By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Possibly because of its experimental nature, Hartley's newest project was shot on video and transferred to film--likely the filmmaker couldn't get investors on board for The Book of Life, an hour-plus meditation on the year 2000 apocalypse. Starring Donovan as the returned Jesus Christ (in plain clothes) and rocker PJ Harvey as his sidekick, Magdalene, the story traces their dreary adventure through Manhattan in search of a few good souls to save from the planet's inevitable destruction. Meanwhile, in a parallel story line, two barflies blow hard about the meaning of life. The dialogue is quintessential Hartley, but this time he gets whacked with the camera work. Nearly every scene is visually tweaked in one way or another: slanted, blurred, pixelated, color-saturated, zoom-laden, shot from odd angles...you get the idea. At best, the heavy effects get sidelined by the action. At worst, it's just terribly distracting.
A better bet is the set of Hartley shorts (Hal Hartley on TV)--most of them are a bit older, but of the seven, several are quite watchable. The best of the lot is a music video Hartley shot for Yo La Tengo--the seminal New York band responsible for the greatest slow-and-low drone out there. In fact, all of these shorts are New York-focused, from the opener Theory of Achievement, about young bohemians living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to Hartley's refreshing little urban "opera" about young singles called, simply, Opera #1. It stars Parker Posey and Adrienne Shelly as fairies in charge of matchmaking, and, oddly, the Hartley-composed music could be a lot worse. The lyrics are genuinely funny.
If you loathe the Hartley aesthetic, keep away. If you're still undecided, the Hartley section of the festival may be the most painless introduction to the artist and his heavy, narrow brain.
Book of Life, Friday, March 27; 8:30 p.m. in the Video Cabaret; Hal Hartley on TV (Parts 1 and 2) Saturday, March 27; 5:45 p.m. in the Video Cabaret