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Possible Films, Volume 2: New Short Films by Hal Hartley
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 Fool(1997, 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 Grim (2007), 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 superior predecessor.
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 from her.
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, and Surviving Desire 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 it.