Ain’t Talkin’ 'Bout Love

The Films of Hal Hartley

by David Ensminger

24 March 2011

Trust (1990) 

A Textual Meld of Anton Chekhov, Kate Chopin & Raymond Carver

Technology worms its way through Hartley films with strange consequences, too. In Trust, technician Mathew Slaughter can’t stand faulty circuit boards, and he refuses to fix old TVs, which he believes give people cancer, that arrive at a small repair shop in waves. In Amateur,  French former nun Isabelle attempts to write pornography on a laptop in the middle of a diner, only to be told she writes a kind of overwrought poetry, instead. In a torture scene from the film, which seems to foreshadow Abu Ghraib, two hit men run down crooked lawyer Edward, kidnap him, and set upon him with broken wires from a lamp cord. Rising like the undead, he attempts to save a reformed European porn queen, Sofia, who has escaped the skin trade, but is recognized on a VHS taped rented from a local video.

In the meantime, Sofia rails at the absurdity of floppy discs, which are neither discs nor floppy, but do retain information that can bring down her former oppressors. In Henry Fool, the sublime poem-slash-biography, which is recycled in Fay Grim as a great spy codex, is entirely written by hand, as if we are transported back to the days of Henry James. In the gigabyte terrain of the digital era, the hand written, or in the case of Trust, an old electric typewriter, is considered impressive, cherished, and meaningful by Hartley characters.

At times, Hartley nurtures a cinema of surfaces, unstable and flux-ridden, in which meaning is something worth struggling for, even lightheartedly, by viewers and characters alike. As such, his early work mirrors the qualities of an ABC Afterschool Special rendered by Oscar Wilde.

His films also tackle folklore of all stripes, from the apocalypse (Book of Days) and isolated monsters (No Such Thing) to thieves (Simple Men), pornographers (Amateur), and teacher-student sex fiascos (Surviving Desire). Realism, mimicry, and verisimilitude, the old standby traits of naturalism, are not his forte. His characters are neither hollow, but nor do they ever feel fully fleshed out. At times, he nurtures a cinema of surfaces, unstable and flux-ridden, in which meaning is something worth struggling for, even lightheartedly, by viewers and characters alike. As such, his early work mirrors the qualities of an ABC Afterschool Special rendered by Oscar Wilde.

Berrettini does not explore the musical terrain of Hartley’s films at length, either. For instance, indie rockers Yo La Tengo and Hub Moore routinely form the sonic core of his early-90s films,  whereas PJ Harvey is both heard and seen, as an actress, in his late-‘90s work, such as The Book of Life. Music is by no means an afterthought in his work, for the music provides context, breadth, and innuendo. Sometimes, it’s also the marked absence of most music, such as the West Side Story dance routine emulated in Surviving Desire that tenders a scene’s meaning. When the young literature professor Jude takes up a Christ-like pose in streets as mute as a Lumiere film, he is literally in a vacuum, caught in his own muddled ideas of desire and trouble, but he is at a loss of words, and surrenders to gestures and tropes from bygone Hollywood.

In the same film, when the band The Great Outdoors belts out their pap pop tune on the streets, Jude and a friend crisscross each other, drowned out by the music. Instead of pressing forward the dialog, or embodying it, the song acts a mild distraction, like a displaced college bar band, but gives the film an authentic college vibe as well. Colleges don’t end at the campus boundary: they ebb and flow into the community. This is no mock video, as well, for it is a live performance, a band without high-wires, flair, and polish. Does it signify love, grasped in two-minute harmonies? Sure. But Jude is more complex and can’t be explained cogently in such momentary pop culture asides.

In Simple Men, the insertion of a sudden, unpredicted dance scene, surrounded by the distorted alt rock of Sonic Youth, is clumsy and honest. It is humorous and erupts with a sense of Walt Whitman’s ‘body electric’, like a brief moment of adhesiveness between rather wary people who accidentally find themselves together in one space – the back porch of a low key fish restaurant. That the song is actually a rather pithy examination of ethnicity, sexism, rock’n’roll, and rap sung by Chuck D. of Public Enemy and bass player Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, is actually captured well by Berrettini.

Hal Hartley may not be as easily pegged by the average film lover, like a film by the Coens Brothers or Jim Jarmarsch, but that under-the-radar reality means that a diehard coterie of his followers feel close to his work, almost like siblings trying to preserve the legacy of a misunderstood family member. Mark Berrenttini may not shed too much light on the director, or dig quite deep enough to satisfy loyalists, but he does offer succinct and sly readings of Hartley’s filmography.

The rest of us will fire up DVD players, even a coughing old VHS player, to rewatch the filmmaker who 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. Hartley is a rare breed. Too bad Berrenttini only offers capsules of understanding.

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