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 These lines speaks volumes TODAY more than they did back when this was originally made.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.


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