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.


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