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.

With Henry Fool, he's trying to make his first film that starts with a specific environment and looks at its effect on the film's protagonists; by contrast, Hartley's past films have always had a distinctive, even problematic relationship to their settings. The director hails from Lindenhurst, Long Island, and most of his films are shot or set in the island's suburbs or in the city that looms over them. ("Most of my personality comes from there," he assures; he describes his parents as "Long Island pioneers" who pointed their wagons east "when suburbias were growing like mushrooms right after the war.") Hartley has rarely budged from the orbit of Manhattan--after a youth in which "I was almost unconscious, I was so shy," he went to college at the State University of New York at Purchase, where his focus shifted from music to art to film.

Despite the director's real-life geographic grounding, there's precious little to locate us in most Hartley films; this sense of floating in space adds to a disorientation produced by his movies' flat tones. (He's especially fond of long shots of banal, unromantic desolation; "I've always got my eye out for flat spaces to have someone fall down on," he has said. "Empty highways have this almost narcotic attraction for me.") The lack of any sense of place in Hartley's films is deliberate.

"I didn't want to be culturally or geographically specific," he says of his use of locales. "I've always strived for the general. It was a little frustrating in the early films--'the director from Long Island.' I wanted to talk about American culture, not my particular neighborhood."

His characteristic locale is a postmodern American nowhere--set on Long Island, but with no local color and little that's culturally or geographically distinguishing. With Henry Fool, he still offers few cues, but he's shooting to highlight the space, much as experimental composers write pieces that explore the acoustics of their rooms or studios. "I'd always been dissatisfied with one aspect of my filmmaking, which was rendering environments. It was really a matter of making shots that weren't establishing shots--but that were meaningful and established setting."

Hartley tried a similar experiment with Flirt. That film, which felt almost like an empty exercise, was built of three almost identical romantic scenarios set in New York, Berlin, and Tokyo. His conclusion, coming off Flirt: "I have to remember that when I go home to make films, I need to shoot my home as if it's a foreign locale." Hence Henry Fool, shot only a few miles from scenic Lindenhurst. One day, coming back from visiting his father on Long Island, he got off the subway in Woodside, Queens, planning to just look around and do some thinking. But he was fascinated by the place, "visually and ethnically," and struck by Woodside's incongruous cross "between Mayberry and an inner-city 'hood."

"With this film I set myself a problem, and that was, 'What would cinema verite be like if you couldn't move the camera?'" Some things he and longtime cinematographer Mike Spiller kept deliberately out of focus; they shot other scenes from unlikely angles or held shots for uncomfortable stretches of time. Hartley says he was "first responding to the environment, to the space." For some of his shots, he said, "I had to convince the crew that I wasn't kidding."

Besides handling the camera differently, he's altered his casting for Henry Fool. Most of his movies feature Martin Donovan, an actor Hartley discovered working in New York avant-garde theater; Donovan, with his combination of brooding, almost somnambulant good looks and nervous physical energy, has become a hallmark of the director's work and has had some success elsewhere. (He appeared most recently in The Opposite of Sex.) Henry Fool has no Donovan, but puts Posey, an old college friend who has had minor roles in other Hartley films, in a starring role. The film's two male leads are Thomas Jay Ryan (Henry) and James Urbaniak (Simon); the latter looks like the bastard offspring of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. Both Ryan and Urbaniak, downtown New York theater guys, make their film debut with Henry Fool. (Donovan, Ryan, and British rocker Polly Jean Harvey have recently completed a Biblical allegory called The Book of Life, of which Jessie Helms is unlikely to approve.) In his casting, as in his choice of locales, Hartley says, "I go for generality; I like archetypes."

So why all this strangeness? People falling down, goofy-looking folks, weird camera angles, Godardian speechifying, and Bressonian gestures? Hartley has said that his films are designed to counter the country's growing homogenization, that they're as bold as they are because they're meant to disturb the peace. Despite their mostly hetero settings, he sees them as the cinematic equivalent of ACT-UP's trouble-making: "films that consciously impede a good night's sleep."

The result is a movie about a garbageman's poetry becoming the latest youth craze. "If poetry was as popular with high school kids as rock and roll," Hartley says of the movie's premise. "That's the science-fiction element of the film."

All in all, though, he says he's made Henry Fool a "very realistic film." "Our actual culture," he says," is much more surreal.

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