Love 'im or hate 'im, Hal Hartley has invaded the ranks of lauded indie filmmakers with quiet determination. His material--intentionally flat, talky, and existentially "hip"--usually involves urban anti-heroes and -heroines stumbling through modern emotional war zones, most often those of love and commitment. And boy, do they talk. Not Whit Stillman talk, or Woody Allen talk, but rather disconnected, confrontational, philosophical banter. From his earliest projects like The Unbelievable Truth to his more recent wide-release ventures like The Amateur and Henry Fool, Hartley has sprinkled the '90s with his self-conscious, dark, and quasi-comical diatribes using many of the same actors all along: Adrienne Shelly, Martin Donovan, Elina Lowensohn. Anyone who has sat through one Hartley film could likely recognize any other without being clued in. "Distinctive" is an understatement.
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.
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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