Friday, June 29, 2012


Hal Hartley’s name has been dropped more than a few times here on PINNLAND EMPIRE (The School Of Godard, Storytelling, etc), but we have yet to review one of his films. I was watching this last night and realized how quietly brilliant it is so I felt compelled to write about it...
Not to diss Hartley's hometown (which he obviously has a lot of pride in) but I always found myself wondering how the blue collar town of Lindenhurst, Long Island could produce a filmmaker like Hartley with his deadpan, Godard, Bresson-influenced work. He must’ve taken the occasional trip out of Long Island and ventured in to New York City where he probably saw the European films that went on to influence his work and teaching. That's essentially what Amateur represents: Hal Hartley's departure from his comfort zone in to new territory. Due to budget and convenience, Hartley's first three films (Unbelievable Truth, Trust & Simple Men) all took place in Long Island. All three films, which share some of the same characters (Audrey's Father and his assistant Mike are in both; Unbelievable Truth and Simple Men) all deal with the same themes and elements: redemption, mystery, forgiveness, shady pasts, middle class & blue collar dysfunctional families, the importance people put on money or jobs and deadpan quirky humor. Even though Hartley's first three films (which have been dubbed: "The Long Island Trilogy") are set in Long Island there's always at least some kind of nod or mention of New York City or at least the LIRR (the commuter rail that schleps Long Islanders to and from Penn Station). After Simple Men (which was actually mostly shot in Texas, but fronted as Long Island) it was time for Hal Hartley to stop just mentioning New York City and actually shoot a film there. I don’t know why but Amateur always seemed like Hartley's most forgotten about film (outside of maybe Flirt) which is a shame because it’s very entertaining, fun, sad and insightful. His references to European cinema (specifically French and Swedish cinema) were more than obvious - a character named "Melville"(which may not have been a reference to Jean Pierre Melville but Herman Melville), scenes straight outta Godard's Band Of Outsiders as well as Bergman's Persona and he even cast Claude Charbol-muse; Isabelle Hupert in the lead (Hupert was the first actor outside of Hartley's regular Suny purchase/NYC cast of regulars. Since day one Hartley has always stayed true to his regular actors (Bill Sage, Robert John Burke, Parker Posey, DJ Mendall, James Urbaniak, Thomas Jay Ryan, etc) which is why actors like Jeff Goldblum (Fay Grim), Helen Miren & Julie Christie (No Such Thing) and Hupert have stood out so much in his work. Between what I consider to be two of Hartley's greatest films; Simple Men (1992) and Henry Fool (1997), he got quite experimental in the mid 90's with a bunch of quirky shorts and his 3 part feature; Flirt. Actually one of Hartley’s short films from the early 90’s (Ambition) could be seen not only as a precursor for Amateur (it takes place in Brooklyn) but as a precursor for today’s current young/young-ish residents of New York who all seem to live in the ultra-hip borough of Brooklyn because Manhattan rent is either too expensive or too played out. I guess Amateur got lost in the midst of that playful, experimental period. And like more than half of Hartley's work, the DVD for Amateur (which I own) is now out of print.

Amateur is a great introduction in to the world of Hal Hartley. It's full of his signature style & dialogue as well as his underrated talent as a film score composer...

Amateur (Hartley)                                                                             Person (Bergman)
Amateur                                                                             Band Of Outsiders (Godard)

Only Hal Hartley could come up with a plot like Amateur: A nymphomaniac virgin ex-nun that writes sub-par pornographic literature ("Isabelle" - played by Isabelle Hupert) tries to help a man ("Thomas" - played by Martin Donovan) regain consciousness after he's been pushed out of a window by his ex-girlfriend ("Sofia" - played by Elina Lowensohn). We soon come to find out that Thomas was a pretty awful human being that beat up, pimped out and forced Sofia to do pornography starting at a very young age. Just before Thomas was pushed out of the window he was involved in some shady business with a mysterious crime boss named: "Mr. Jacques" (like many movies in the early/mid 90's there was a pursuit of a floppy disk that contained sensitive information). At the beginning of the movie we immediately feel sorry for Thomas because all we know about him is that he's been pushed out of a window (he's essentially a new born baby/clean slate). But once we find out the kinda person he is/was we have to question whether or not he can be forgiven or if we even like this guy anymore. We never get any flashbacks showing Thomas as this evil person either. With the exception of Fay Grim, Hartley never relies on flashbacks. He relives the past through monologues delivered by his characters and Amateur is no exception. The title of the film is also an acronym for all the elements & themes in the story: Accountancy, Murder, Amnesia, Torture, Ecstasy, Understanding & Redemption. Amateur showed growth in Hartley. Anyone familiar with Hartley's work should know that up to this point things like redemption & understanding were key elements in his work. But things like Torture, Murder (with the exception of the talk of murder in Unbelievable Truth) and Amnesia were all new elements in the world of Hal Hartley. The character of Thomas is one of many mysterious characters created by Hal Hartley that brings up the question; can a person be forgiven or redeemed no matter what they’ve done in the past? Josh Hutton (Unbelievable Truth) killed two people but we know he didn't mean too and is essentially a good guy. Does he deserve forgiveness? Henry Fool had sex with an underage girl but years later he murders a man that's been beating and molesting his stepdaughter. Does he now get a pass? Do things cancel each other out? Maria (Truth) kills her father with one slap by accident (after he calls her a slut upon finding out she's pregnant) but she eventually changes from a bratty teenager to a responsible, mature adult who’s abused by her mother. Do we forgive her? Outside of this being Hartley's first film to be set in New York City or to introduce new elements, themes & actors, this was Hartley's first film to have a truly tragic ending (some may see Simple Men as a sad ending, but in my opinion it shows closure and redemption more than it does sorrow and sadness). Martin Donovan may forever be known to the general public for his roles in stuff Weeds and Saved, but outside of his underrated, academy award nomination-worthy performance in Trust (don’t doubt me until you've actually seen it), Amateur is the 2nd best performance of his career so far.

And on a side note I must say that Amateur and Pulp Fiction share many similarities between each other: a duo of hitmen, actresses modeled after Anna Karina's signature look, references to Godard, an ensemble cast of characters, a 1/2 serious 1/2 comedic look in to the criminal underworld, the pursuit of a mysterious document that holds some kind of important yet vague secret/power (in Pulp Fiction it’s a briefcase, in Amateur it’s a floppy disk). Both films were even released in the same year which would cancel out any kind of copying or plagiarism. Even though Tarantino and Godard make their love of Godard and cinema in general very well known, the two directors couldn’t be more different which is why the similarity between their two movies seemed odd to me.


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