Opening Night

by Jake Meaney

17 May 2007

Fay Grim gives newcomers a lesson in Hal Hartleyisms: repetitious totemic dialogue, revolving jokes that cycle through characters, and his wry, winking treatment of genre. Whereas On Broadway, a middling film about an amateur play, is only hopelessly or maybe semi-cleverly "amateurish".
Fay Grim 

Fay Grim (dir. Hal Hartley)
As an opening night film to the 5th Annual Independent Film Festival of Boston, Hal Hartley’s Fay Grim is both perfectly sensible and a bit risky. While the idiosyncratic Hartley has earned a well-deserved spot near the top of the American independent film canon, he has toiled mostly in obscurity the past decade.  His output was scattered and curious, far from the quality and confidence of his earlier works, which culminated in the film many regard as his masterpiece, 1998’s Henry Fool. Returning nearly 10 years later with an unlooked for, but not unwelcome, sequel (of sorts) to that film, Hartley is the obvious choice for a kick-off, with enough name recognition and cult status to ensure a big draw. This despite the risk of launching the festival with a sequel to a film many attendees might not have seen (though the show of hands in the crown belied that) or, if they had, had probably forgotten.

Good thing, then, that Fay Grim is at best only nominally a sequel, one that does not require having seen its predecessor to enjoy or understand it. And enjoyment is key and irresistible: Hartley’s design for Fay Grim, at least for its initial half, is an attempt at a definitive last word send-up of the espionage/spy genre. It unspools into a ludicrous pile-up of international intrigue, country hopping, double agents, triple agents, high treason, coded government secrets, assassination attempts, and global terror networks.  These elements are stirred together into a heady froth that yields nothing but headache-inducing confusion if one tries to follow and then untangle it all. So, as far as understanding goes, both for Hartley neophytes and novices, Fay Grim is not only impossible to gloss, but to attempt to unraveling it is actually counter to the intent of the film.

So about 30 minutes in I figured it was best to just sit back and let Hartley’s loosey-goosey genre hijinks wash over me, and lose myself in the droll nonsensicalness of it all, narrative coherence be damned. Here’s what we know: 10 years have passed since Fay’s mercurial trollish husband Henry Fool fled from a manslaughter rap, flying out of the country with his multivolume magnum opus “Confessions” in tow.

Fay Grim

Fay Grim

Fay Grim - Trailer

One day, CIA Agent Fullbright (a jittery Jeff Goldblum) shows up at Fay’s house, imploring her aid in recovering Henry’s Confessions, which may actually be an elaborately encoded collection of government secrets of vital importance Oh, because, sorry Fay, your husband was not actually a sollipsistic blowhard author / garbageman—he was actually an international spy, or double agent, or triple agent, or terrorist. And his Confessions are probably a densely-coded collection of documents covering everything from troop deployments in early ‘80s Afghanistan, global satellite positions, and rough plans for building a suitcase nuke (the origin and nature of the Confessions are a great running joke throughout the film, but ultimately have no other relevance other than as a spur for the forward progression of the plot) Oh, yeah, and sorry, but he’s dead, too.

Fay strikes a deal with the Feds: free her imprisoned brother, Simon (the Nobel Prize winning savant from the original film, sentenced for aiding Henry’s escape) and she’ll comply with their demands. And thus she is off, bounding about Europe and the Middle East, trying to corral Henry’s far flung notebooks, all the while fending off various factions also trying to get their paws on them. Oh, and then it turns out rumors of Henry’s death may have been greatly exaggerated. Tracking various clues and vague rumors, Fay becomes convinced that Henry is not only alive, but awaiting her to find him, so they can finally disappear together for good.

All threads converge in Istanbul, as Fay races to get herself and the notebooks on a ferry with Henry and sail away to safety. In typical Hartley fashion, the climax is confounding, ambiguous, and sudden, and leaves open the possibility of a third film (which James Urbaniak, who plays Simon, confirmed after the screening. Watch out Lord of the Rings, there’s a new trilogy in town!)

Hartley can be maddening to tangle with.  His films, while often very simple on the surface, deal mostly in a sort of philosophical obfuscation that defies any rigorous explication. He disguises his intent and misdirects your away from his concerns with stylistic and verbal tics, his droll deadpan humor often overriding and obscuring what he’s trying to get at. And these typical Hartleyisms—totemic dialogue repeated over and over, repetitious revolving jokes that cycle through characters, and the wry winking treatment of genre—are all trotted out early on in Fay Grim, and actually make the film quite a hoot in the beginning, even as you wish he’d get more to the point.

But about halfway through, certain tonal shifts begin working there way in.  The film becomes more contemplative, more melancholy, more desperate, the humor draining away as Fay navigates her way through the maze leading to her lost husband. It’s a gradual shift that actually appears abrupt in retrospect, and makes Fay Grim feel like two distinct films that were meshed together rather incongruously. What starts off as a parody wants to become a much more self-serious contemplation of love, art, and post-911 geopolitical confusion by the end. I’m not sure it works.  Hartley seems at odds with himself, here, and Fay Grim never seems to really coalesce into the powerhouse that Henry Fool was.

And yet, Fay Grim may actually be Hartley’s most satisfying, or at least, most accessible film to date. A long-time fan of his work, I watched and read the film closely as a “Hartley” film, and had a hard time then, and now, while writing this.  I tried distancing myself and addressing it as a stand-alone work with no reference to either Henry Fool or his previous output. The girl sitting next to me at the screening, who was not at all familiar with either the previous film or the director’s work, had a much better time of it, seeming to enjoy the film thoroughly, much more than I did at least.  Perhaps that’s attributable to the seesawing blend of humor and pathos. Oh, and she also mentioned being a big Parker Posey fan.

And that confession ultimately explains the success of the film, since Posey’s overarching triumphant performance really buoys the film and keeps it from sinking under the weight of its pretension. I’d always thought her best as a character actor—complementary, always great at what she did—but probably incapable of truly carrying a film on her shoulders. Count me wrong. Her portrayal of Fay is a marvel of inner transformation, of the desperation and heroism of undying love. She actually becomes (a rarity in a Hartley film) recognizably human, even as the character becomes all the more extraordinary. Frumpy and whiny when we first see her at the beginning of the film, her trials and her journey transform her into a daring, resourceful, and ballsy Mata Hari by the film’s end. Striding around in a sleek black long coat, she reminded me immediately of Lee Yeong-ae in Park Chan-wook’s elegant Lady Vengeance, an unstoppable avenging (though decidedly less violent) angel driven by true love.

If Fay Grim ultimately finds some cult or wider success, it will probably be more because of Posey (already a cult favorite) than Hartley. Her revelatory Fay Grim (as opposed to the film Fay Grim in toto) makes for an auspicious opening to an ambitious film festival still in its early stages of transformation itself.

On Broadway

On Broadway

On Broadway (dir. Dave McLaughlin)
Though Fay Grim was the nominal opening film of the festival, Thursday night’s world premier of locally produced On Broadway had more the feel of a gala kickoff. The teeming scrum outside the Somerville Theater—a frenzy of ticket holders, friends and family of the director, screeching teenage girls (staked out to get a glimpse of star, and former New Kid, Joey McIntyre), curious gawkers, local news crews, harried festival staff, pestering press (not your humble reporter, surely ), and local politicos (including Boston Mayor Tom Menino)—pulsated into a palpable buzz that had been lacking the night before.  It was the sort of red carpet affair (well, sans actual red carpet) that whipped up some genuine, if slightly undeserved, excitement that would build and sustain some momentum for the rest of the festival. 

I probably would’ve been lynched by the audience (a good 75 percent of whom either knew or were related to the writer / director Dave McLaughlin or other cast / crew members) if I’d gone on stage immediately after the film and given my off-the-cuff, 30-second review, but from this platform, I’ll say that On Broadway is hopelessly, or, perhaps I be more charitable, deliberately and semi-cleverly, “amateurish”.

When Jack O’Toole (McIntyre) loses his beloved uncle, he decides that his life calling is to make a testament and tribute to this man who’s been like a father to him, by writing and staging a play of his wake. His wife, friends, and family all think him a bit daft at first, but eventually succumb to his zealous enthusiasm and determination to fulfill this dream. Plagued by predictable hardships attendant with any theater production—difficult actors, finding an adequate space, securing enough funding—Jack’s faith wavers, but in the end, the actors all fall into line, the play is staged in the back room of a local bar where Jack tends, and the shows all sell out.  Heck, he even reconciles with his estranged father for good measure.

On Broadway

On Broadway

On Broadway - Trailer

I was rooting for On Broadway the entire time.  It’s a cute premise, and turns out to have a basis in real experience, as McLaughlin actually did write such a play himself about nine years prior, and did stage it at a local bar. But it’s also an idea that needs to be hit clean out of the park, with the right mixture of pathos and humor.  On Broadway seems to be always tripping over its own feet and heading off in the wrong direction at the wrong moment. Partially this might be the fault of the script, which never seems complete (Jack’s revelation of needing to write the play is almost a throwaway, never seems to be borne of some deeper realization), as well as the woefully amateur lead performances, which vary between affectless and completely stunned. But perhaps this is meant to be deliberate; the amateurishness of the performances in the film reflecting and complementing the amateurish nature of the play within the film. But I don’t think so.  On Broadway is far too earnest, and not at all clever enough, for that.

Things only perk up during all-too-brief cameos by Saturday Night Live‘s breezily daft Amy Poehler, and Arrested Development‘s Will Arnett (sadly sans Segway or Final Countdown intro music), and one wishes that somehow they had been cast as the leads, and the production had turned into some surreal Waiting for Guffman-esque comedy.

Ah well… I’m not sure there’s much of an audience for this little local film outside of the one that overran the theater at this showing.  This is not, as the Boston Herald declaimed, the next Good Will Hunting.  It’s not even the next Next Stop Wonderland. It is just a film born of love—love of family, love of a home town—but love can only take you so far.

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