a still-virginal ex-nun trying to make ends meet by writing smut for the likes of Wet & Wild magazine, scooped up in a coffee shop by a bloodied but hunky amnesiac hustler (Martin Donovan) who recruits her into his mission to recover his past—a journey that will lead them into a noir-ish underworld of yuppified gangsters. “Irresistibly strange… A wry look at the social roles people play and the ‘real’ characters hidden beneath them.”—The NY Times
Flirt (1996/85 mins) Flirt’s three episodes offer triangular love stories set on different continents, fascinating for both the correspondences and the cultural differences that they reveal. Parker Posey puts a romantic ultimatum to Bill Sage in NYC; Black American artist Dwight Ewell considers his relationship with his German art dealer boyfriend in Berlin; Japanese dance student Miho Nikaido gets caught up in a dalliance that turns to deadly intrigue. “Smart, sexy, wafer-light… A jauntily romantic theme and variations on young love international style”— The New York Times
Henry Fool (1997/137 mins/35mm) A bawdy Faustian comic fable in which a garbageman can become an overnight literary cause celebre for an epic poem, Henry Fool follows the impact of Thomas Jay Ryan’s title character—a drifter, a grifter, and a splenetic genius—on the inhabitants of Woodside, Queens, including transformed trashman Simon Grim (James Urbaniak), his bed-hopping sister (Parker Posey), and their depressive mother (Maria Porter). A portrait of an outsider artist by one who knows the life well, and a caustic comic contemplation of the artist’s place in the modern world.
No Such Thing (2001/103 mins/35mm) Inspired by the epic Beowulf but Hal Hartley to the core, No Such Thing follows television journalist Sarah Polley as she travels from New York to Iceland to track down the boozing, foul-mouthed monster (Robert John Burke) who killed her fiancé. Providing plum supporting roles for Helen Mirren, Julie Christie, and director Baltasar Kormákur, playing a mad scientist named for Antonin Artaud, Hartley crafts a farcical fairy tale and slapstick media culture satire for the ages.
The Girl from Monday (2005/84 mins/DCP) Consumer culture, unbound capitalism, and the emergent phenomenon of ubiquitous branding are the targets of Hartley’s prescient anti-corporate thriller The Girl from Monday, set in a near future when the entire U.S. is run by a single, imperial media conglomerate, MMM, who relentlessly mine the populace for data. Leading the resistance is MMM exec Jack (Sage), who finds an unlikely foil—and romantic complications—in the form of an alien creature from a distant planet who splashes down in the form of Tatiana Abracos, and learns of humanity’s plight through binge-watching television.
Fay Grim (2006/118 mins/DCP) Eight years after Henry Fool, Hartley picks up with the title character, Parker Posey’s spurned spouse to the first film’s grifter anti-hero, raising their now-teenaged son while looking for clues as to where he has disappeared to and who he was in the journals he left behind, also of interest to two CIA agents played by Leo Fitzpatrick and Jeff Goldblum. Provincial domestic comedy meets international thriller and scathing spy spoof, all in Hartley’s signature cadence. “Possibly the most astute allegory about the U.S.’s role in our current war… Posey beautifully embodies bewilderment and melancholy.”— Slant Magazine
Meanwhile (2012/57 mins/DCP) with My America (2014/77 mins/DCP) D.J. Mendel, a longtime Hartley supporting player, stars in the brisk, lovingly detailed character study Meanwhile as a down-on-his-luck multi-hyphenate crossing Manhattan on foot after learning that his bank account has been frozen due to unpaid taxes—a movie intimate in scope but rich in everyday incident. With My America, an assemblage of twenty-one short monologues by twenty-one American playwrights, including Anna Deavere Smith, Dan Dietz, Lynn Nottage, and Neil LaBute, delivered in response to the question “What is my America?”
Ned Rifle (2014/85 mins/DCP) The final film in the tragicomic dysfunctional family trilogy begun with Henry Fool and continued through Fay Grim catches up with Henry and Fay’s son Ned (Liam Aiken), freshly emerged from witness protection and determined to kill his father, only to be dissuaded by a young woman, Susan (Aubrey Plaza) who has her own, very different fixation on the elusive Henry and the Grim family. A sort of summarizing of Hartley’s work-to-date, featuring many of his favorite faces, and a lean, stripped-down work that announces a new invigorated burst of creative conviction on the part of the filmmaker.
Hartley is currently raising funds for his new film, Where to Land. More information can be found here.