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.


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