Monday, April 12, 2010

The films of Hal Hartley

Low-budget, stylised, almost stilted, theatrical acting and deadpan dialogue; cool, aloof, yet odd-ball characters reading from books, philosophising, and constantly drinking either cans of Budweiser or expressos. Suburbia. But not as we know it. Not much in the way of plot – or too much plot. Yes, it's a Hal Hartley film.

Hartley – independent, quirky, low-budget film-maker – used to a film critic's wet dream but even esteemed film critic David Thomson and film magazine Sight & Sound tired of him some time ago. His brand of film-making has gone out of fashion (though Aki Karismaki may be a loose Finish equivalent), and in recent years he's extended himself by worked in different genres – science fiction, fantasy, religious – none of which have been too successful. I reckon he should try a musical next.

His extraordinary run of early films (he also found time to made shorts in between the features) – The Unbelievable Truth (1989), Trust (1990), Simple Men (1992), Flirt (1993) and Amateur (1994) – are what he's best known for. Using a troupe of regular actors – including Martin Donovan and Adrienne Shelley – they were fresh, original and offbeat.

I didn't see Hartley's 'epic' Henry Fool (1997) until recently. It has the usual stylised mise-en-scene, acting and philosophising as well as maybe a cinematic first: a man vomiting on a woman's bare buttocks (!) It was almost a decade until a follow-up appeared, Fay Grim, in 2006. Some have said it's a return to form. I haven't seen it.

As a tragic footnote, one time Hartley muse, Adrienne Shelley (pictured above with Martin Donovan in Trust), was murdered in 2006 just after directing her third feature, Waitress. So although the film is an enjoyable lightweight rom com (with some Hartley quirkiness), it's a bitter sweet experience watching it; her death permeates the film. The last scenes in particular, featuring Shelley's real-life daughter, are especially sad.


Pearce said...

I like Trust best of Hartley's movies.

Waitress was actually Adrienne Shelley's third feature as writer/director, though it was the first that anyone paid attention to.

Her death was such a waste - a needless tragedy and a barely-motivated murder.

I liked Waitress. I thought it was very funny, and far from your typical romantic comedy. Also, mmm pie.


How many rom-coms feature a pregnant married heroine who is having an affair with her married doctor, and who tells both her husband AND the doctor to f--k off at the end of the movie?

Barnaby said...

Thanks for the Shelley info – I didn't know she'd directed other films; I've corrected the post accordingly.
I liked Waitress too – but my girlfriend liked it more. It was kooky and quirky and off-beat... but still a rom com. But, yes, those pies sure looked good.