Hal Hartley was, in a fairly
quiet way, one of the defining filmmakers of the 1990s. His spare,
mannered, witty style presaged the work of Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach,
and his influence is even visible, to an extent, in Quentin Tarantino's
films. The verbose, often opaque dialogue of his strange, still,
oddly focused characters suggested the particular angst of that decade
- a moody inward paranoia about the location of the border that divides
sincerity from irony. Two of his best films - Simple Men
(1992) and Henry
and a Cannes winner for Best Screenplay) - deal with this theme in
diverse and extremely funny ways. Henry Fool
can be read as one of the central cinematic statements of the 1990s,
a film that delves deep into the tenor of the era, through characters
who grapple with varied, shifting permutations of authenticity.
Hartley has directed four features
in the twelve years since Henry Fool - none of which have received
much attention from any sector of the film-going population. His
most recent, Fay
was a sequel to Henry Fool, and was released by Magnolia Films
simultaneously in (a few) theaters and on DVD. The film was not
only deeply uninteresting, it almost leeched power away from its immensely
I'm not surprised that Hartley
seems to be moving away from films - or at least, away from theatrical
features. His work in the 1990s was so of the 1990s -
and how does an artist so engaged with a decade deal with an evolving
culture? So, he has moved around Europe a lot lately, doing theatrical
work and short films.
It comes as a great sadness
to report that the five shorts in Possible Films, Volume 2 -
all of which were made in the last five years - are like soggy crumbs
fallen from the plate of a master. These lifeless experiments
in form and style breathe none of the wit or mystery of the work Hartley
is known for; the very real enthusiasm for filmmaking one feels when
watching his best features is totally absent. Hartley wields the
camera here with desultory disinterest, capturing these indulgent shorts
as if he's being forced to do so against his will. There's
no heart in any of them.
A/Muse (2009, 11:00)
is about a young German actress determined to be cast by a well-known
director (implicitly Hartley) in his next feature. She writes
to him and seeks him out at the theater where he is directing a play,
but these connections are missed. She finally receives a letter
in which the director explains that he has left Germany for New York,
where he intends to start a new business selling a brand of European
window. Coy without being charming, A/Muse is the perfect
introduction to this set of five transparently self-absorbed films.
Implied Harmonies (2008,
28:05) is the most engaging of the five. It is a documentary
about the production of an opera called La Commedia, composed
by Louis Andriessen and directed by Hartley. (It was staged in
Amsterdam.) This strange film, however, does not tell you a whole
lot about the opera in concept or content. The film is too impressionistic
to convey information, even though it's about a real project that
actually took place. Still, there is something interesting here
about the collaboration between Andriessen and Hartley, even though
it's inadequately presented.
The Apologies (2009,
13:36) is about an aspiring actress who house-sits for a writer friend,
where she practices a monologue repeatedly. The friend's ex-girlfriend
shows up to drop off a set of keys and recite a rather trite monologue
of her own, thinking the writer is in the apartment somewhere, hiding
Adventure (2008, 20:26)
is a really strange, alarming, and oddly invasive autobiographical piece
about Hartley's relationship with his wife, the Japanese actress Miho
Nikaido. Despite the film's ostensible "intent," I learned
nothing about love, marriage, or Nikaido from this film - what I did
learn is that Hal Hartley is a much bigger egotist than I would have
imagined. There are cutesy title cards that talk about Hartley
and Nikaido in the third person, a lot of tiresome shots of trains and
orchards, and ongoing inane chatter. There's something particularly
upsetting about the moment when Hartley casually presents his wife's
candidly naked breasts for all to see.
Accomplice (2009, 3:08)
is an indescribable short that includes shots of Hartley's colleague
Jordana Maurer at work and a voice-over by Jean-Luc Godard about how
it's always "possible" to make films. Easy for Godard -
and Hartley - to say.
Unfortunately, these films, although new, are presented in full-screen
transfers. The images are far from demonstration-quality.
There is a fair amount of digital noise and pixelation.
The simple stereo soundtracks are plain but clear.
No bonus content is included.
I wish I had an opportunity to write about any of Hartley's wonderful
features. I regularly recommend Simple Men, Henry Fool,
to friends and acquaintances. Hartley's unique wit is a palpable
influence among a number of very important filmmakers today. However,
these shorts suggest a man bored with filmmaking - the fact that they
were made at all is strange. Like the most aggravating film-school
exercises, they lack the necessary spark of inspiration. Skip
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.