Surviving Desire Is a Star-crossed Lovers’ Drama With an Absurdist Streak

Surviving Desire is, on paper, an underwhelming prospect; a mere 53-minutes long, it began life as a made-for-TV special. However, don’t let its brevity and inauspicious origins put you off. Whether you view it as a televisual gem, a substantial short or masterful mini feature it is worth your time and money – being as it is a key work of the formidably talented Hal Hartley.

Surviving Desire opens brilliantly on an under siege professor, Jude (Hartley regular Martin Donovan), as he reads to his class from The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, “I believe you are sincere and good at heart. If you do not attain happiness, always remember that you are on the right road, and try not to leave it…” A rebellious, swaggering electric guitar score accompanies his lecture. A book flies at Jude, thrown by an unseen hand.

Quick as a flash, he turns on his heel and hurls his chalk back, the soundtrack has the unlikely missile whipping through the air with audibly improbable ferocity; nailing the perpetrator with an almighty thwack. It comically transpires that his braying, seditious class have been infuriatingly stuck on this same paragraph for over a month – they implore him to teach them something, anything. The classroom scene climaxes with Jude flinging a disruptive student aside before being assaulted from the wings — violence which is explicitly played for laughs. So far, so bizarre. Welcome to the Hartleyville USA.

Before 1991, the year in which Surviving Desire appeared, Hal Hartley had directed several shorts and two excellent idiosyncratic features, The Unbelievable Truth (1989) and Trust (1990). Right from the off, Hartley presented a signature style and themes which would then reoccur throughout his work. Surviving Desire, as with the features that came before, is a star-crossed lovers’ drama with an overt absurdist streak. In it Jude attempts to woo his only committed student Sophia (Mary Ward), whilst, as is again characteristic for Hartley heroes, grappling with career dissatisfaction and a larger existential crisis. At one point he frustratingly comments, “shouldn’t knowledge provide solace?”

Those familiar with Hartley’s oeuvre will recognise the familiar traits: the impossibly smart-arse characters, both central and peripheral. Be they academics, those in the service industry or tramps they are, to a man or woman, prone to gnomic philosophising and self- and peer analysis; almost as if speaking with one subversive voice. A coolly existential brand of wisdom pervades every scene and springs from the mouth of every character. In Surviving Desire, after hearing about Jude’s infatuation with Sophia, a barman proffers, “that’s the trouble with us Americans, we always want a tragedy with a happy ending.”

Characters talk about menial tasks with the same dreamy intensity that characterises their discussions of love, literature and philosophy. The mundane and the highbrow are hilariously intertwined within strands of dialogue, as when Jude tells his friend Henry, “You can’t walk in, use my toaster, and start spouting universal truths without qualification.” When Jude (no coincidence of course that his name in itself carries considerable dramatic weight) lies down in the gutter in abject despair, he is interrupted by a man asking for directions. The result is both dryly comic and gives Hartley’s films an intensely soulful, totally unique character.

This shtick means his work exudes both a swaggering air of hipster cool whilst proudly displaying, like a peacock, his considerable smarts. Characters are self-aware enough to mock themselves as they pontificate and there is a deadpan melodrama to the romance. When told that he’ll never survive the liaison with his student Jude answers, “I don’t know I want to.”

Hartley has an almost theatrical rejection of naturalism both in terms of dialogue and narrative. As mentioned above, violence is played for humour and events often take a surreal turn — as when Jude wanders past a band (The Great Outdoors) who have ‘set up shop’ in the street and are playing to a woman, stands giggling while looking at a window above the band. Also, inspired by the first flushes of romantic excitement, Jude performs a West Side Story-esque dance with two random men joining him in absurdly perfect synchronicity.

With regards to his actors and the laconic, too-cool-for-school performances he coaxes from them, Hartley traditionally reminds them less is more. Martin Donovan is perhaps the ultimate Hal Hartley hero — and he is superb here — but Mary Ward, as impish and charming as she is, lacks the edge of some of his other female collaborators. Although Sophia is a typical early Hartley heroine — young, rebellious, beautiful and on a quest to prove herself intellectually – his first major heroine, the late Adrienne Shelly (the radiant star of The Unbelievable Truth and Trust) left a long shadow over all his subsequent collaborations with actresses.

Welcome additions to the package are two short films and a short making-of documentary – ‘Upon Reflection: Surviving Desire’. The short films are ‘Ambition’ (duration nine-minutes) and ‘Theory of Achievement’ (17-minutes). ‘Ambition’ is pretty abstract, whereas ‘Theory of Achievement’ has a reasonably coherent narrative, both deal with issues surrounding the unfulfilling nature of employment.

‘Ambition’ opens with a man who, on impulse, pushes all the dishes off his kitchen table. A friend sidles up behind him as he comments, “No matter what I achieve I always have this irritating sensation of emptiness and futility.” His companion responds comedically, “Oh yeah, I hate that.” On his way to work he has to defend himself against of series of seemingly random attacks, which he does with considerable panache but from then on, although it’s a reasonably entertaining melange of eccentricity, it’s almost impenetrably oddball. The key performers too, for my money, fail to make an adequate impression.

‘Theory of Achievement’ is set in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where a “low rent estate agent” has sublet his girlfriend’s apartment to a feuding couple, much to her chagrin. Various diverse characters descend upon the property and humour and theorising abounds, particularly with regards to the question of whether what we do for a living defines us. One woman for instance declares, “I’m only a waitress on the outside.” It’s a witty, well-performed glimpse into Hartley’s world.

‘Upon Reflection: Surviving Desire’ is a typically askew documentary, with interviews conducted by Hartley collaborator DJ Mendel. I must say I was a little disappointed with the contributions from Hartley and Martin Donovan as these are very brief and I’ve seen both describe their collaborations more eloquently elsewhere. The best value is producer Ted Hope who gives a sense of the atmosphere on set, with all the cast and crew staying in dorm rooms and cheerfully embracing the budget nature of the production. To ensure everyone stayed on board despite the lack of perks, Hope recounts how he became something of a party planner and even ‘pimp’ for the group.

Hal Hartley specialises in an inspired marriage of the ordinary and the extraordinary; the sublime falling from the mouths of slackers. His films may be an acquired taste but it’s one I’d urge you to indulge because ultimately you’ll find yourself, like his hopelessly romantic characters, tumbling head over heels.

RATING 8 / 10
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