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."


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