Hartley, Hal

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Nationality: American. Born: Lindenhurst, New York, 3 November 1959. Education: Attended Massachusetts College of Art, late 1970s; State University of New York at Purchase Film School, graduated with honors, 1984. Family: Married to actress Miho Nikaido.Career: Freelance production assistant, mid-1980s; worked for Action Productions (public service announcements), whose president sponsored Hartley's first feature, The Unbelievable Truth, 1989; this film's success at the Toronto Film Festival led to its commercial release by Miramax, 1990. Awards: Deauville and Sao Palo International Film Festivals, Audience Awards, for Trust, 1990; Tokyo International Film Festival, Silver Award, for Amateur, 1994; Cannes Film Festival, Best Screenplay, for Henry Fool, 1998. Address: c/o True Fiction Pictures, 12 W. 27th St., New York, NY 10001, U.S.A.

Films as Director:


Kid (short, student thesis film) (+ sc, ed, pr)


The Cartographer's Girlfriend (short) (+ ed, pr)


Dogs (short) (+ pr, co-sc)


The Unbelievable Truth (+ sc, ed, pr)


Trust (+ sc); Theory of Achievement (short, for TV) (+ sc, mus); Surviving Desire (for TV) (+ sc, ed); Ambition (short, for TV) (+ sc)


Simple Men (+ sc, co-pr, mus)


Amateur (+ sc, pr, mus); NYC 3/94 (short) (+ pr, sc); OperaNo. 1 (short) (+ sc, mu)


Flirt (+ sc, mus, role)


Henry Fool (+ pr, sc, mu)


The Book of Life (for TV) (+ sc)


Kimono (+ sc)


By HARTLEY: books—

Simple Men and Trust (screenplays), London and Boston, 1992.

Amateur (screenplay), London and Boston, 1994.

Flirt (screenplay), London and Boston, 1996.

Henry Fool (screenplay), London and Boston, 1998.

By HARTLEY: articles—

"The Particularity and Peculiarity of Hal Hartley," interview with Justin Wyatt, in Film Quarterly, Fall 1998.

"Hal Hartley—Nobody's Fool," interview with Dov Kirnits, http://filmink-online.com/hbs.cgi/feature=37, May 2000.

On HARTLEY: articles—

Fuller, Graham, "Hal Hartley's World of Trouble and Desire," in Interview (New York), September 1992.

Hogue, Peter, "Bands of Outsiders," in Film Comment (New York), January-February 1993.

Sarris, Andrew, "Trusting Hal Hartley," in Film Comment (New York), January-February 1993.

Bauer, Douglas, "An Independent Vision," in Atlantic Monthly (Boston), April 1994.

Comer, Brooke, "Amateur's Tenebrous Images," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), August 1995.

Jones, Kent, "Hal Hartley: The Book I Read Was in Your Eyes," in Film Comment (New York), July-August 1996.

Gilbey, Ryan, "Pulling the Pin on Hal Hartley," in Sight and Sound (London), November 1998.

Hernandez, Eugene, "Digital Video: Catch the Wave," in TheIndependent, January-February 1999.

* * *

Well known in Europe, but more of a cult favorite than a boxoffice draw in his native United States, Hal Hartley has been held in high critical esteem for his quirky feature films and shorts and, incidentally, for putting Long Island on the map of famed cinematic locales. Writing his own screenplays, punctuating the dramas with his own sparse music, and working often with the same actors and technicians, Hartley is a model of the resolutely independent film artist. His 1997 Henry Fool, given wider distribution and greater media coverage than any of his previous works, is still far from mainstream American fare.

Hartley's screenplays are among the most distinctive features of his cinema. Reminiscent of both David Mamet (perhaps the film House of Games as well as certain plays) and Harold Pinter (chiefly the period of The Homecoming), Hartley's dialogue tends toward the laconic and the absurd: occasionally downright hilarious and almost always droll, especially when spoken by mostly humorless characters. Of the actors whom Hartley has used a number of times, Martin Donovan is supreme in his deadpan delivery of lines, with exactly the right amount of dry irony, anger, or cluelessness, as the moment calls for—though stage actor Thomas Jay Ryan, making his film debut as Henry Fool, speaks as if born to the Hartley world.

Of cinematic influences, Jean-Luc Godard has constantly been singled out. Occasionally Hartley appears to be doing a conscious homage, as in the sudden burst into dance in Surviving Desire, a nod to Bande à part (Band of Outsiders)—but a dance scene in Simple Men, similarly unexpected but more elaborately choreographed and integrated into the story, seems altogether original. The stylization of violence in Amateur also recalls Godard, though the shoving matches of most of the earlier films are pure Hartley. Perhaps more subtly Godardian, Weekend vintage, are the vacant landscapes of "Long Island" (actually Texas, for the most part) in Simple Men, where characters more or less stumble through their peculiar lives.

The Unbelievable Truth displays Hartley's unmistakable style and tone. With a plot suited for either soap opera or film noir in its melodrama and romantic entanglements—an ex-con returns to the town where he caused the deaths of two people, and where he is shunned by most but loved by a rebellious young woman—the film is instead a black comedy with a bent toward real romance, all centered around the question of trusting people enough to accept their versions of "the true story." Hartley's hometown of Lindenhurst, a rather ramshackle-looking small town half metamorphosed into a commuter suburb, seems the perfect pale backdrop for his oddball characters.

Trust superficially resembles The Unbelievable Truth, with Adrienne Shelley again as a rebellious youth, Lindenhurst as locus of American family dysfunction, and some of the same droll comedy. Yet it has a considerably darker tone overall, with its brutal parents, severely asocial hero (Martin Donovan), and unexpected violence—as in the liquor store clerk's attack upon the Shelley character. In its confident handling of mixed moods it foreshadows the emotional complexities of Henry Fool. Simple Men, set on a more rural Long Island after a brief stop in Lindenhurst, has a wilder plot than Trust and if anything more outrageous comedy, as two sons—a criminal and a college student—follow clues in search of their long-missing father, a reputed terrorist bomber. The cynical Bill, who notes that "you don't need an ideology to knock over a liquor store," has been betrayed in love, and so is determined to seduce women by appearing to be "mysterious, thoughtful, deep, but modest" and then "throw them away." Of course he falls for a woman who claims to find him all of those things (she manages to use all four adjectives in a short conversation), although the words seem to apply much more to her. The less-experienced Dennis falls for an eccentric Rumanian who turns out to be his father's new girlfriend. When he points out that his father is a womanizer—a married man who has also stood her up—she tells him he should be more respectful. Including two actors from The Unbelievable Truth who essentially reprise their roles as garage mechanic and assistant—and featuring a nun who answers a question about a medallion with, "It's the Holy Blessed Virgin, you idiot," before wrestling the man to the ground—Simple Men often crosses the border into farce, then withdraws to a dryer detachment. Again issues of truth and reliability are central, though this film is in addition more directly concerned with masculine values and behavior than any of the others. The story is almost always focused upon the two brothers and their attitudes toward their father, or their confusion about women; the women are rarely seen apart from men observing them; the talk is very often macho, though at one point the two couples and another would-be lover preposterously launch into a discourse about Madonna and modern women's "control over the exploitation f their own bodies."

Amateur, more or less commissioned by Isabel Huppert, who stars in it, is yet more melodramatic, featuring an amnesiac (Donovan again), evidently a sadistic criminal in his "former life," who is befriended by an ex-nun who wants to write pornography—the pair of them having to flee various crazed and criminal types. Here the themes of trust and the knowability of a mysterious person's past are developed through the most lurid situations. Flirt is equally about love and betrayal, but is also an experiment in structure: Hartley's fifth feature is actually a trilogy of short films, each using some of the same dialogue and following the same dramatic trajectory, but with different settings (New York, Berlin and Tokyo) and gender relations, according to whether the character accused of flirting—i.e., being unwilling to commit—is straight or gay, male or female. Some critics found the film boring and pretentious because of its schematic nature and extreme self-reflexivity (in the Tokyo segment the director himself plays a character named "Hal" who carries around a can of a film called "Flirt"). However, those content to enjoy some very witty variations on the first segment's patterns, and to savor contrasts of locale—e.g., the Tokyo is unexpectedly in a dance-studio with performers in white makeup and gauzy outfits—may find Flirt delightful (though with the usual disturbing edge of violence), even if lacking "profundity."

Henry Fool features the Hartley style on what he himself has called a more "epic" scale, beginning with length (it's more than a half hour longer than any of his other features). Once again we have a man with a mysterious criminal past ("An honest man is always in trouble, Simon. Remember that. . . . I've been bad. Repeatedly. But why brag?"), dead-end blue-collar lives, a contrasting pair of pals (like the brothers in Simple Men), sudden violence (more vicious, less stylized than usual), themes of trust and betrayal, and splendidly non-sequitur dialogue from characters who take themselves very seriously. (Henry looking through Hustler: "I refuse to discriminate between modes of knowing.") A parable with an ambiguous message, the film is initially less focused upon Henry than upon Simon Grim, a despairing garbage man whom Henry encourages to write down his thoughts. The poem Simon comes up with has profound but unpredictable effects on everyone who reads it: a mute Asian clerk at World of Donuts begins to sing; his mother commits suicide; many find it obscene, but Camille Paglia (as herself) loves its "pungent, squalid element. . . the authentically trashy voice of American culture"; Sweden gives him the Nobel Prize for Literature, while Henry's much talked about "confessions" are rejected as bad writing by Simon and his publisher. Henry Fool must have more moments than any film in history in which people read intently, their lives changed by words on a page. Hartley could be accused of condescending to his often pathetic Queens characters, but the film is more shocking than and certainly as funny as any of his previous work.

All of Hartley's films call attention to their own artifice, most typically through their stylized dialogue and distinctive manner of acting. The Book of Life, an hour-long work commissioned by French television for an end-of-the-millennium series, pursues some new directions, experimenting with digital video and a prominent musical score for a Second-Coming tale of Jesus in Manhattan (with Martin Donovan in the lead role and singer P.J. Harvey as Mary Magdalene). But whatever directions Hartley pursues, one may expect his work still to feature a curious balance of artifice and passion, melodrama and cool wit.

—Joseph Milicia

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