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Hal Hartley - Surviving Desire & other stories

A producer once said to me that writers aren’t essential anymore. If you get the right software, anyone can write a screenplay. You just fill in the gaps with words.

Sadly, it is true, I know it is true because there are thousands of people out there with a PC and a piece of software that pre-formats your script, prompts you when you forget a character, provides useful suggestions as to when to kill off the hero’s best friend, when to get laid, how to get laid and how to strangle the one you love because the devil made you do it - and never lets you write a piece of dialogue that will last more than five seconds.

I am not going to write about the other 3 million people writing screenplays; formula scripts for a preconceived market and sending them to illiterate producers who care nothing for accuracy, historical fact or timing (See The Patriot). Blockbusters is full of examples of these films and there is a good reason they are on video and didn’t make it to the screen.

I want to talk to you about the other kind of writing, the one that involves the heart, the mind, the soul, passion and utter stupidity. Independent cinema, the real cinema, the one where no one hardly ever makes any money, but somehow, films still keep get on getting made.

The king of Indie cinema has been Hal Hartley. You can talk about Kevin Smith, but he’s just another hard working slacker, you can talk about Ed Burns, but as nice and cute as his films are, they lack a layer of acid that is present in greater work. Peter Hedges is someone new on the scene with hsi brilliant and funny 'Pieces of April' starring Katie Holmes and this film may owe something to my favourite director Hall Hartley.
The great thing about Hal Hartley is that he takes risks, constantly refines his story and characters and he doesn’t pander to his audience. Sometimes I don’t think he thinks about his audience at all. Yet here is a film-maker who reads, who considers his stories and characters with a depth that is quite extraordinary. For those of you who don’t know his films. Here are some titles:

Ambition -a short film about ambition - ‘I’m good at what I do’.

Theory of Achievment - a funny satire on a Hemingway et al’s Paris pretentions, set in the Cultural Capital of America, Williamsburg, Queens.

Surviving Desire - a harrowing tale of a lecturer obsessively infatuated with a female student who is just using him so she can write a novel about disappointment one day.

The Unbelievable Truth - Can you trust someone who has lied before. A mystery man returns home after some years disturbing results.

Trust - Fight for what you believe to be right, even though you know no one cares and you will ultimately destroy yourself and the one love you have.

Simple Men - two brothers, one a college drop out, another a thief, go in pursuit of their infamous terrorist father who has escaped capture for 25 years - only to discover he never actaully committed the crimes he is famous for and that love literally grows in the weeds of life.

Amateur - a nun who wants to be a pornographer meets a pornographer who has lost his memory who is looking for the wife he enslaved who in turn tried to kill him, meanwhile they are being pursued by a ‘highly respectable yet ultimately sinister international corporation with political connections.’

Flirt-a man wants his girlfriend to come with him to Europe, but she needs commitment from her other lover before she can make up her mind- and he has many doubts. (Three shorts on same theme)

Henry Fool - into the life of a simple garbage man and his lusty sister and drug addled mother comes a crazy and wild stranger full of dangerous ideas and literary concepts that shakes the foundation of their lives and the community around them. (Hartley won the best screenplay award for Henry Fool at Cannes in 1998)

The Book of Life - Jesus and Mary come back on the cusp of the
millennium to fight Satan - filmed with Digital Camera for French TV. A wide choice, yet always, you somehow instinctively know you are watching a Hartley movie. No one ever takes the obvious route to a solution and emotions tear apart the soul, yet everyone remains curiously passive.

An example: from the screenplay of AMATEUR:

(The pornographer who has amnesia has been rescued by the ex-nun who wants to write pornography. Thomas (the man who doesn’t know who he is) is in the bathtub, reading a pornographic magazine. He looks at a picture, then shakes his head, impressed, but bothered and turns the page. He turns around as.... Isabelle (the nun) enters the apartment, frustrated from a pointless blind date, stands in the bathroom door.)

THOMAS: How was your date?
ISABELLE: I think there’s something wrong with me.
(THOMAS closes the magazine and throws it down on the floor)
THOMAS: How long has it been since you left the convent, Isabelle?
ISABELLE: Ten months.
THOMAS: How long were you a Nun?
ISABELLE: Fifteen years.
THOMAS: That’s a long time.
ISABELLE: When I make mistakes, they tend to be big ones.
THOMAS: Were you always religious?
ISABELLE: No (She lights a cigarette and comes into the bathroom)
When I was a girl I wasted a lot of time writing bad poetry about being
lonely and too fat.
THOMAS: You were fat, huh?
ISABELLE: Not so fat. But I was ugly (Pauses...) Well anyway, it was
around that time that the Virgin Mary began appearing to me.
THOMAS: (Uncertain) Pardon Me?
ISABELLE: It’s true. She appeared to me three times in one year.
THOMAS: (washing his chest) And what did she say?
ISABELLE: She said I should become a nun.
ISABELLE: Because I am a nymphomaniac.
ISABELLE: It’s true.
THOMAS: You don’t look like one.
ISABELLE: Like a nymphomaniac?
ISABELLE: How would you know?
(She’s got a point and THOMAS considers it as ISABELLE sits)
But I lied. I told the priest God wanted me to join the order and become a
THOMAS: After all that?
ISABELLE: Well I was scared.
THOMAS: Of what?
ISABELLE: I was scared of what I knew God had planned for me.
THOMAS: God had planned something for you, huh?
ISABELLE: Yes. I didn’t know what yet. The Virgin didn’t tell me that. But
she did say it’s going to be difficult. It’s going to hurt. And I need to be out
in the world to do it. Not in a convent. I was seventeen. I was scared. So I
lied. I lied for fifteen years. I lied until I couldn’t bear it any longer.
THOMAS: (Impressed) Shit.
ISABELLE: (Thoughtful for a moment) Will you make love to me?
ISABELLE: When you finish your bath.
THOMAS: Why me?
ISABELLE: Why not you?
THOMAS: Well, you don’t know me. You don’t even know my name.
ISABELLE: You don’t know my name either.
THOMAS: Have you ever had sex?
THOMAS: How can you be a nymphomaniac and never had sex?
ISABELLE: (Smokes...considers this) I’m choosy.
© Hal Hartley AMATEUR 1994

At once you can see that HARTLEY loves the absurd, but enjoys placing his characters in very everyday settings. A nymphomaniac who is still a virgin, a pornographer who can’t remember anything. She seeks meaning to her life, he seeks his memory. He has the potential to live a new life, but this being a Hartley movie, it will all end in pathos and tragedy. This was his first attempt at something approaching a thriller or action movie.
But it is neither. It is a highly stylised pastiche of the thriller where characters pause to discuss philosophical issues and mobile phone technology and accountancy. Even the violence is comic. Jan, a villain, is torturing an accountant Edward with a power cable

Edward: Jan look...we go way back. We were accountants together. You were a good accountant.
Jan: I was younger then, I didn’t know any better. I moved up. I’m more realistic now.

What Hartley does is emphasise the emotional distance between characters. Never mind the story, what are these people doing, why are they there, why are they saying these things and why aren’t they listening to each other. Hartley is particularly good at creating conversations where people don’t listen to each other and the misunderstandings compound and complicate everything. Hartley is a specialist in flawed characters. And therein lies his genius.

Going back to Surviving Desire - starring the wonderful Martin Donovan as Jude the Literature Professor. Jude, is somewhat obsessional. Completely stuck on a paragraph in Russian literature which is tormenting his students. But what is really happening is that he has been stricken by love for one of his students. He meets his friend Henry in the coffee bar after the lecture and his is moody, irritable, unhappy. The girl is there, obliquely discussing him with her roommate. Henry tests the empirical evidence of Jude’s love for this girl and finds it active. The mood lifts, he is moving towards active love.

But to test this, is it real? He must go to the bookshop where she works. She finally agrees to meet him for a drink if he agrees to leave the bookshop. When they meet in the bar, aside from a cynical exchange with the barman, who signals that perhaps Jude can only expect Trouble and Desire and that he is hoping for too much out of this relationship, the girl finally arrives and after a moment coyly hints that they are now about to start on an affair. They kiss and the effect on Jude is devastating. She knows this and leaves him stunned.

How Hartley chooses to show that very real moment of JUDE’s pure happiness, is uniquely him. It is a very real moment, as in real life, when the object of your affection seems to promise love and you are lifted up to euphoria. Hartley has JUDE enter a courtyard and two complete strangers accompany him in a silent dance. It is pure joy, we understand that this is how JUDE needs to express his expectation and longing for
this girl, but this moment catches us off guard and is a pleasure to watch. The fact that they seem to doing a dance routine from The Jets in West Side Story without music is surprising, but somehow acceptable.

Hartley doesn’t pause to explain this quirk, but later develops the dance motif in a later film SIMPLE MEN. It is simply something you have to accept. People will find ways to express their feelings, not always in the most logical way. Equally, as the title suggests, SURVIVING DESIRE is never going to be boy meets girl, girl and boy get together and live happily ever after. Even at the moment when she finally comes to him, she wants to know before they make love, that if this is the only time they sleep together will he be crushed, mortified, whether from hence forth all other women will remind him of her, whether indeed he will be able to go on living. His listens to this, impatient to be getting on with the passion, but she has a different agenda, his love for her blinds him to it and when he says ‘I’ll risk it’, we laugh, but in reality, giving into his obsession, it is a risk too far. She is reeling him in and afterwards we see her putting it all down on paper for her ‘novel’. The girl lives inside some idealised romantic novel where men are tortured by their exquisite feelings for the women they love .... ironically, it is true, because now Jude’s torture will begin as she denies him and will no longer see him. She wants him to be tortured - it will make better material for her novel. Denial is a powerful tool. The bible has traded on it for nearly 2000 years. We love, but we are denied, because we are denied, we cease to exist. Powerful elements of conflict. SURVIVING DESIRE is about that need for our love to be requited and the pain we suffer when it is not. The film ends up they way many Hartley films end up. The man is left lying in the gutter, literally, destroyed by the desire he himself created.

Men in the gutter is a common theme in Hartley stories. No one in a Hartley movie seems to do anything without a motive, a calculation. Every thought, usually hidden between men and women, are out in the open. It is the trademark of his films. All unspoken thoughts will be articulated. This makes for very funny dialogue and often really complicated situations. However that is why, when you leave a Hartley film you have more questions, more passion for them than say, something slick or something bleak and violent. These films seem to capture ordinary people in hyper-reality. They exist beyond the screen, continue on with the story after you have left the cinema. Characters of seemingly no importance take on a vivid persona in your own memory.

In the film Simple Men, one thinks of the smoking nun fighting in the street with a cop over a medallion. Or the moment when one of the brothers drops a note in a phone box and retrieves it between the legs of a schoolgirl. It all looks more significant and erotic than it is, it is funnier because of its innocence. When the embittered older brother who has been betrayed by the woman he loves, talks about how mean he is going to be to the next women he is going to meet, how he will lie to her, make her love him and then drop her, we know that the next woman he will meet will make him eat his words. Big time. Hartley men are soft hearted. Hartley men are notoriously weak, the women, incredibly strong. It is part of their appeal. Men articulate the ideas, great impractical ideas, the women get on with the living and the loving and basically, seem to get the better of the men all the time. Equally, few relationships survive desire. Self destruction is the key to his films, people rarely give themselves a chance to be happy, because in that road lies future unhappiness.

Following through on Hartley style, the beginning of the film Amateur open with Martin Donovan’s character lying in the gutter unconscious and similarly in Henry Fool, within four pages Simon, the main protagonist is lying in the gutter, bleeding. Perhaps it is a metaphor for where all men will end up, but it is a powerful sign that this is a Hartley movie.

His latest released feature in 1998, HENRY FOOL was a departure for him, darker, more linear in narrative, no longer a romantic melodrama or romantic thriller, and not easy to categorise, but nevertheless, curiously epic and involves a far larger cast than he usually has or can afford. There are key elements here of the classic western, yet it is set in decidedly suburban Queens, New York.

A stranger hits town to right-wrongs and Henry Fool’s arrival, seen in longshot is very reminiscent of say, Ethan Edwards in Ford’s The Searchers. Indeed, Henry is very similar to Ethan Edwards. Each has a criminal past, is sexually attracted to a doomed older woman, has a troubled relationship with his protege and seeks violent revenge of a rape of a young teen and ultimately he has no place in society. Only this being Hartley territory, Henry is no angel, is a not really a candidate for redemption and is himself cagey about his past, where he has spent 7 years in jail for raping a 13 year old girl. ( He tells us she was mean to him and preyed upon his many weaknesses).

The writing is vivid and hooks you right in. The title is HENRY FOOL, but right off we can see the real fool is Simon, the garbage man, who is bullied by everyone. Warren and Amy are punks kids with malicious streaks and Simon’s sister is a tart, his mother a zombie. It is these people that Henry Fool must rescue. This is his purpose in life. “An honest man is always in trouble’ Henry declares. Hartley asks us to judge, is he the devil or an angel? Henry is also impossibly vulgar, scatological, sex-crazed, alcoholic and driven by living for the minute. But he is voraciously alive and that is the lesson that everyone around him needs to learn how to be.

Here is a film about talent, ambition, artistic and personal influence, integrity and the demands of the market place. By the simple act of saying to Simon, ‘Whenever you think you’ve got something to say, stop and write it down.’

Thus Simon begins to write down his very personal and perverse poetry that affects everyone in most striking ways. One person might read it and be shocked by the pornography, another, a mute girl suddenly sings for the first time - Henry has released an unstoppable force. Hence, in the nature of life’s perversity, Simon, the village idiot ,will end up a Nobel prize winner and Henry the village clown. Teachers rarely achieve more than this.

One earlier short film made in 1991 is Theory of Achievement. Here, Hartley pokes fun at American intellectuals. If you can’t go to Spain and Paris and hang-out with Hemingway because you are born in the wrong generation and you can’t chin-wag with Dorothy Parker at the Algonquin, why not imagine Queens as the last intellectual cafe society of the 20th century. And taking that idea further, why not establish that same bohemian society in your own sublet. It is cinema of ideas and cultural inversions. The characters are mostly ‘white, middle class, college educated, unskilled, unemployed, broke’. One, William Sage’s character says, ‘I want to write timeless beautiful love songs... but I can’t sing or write music...’

It is a funny, pretentious, wonderful spoof of a life we can’t lead, funnier perhaps than that other former Independent Director Alan Rudolph’s take on the same theme, American intellectuals in Paris in his film ‘The Moderns ’. A film you should try to see anyway, because like Hartley, it is never the plot, it is ironic juxtaposition. and the characters who count.

Hal Hartley is an independent film maker because he wants to be the writer, director, producer, musician, he wants to protect his intellect and his story to the bitter end. If that means he doesn’t get distribution, if that means he remains without a mansion in Bel-Air, so be it. Only you will know what kind of person you are. But in the end, remember, it is the people we go to see on screen, not the plot and that is no conspiracy theory.

© Sam North
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