“WHATEVER HAPPENED TO HAL HARTLEY?” (: Logan Hill)

Posted: October 12, 2014 in Chat
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Ned:  I want adventure. I want romance.

Bill:  Ned, there is no such thing as adventure. There’s no such thing as romance. There’s only trouble and desire.

Ned:  Trouble and desire.

Bill:   That’s right. And the funny thing is, when you desire something you immediately get into trouble. And when you’re in trouble you don’t desire anything at all.

Ned:   I see.

Bill:    It’s impossible.

Ned:   It’s ironic.

Bill:    It’s a fucking tragedy is what it is, Ned.

(from Simple Men, 1991)

Scenes in Hartley’s films act as condensates of emotional reasoning, parabolas of the whole. We are given bytes of the life of the piece, its honesty to form and intention. They are epigrammatic; Hartley expertly manipulates the lead-up and the punch line.

Some scenes are very self consciously stagey, assertions of power, or depict obvious transferences of power between characters. Craft, and the mechanics of craft are very much to the fore; his pact with his audiences is based on savvy, knowledge.

‘“Distributors always wonder, Who’s going to see this movie?” says Hartley. “Earlier in my career I used to think, Well, people who are sort of like me. Probably college-educated people, who like art.”(Logan Hill).  But since 1997’s Henry Fool the connect seems to have fallen away. A later film, The Girl From Monday, was reviewed as ‘…a barely contained rant…’.  He thought it might bring back audiences: “When we were shooting, we thought People are going to love this. This is hip and cool. And when we finished… we looked at it and thought, This is really dense. We have a serious art house film here.

Audiences didn’t take to it; nor was it taken as a serious art house film. Could it be he could no longer define the audience in his own image?

Let’s not forget beauty. One commentator says: “He marries stylish aestheticism and beauty with fringe and art.” His sense of beauty is both filmic and textual. And stylish! The early Surviving Desire (1991) references Audrey Hepburn in the gamine look-a-like Rebecca Nelson, in Funny Face (complete with dance sequence). In this short we also find James Stewart’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Modish style points in cinematic history. The film opens with a scene-take out of the other classic The Blackboard Jungle.

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One important ingredient of his films is setting, environment. Simple Men is very much the product of its Long Island setting. “Long Island is a terminal moraine.” we keep hearing, “it is the dirt left over from a glacier.” We find this short stop from New York is also another world: the pastel colours, the empty spaces, the potato fields, woods. Even the characters are idiosyncratic: Kate the café owner as a recent divorcee is living in this limbo, as she expects her divorced husbands’ return; the sheriff is tangled and tormented in an emotional turmoil of his own. It is almost a Dantean vision. Which of the two brothers, the philosophy tutor or the petty crook, is Virgil? Each takes it in turn.

Moments of prescience: the brother’s seventy year old father, ex baseball player and now professional anarchist, is asked if he did bomb the Pentagon in’68. No, he says. Then why has been in hiding since? Because he’s good at it, he says.

Explaining his working method on Flirt he says: “…I let the characters of… cities and… cultures inform how I … interpret it.” The film uses stories from New York, Berlin, Japan: “…three different places… told in three different themes…

We need to mention the intellectual games. That opening quotation from Simple Men is a direct reference to Schopenhauer; Jude’s friend in Surviving Desire quotes from the Bible and classics, making them sound contemporary, relevant; Jude himself obsesses on a passage from Dostoyevsky. It encapsulates everything for him; so much so he cannot move on. Here Hartley dialectically reverses the opening scene from The Blackboard Jungle so that the dysfunctional tutor is forced by his students into educating them.

In Simple Men the issue of Ned’s taking on the law is contrasted with their father’s taking on the government: the legitimacy of a government made by law, of law subject to government, is tossed around like a hot potato. But nobody eats it. ‘Knowing Is Not Enough”, Jude scrawls on the board at the end of Surviving Desire. “There is nothing more I can say.” he says.

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His characters are intellectual drifters; Bob McCabe Says: “… a few years ago they may well have… become yuppies, but… they have nowhere left to go.”

Are these middle class slackers, as he suggests, direct descendents of “James Dean-led angst-ridden youthful rebels of 1950’s cinema”?

The short, aphoristic scenes comment on our states of knowledge, how we acquire, utilise and in the end dispense with what we know: knowledge is not enough, not in isolation.

Hartley is not concerned with finding answers, so much as finding better questions.

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