Monday, July 1, 2013


Well it looks like this Hal Hartley retrospective is spilling over in to July which is perfectly fine with me. Not only are Hartley's films underrated, but most websites, word presses & blogspots don't really delve in to his work as deep as they should. This series partially serves as a lane where people can go to really learn about Hartley's films from people who "get" his style.

For this particular film, which is an American independent classic in my opinion, I tapped John Cribbs of The Pink Smoke for a couple of reasons - Not only is The Pink Smoke a Hal Hartley-friendly zone * (if you haven't read Chris' write-up on Surviving Desire or Ian's write-up on Henry Fool - please do so), but both Chris & John are SUNY Purchase alums. It wouldn't feel right to not include these guys in this series given that they were enrolled in the same program as him, probably walked the same halls and maybe even sat in the same classrooms/lecture halls as him.


Martin Donovan as Matthew Slaughter in Trust
Here's something weird about Trust: on the back of the old VHS box, Martin Donovan's character is specifically identified as being 18 years old.** Never mind that the actor was in his early 30's when the film was made - what in the movie could possibly have led anyone to believe that Matthew Slaughter is meant to be 18? He's never described as being that young - if I had to guess, I'd say he's supposed to be around the same age as Josh Hutton in Unbelievable Truth; in fact I'm pretty sure the age difference between himself and Adrienne Shelly's high school senior Maria is commented on at least once. He does live with his dad, but it's made clear that this is an arrangement of necessity - his inflexible principles make it impossible for him to hold down a job. While I guess Matthew's general moodiness, quick-triggered temper and propensity for sitting around stroking a hand grenade to the strains of Symphony No. 5 in C Minor may suggest a certain juvenile angst, most teens don't offer up the definition of the word "empirical." Most teens haven't had the experience to KNOW the word "empirical."

And there you have a central theme of Hal Hartley's films: his characters finding conflict between knowledge and experience. They think they have a handle on the events of their lives and consequences of their actions, and it takes being shot in the face or thrown out a window or inadvertently causing their father to fall down dead of a heart attack to come to terms with how little their blithe existence has prepared them for what they have yet to endure. For Maria - young, defiant, pregnant - being accused of murder, rejected by her dumb football jock lover and shunned by family and friends are enough to demolish her confident exterior. It takes a sobering look at her belly in the mirror of a department store's (literal and metaphoric) changing room to bring about a new, near-monastic personality that's as drastically meek and selfless as her previous attitude was aggressive and self-absorbed. Whereas Matthew, hardened by years of abuse at the hands of his father and constantly humiliated by the unscrupulous superiors at his demeaning job, has built up a defense - his life, however rebellious, has become a cyclical cage: the way he cleans the bathroom the same way every time, the constant quitting/getting fired from his job, even his intimidation of the locals are mere routines that don't present any danger he's not already prepared to deal with. The case could be made, although I'm not going to make it, that the "flat" framing and candid manner of the dialogue in Hartley's early films are themselves aesthetic reflections of his characters' subconscious fear of failure; it's more comforting for them to minimize their own responses in order to avoid the emotional assaults of something as unpredictable and perilous as active love. Although he's ready to marry Maria and help raise her unborn child, Matthew preemptively rejects the concept of love, explaining that "When people are in love they do all sorts of crazy things. They get jealous, they lie, they cheat. They kill themselves. They kill each other." But even though he lays it all out, that more or less becomes the exact progression of his and Maria's relationship: to know what's going to happen doesn't necessarily mean it won't. Knowledge and experience are often confused with one another; to sort them out Hartley's amateur philosophers are forced to rethink a few empirical facts in light of some illuminatingly unbelievable truths. Empirical fact: Matthew Slaughter is not 18 years old. Unbelievable truth: Maria Coughlin is ashamed of being young and stupid. Empirical fact: These computer boards failed inspection and shouldn't be put back on the assembly line - I'm good at what I do. Unbelievable truth: Your job is making you boring and mean. Empirical fact: People are only as good as the deals they make and keep. Unbelievable truth: Love without faith is infatuation. Empirical fact: Respect and admiration. Unbelievable truth: Trust and love.

As Matthew, Martin Donovan is undeniably cool: indignantly throwing on his coat after quitting his job predated Jack Foley's freeze-frame tie-flinging in Out Of Sight, and Casino's Tony Spilotro would steal Matthew's move of shoving toady supervisor Matt Malloy's head in a vise. Whenever I tell someone to shut up, I always mimic Donovan's puncturing inflection. I'm sure we all wish we could punch one-eyed sex offenders in the gut and throttle insensitive abortion clinic groupies without repercussion, but something that Donovan and Hartley never let us forget is Matthew's almost psychotic sadness - that his cool detachment is a symptom of cynicism and disappointment. He's an electronics expert, yet like so many other Hartley heroes he has a contentious relationship with technology: why use his careful knowledge fixing televisions that will only serve to further suppress the basic human need for knowledge? Ideological compromises make Matthew volatile, his sincerity makes him dangerous - the everyday sacrifices most people take for granted are unacceptable to someone with principals to defend. It's only natural that such a man, who pits himself against corporations, launches McLuhanisms against the media and often feels "like smashing things up" would find himself at odds with law and order; sure enough, Matthew ends up being carted off to jail as a criminal and a terrorist.

Off-screen acts of violence and criminality in Hartley's films that started with the implications of Josh Hutton's horrible murders in Unbelievable Truth and continued with talk of unseen terrorism in Simple Men and Amateur's post-assault opening are interspersed throughout Trust. Weirdly enough, the comically sudden death of Maria's dad may be the most brutal on-screen image from the early movies, the roots of which were still firmly planted in melodrama. Although he'd model later films like Simple Men and Amateur on crime thrillers, the transgressions here all stem directly from the heart. While the characters aren't after money or floppy discs, their motivations nevertheless reinforce Hartley's belief that, when we desire something, the inevitable result is trouble. Case in point: a woman who's pregnant and doesn't want a baby, sitting next to a woman who can't have a baby and wants one. The solution should be obvious, but each of them react irrationally - Maria sets off to get drunk and somewhat knowingly puts herself in a dangerous situation, while the woman hightails it with an infant left near the bench she's sitting on. The baby kidnapping subplot, the resolution of which somewhat recalls the end of Raising Arizona, directly links the criminal impulse to familial obligation - as Matthew observes, "A family's like a gun. You point it in the wrong direction, you're gonna kill somebody." The unruly mess of family claims a casualty in Maria's father; Maria's penance is enslavement within the unnaturally rigid structure of mother Jean's re-ordered household. Jean claims this cold, oppressive environment to be liberating, while for the woman who steals the baby it's just this kind of existence - a life where nothing "gets messed up" - she's trying to escape. The woman on the bench WANTS a Maria who'll screw up her life, embarrass the family and possibly accidentally murder the father. Her destructive behavior comes from a rebellion against conformity just like machinist Matthew, whose ideals dictate that some things aren't meant to be fixed - order is the enemy. Jean's idea of revenge is to domesticate Maria into a joyless life of doing laundry and Matthew's father Jim bullies his son into repeatedly cleaning the bathroom; after Maria leaves it a mess, the accidentally rebellious disorder drives him crazy. There's a real difference between Matthew's comedic violence against Bill Sage and Jim's scary violence against Matthew, although Hartley finds humor in absurdity of the norm and both Merritt Nelson as Jean and John MacKay as Jim give incredibly funny, terrifying performances.

In his exceptional breakdown of Flirt, Pinn mentioned the deals that Hartley's characters find themselves bound to, and deals abound in Trust: Maria obligates herself to become Jean's slave, Matthew agrees to marry her if she'll break her deal with her mother, Maria will only dismiss the original deal and agree to Matthew's deal if he quits his job. "You can't get something for nothing" is the maxim of Merritt Nelson's unnamed derelict (who's almost like an abandoned and deluded version of Jean) in Surviving Desire, and the demand for sacrifice - even one as mutually beneficial as a marriage proposal - are what keep Hartley's restless heroes in a hopeless cycle. Matthew's choice to accept Maria's ultimatum and quit his job isn't a revelation or change of character - he's already quit the same job before. Ultimately Maria, like Audry in Unbelievable Truth, calls off all the deals and therefore becomes truly free. In the first shot of the film, gum-smacking Maria hogs the entire frame, face stuck in a powder room mirror, needing nothing yet demanding five dollars. The last shot is of her from a distance, watching as another man is taken away from her as the melancholy yet strangely rousing score swells: this time, she's alone in the uncrowded frame, looking directly towards camera, silent and thoughtful as the car with Matthew recedes into the distance. She's wearing the glasses Matthew inspired her to wear along with her ex-boyfriend's letterman jacket over Matthew's dead mother's dress: the past, her experience and everything that's led her here. In college*** I wrote a paper on Trust in which I argued about the characters' motivations, specifically whether her mother's framing of Matthew is what motivates Maria to go through with the abortion. She goes to the clinic the next morning, suggesting that it was jealousy over seeing Matthew in bed with her sister that prompted her to make this decision (my professor was of that opinion). But whether or not Maria is fooled by her mother's ploy, I think that she realizes what she wanted at the beginning - flatly stated by her, to have a baby and get married - is not what she wants now or who she is anymore. Maria and Matthew's relationship, like Audry and Josh's in Unbelievable Truth, is chaste to the point of being almost conceptual. Forcing it into a domestic situation susceptible to the same pits and falls that made their parents the embittered parties they are today wouldn't only ruin the mystery or romance, it would be putting knowledge over experience. Just as Matthew isn't Donovan's best Hal Hartley character (that'd be Jude in Surviving Desire), Maria isn't quite as memorable an Adrienne Shelly creation as Audry Hugo, but learns more from her quick transition into a world of which she's not the center, just comfortable being someone who just happens to be here. Just one thing...why is she wearing a pink bra on the VHS cover??

*In the smoke's 5th installment of "Five From The fire", Cribb's wife didn't save any of Hal Hartley's films

** I suppose you could just chock it up to distributors at the turn of the decade still not quite knowing how to market these new, suddenly hot indie/arthouse releases: Sex, Lies & Videotape isn't exactly a "scorchingly erotic" film bristling with "smoldering sexuality" as the back of the box claims and Jesus Of Montreal does not actually feature a scene with a character ascending to heaven on an escalator. From the picture on the VHS cover, you'd think Metropolitan takes place largely during some kinda sexy co-ed pajama party. Also, I don't think Janet Maslin's dvd cover blurb "A hilarious comedy!" really sets the tone for what you're getting yourself into with Henry Fool.

*** Unlike my fellow 'smokester Chris Funderburg, Hal Hartley was not the reason I applied to SUNY Purchase; in fact, I'd never even heard of Hal Hartley until my freshman year. Or of Matt Malloy or Edie Falco or Robert Burke for that matter. I knew Parker Posey from Dazed & Confused and Waiting For Guffman and Dwight Ewell because of Chasing Amy, yet despite my love of Clerks I had never noticed the end credits dedication to Linklater, Jarmusch, Spike Lee and Hartley.


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