Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love: The Films of Hal Hartley

[24 March 2011]

By David Ensminger

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.

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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