Nowhere man

Settling into the relaxed paranoia of Henry Fool director Hal Hartley

These are the kinds of people who show up in Hal Hartley films: a nun who writes pornography; a surly, amnesiac hit man; a gas-station attendant who plays Elizabethan ballads on his electric guitar and greets customers in French; and a "radical shortstop" who capped a decade playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers by bombing the Pentagon.

Hartley himself has been called many things--outlaw, revolutionary, deadpan comic genius. To his supporters (the pointy-headed ones, anyway), he's an American inheritor of Bresson and French art film; to detractors, he's a cold, precious filmmaker whose movies pursue little more than abstract patterns. Hartley says he listens to neither critics nor fans. His films, he says, are explorations of "religion, sex, and money"--movies in which he becomes, behind the camera, a laboratory assistant conducting an experiment, working to make his audience care, even while revealing his movies' artifice. Part of what draws people in, most likely, is his distinctive characters. Hartley's world of cagey nonconformists seeking freedom--often played by such regulars as Martin Donovan, Adrienne Shelley, and Parker Posey--is as brilliantly incongruous as that of another oddball Long Islander, Thomas Pynchon.

Hopeful critics and fans have been looking for this eccentric (the word "quirky" seems indispensable to most of his reviewers) director to reach beyond his cult. Presumably, among those placing their hopes on Hartley's new film is Sony Classics, which has flown the chinless auteur to Los Angeles to promote his new Henry Fool, which won best screenplay at Cannes this spring. It's the first time that this director--a lifelong New Yorker who's been fairly plain about his dislike of Hollywood--has made it to the West Coast to peddle his wares.

As it happens, those anxious to see Hartley break out of his mannered, Brechtian style will draw little consolation from Henry Fool. This long, ambitious film--about a poetic garbageman and the felonious stranger who unlocks his gift--displays the director's characteristic tendencies writ large: Like the Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowksi, it will remind detractors what they hate about its maker and recall for fans what they liked about his early work. (Hartley's breakthrough came with his first films, '90's Trust and '91's The Unbelievable Truth, films whose mix of the stark and the radical drew comparisons to early Talking Heads records.)

In another way, though, the film marks the culmination of his second phase: If 1994's Amateur was a flawed, intriguing attempt to make a real studio film, and '95's Flirt a misguided academic experiment, this is the film that shows Hartley operating with a bigger budget and a wider scope--and not compromising, as he did in the '94 movie, his deeply personal style. It's a style he has developed in opposition to what American film has thrown at him over the decades.

"I think I was always unsatisfied with movies and books and plays," he says. Hartley--as deadpan and controlled as his films, if significantly less pretentious in manner--explains that much of his frustration with other films came from their naturalistic acting. "In watching films and then making them, I started to pinpoint better what I wanted to do. I realized it wasn't obvious emotionality. It wasn't empathy."

Film enthusiasts with mixed feelings about his work wonder whether his movies could combine head and heart by allowing some old-fashioned acting--characters who express themselves emotionally, for instance, or even occasionally crack a smile. But Hartley's not interested.

When he started making films, Hartley says, "I hit Brecht, and I hit Godard, and I hit Warhol. You know, Brecht says that empathy is just an illusion--it's just pride to think you can know another character. People talk about identifying--'I didn't identify with the main character'--that is the biggest piece of hubris. I mean, I go to movies to see things I haven't seen before. I want people to surprise me."

As a result, it's entirely possible (if not common) to appreciate Hartley's films--to enjoy their minimalist visual imagination, taut dialogue, vaudevillian physical humor, and lurking sense of psychological threat--and still find the director's work a little cold. In fact, this combination of pleasure and icy, ironic distance almost seems to be what Hartley is striving for. The director disagrees, offering instead that he's trying to express emotion and narrative--just like everyone else--but in more bare, unorthodox ways.

"My films are just comedies about American life," he says. "I know I'm not a weirdo. I have an audience in my head, and I try to imagine when they would laugh. I can't understand why films like mine can't have a really broad appeal--I'm not trying to be obscure. But the general mode of distribution makes everything the same. Popular art of all kinds strives to homogenize."

The reason his films are still mostly known to a cult, he says, is that the movie business--whether at the studio or indie level--is deeply conservative, and driven by a slavish pursuit of what Hartley calls the "center."

"So you're constantly dealing with these people who have a kind of relaxed paranoia. They don't want to commit to an opinion until they've read the trades," he says.

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