Hal Hartley’s Collection of short films entitled Possible Films Volume 2 consists of five pieces small films. I was not familiar with his work so far, but judging from the material in the particular DVD, I can recommend it to anyone interested in films that do not simply intend to copy a reality by means of mimesis, but intend to question the medium of their own articulation.
Different and similar in many ways, these five films share an interest in the question ‘what is cinema?’ rather than in the mimetic mirroring of actions. All of them have a common theme, which is the cinema as a medium that stimulates thought and puts the audience at the centre of the hermeneutical activity, asking them to be active participants rather than passive consumers of images.
In the first film A Muse a young German actress comes to Berlin to convince an American self-exiled director that he should hire her for his next movie. We see her perpetual struggle to meet him and in the end she learns that the guy, inspired by the windows in the Berlin flats, has moved to the USA to enter the manufacturing industry.
Implied Harmonies is in a way a documentary of Hartley’s staging in Amsterdam of Louis Andriessen’s opera, la Commedia. Three stories interject-the story of Hartley’s conscientious assistant who lives in Berlin and endeavours to help her boss with any practicalities; the story of the staging of the opera and the process of its making along with the story narrated by Andriessen’s opera are intertwined and refuse a clear narrative structure.
The Apologies starts in an apartment in Berlin, in which a commercial playwright aspiring to adapt Homer’s Odyssey into a film production for Hollywood, lends his apartment to a young actress friend so that she can rehearse her drama school audition. While there, the writer’s former girlfriend appears in the flat, unaware of the girl’s appearance, and delivers an emotionally loaded monologue with regard to their past relationship.
Adventure tells the story of Hartley and his wife who travel to Japan to see the latter’s parents and reflect on 12 years of marriage, her career ambitions, and the process of growing older.Accomplice is the story of an artist who asks his assistant to pirate a rare videotape, which contains an interview with Jean-Luc Godard, before the German Authorities come to confiscate it.
As already mentioned, the ideal answer to one’s question ‘what are these films about’ would be: they are about cinema and the creative process itself. Hartley’s view of the medium fluctuates between a romantic auteurist mentality and an avant-gardist refusal of authorship and the commodification of cinema, which is the result of the reproduction of the empirical reality.
The first aspect of the films can be seen in the director’s fascination with Berlin as an imaginary environment of artistic processes and as a shelter for people refusing to succumb to the demands of the industry. We see images of Berlin, (the place that Hartley lived during the filming of Possible Films 2), in all of the films—images vested with a romantic element, reflecting in a way Hartley’s attraction to the place of his self-imposed exile.
On the other hand, the thematisation of the medium that can be seen in this collection entails a rejection of the view of the artist as the person in the seat of knowledge, along with an elimination of the boundaries between artistic process and finished work, and as an extension between art and life. In the first film, the actress’ desire to work for the director she admires becomes the starting point for the exploration of the medium’s potential for an alternative mode of representation. This is frustrated by the film’s ending, in which the director that the girl admires has left filmmaking to become a businessman. The young girl’s passion for creativity is juxtaposed to her artistic hero’s decision to withdraw from creative life.
In Implied Harmonies, the process of the opera’s staging, the reality of the film’s making—the documentation of its making—and the final staging of the opera are inseparable. Yet, in the The Apologies the interjecting of the young actress’ story with the confessions on the part of the playwright’s former girlfriend blurs the frontiers between ‘performing’ and ‘being’.
Something similar can be seen in Adventure, in which the documentation of a real relationship between Hartley and his wife instigates the exploration of the medium’s ability to capture the individual’s struggle to combine artistic life and social life. The last film, Accomplice, manages to summarise his speculation for a type of cinema that privileges process and unfinished works over products for consumption. As Hartley explains, the images of an American bar in Berlin, along with the voice-over narration that alludes to the film noir tradition, aim at putting forward the conjecture that the artist who refuses to succumb to the mainstream cinema’s status quo becomes the synonym of the criminal, the fugitive and the exiled.
In conclusion, the films express a utopian belief in the medium not as a recording device, but as a means of bridging art with life. This approach towards the cinema has been the linchpin of the avant-garde aesthetics which, by prioritising process over finished work, aspires to invite the audience to become a collaborator in the interpretative process and resist to any imposed reified meaning. As Godard is heard saying in the last film, ‘after all I say I am innocently representing a certain belief in motion pictures. We will always be able to do a small movie with friends and to show to someone—OK, you won’t get the Oscar for this, but after all why are you writing and why…? So it will be possible, I have always said that to make movies and to make images and sounds is possible one way or another’.
The DVD does not contain any extras, something that in my opinion reflects the director’s indifference towards any paternalistic explanations. The material is simply there and you are asked to endeavour to make sense of it. In sum, this is a very stimulating DVD that is highly recommended to all who retain an element of idealism and romanticism in a word where artistic works are reduced to commodities.