Ain’t Talkin’ 'Bout Love

The Films of Hal Hartley

by David Ensminger

24 March 2011

Hal Hartley's films bridged the world of art school vibes and workplace routines, elite snottiness and pedestrian punches, suburban angst and critical thinking finesse, and mixed-up politics and prolonged personality crises.
Trust (1990) 
cover art

Hal Hartley

Mark L. Berrettini

(University of Illinois Press)
US: Jan 2011

Hal Hartley, for those of you out of the loop, is a trademark auteur filmmaker that summarized and summoned the best of indie film impulses during the decisive decade of the ‘90s.  Sure, his newer work matters, but his early films are legendary among film cognoscenti. Abiding by one of the apropos axioms of his film Simple Men, his characters tumble back and forth in a web of “trouble and desire”.  His pinnacle films from that era are heady and restrained, quick-witted and mock-heroic, and an antidote to all the transgressive crime and renegade horror films of the Clinton years, when money oozed aplenty, alternative rock foamed at the mouth of major FM stations, and people were beginning to abandon VHS forever.

Sure, other of his ilk have maintained more notoriety, like the bulldozer that is Quentin Tarantino, who continues to enthrall and bore in equal measure.  A newer generation of upstarts has also moved quickly from outsider status to inside gold, like Batman director Christopher Nolan, while others like Darren Aronofsky have remained stubbornly entrenched in art film mode, though with fairly wide appeal. Hartley is an odd duck, though. His appeal is often hard to register and hard to define. Perhaps he is part of a loose knit triumvirate, including Todd Haynes and Gregg Araki, whose films may be too idiosyncratic to appeal to the YouTube generation hordes, who look for quick, even millisecond kicks in the Internet dream machine.

In the early-‘90s, I penned a letter to the editors of The Independent, a close-to-the-ground film magazine. In a rush of thought that bulged at two paragraphs, I compared and contrasted Tarantino and Hartley as two mavericks. Tarantino borrowed scenes from Hong Kong cinema and rehashed endless crime film tough guy clichés, but he also unleashed a rather acute dissection of undercover cop psychology that resembled classic films like Serpico. Of course, he added hip, postmodern, even poetic undercurrents to the wise guy mix. Having gestated bad-ass arthouse archetypes, Reservoir Dogsnow ends up on the IFC Friday night “Grindhouse” installments, though it blurs B-movie, exploitation, high art, and underground status.

Hartley’s cinematic world, in comparison, lacks the mod style, storytelling suss, cyclones of violence and grit, unchecked animalism, and lean poetic gestures that act like a fabric in Tarantino films. His choreography during the ‘90s, abetted by Michael Spiller, managed to be both flat and resonate at the same time. His films felt like textual meld of Anton Chekhov, Kate Chopin, and Raymond Carver. He was not embarrassed to exude a theater of ideas, in which characters babble lines from Dostoyevsky without flinching or sounding entirely ironic. In fact, in key scenes of both Reservoir Dogs and Simple Men, the characters discuss Madonna, as if each director was indebted to the cult and power of the original lady medusa of ‘80s dance pop. Deconstructed in the hands of Hartley, Madonna becomes a trope that characters imagine to explore art, commerce, feminism, and subversion.

Hartley finds merit and meaningfulness in small details. A single dwindling cigarette in the tidy, clean bathroom pictured in Trust becomes a harbinger of mayhem to come. That sense of impending temporality—ash burning away at thin paper—is figuratively mirrored by the grenade placed inside an electronics manufacturer plant by an alienated young man, Matthew Slaughter (ah, pun), in the film’s climax. Time is not on the side of the angst-ridden young protagonist. Yet, the explosion doesn’t shred the characters, and it doesn’t even seem to harm the building. It simply marks dread and luck. Inevitably, authorities intervene, just as they do in both Amateur and Simple Men. Transgression always has a cost.

In Tarantino’s oeuvre, characters meet their fate with almost Peckinpah-like brouhaha, even when the brutality happens slightly off screen. In Hartley, though, the police are blank bystanders who intervene on behalf of social discipline. Sometimes they even lapse into ennui themselves, such as the Sheriff who asks, “Why do women exist?” near the end of Simple Men while slinking down in despair at a local gas station. Smoking a cigarette and removing his cap, he unleashes a monologue cataloguing the mangled communication of lovers: love is awkward, demeaning, and discordant. The cigarettes help deliver such haiku-like moments. Their wispy smoke is like a trail of confusion that hovers near characters.

Hal Hartley,” one of the new installments in the University of Illinois Contemporary Film Directors series, offers succinct overviews of Hartley’s major films by writer Mark L. Berrettini. Ultimately, though, many readers already familiar with the career arc of the filmmaker may be looking for more insight and analysis other than a description of Hartley’s “antirealist” tendencies that he pursues. Like other film critics, he links Hartley’s aesthetics to French new wave cinema, especially Goddard, minus the Frenchmen’s overt “countercinema” and leftism. In earlier interviews with Graham Fuller, recounted in the excellent Simple Men and Trust screenplay book by Faber and Faber (1992), Hartley admits that he seeks to emulate Goddard’s timeless qualities. This urge links back to one of Hartley’s film professors at SUNY, who admonished students to “speak to all time”, which Hartley’s 90s films do evoke, nearly 20 years later.

Hartley’s characters from his first three most popular films (The Unbelievable Truth, Trust and Simple Men) seem like resolutely middle-class Americans at odds with their own worlds. They are bookish, but they are not pretentious twits that sometimes clutter David Mamet’s films. They are ‘everyday people’, but by no means do they reek of local color or vernacular speech. They struggle as every bit as Raymond Carver characters with the fleeting and telltale signs of delayed hope, interpersonal callousness, kindled dispiritedness, accented ambition, succinct self-denial, and natural intelligence. Like Chopin, Hartley explores feminism from below –in kitchens, convenience stores, and bedrooms. Like Chekhov, there is despair and futility in Hartley’s films, but also lyricism in the middle of drudgery.

Oddly, as Hartley admits in interviews that form the second half of Berrettini’s book, the queer-punk films of Arakki helped shape his own narration and storytelling, but they are missing from the overall analysis offered by the author, who tends to focus on deeper cinematic allusions to Brecht, whose cinema of alienation may inform the pace, wordplay, and even the mise en scene of Hartley films. Language becomes a knot of counterposed meaning: action and even violence are infused with comedic body gestures and interaction. True knowledge, or authentic love, is often ephemeral. Hartley’s use of plentiful, now familiar adages, like “Love is a form of Knowledge”, “To know we can die is to be dead already”, “There’s nothing but trouble and desire”, and “Knowing is not enough” probe these concerns. At the end of Amateur, the protagonist isn’t “known” until he is dead at the footsteps of a convent. In Simple Men, criminal Bill McCabe must be torn from the bosom of the woman he loves, but barely just met, into the hands of police, in order for viewers to know, gauge, and identify with him.

In Berrettini’s collection, Hartley explains to Film Quarterly in a 1997 interview, “My first urge was to watch people conversing or struggling with each other about things.” I wish Berrettini traced examples of this directorial trait. In Hartley’s films, people pontificate about Dostoyevsky in the classroom, anarchism on a tipsy small boat, Anatole France on a bookstore loading dock, Homer’s Odyssey on a sunlit park bench, and “pornographic” poetry (written by a garbage man in New Jersey) tacked up next to the cash register of World of Donuts. Grammar (there, their, they’re) is taught via piano keys in Henry Fool, while youth read Man in the Universe in the bland suburbs of Trust.

These are juxtaposed against clichés that grip them, as well. “A family has got to stick together come hell of high water,” mother Jean Coughlin ominously intones in a key scene from Trust. In Henry Fool, bad boy, Faustian devil, and raconteur Fool, despite his learned, even scholarly vibes, easily pours forth lines like, “This place is crawling with chicks,” when haunting the library. Meanwhile, the alienated young girl Maria Coughlin in Trust wrestles with words like “empirical” and “vicissitude” even as she is forced to work in a factory. She refuses to surrender to clichés, even while becoming part of the faceless labor market.


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