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)
|Leaving Las Vegas (1995)|
|Karen Silas in Simple Men|
|Louis Malle's Vanya on 42nd St. (1994) - from Mamet's adaptation of Chekhov|
|Martin Donovan and Robert Burke - Simple Men|
Martin: I gotta go
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!
Martin: I gotta get up early in the morning.
Bill: Martin, you're drunk.
Martin: And emotional.
Bill: You gotta go.
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: