Some films by Hal Hartley

1 Hal Hartley

Hal Hartley is a NY independent film maker who started working professionally in 1988 and is still working today. You can visit him on Facebook for details of his current project or go to his website That’s extraordinary, and bears repeating. Hal Hartley has been operating as an independent film maker for a quarter of a century. In fact, his career started at almost the beginning of the independent-of-Hollywood American film making tradition. While Hartley looked to Jim Jarmusch, film makers like Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith only thought it possible to make films through the example of people like Hartley.

Schematic themes, impossible dreams
Hal Hartley’s first full length film was called The Unbelievable Truth. It was made in 1988 for $75,000 and grossed over half a million dollars, so it was a success. Independent film making has a slightly different view of success, though. In the mainstream it’s all about dollars, and so about gauging audience reaction to the film before it is made. Sam Goldwyn at MGM said there were only three types of films. It goes without saying he meant financially successful films. Judging by later results, and taking Goldwyn at his word, I would suggest they are: a) revenge action dramas; b) exploitation ‘comedies’ featuring slapstick, nudity and bad taste; and c) sentimental romantic comedies.

In the world of independent film making though there is scope for something more, the expression of individual viewpoint. Independent film makers often both write and direct. Hartley does this, and also composes his scores, produces, and probably organises distribution, no mean feat. His first few films were relatively successful, and are still popular. Hartley assembled a fairly constant group of people for cast and crew, and the success of his early films launched the career of actors like Adrienne Shelly and Martin Donovan. But expression of independent viewpoint, no matter how artistically satisfying, doesn’t pay many bills, so even independent film makers like Hartley have to compromise if they want to make another film. Hartley has made about 12 films, an impressive total. His last six have fought critical indifference and hostility,and audiences have not been enthusiastic. But he has a loyal core of followers, and in this respect resembles Woody Allen, who somehow assembles the funds to make a film each year. Like Allen, Hartley is much better known in Europe. There the group of independent film makers include some of the greatest names in cinema, such as Ingmar Bergman, Eric Rohmer and Satyajit Ray, and luminaries of the New Wave such as Jean-Luc Godard. All these film makers work or worked with limited budgets, and rely on distribution deals in other countries to circulate their films, which are usually classified as ‘art’ films (means a booking in a small theatre) shown to small audiences or film groups.

2 Unbelievable truth

The Unbelievable Truth could be described as a romantic comedy, Theatre of the Absurd style. Hartley is very influenced by theatre, and deliberately uses its techniques in his films to disconcert his audiences. A bit like Godard or Bergman emphasising the presence of the film medium to avoid mere escapism. Hartley’s dialogue is like Samuel Beckett’s in Waiting for Godot (1950) and other plays:

Suppose we repented.
Repented what?
Oh…we wouldn’t have to go into the details.
Our being born?
One daren’t even laugh any more.
Dreadful privation.
Merely smile…It’s not the same thing…Nothing to be done.

Let’s go.
We can’t.
Why not?
We’re waiting for Godot.

Another typical technique of Hartley is to deconstruct the film development by inserting a dance sequence. Just like that, the characters make like refugees from an oddball version of West Side Story. Disconcerting, but the audience does get to hear some good alternative NY rock music. It’s like Godard saying “It’s just a film”, but a bit too unsubtle for Hartley, who is more effective when more low key.

3 Unbelievable truth2

A film by Hal Hartley: Truth
The Unbelievable Truth (1988/89) is a comedy of perspective. Like all Hartley’s early films it’s set in Lindenhurst (Hartley’s home town where he almost became a steel worker) and has a minor character longing for romance and adventure. Audry (the exquisite in every sense Adrienne Shelly), the teenage dropout who conflicts with the expectations of her parents about the way she should live her life, is a little like young Alvy (Jonathon Munk) in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), who was worried about the universe expanding, or Edith (Thora Birch) in Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World (2001) who found her parents’ values unbearable and refused to grow up. Audry thinks the world is on the brink of nuclear destruction. (In joke: a book by “Ned Rifle” tells her so, and Ned Rifle is Hartley’s pseudonym for the film’s music score composer). Josh (Robert Burke), who startles his small town by coming back there from prison, where he served a sentence for killing his girlfriend’s father, has the same problem as Audry. Small town optimism that all’s right with the world as long as you make lots of money is just like small town scandal driven conformity. Both are just wrong. Not morally, just wrong. Inexact. The attitudes don’t match the facts. “But honey, didn’t you like working at Burger World?” Audry and Josh realise they are fighting the same battle and are drawn to one another. The film’s first compromise is that the actors are both very beautiful, a weakness of most American romantic comedies. They’re meant to be wish fulfillment for audiences. It seems easier to love beautiful people (in reality it is just as difficult as with plain people but not in American movies).

Poor Audry realises that if she wants to survive she needs to do a deal. That’s something her dollar driven father can understand. Dealing gets her out of town and into a relationship with someone she doesn’t want, but she makes money. That satisfies her father for a while. (Her father is a character called Victor Hugo – in real life the best selling author of the Romantic movement and author of Les Misérables, an example of Hartley’s humour, dry and obscure – played with gusto by Chris Cooke). Meanwhile Josh negotiates his reputation as a mass murderer by being a good mechanic, someone who earns his keep. He’s still drawn to Audry. But now Audry starts to take the deal and the dollars too seriously. Audry and Josh have their first problem to overcome. Audry’s father Vic wants to fire Josh to keep him away from Audry. She does a deal. She’ll break it off if he doesn’t. Vic goes to Josh with the same deal. He’ll keep him on if he breaks with Audry. Small town values seem to be winning out over true love. Audry breaks the pact with Vic, Josh doesn’t, and the two quarrel and later have this dialogue. Josh says:

That’s a fact. But it’s not the last word.
What is the last word
I don’t know. Faith, maybe.
Which one: faith or maybe?

Audry has learned her father’s lesson too well. “You can’t have faith in people. Only the deals you make with them. People are only as good as the deals they make and keep!” Of course this doesn’t really apply to emotional involvement, but Audry is still a teenager. Faith, she will learn, really is the last word.

Later in the same coffee shop Josh has this dialogue with a girl (Edie Falco), who starts:

I know what you need.
Excuse me?
You need a woman.
That girl’s crazy.
I know, but I like her.
She’s leaving town.
I heard.

There’s the plot, and perhaps the point of the movie, in one piece of dialogue. To make sure it is not taken too seriously, Hartley has the actors repeat it four times. It might be true, but it’s going nowhere. In an ending out of an 18th century style comedy  all the characters assemble at Josh’s house, all make incorrect assumptions about what’s happening, and the lovers are united and go away together. The last scene is typical Hartley. Audry listens as she did at the start of the film, waiting to hear the explosion that ends the world. She hears nothing. The camera rises to the sky, the screen goes black. Does faith in people come with truth, or is it the other way around? Hardly a profound film, loosely written, full of good ideas and artful dialogue. Draw your own conclusions.

4 Adrienne Shelley

Independent film production
What happens to an independent film maker once he or she is able to make, or insists on making, the kind of film he or she wants despite the market forces that determine what mainstream film makers do? In mainstream film making if you exceed budget, you get treated with suspicion. You have a flop on top of that, producers won’t touch you. This happened most famously to Michael Cimino, whose 1980 film Heaven’s Gate lost so much money at the box office, and overspent to such an extent it’s planned budget, that Cimino found it difficult getting another director’s job, and his work was unfairly disparaged by all. The same happened, more gradually, to Federico Fellini, one of the world’s greatest artists in cinema. Directors can’t afford to listen to the critics if they like the films. They have to reassure the producers, the investors.

As Hartley said, you’re only as good as your last film. How much you can spend very much depends on how much you made last time. This has nothing to do with the quality of the films you make. Everything to do with how the public liked it. No-one (many have tried) has been able to accurately predict what the public will like (mainstream film makers are prone to guess, more of the same). Here are some figures from IMDB for film production costs, moving down the scale from mainstream to independent. Heaven’s Gate cost $44 million; Annie Hall $4 million; Reservoir Dogs $1.2 million; Clerks $230,000; The Seventh Seal cost $150,000; Stranger than Paradise $90,000. Budget and quality clearly have nothing to do with each other. Budget tends to give better production values and more famous stars, and can include a large sum for publicity which the cynical will say determines the success of the film more than anything. It also emphasises business values such as working to schedule. And time and again what is bad in the camera is saved by smart editing. Not many directors can edit in camera. But business values can result in creating mere product which can be sold at so much a seat ticket till the profits roll in. The films we all like have all done that. And succeeded in doing a whole lot more.

But budget is the key. It explains both independent film making and so called art films. Surprisingly it is not affected by film makers’ experience. New directors are put in charge of large budgets in the mainstream; experienced directors can still not get funding in the independent market. This is probably because mainstream cinema in America has such an extensive publicity and distribution network it can often sell a bad film successfully. Back in the 50s Ingmar Bergman was asked how he was able to make so many commercially unviable films. He didn’t explain that he was obsessive, obstinate and ruthless with producers. He said the secret was that he could never lose very much money. And he won enough awards to become famous, which also helped. Low budget films might give space to the ‘auteur’, the author, in Truffaut’s phrase. That auteur should also be a businessman, able to manage funds, and with at least some idea of how to please the public. This was clearly true of Hartley, who produced one film and several shorts each year up till the mid 90s. Many of them were popular and successful with audiences and critics alike.

5 Trust

A film by Hal Hartley: Trust
Trust (1990) is Hartley’s most loved and highest rated film. It reads like a second draft of The Unbelievable Truth. That film was about the always amazing fact that two people have fallen in love, never mind the talk of mass murder or fear of the end of the world. The two films, though similar, can be watched one after the other with pleasure, a sure sign Hartley is on to a good thing (even if only the wish fulfillment of romantic comedy. But there’s much more, in both films). Trust is about two dysfunctional families and how they inter relate. The romantic leads are Matthew (Martin Donovan) and Maria (Adrienne Shelly) and straight away Hartley has a winner, as soon as these two come together on the screen. They have a marvellous interaction with one another, what is (strangely) called ‘chemistry’. They are immediately interesting, and the camera loves them as they slowly come to terms with one another. Matthew has been the cause of his mother’s death when he was born, and his father Jim (John MacKay) can only express his love for his son by abuse, which masks his unresolved rage at his wife’s death. Maria is a callous and selfish teenager responsible for her father’s death from a heart attack, and her mother Jean (Rebecca Nelson) resolves Maria will spend the rest of her life paying for what she has done, even though she hadn’t loved her husband at all, merely resented him. Hartley has two good actors in the secondary roles of the parents (John MacKay as Matthew’s father and Rebecca Nelson as Maria’s mother Jean), and uses them to probe the reasons why parents use their children as weapons, and abuse them in the process. Matthew carries a hand grenade about with him. He wants to destroy. Maria is merely callous. This is just as destructive.

But this is too neat, too symmetrical. Even if you have a context of symmetrical 18th century comedy, as Hartley does, even if he meant to make an American version of Ingmar Bergman’s ‘commercial’ film Smiles of a Summer’s Night (1955, itself similar to La Ronde, 1897)) as Woody Allen did in 1982 with A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Hartley needs to be more cinematic. He does this by developing the character of Maria’s sister Peg (Edie Falco). Falco plays the same gum chewing role as she did in Hartley’s first film, but in Trust we learn a whole lot about Peg. Married and divorced with two children, Peg is both naive and cynical (not an unusual combination). Peg wants a man and a relationship but she doesn’t trust men. Both she and a girlfriend admit to willingness to keep trying despite the traps they have experienced. Here Hartley’s hyper reality is a little smug. A male intellectual’s take on what drives women to have (sometimes unsuccessful) relationships might not be too accurate. But Hartley presents the sequence as spot on. Part of the comedy.

Maria has the same boyfriend as in the first film. Name’s Anthony, but played by the same actor, Gary Sauer, in basically the same role of small town jerk whose lack of comprehension of what’s going on is part of the heroine’s problem. When Maria ends up in Matthew’s house and experiences his father’s rage at first hand, she takes him home, only to experience her mother’s revenge. Along the way she asks him for his hand grenade. He gives it to her. Trust.

“A family’s like a gun. You point it in the wrong direction, you’re going to kill someone”. That’s Matthew talking to Maria’s mother Jean.
“Exactly”. She replies.

There’s a rather obvious sub plot about a kidnapped baby (reuniting the family and healing its wounds). But it’s all too late and ineffective for Matthew and Maria.

Matthew tells Maria:
I respect and admire you.
Isn’t that love?
No. That’s respect and admiration. I think that’s better than love.
When people are in love, they do all sorts of crazy things. They get jealous, they lie, they cheat. They kill themselves, they kill each other.
It doesn’t have to be that way.

I’ll marry you if you’ll admit that respect, admiration and trust equal love.

So true love looks like winning out. Unexpectedly Hartley turns the story into a tragedy. Home life is too damaging to fight. People are too destructive to one another. And so, just like Romeo and Juliet, who had exactly the same problem, Maria and Matthew miss out. She breaks off the trust between them, convinced he has been unfaithful. He tries to destroy the complex he obscurely feels represents the problem (but its so much bigger than he realises). She goes to help him but can only participate in his revolt, for she has suffered the same way.

The film ends in what is becoming a typical Hartley way. Matthew is caught by police and taken to prison. Maria looks on as he drives away in the police car, bewildered. She doesn’t know what to do. Neither do we. We’re in the same situation. Trust gets harder each time. The film is being reissued and another generation will have the chance to see how accurate it is.

6 Elina Lowensohn

Dialogue and script
Hartley is a literary film maker. That sounds a contradiction in terms, but it’s not. Many directors create on paper, and their script is the centre of their movie, to be adjusted by variables such as an actor’s presence, or budget limitations. Ingmar Bergman wrote his ideas down as novels, sometimes plays, before making them into movies. A lot depends on the actors. Some you can just suggest a part to, and they can fill it. But the script was important to Hartley for two reasons. First, he used conventions from the theatre to direct his actors. Some of them came from a theatrical background, and were familiar with his introductions of these conventions; others were disconcerted, and needed convincing. Cinema acting is quite often more freeform. Above all, Hartley needed his actors to reproduce his carefully balanced dialogue. No improvisations were allowed. More than most other films, Hartley’s  are constructed on what the characters say to one another. Adrienne Shelley said in an interview she had never looked so intensely to a director as she did to Hal Hartley.

Secondly, Hartley seems to be working against the prevalence of over acting in American film. Most films you see, the acting is over the top, almost hysterical. If a film maker wants to tell a joke, they tell it half a dozen times. They don’t expect the audience to get it straight away. Anger or violence is expressed by the actors yelling and screaming at each other. Otherwise the audience mightn’t notice. That’s why American movies that deal with social issues are so portentous and solemn. On the contrary, Hartley wants his actors to underact. Impassive faces, slow movements. It’s all in the words. He wants the audience to try a bit harder, to interpret what is going on. In a way this is similar to European cinema, where most spoken languages have a body language as a corollary to dialogue, and exchanges between characters can be made with shrugs, grimaces and moues. Viewers of an European film can read a body language dialogue even when it contradicts an expressed verbal dialogue, giving scope to layered styles of acting that can express complex ideas and characters in conflict with themselves. Not in American cinema. So Hartley relies on the gap between theatrical dialogue, which appears artificial in cinema, and the realistic situations and settings he films his characters in, to focus audience attention. Stiffling suburban conformity and the deep longings only some psychologists normally hear, for instance.

In a way Hartley is doing an American version of the films of Eric Rohmer, especially of the six Moral Tales. What is depicted in both directors’ films, the early ones of both men, is characters in conflict with themselves, characters who are inarticulate, like the smug teenagers played by Adrienne Shelly, or damaged characters who cannot resolve their pain, like the characters played by Martin Donovan. This is serious stuff. But neither director intends psychodrama in the manner of Ingmar Bergman. They adopt a detached manner and use irony (especially Rohmer) to depict the gap between what the characters say and what they feel. That gap is a big part of American life and is the source of hundreds of sub cultures as teenagers, more hopeful than their parents, or more ignorant, try to close it. Hal Hartley charts that gap and shows his characters closing it. If we could express our angst directly, as Hartley’s characters do, we might just have a chance. So although his characters often fail, Hartley seems to be saying they are on the right track.

7 Amateur

A film by Hal Hartley: Amateur
After Simple Men (1992), a sprawling story about what it means to be an outlaw, and about trust (again), that meanders out of focus for most of its length, and is composed of good moments rather than forming a good whole; and Surviving Desire (1993) which gets across Oscar Wilde’s idea that nothing worth learning can be taught, but really should have been a stage play, Hartley made possibly his best film, Amateur (1994). I am the only person who seems to think so, but I could be right.

The film starred the enigmatic Isabelle Huppert who at that time had made almost 60 movies, and was by far the most experienced actor Hartley had worked with. Huppert was in Heaven’s Gate, The Bedroom Window, several films directed by Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Chabrol, and later in 1994 was to star in the superb La Séparation directed by Christian Vincent.

In Amateur Isabelle (Huppert) is an ex nun who believes she is a nymphomaniac but has no sexual experience except from writing pornographic books. She suffers from what DH Lawrence used to call sex in the head. How depraved can you be if your depravity is all in your imagination? She meets Thomas (Martin Donovan), an ex pornographer who beats up women then exploits them, who is suffering from amnesia, and who falls in love for the first time like a normal person. How vicious can you be if you can’t remember your violence? Just like Adam and Eve, Isabelle and Thomas get a second chance, though it’s outside the Garden of Eden, so things are a little difficult.

Enter Sofia (Elina Löwensohn), one of Thomas’ victims, who hates him, and plans a revenge. She steals some disks (the things they used to use to transfer data between computers) from Edward (Damien Young), accountant to an underworld Mr Big. He’s stolen them from Jacques, the Mr Big, and is already in trouble. The criminal sub plot is handled in a non linear and humorous way, as Quentin Tarantino was doing that year in Pulp Fiction, but Hartley lets it peter out. It’s only a plot device to prepare the ground for the relationship he’s really interested in between Isabelle and Thomas.

And what a relationship. Isabelle introduces Thomas at the start of the movie (we think she’s talking about a character in a book she’s writing):

And this man will die.
And there is nothing any of us can do about it.

8 amateur2

The catalyst of the thriller sub plot is the accountant Edward. Tortured by the thugs employed by the underworld boss Jacques, he escapes, his one thought to save Sofia, and while escaping from jail shoots a policeman. Edward, the thugs and the police all chase each other to the country house where Thomas, Isabelle and Sofia are hiding out. They take refuge in the nearby nunnery where Isabelle used to live. There Thomas is punished. But for the wrong crime, one he didn’t commit.

Sofia tells Isabelle all about Thomas. Thomas tells Isabelle that whatever it is he has done, it is the past. A bit like Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, who dodges the crime of murder and confesses to fornication: “but that was in another country. And beside, the wench is dead”. That right now, he is sorry. And she forgives him. There’s something astonishing about love: it can forgive almost anything. Delusions about the Virgin Mary and nymphomania, memories of violence and exploitation. But there’s a catch: we still get punished.

Having explored truth, then trust, Hartley in this film explores guilt and forgiveness. I really liked the way he used the thriller plot element just as long as he needed it then discarded it. The film is in no way a thriller. Crime is just there. We all do it. Guilt is just there. We all have it. But forgiveness, that’s different. You have to be lucky. If you insist, the film could be described as a romantic tragedy, a version of Romeo and Juliet with requisite star crossed lovers. I think it’s something much more intellectual, an existential study of fate. Pulling that off while entertaining an audience for 120 minutes is pretty expert in the writing and directing department, which is why I admire the film. Hartley was to get a lot more portentous.

9 Isabelle huppert

Famous and forgotten
Hartley must be truly sick of having his first six films revived and warmly reviewed while his last six are left on the shelf. You have to admire the man’s integrity though (or stubbornness). He is going to do what he thinks is needed, not what anyone else thinks. He could have followed Tarantino and Smith into the mainstream. All it would have taken would have been a violent thriller and a willingness to keep making it each time. Popularity is not the only criteria for excellence, though we tend to act as though it is in the popular arts such as music and film. Independent cinema gives film makers the possibility of exploring alternative criteria for making a film. One of these is the expression of insights which we uncertainly call art in communications media such as film and publishing, and much more certainly in painting, sculpture and some forms of music. But the trouble is that many of these insights are often commonplace, not nearly as profound as the artist thinks. Unlike the crafstperson, who is fully in command of their techniques and tools, the artist often doesn’t know exactly what they are expressing. Mapping some insight half seen in the conscious, half intuited in the subconscious, the artist can scale the heights but just as easily fall flat on their faces. Ingmar Bergman has made some of the worst films ever as well as some of the best.

I knew someone who spent some time in New York a few years ago. They told me that in a little over a year they had seen 300 plays, Broadway and off (and off off). So they liked plays, obviously. But in NY at least 300 playwrights had a chance to stage their work each year. Out of that no doubt mess of good, bad and indifferent work there will have been the chance of a masterpiece to emerge. It’s like mother nature: try a thousand variations, and if one works, keep it.

This is where Hal Hartley fits in film. On the surface, his films have not been successful. Most of them haven’t made money, except The Unbelievable Truth and perhaps Henry Fool. A lot of them audiences and critics don’t like. For some reason Hartley to this day thinks that Flirt (1995) contains his best work, but it plays to empty houses. He said in an interview it destroyed his career. I found it more a concept than a film. The critics have been dismissive for the most part, but they are like the WWI generals planning their battles with the strategies of the 1890s. The critics tend to like what was good, not what is good. A select few agree Hartley is worth watching. He lurches a bit between being overly intellectual and riffing on popular romantic comedies, but the man has another 25 years to go, plenty of time for a masterpiece.

Meantime, check out some of the independent greats, like Nancy Savoca’s True Love (1989), the films of England’s Mike Leigh, starting with Bleak Moments (1971), Scott Rosenblum’s wonderful script to Ted Demme’s direction Beautiful Girls (1996) and everything Terry Zwigoff has had anything to do with, starting with Ghost World, to chart simlilar territory.

Hal Hartley is a film maker who persistently asks us, can conflicted characters find the ability to trust one another and so save themselves, despite the drawback of a confused and violent society in which they live? Hartley seems to agree with Sam Goldwyn on that one. His answer: a definite maybe.

©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

10 Martin Donovan

Films by Hal Hartley
Here are Hartley’s feature length films (there are many short films as well), and their IMDB ratings (which are not necessarily your ratings).
The Unbelievable Truth (1989) 7.5
Trust (1990)  7.8
Simple Men (1992)  7.2
Surviving Desire (1993) 7.6
Amateur (1994)  7.1
Flirt (1995)   6.3
Henry Fool (1997)  7.4
The Book of Life (1998)  6.7
No Such Thing (2001)  6.2
The Girl from Monday (2005)  5.3
Fay Grim (2006)   6.4
Meanwhile (2011)   7.0


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