Friday, June 21, 2013


Stories We Tell
Cinema is in a pretty weird state at the moment - More prominent filmmakers are turning to television, Steven Soderbergh, whose latest and supposedly "last" film couldn’t even get a run in theaters, gave an interesting speech on the current state of cinema, producer Ted Hope is more vocal than ever on social media outletts about his views on the current state of independent film and millionaire actors are turning to kickstarter and other similar sites to get funding from people like you & me so they can direct movies of their own (personally I find that absolutely appalling. Ask your other millionaire actor buddies for money...OR USE YOUR OWN!).
This time of year is always pretty stale yet I'm still remaining optimistic because there's a ton of interesting stuff on the horizon that will hopefully get released in a timely fashion. I wasn’t actually at Cannes (and never have been) but judging from the lineup of filmmakers alone (The Coens, Claire Denis, Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley, Abdelatiff Kechiche, Polanski, Refn, etc) I'm not exactly sure why cinephiles & movie forum nerds were so unenthusiastic and disappointed about this year’s festival (at least that’s the vibe I got). And outside of Cannes, 2013 will also more than likely bring us new films from Lars Von Trier, Bruno Dumont & Steve McQueen. Thats enough for me to stay positive for the rest of this movie season...

For a "film critic" I haven’t seen too many new/important/"big" films this year (Ironman 3, Start Trek 2, Superman, The End, World War Z, etc). But getting engaged, exercising and finding a new apartment (along with maintaining consistent content for this site) take precedent over all that. And besides, when it comes to movies of that magnitude I doubt my opinion holds that much weight anyway. You'll all see them regardless.

As far as what I HAVE seen this year -three of my six favorite films of the year so far are technically from 2012 but they didn’t get a wide releases until this year and I missed the first 30-45 minutes of two of the other three films that I liked*. But still, for what it’s worth, here's my quick lil' rundown of 2013 so far...

Favorites/Stuff I Enjoyed...

Upstream Color
Much like Primer, Shane Caruth's first feature film that made a mini-dent on the indie scene 9 years ago, this will require multiple viewings on my part before I can even begin to speak intelligently about it. But what I DO know is that this is a beautiful piece of art with great cinematography, a touching/intimate/ambient score straight outta the school of Brian Eno and overall, this was an attempt at an original story that combined subtle science fiction, romance, hypnosis and the pointlessness of work with non-linear storytelling.

Frances Ha
Just off the strength that I didn’t hate this, which is made up of so many elements I'm not too crazy about (Noah Baumbch, Greta Gerwig, New York City, Upper Class elitism, etc) I have to include it on the list. I genuinely enjoyed this film which drew upon the cinema of old school Jim Jarmusch & Woody Allen. I still have a few lil' conflicting issues with this - I think Greta Gerwig plays up the "awkward girl" thing a little too much and as I stated on twitter; "Frances Ha made me like New York City again, and still dislike it at the same time", but this was still very fun and somewhat relatable on a few levels.

Stories We Tell
At the beginning of this documentary Sarah Polley's sister asks the question; "who the fuck wants to see a movie about our family?" That very same question was also kinda in the back of my mind in regards to Polley's personal documentsry about her family secrets, but she soon put my skepticism to rest. This is easily the best thing I've seen all year so far. Although I didn't really relate to much in this documentary or grow up in a big immediate family, I was still very touched by Sarah Polley's latest film where she dissects her families history and let's us in on some incredibly personal information about her existence.

The Place Beyond The Pines
Im gonna be honest - the more I think about this the more plot holes and flaws I start to discover. So before I come to the realization that this film was actually just "ok" I'm including it on this list before I change my mind.

Behind The Candelabra & The Central Park Five*
As I already stated - I missed the beginning of both of these films but I enjoyed what what I saw

Highly Anticipating...

Only God Forgives
So far Nicholas Winding Refn's latest has gotten mixed reviews at best but judging from the three clips I've seen I still can't wait. Refn seems to be combining the world of noir-ish art house cinema with the world of bad late night cable action movies, scored by a tangerine dream cover band and I think that's nothing short of brilliant. After Valhalla Rising & Drive I'll see anything this man puts out.

Les Salauds
New Claire Denis. Sold. Moving on...

It appears that Lars Von Trier is Remaking Black Snake Moan with a much better cast? Something tells me this will be darker and even more provocative than Antichrist. Von Trier's exploration in to the dark side of sex has poked its little head out in the past (Breaking The Waves, Dogville, Antichrist) and he also hasn't been afraid to show unsimulated sex before either (The Idiots & Antichrist) so I think this will be his moment to really purge. Whether this turns out to be a disaster or a masterpiece it'll still be entertaining and get a rise outta someone.

Blue Is The Warmest Color
It broke my heart when Abdellatif Kechiche's misunderstood masterpiece; Black Venus (2010) got swept under the rug so I'm glad he got his redemption by winning best picture at Cannes last month for his adaptation of the cult french graphic novel about homosexuality and young love. 
More radical/unexpected works have been winning the Palme D'or for the last couple of years and this film doesn’t look like any type of exception.

12 Years A Slave
Last year brought us Django and this year we get 12 Years A Slave. Not to put too much pressure on Steve McQueen but I have a feeling this will be his crowning achievement as a filmmaker (a crowning achievement in a short career so far, but still).

Only Lovers Left Alive
Much like Claire Denis' new film, you don’t have to sell me on this one either. This is directed by one of my all time favorite filmmakers (Jim Jarmusch) so I'm in. Even though I really didn’t like Limits Of Control and I am a tad bit weary of Jarmusch playing in to this recent Vampire craze, I'm still optimistic. Vampires are cool. Vampire movies should be cool. Who's cooler than Jim Jarmusch? This is a match made in heaven.

Not exactly anticipating, but I am curious...

Given Spike Lee's recent string of disappointing and/or bad films (especially Red Hook "Bummer") he already has the chips stacked against him. Oldboy is a beloved holy grail-esque film of comicon-type fanboys who don’t want their beloved Asian films remade so I'm sure people already dislike like this adaptation without even seeing it (have you seen the discussions on the IMDB boards?) This also may or may not continue Spike Lee & Quentin Tarantino's almost 20 year long feud as Tarantino is Oldboy/Park-Chan Wok fanboy #1. I imagine someone you have personal issues with (like Tarantino does with Lee) remaking one of your favorite films would really piss someone off. I'm also bracing myself for a possible (one-sided) beef between Spike Lee & Steve McQueen given that they both have films being released around the same time and Spike Lee is notorious for having that "only me" complex among other prominent black filmmakers over the years (Matty Rich, John Singleton, etc).

I've never been an Alexander Payne fan outside of maybe Election and Laura Dern's performance in Citizen Ruth but apparently Bruce Dern, Laura's dad, gave a career performance in Payne's latest film so that’s enough to spark my interest.

Prince Avalanche 
David Gordon Green was officially dead to me the minute the credits rolled at the end of The Sitter but there's something about the trailer for his latest film that makes me think he's returning to his All The Real Girls-roots. I'm not expecting a game-changer but it does look like he's making a return to his old style that I'm a fan of. 
On the other hand, this could very well be one of those post-2000 sundance comedies that's quirky for the sake of being quirky

On Another note - PINNLAND EMPIRE will be three years old soon! I'd like to thank you guys for reading and sharing. 
Thanks to John Cribbs, Chris Funderberg, Doug Frye, Leanne Kubickz, Nathaniel Drake Carlson, Jason Hedrick, Jacob Sanders, Paul Cooney, Matt Reddick, Chris Robosch & Ian Loffill for contributing to the site. 
Thanks to Claire Denis, Guy Maddin, Lodge Kerrigan, Marina De Van, Alice Houri, Beans Bertrand Bonello, John Carluccio, Djinn Carrenard & John Lurie for taking the time out to participate in the short interviews we've done in the past and an extra special thanks to Ted Hope, Toronto Film Review, The Pink Smoke, Flud Watches, Warren Wade Anderson & Monte Hellman for bringing traffic to the site over the years.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


Is a person worthy of redemption no matter how bad of a sin they may have committed in the past? Can someone still be considered a good person even if they're indirectly responsible for the deaths of two people? These are the two main questions that The Unbelievable Truth, Hal Hartley's feature film debut, asks its audience. These certainly aren’t the only two things this lil’ gem makes us ponder. Through the course of the film Hartley makes us question the importance we place on money, going to college, having a generic career and whether or not a relationship can work between two people with so many differences and so many obstacles in their way. But in my opinion redemption is the main theme. I used the word sin earlier as opoosed to crime because this film has some serious religious undertones. Not to say that Hal Hartley is super religious and his films are some type of Christian propaganda (Hartley’s views towards religion seem a tad cynical at times actually) but Unbelievable Truth throws around terms like Priest, Jesus, God, Church and obvious forms of religious symbolism all throughout the story (see my review of Bruno Dumont's Hors Satan where I draw parallels between the two films).

In The Unbelievable Truth, Robert John Burke plays "Josh Hutton" – a young man whose just been released from prison after 16 years for murder. Given that he went to prison at the age of 18, he returns to the only place he knows – his hometown in Long Island where all sorts of crazy rumors and half truths have been created about him over the years. Half the town believes he’s a stone cold killer but in reality he accidentally pushed a guy down a flight of stairs while he was trying to defend himself (as the film progresses we learn its a little more complicated than that). The only thing Josh knows how to do is fix cars (a trade he picked up in prison that he's quite good at). He gets a job at an auto shop where a mutual attraction develops between him and his boss’ daughter "Audry" (Adrienne Shelly). Audry is a beautiful, detached, moody teenager less concerned with boys & clothes and more concerned with the end of the world. She’s convinced some kind of nuclear bomb will be dropped on earth one day putting an end to humanity so she doesn’t see a point in caring about the future. Her outlook on life quickly changes however when she meets Josh and falls madly in love with him. Naturally problems arise: Audry’s father doesn’t want her in a relationship with an ex-con, Josh is almost twice Audry’s age and Josh has a tough time being a living urban legend in a town where all eyes are constantly on him now that he's outta prison. Even though Josh is equally in love with Audry he turns down her advances (partially due to a deal he makes with her father) and Audry goes off to Europe to become a model. Josh soon realizes the mistake he made and now he has to try and win her back while uncovering a few things from his past that may clear his name.
Unlike other mysterious main characters that Hal Hartley has created over the years like the shady businessman & pimp; Thomas Ludens (Amateur) or the degenerate, foul mouthed, sex offender Henry Fool (Henry Fool), right from the start we get the vibe that Josh Hutton is a good person who just made a stupid mistake when he was a teenager. Unbelievable Truth is pretty unique in that way - The protagonist is responsible for the death of two people and we’re still supposed to like him (and not in an antihero kind of way either). From the very beginning Josh is pretty straightforward about his past with any & everyone he comes in contact with. When he gets picked up trying to hitchhike in to town he lets the family that picks him up know that he’s just been released from prison when he could have easily lied. When he applies for a job as an auto mechanic its clear no one is going to do any kind of a background check on him but he still lets his future boss know he did time in prison for murder.

Hal Hartley’s early films were important in creating a cinematic identity for Long Island during a time when indie film on the east coast was pretty much exclusively centered around New York City thanks to figures like Spike Lee & Jim Jarmusch (who Hartley was constantly compared too early on in his career). Long Island has always been considered the unofficial 6th borough of New York City and Hal Hartley plays on that connection. From the LIRR commuters in Trust to New York City’s connection to Long Island courtesy of Queens, NYC’s presence is always felt in his work (towards the end of Unbelievable Truth Audrey moves to Manhattan after becoming a successful model).
Hartley’s early work is very "Long Island" courtesy of all the supporting characters (specifically Audry's father who represents a huge chunk of people I see riding the LIRR), the accents and the film's suburban setting. From Grey Gardens to Sonny Corleone getting gunned down at the toll booth in The Godfather, Long Island had a history in film long before Hal Hartley came along, but his early films had an unspoken pride about Long Island I don't really see anywhere else. Unbelievable Truth also hints at that paranoid feeling we see more of in later films like The Book Of Life, No Such Thing, The Girl From Monday & Fay Grim which all take place in New York City. Throughout Unbelievable Truth Audry swears that she hears bombs going off somewhere in the distance yet no one else seems to hear. Watching Hartley’s later work with more attention I go back to elements of his first film and look at Audry’s paranoia as a metaphor for a future attack on New York City which, as we all know, is right outside of Long Island. If you refer back to my write-up of No Such Thing you’ll get that Hartley’s films are sometimes a look in to the future. Was there a feeling that Hartley and all new yorkers had in their gut about some eventual threat to the city? Sure I’m reaching quite a bit but there’s still an eerie connection between Hartley’s work and the state of the real world we live in today.
Made on a shoestring budget of somewhere between $75,000-$90,000 (I get conflicting budget information on the internet), Unbelievable Truth was a small success financially and critically. It won the grand jury prize at Sundance and screened at Cannes as well. Right out the gate Hartley established himself alongside other previously established American indie heavyweights like The Coens, Jarmusch & Spike Lee, and was a varsity letterman in that new class of American indie filmmakers along with Steven Soderbergh, Todd Haynes & Wendall B. Harris. Between 1989-1991 I don't know if there's been a better period for indie film in America (Chameleon Street, Trust, Sex Lies & Videotape, Mystery Train, Night On Earth, Do The Right Thing, etc). Unbelievable Truth may not have had the same kind of impact as Do The Right Thing or Sex, Lies & Videotape but it still made a small dent. Even though I had to dig my DVD up to check certain scenes before writing this, I could have honestly done this write-up from memory if I had to. I feel like this movie didn't leave my DVD player for the entire summer of 2006.
A couple of years ago I moved to St. Albans Queens just outside of Long Island where I rode the LIRR for two years and I got in to another phase where this was once again on heavy rotation As I've already stated in previous write-ups, I have a thing about relating real life stuff to movie-related things (see my kidneys on film). Given that I'm such a cinephile, Hal Hartley is genuinely the first thing that comes to mind when I hear Long Island (well, him & De La Soul).

As cliché & obvious as it all may sound, this film represents the beginning in more ways than one. No matter how much Hal Hartley has branched out over the years or how much more experimental his work has become, you can still trace just about every common theme & exploration of his back to Unbelievable Truth - Redemption, dark humor, repetition, mysterious main characters with very little back story, our struggle with technology, relationships, heartbreak, etc. There’s a trail in Hartley’s work that leads all the way back to the final moments of Unbelievable Truth – Towards the end of the film Josh & Audry have a brief discussion on the issue of trust. Hartley’s next film (starring a large majority of the cast from Unbelievable Truth) is called Trust. Part of Trust has to do with one of the characters carrying a grenade around until he finally releases it in the end. Part of Simple Men, Hartley’s “third” feature if you consider Surviving Desire to be a “long short”, involves a grenade being set off by terrorists (Simple Men also features reused characters from Unbelievable Truth). Another aspect of Simple Men involves our main characters trying to uncover the truth about their father. In Amateur, Hartley’s next film, one of our main characters loses his memory and tries to piece back together the truth about who he really was. I could continue this all the way up to Meanwhile (2011) but I think you all get the idea. If you're a serious Hal Hartley fan then chances are Unbelievable Truth is your equivalent to Mean Streets (Scorsese/Deniro/Keitel), Stranger Than Paradise (Jarmusch/Lurie), Aguirre: The Wrath Of God (Herzog/Kinski) or any other great film that represents the beginning/early period of not just a filmmaker's career but a long standing working relationship between a filmmaker and a specific actor or group of actors. It goes without saying that Robert John Burke & Hal Hartley will always be associated with each other given that they've maintained a steady working relationship starting with this film in the late 80's going in to the early part of the last decade. But its Hartley & Adrienne Shelly's onscreen relationship that's always fascinated me. Putting aside the short film Shelly made with Hartley in the mid-90's, they only made two feature films together (Unbelievable Truth & Trust) yet their names were always synonymous with each other over the years even though they hadn't worked together in over 13 years (almost 20 years if you only count feature films) until Shelly's untimely death. This film was also the beginning for quite a few actors like Matt Malloy, Edie Falco & Bill Sage. Unbelievable Truth is strange in that it’s not the kind of film that changed the face of cinema as we know it, but at the same time it’s still perfect.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013


You have to understand Flirt’s position among the rest of the films in Hal Hartley's filmography. It’s the middle child between Amateur & Henry Fool (easily two of Hartley's best films). It was made during Hartley's most productive era, the 90's, where he had this almost Fassbinder-like work ethic releasing 7 feature films and 5 shorts in just 8 years. When you're sandwiched between what I like to consider "Vintage Hal Hartley" it’s easy to be forgotten on the sidelines. According to an interview Hartley did with the AV club back in 1998, he considers Flirt to be his best work so I know he must have been disappointed by the reception the film got upon its release. I've always been fascinated by filmmakers who consider their more "unpopular" films to be their personal favorites. On one hand it’s frustrating - You start thinking about all the classic material a certain filmmaker is responsible for and you find yourself thinking; "You can’t be serious. You think THIS is the best thing you've done?!" But on the other hand there's something beautiful & romantic about a filmmaker standing by a piece work that's taken a ton of abuse. It’s easy to abandon a film that doesn't do well. And sometimes the reasons are legitimate - Under a studio setting a director may have no control over the casting, script changes or editing. But in an independent setting, filmmakers usually have their hands in just about every aspect of the movie making process (Hartley directs, writes, scores, casts and sometimes produces his films) so I do get annoyed when an independent filmmaker doesn't stand by their own work after the fact. After Fear X got trashed by everybody Nicholas Winding Refn blamed the film's downfall on some of the casting choices. He didn't name names but I can’t imagine who because everyone in that film from John Turturro to James Remar gave it their all. Fear X is a great film. Stand by it! Carlos Reygadas was once quoted saying that Battle In Heaven, a film that was booed at Cannes, was his "problem child therefore it is the film that I love the most"
Flirt is a somewhat experimental feature that was developed from an earlier short film. It’s the story of a flirtatious & free spirited person faced with the ultimatum set by their significant other to decide if they wanna be in a stable relationship or not. The story is told three times, with three different casts, in three different languages on three different continents with slight variations each time. The first version, staring Bill Sage (a straight white male) as the flirtatious main character, takes place in New York. The second, this time starring Dwight Ewell (a gay black male), is set in Berlin, while the last variation takes place in Tokyo and stars Miho Nikaido (a straight Japanese woman). Each flirt is caught up in a kind of "love square" as opposed to a love triangle (four people are involved in the drama as opposed to three). Not only is each flirt in a relationship but they also have serious feelings for someone else that's in a relationship of their own. In each retelling of the same story we see our flirtatious main character get in way over their heads and end up in an emergency room.
As with most Hal Hartley films in the 90's, Flirt deals with the complexity of romantic relationships, heartbreak, heartache and having to make a tough decision that could hurt someone.
Rules & ultimatums seemed to be a common theme in Hartley's work from the beginning up until Flirt. In Unbelievable Truth, Audrey is bound by a deal she makes with her father to go to college. Matthew Slaughter (Trust) makes a pact with himself to set off an old hand grenade he keeps on him at all times if life becomes too hard. After Bill gets his heart broken at the beginning of Simple Men he makes a promise to himself to break the heart of the next the women he gets involved with romantically. In Amateur we have two rules set - the first is Sofia making a vow to not tell Thomas his past after he loses his memory. The next is Isabelle (Isabelle Hupert) vowing to keep her virginity until she meets the right man to have sex with. In Flirt, our main characters give themselves a 90 minute window to tell their significant other if they see a future in their respective relationships.
Hartley tips his hat to older foreign filmmakers by giving some of the characters in Flirt names like "Ozu" & "Werner" and as always we see the characters making prolific quotes and profound statements that sound like words torn from some manifesto rather than a movie script.
The idea of Flirt, telling the same story three times, isn’t something that’s totally new within the cinema of Hal Hartley so I’m not quite sure where all the hate came from. Repetition & loops were a common element in his earlier work. Since his first film (Unbelievable Truth) we find characters repeating the same dialogue over & over. At the end of Trust, Matthew Slaughter finds himself working at the same job he quit in the beginning. Flirt was just an extrapolation on what he had already been doing. Perhaps he took it too far?

Weather you like Flirt or not it is a little more important within the world of Hal Hartley than people give it credit for. This was the last film to heavily feature so many of Hartley's SUNY Purchase family in both lead & background roles. Not to say he stopped using them, because he certainly hasn't and probably never will, but from Henry Fool on, he slowly transitioned to working with actors outside of his regular troop more & more and created a new generation of regular actors (Thomas Jay Ryan, Leo Fitzpatrick, Dj Mendall, James Urbiniak, etc). There's something about his regularly used actors that makes it difficult for me to watch them in anything else besides a Hal Hartley films. A few years ago I bumped in to Thomas Jay Ryan (who didn't go to Purchase & wasn't in Flirt, but still) at a Whole Foods and without thinking I quickly addressed him as "Henry" (Henry Fool). I struck up a brief conversation with him and the whole time we spoke I couldn’t get the Henry Fool character out of my head. I was well aware of what his real name was at the time too but Henry Fool had such a profound impact on me the first time I saw it that it’s been forever embedded inside me. It felt like I was talking to a much nicer, non-degenerate version of the mysterious character Hartley created over a decade ago. Not to take anything away from his non-Hal Hartley related work but Thomas Jay Ryan will always be Henry Fool to me. Every time his quick scene in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind comes up I'm not only reminded of Hal Hartley's 1997 award winning film but I'm reminded of all of his early films in general as Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless mind is set in Long Island which is not only Hartley's hometown but was the backdrop for all of his early stuff.
You know you're a great filmmaker when your regular actors appear in films and on television shows that have nothing to do with you yet the only thing people can think of is your work. From Edie Falco in The Sopranos to Robert John Burke's recurring role on SVU, I'm always a little weirded out seeing Hal Hartley regulars act in other people's stuff. Is this just me? I just can’t not watch people like Martin Donovan (Trust, Simple Men, Surviving Desire) or Bill Sage (Simple Men, The Girl From Monday, Trust) act "conventionally". There’s a piece of Matthew Slaughter (Trust) & Jude (Surviving Desire) in everything Martin Donovan has done. Every time I watch one of those episodes of Law & Order: SVU where Stabler goes too far and almost beats a perp to death in the interrogation room I know that means Robert John Burke will be making an appearance and every time he shows up I get a little thrown off (Burke plays the main internal affairs guy that has a hard-on for Stabler). I just can’t not think of Simple Men or Unbelievable Truth when I see him. James Urbiniak (Henry Fool, The Girl From Monday, Fay Grim) once made an appearance on SVU as a toilet cam pervert and the whole time I was subconsciously reminded of the beginning of Henry Fool where we see Simon Grim (Urbiniak) briefly spying on a young couple having sex.
James Urbaniak (L) & Thomas Jay Ryan (R) in Henry Fool (1997)
The only regulars I'm able to (momentarily) disassociate from Hartley's films are Karen Silas, who gave the performance of her career in Tom Noonan's What Happened Was..., and Matt Malloy who not only gave his best performance in Neil Labutte's In The Company Of Men but somehow manages to show up in just about every American independent film in existence since the late 80's. Bill Sage and Robert John Burke also gave very memorable performances in Mysterious Skin & Dust Devil, respectively. In no way does this mean that Martin Donovan, Bill Sage, Edie Falco, Robert John Burke, James Urbiniak, Adrienne Shelly and a few others are bad actors that don’t know how to adapt outside of their comfort zone. Some of you may be asking me why this doesn’t apply to other famous actor/director combinations like Scorsese & Deniro, Casavetes & Rowlands or Bill Murray & Ivan Reitman (ha, thought I was gonna say Wes Anderson didn’t you?). It’s just that Hal Hartley has such a unique style of acting & choreography in his work that I don't really see anywhere else these days. His films are pretty prolific (in my opinion) and when you see the same faces in all his films its hard disassociate things from one another. Unlike other famous actor/director combinations, Hal Hartley and his troop started together long before their professional careers got underway so their connection with each other is a little deeper than normal.
Perhaps if one were to actually look at Flirt as more of an experiment instead of something like Simple Men or Unbelievable Truth it wouldn't be so disliked & dismissed (I don't mean to downplay Flirt by calling it some small little experiment but no matter what way you cut it, it’s very much a non-traditional feature film with a lot of playful qualities which are some of the main characteristics of an experiment). This film kinda laid the groundwork for Hal Hartley's future films in terms of style, execution and branching out to different languages. This was his first multi-lingual film in the vein of Jarmusch's Night On Earth & Mystery Train (coincidentally, Flirt features Mystery Train co-star Masatoshi Nagase). Certain aspects of Flirt can be found in No Such Thing (a film I already defended) as well as Fay Grim. Sure it’s more than obvious Hartley made it a point to show love & romance from various points of view (black, white, Asian, gay, bi, straight, male, female) but at least it wasn't your predominantly hetero white perspective on the subject of relationships like so many other American indie films at the time. Given what Hal Hartley did leading up to Flirt, what exactly were people expecting? I mean, was this SO out of place from anything else he already done? I definitely cannot say that I love Flirt but it still deserves a little more credit.

Friday, June 7, 2013


Initially I approached Nathaniel Drake Carlson about handling this write-up on Hal Hartley's undeniable masterpiece but he assured me there was a much bigger fan of Hartley who could do a better job. That's when Mr. Carlson directed me to Ecstatic - an intensive film site with an analysis of Todd Haynes' Safe that puts mine to shame. I approached Jason Hedrick, the mastermind behind this wonderful site, about participating in Hal Hartley month and without reservation he took to the task crafting a write-up that blends in perfectly with this site.


Simple Men was my first Hal Hartley film. In 1992 I wasn't quite sure what to make of it, and was certain of only one thing after my initial viewing: I didn't much like it. I was around 20 and, not having a lot by which to gauge the experience, I thought maybe it was a parody of "Art Films." But the film persisted, leaving a somewhat nagging impression. It wasn't long before I returned to Simple Men in near-obsessive form, bouncing it off of friends to gauge their reactions (which usually ranged from slightly amused to downright bored) and soon tracked down and devoured every other Hartley film I could find. I think this speaks to a unique quality that Simple Men retains to this day, which is the capacity to confound and delight in equal measure, as well as inspire investigation into the singular brand of auteur-ism Hartley so consistently offers up. Perhaps not the best of Hartley's early feature work (roughly spanning 1989's The Unbelievable Truth through 1997's Henry Fool) it retains an undeniable emotional core; always the most surprising aspect of this most controlled and idiosyncratic director's work.

Of course, "idiosyncratic" might be a lazy way to describe what is ultimately an impressively detailed directorial signature, built from a keen appreciation of the most influential of his line. Part Theater of the Absurd, part revisionist Noir, Hartley's work is often read through the lens of French Art House icons such as Robert Bresson and Jean-Luc Godard. Simple Men is particularly evocative of Godard's work from the early 1960's, though these comparisons can be made to most of Hartley's early work, all similar to Godard in that they seem to occupy a shared "space" or "world" that is almost instantly recognizable, and are often blocked with the same deliberate sense of humor. But Hartley is not one to wield the camera in quite the same manner as a young Godard, opting to work in the tradition of Bresson's more static attention to the face, the body, and to gesture. After the shooting of Simple Men, Hartley noted in an interview the extent to which he was beginning to use his knowledge of Bresson more consciously: "Bresson cuts right past everything that's superfluous and isolates an image that says exactly what it's meant to say." Harltey and cinematographer Michael Spiller were certainly shooting for the same aesthetic parsimony as some of the great masters, but nothing about their work feels cheap or easy in the way it uses these influences, and is always imbued with their own comedic sensibilities.

Above: Elina Lowensohn in Simple Men (1992)
Below: Bresson's Mouchette (1966)
With that said, the danger in critiquing Hartley's work seems to be the temptation to sum it up as a mere series of knock-offs, which it's not. The great achievement of a film like Simple Men is that it's so unashamedly constructed of these influences, yet manages to have a personality all it's own. Aside from the French New Wave, it seems important to mention the "Indie" late 80's/early 90's here, which was such a rich period for film makers who were working out the differences between reinvigorating forms of pastiche and simply stealing (it's the difference between Reservoir Dogs and Boondock Saints, Kids). The films being made in this period exhibit a fascinating range of post-modernist experimentation. Think across the works of just a handful of directors working at this time--Van Sant, Ferrara, Figgis, Haynes, Soderbegh, Egoyan, Linklater, Kerrigan, Ridley, etc--and even among such distinguished company Hartley's films are some of the most distinctive and instantly recognizable. Still, others may see Hartley as being more associated with the stylized examinations of class and privilege found in the works of Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, 1990), Noah Baumbach (Kicking & Screaming 1995), and Wes Anderson (Bottle Rocket short-'94, feature-'96).

Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
Karen Silas in Simple Men
Metropolitan (1990)
Harltey's films are first and foremost films of Dialogue, bringing to mind yet another emerging cinema presence in this period, Chicago's master of terse, idiosyncratic dialogue, David Mamet (Homicide '91, Glengarry Glen Ross, '92, Oleanna and Vanya On 42nd Street, '94). But unlike Mamet, Hartley is willing to let the dialogue swing loose from the confines of moving the narrative action forward. In a playfully subversive scene late in Simple Men our primary players (Hartley regulars Bill Sage, Robert Burke, Karen Silas, Elina Lowensohn, and Martin Donovan) halt all proceedings of plot to get drunk and discuss the nature of exploitation in entertainment. This conversation perfectly exhibits Hartley's tendency toward rhythmical loops of absurdist dialogue, leaving us with the questioning refrain: "But what about the audience?" - "What about them?" It may be the kind of scene that seemed fresher in the early 90's, but it still feels relevant to understanding Hartley's basic aesthetic proposition. And (to loop myself back around to my initial comparison), the scene is particularly Godardian in a way that Mamet would never venture.

Louis Malle's Vanya on 42nd St. (1994) - from Mamet's adaptation of Chekhov
Martin Donovan and Robert Burke - Simple Men
But all of this cinephilic contextualizing is to make the point that Hartley's best, Simple Men among them, are successful in a way that transcends all the reference points. Hartley's recombinant methods are always in service of building a new product from recycled materials, so to speak. For instance, in Simple Men he takes a small moment of character tension between two men in love with the same woman that, in the hands of many writer/directors, would be played to bland, serviceable effect, but via Hartley is transformed into an unforgettable Mamet meets Abbott & Costello moment:

Martin: I gotta go

Bill: No!

Martin: I get too emotional when I drink

Bill: Have another beer!

Martin: I gotta get up early!

Bill: No you don't. Sit Down.

Martin: (Sits back down) I get too emotional when I drink.

Bill: Will you have another beer?

Martin (Stands up again) I gotta go!

Bill: Why?

Martin: I gotta get up early in the morning.

Bill: Martin, you're drunk.

Martin: And emotional.

Bill: You gotta go.

Martin: Why?

Bill: You gotta get up early in the morning.

The pronounced theatricality of Simple Men is most likely going to be off-putting to some; even for someone like myself who loves Hartley's work there are moments of indulgence that stretch my patience a bit. Once situated to the idea that the film circumvents the action that most Noir or Romantic Thrillers thrive on (the heist, the break-up of Kate and the psychotic Jack, the house fire and the bombing of the Pentagon) Simple Men becomes a surprisingly resonant character-centered film, though not in the tradition of anything close to Realism. In fact, what makes Simple Men truly indelible are the moments that ascend from the mere theatrical to a more Brechtian ideal: the heist denouement/opening involving a broken weapon, a Virgin Mary necklace, and a classic double-cross; the encounter with Ned that turns a struggle with a broken down motorcycle into a moment of Performance Art; the final, transcendent moment of Bill's return that encapsulates both the plight of the characters and the director, as we hear a soft voice from off-screen:

"Don't move."

Monday, June 3, 2013


Anyone notice how Hal Hartley has this cool ability to see in to the future? 22 years ago, long before Brooklyn was the hip capital of the world, he made the short film Theory Of Achievement where the opening lines are; I know the neighborhood doesn’t look like much but plenty of people are moving out here to Brooklyn. Writers, painters, filmmakers, rock & roll musicians... later we hear more: New York, Soho, that's all in the past. I mean, an art capital needs to be a place where people can afford to live. These lines speaks volumes TODAY more than they did back when this was originally made. Moments later a title card reading "Williamsburg, Brooklyn" flashes on the screen. Today, thanks to skyrocketing rent prices in Manhattan, struggling artists needing studio spaces and emerging indie bands, you can’t go anywhere in the world without hearing about how cool & hip Brooklyn is. Hartley's earlier work like; Trust (1990), Simple Men (1992) & Amateur (1994) touch on how technology always frustrates us no matter how advanced it gets. We adapt far too fast. I mean really, how amazing are Iphones, androids, blackberries, and other similar devices yet for some reason we find ourselves saying stuff like: "UGGHH I hate this thing!", "I wish this had more features" or "I wish it was faster!" In 1997, without actually using terms like nook or kindle (the device I used to do this write-up on), Hal Hartley touched on the growth of digital reading in the future. He may be the first modern filmmaker outside of the science fiction/cyberpunk genre to focus on reading in the digital age as early as he did. True, he isn't the first filmmaker to predict the future in his work - In 1995 David Lynch directed Lost Highway, a film about a man who kills his wife, which co-stars Robert Blake who many people believe killed his wife in real life almost a decade later (lets also not forgot the world was enthralled in the OJ case during the filming of Lost Highway as well). But Hartley has a track record of consistent predictions & foreshadows more than any filmmaker I can think of right now

Elements of No Such Thing, as well as its predecessor; The Book Of Life, act as an eerie foreshadow in to a major event in U.S. history...
The Book Of Life (Hartley, 1998)
The final shot in The Book Of Life (1998), a biblical tale set in modern times, shows Jesus Christ (Martin Donovan) watching the twin towers off in the distance deciding as to whether or not he'll rain down an apocalypse on planet earth. Of course no one thought twice about this prior to September 11th 2001, but obviously looking back on it now, The Book Of Life has a very cryptic feel. This moment ties directly in to No Such Thing which has stuff like terrorism, bombs, a plane crash & sensationalized media (all keywords in the realm of 9/11) throughout the story. And let’s also not forget half of the film is set in New York City. Although September 11th hadn't happened yet, the world Hal Hartley creates in No Such Thing has this looming presence of a catastrophic event creeping up around the corner. This, along with The Book Of Life, may be the first post-9/11 film made BEFORE 9/11 (it screened at Cannes in May 2001 but didn't get a theatrical release until after September 11). Strangely enough, No Such Thing didn't face the same kind of censorship as Donnie Darko or any other film released around that time with sensitive subject matter that somehow related to the world trade center bombing. These films kicked off Hartley's exploration in to the world of subtle science fiction, police states, terrorism, the media & globalization that can be seen in The Girl From Monday (2005) & Fay Grim (2006). It’s almost like all of Hartley's post-98 films exist in the same universe as The Book Of Life...

Dear Jim, it was real difficult to get a taxi to the airport because some terrorists threatened to blow up all the bridges leading out of Manhattan. So I tried to take the subway but a religious group had set off nerve gas on the train and we were evacuated before I even got ten blocks...Waiting on line at the airport I saw two men get caught trying to smuggle radioactive materials out of the country. It’s like my mom use to say; The world is a dangerous and uncertain place - Sarah Polley (excerpt from No Such Thing)

If you were to turn on the news today, 12 years after No Such Thing Was made, things really wouldn't sound all that different. It’s EXTREMELY frustrating to read about post-9/11 cinema and rarely see Hartley's name mentioned. True, Hartley’s films don’t reach the same audiences as Oliver Stone’s work or the Bourne Identity movies, but they’re still just as culturally relevant. It should also be noted that in the same year No Such Thing premiered, Hartley’s play; Soon (about the branch davidians & Waco Texas) opened in New York City as well. Anyone familiar with his work should know that prior to No Such Thing he had already touched on globalization, terrorism & the role the media plays in society (Simple Men, Flirt, Amateur & his various short films) but No Such Thing was his first "major" effort that was to reach a somewhat wider audience. Not to downplay his previous films in any way (my favorite Hal Hartley era is between '89-'97) but this was produced by American Zoetrope studios (George Lucas & Frances Ford Coppola). I'm sure Lucas & Coppola weren’t on the set of No Such Thing watching Hartley's every move because they were super invested in the film, but for a filmmaker like Hal Hartley to have his name alongside Coppola in any way is still pretty cool.
After excellent showings by a small handful of select American independent filmmakers in the late 90's, bigger studios were taking chances on people like Todd Solondz (New Line), Todd Haynes (Focus) & Hal Hartley (American Zoetrope). Suddenly we had Conan O’Brien showing up in a Todd Solondz film and Dennis Quaid playing a role he's never played before in his life (seriously, who woulda thought the director of an art film like Poison could get Dennis Quaid to play a repressed homosexual?) Unfortunately, with the exception of Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes), American movie audiences just weren’t ready for stuff like Storytelling (Solondz) or No Such Thing. I'll admit that I wasn't a fan of Hartley's 2001 feature for quite some time but thanks to specific scenes, the score (done by Hartley himself) and my growing knowledge of cinema (No Such Thing referenced films I didn't know of the first time I saw it like Battleship Potemkin & Godard's First Name Carmen) I've come to the realization that this is a great film! No Such Thing was also the first film that really made me see the connection between Hartley & Godard. If you’re at all familiar with both Hartley & Godard you’d have to be an idiot to not see all the nods Hartley gives to the elder director. I learned while reading “The Cinema Of Hal Hartley that he was nicknamed the “Jean-Luc Godard of Long Island".

No Such Thing is a tough sell. I know diehard Hal Hartley fans who aren’t crazy about it but like a lot of films it needs to grow on you over time. Imagine a modern, darkly comical yet serious retelling of Beauty & The Beast heavily influenced by Godard with nods to TMZ. Sounds like a lot to take in but as with any Hal Hartley film there's always a lot going on. Henry Fool mixed things like graphic poetry, the ignorance of far right wing politics & child abuse. The story of Simple Men involves baseball, terrorism, redemption & heartbreak while Amateur mixed pornography, Catholicism & technology. No Such Thing is a comedy but it’s also very serious at times. Its partially a fairytale yet it’s also a realistic portrayal of a world that’s become paranoid due to the scare tactics courtesy of the media.
In No Such Thing Sarah Polley plays "Beatrice" - an innocent kindhearted young woman working as an assistant for "The Boss" (Helen Mirren) - the head of a major, yet nameless, news station whose more concerned with ratings & catchy headlines than reporting the real news...

There's a world of bad news out there, ladies and gentlemen, a world of bad news! All we need to do is get our hands on the worst of it, the very worst news possible! - Helen Mirren

When one of the news station's TV crews goes missing in Iceland, Beatrice goes to investigate their disappearance (her fiancée was part of the crew). After she gets sidetracked in a subplot that could have easily veered off and been a whole separate film, she discovers that they've been murdered by a depressed, foul mouthed monster (played by Hal Hartley-muse Robert John Burke) that wants nothing more than to die. The only problem is that he’s indestructible and the only person who can kill him is an eccentric doctor (Dr. Artaud) that’s locked away by the government. The monster meets his match in the form Beatrice who is the first human to come in contact with it and not be scared. The Monster sees this as a sign and enlists her help to track down Dr Artaud so he can finally end his miserable life. Beatrice brings the monster to New York City with hopes of putting him in contact with the doctor but she’s double-crossed by The Boss and things fall apart.
This is a film full of dark subject matter but at the same time it may be one of Hartley's sweetest films. In my favorite scene we see The Monster sulking by himself in a corner. When Beatrice asks him what's wrong he replies; "No one's scared of me anymore." Beatrice then cuddles up next to him and replies; "I'm scared of you" as a way to make him feel better. Robert John Burke, probably best known for his roles on Rescue Me & SVU, gives the performance of his career as The Monster. Although he's covered in makeup, Burke's performance transcends all that in the same way John Hurt's performance transcended all the make-up in The Elephant Man.

This may also be Hartley's best score to date. I’ve always appreciated his use of analog drum machines & cheesy sounding synthesizers and he's on his A-game with the score for this film.
No Such Thing stands out the most among Hartley's work even though it featured so many of his trademarks (dead pan performances, dry quirkiness, heavily dance-like choreographed movements by the actors, etc). Why was this considered a "flop" while his previous work seemed to be more accepted? Was it a bit heavy-handed at times (mostly due to Helen Mirren's character)? Sure. But her character still represents something very scary that’s still going on today; irresponsible news outlets more concerned with scaring us than reporting the news. Hal Hartley's style my need some warming up too for those not familiar with him but that doesn't mean No Such Thing should be dismissed. This film never got the chance it deserved. Given all that's going on in the world right now this is the perfect time to rediscover this film.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...