Friday, March 28, 2014


If you’re familiar with this site then you know that movie imagery comparison is one of the most common things on here. But not everything makes the cut. For various reasons (editing, relevancy to the review, control of imagery, etc) some of my movie comparisons don’t get posted and they end up laying around on a Zip drive (or posted on my twitter page that most of you don't even follow/see).
So below are a few throwaway side-by-side movie comparisons that I’d like to share with you all. 

Somewhere in between my write-up of Nicholas Winding Refn’s Fear X and my up-coming write-up of Refn’s Pusher 2, this image almost fit in somewhere but I just couldn’t find the right place for it. Below you see a still of John Turturro working out clues in Fear X next to an image of Nicholas Winding Refn in real life working out ideas for Only God Forgives. As glossy & stylish as Refn’s work comes off, there’s still a very personal quality to everything he does even if it isn't that obvious…

Last year I did a guest spot for The Pink Smoke on Eyes Wide Shut as part of their Christmas special. In doing my internet researching, googling & image searching, I came across a lot of creepy Illuminati imagery. The statue on the left, in some town in the UK, stood out the most to me as it clearly inspired a mask from one of the creepiest moments from the film (I know I’m not the first blogger to make this comparison, but still)…

I’ve written about Uncle Boonmee... far too many times to come up with anything new to say, but for some strange reason I never placed this super obvious comparison in any of my write-ups


I’ve shown the influence that the burning house from Sacrifice has had on quite a few films so far but the burning shack from Lost Highway somehow slipped through the cracks…

Back when I was writing about Beberian Sound Studio I almost put this in but at the last minute I took it out because it seemed a little forced. What do you all think?

Friday, March 21, 2014


Hopefully by now you all have read my thoughts on Prince Avalanche and know that I'm no longer upset with David Gordon Green (he made some poor directing choices in the past, but I've let it go). In fact, after seeing the trailer for his latest feature; Joe, I'm more excited about his work now than I've been since All The Real Girls (2003). I know Nicholas Cage's beard & mustache combo looks like the make-up person walked across the street and bought it from a 99 cent novelty shop, but beyond that, it looks quite good. Almost like a better version of Mud. Coincidentally, both; Mud & Joe co-star Tye Sheridan (Tree Of Life) who is becoming the new poster child/"it kid" for all Terrence Malick-related indie films set in the south...

Tye Sheridan, Nicholas Cage & Nicholas Cage's beard in Joe (2014)
But this write-up isn't about Joe. This is about George Washington and the impact I believe it has had on a particular group of films over the last 10-14 years that I like to call; "The New South". You know, films like; Mud, Take Shelter, New Jerusalem, Ballast, Beasts Of The Southern Wild, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Undertow, As I Lay Dying, All The Real Girls, etc. You could even throw Upstream Color in to the mix given it's dreamy atmosphere along with director Shane Carruth's southern roots (South Carolina to be exact). Its like you can't read a review on any of these films, including my own, without Terrence Malick's name being dropped at least once. Actually, my girlfriend recently came home in the middle of me watching Upstream Color one day and she asked; "was this directed by that same Tree Of Life To The Wonder guy?"
While I only really like some of the aforementioned works (Ballast, All The Real Girls & Upstream Color) and find the rest to be "ok" (Shotgun Stories), Overrated (Mud), very problematic (Beasts Of The Southern Wild & Ain't Them Bodies Saints) or just plain bad (Take Shelter), they all still show a more complex & poetic side of the American south (I'm excluding recent stuff like Winter's Bone & The Paperboy because they don't share the same poetic style).
A lot of these films share connections with each other. Terrence Malick produced David Gordon Green's Undertow and he's also buddies with Jeff Nichols (which might explain why Malick's actors are appearing in his work a lot these days). Plus, actors like Michael Shannon, Shea Wigham & Tye Sheridan have been used in over half the aforementioned works to date.

I don't normally write about my personal favorite films (minus a few exceptions here & there) out of fear of wasting 2,000+ words to just over-praise something to the point where it becomes embarrassing. But after a recent week-long visit to the south (Augusta, GA & Spartanburg, SC) I felt the urge to do this write-up.
After a few personal conversations with various friends, I came to the realization that north of D.C., the south has a bad rep thanks in part to us Yankees up north. Over the years I've heard some pretty crazy generalizations about the south (mostly having to do with racism) by people who have spent none to very little time there outside of Miami which almost doesn't even count anyway. I'm not gonna sit here and try to say that the racism in the south isn't deeply rooted unlike any other place in this world. History clearly proves this (I mean shit, when something like The Klan was founded down there it's damn near impossible to try and downplay things). But at the same time, I spent five years living in Virginia (the home of the Confederacy's capital) and the most racist things that have ever happened to me (a large young uppity black male) personally in life so far have taken place in my ultra liberal P.C. hometown of Amherst Massachusetts, Milford Connecticut and New York City. I mean seriously, a lot of my friends question how things are in the south as if places like Boston or Howard Beach don't exist in the north.
Outside of the racism stuff, there's also the stereotype of southerners being dumb, unclean, overall wearing country bumpkins (one could actually argue that elements of some of the films I listed earlier as part of the new south genre perpetuate that stereotype, but whatever...). There's a slow simmering poetic ambiance to the American south unlike anywhere else that's finally being shown more on film these days.
Be honest, what cinematic world would you rather live in - the rude & busy world of NYC, the superficial world of L.A., or the relaxed slow moving world of the south? Its understandable if some of you rational thinkers still chose NYC or L.A., but for those of you who always complain about being broke, anxious and/or depressed due to city life - you might wanna consider embracing the beauty that is southern hospitality.

Top: Shotgun Stories (2005) & Ballast (2008)
Bottom: Mud (2012) & Ain't Them Bodies Saints (2013)
While Malick is definitely the indirect influence for all of this, I like to give direct credit to David Gordon Green and his debut feature George Washington. Green pretty much took the style that Malick reemerged with in 1998 (The Thin Red Line) and took in to another level. Clearly a young 26 year old director, like Green was at the time of GW's debut, wasn't the first to show a different side of the American south in the year 2000, but ever since the heavily Malick-influenced George Washington debuted, more & more films that were similar in tone & atmosphere began to emerge.
And unlike other filmmakers who deny or don't acknowledge being influenced by obvious sources, David Gordon Green is always open about his love for Terrence Malick. On the commentary track for the George Washington DVD, he drops Malick name numerous times.

Characteristics of the "new south" include: Dreamy voiceover narration (Beasts Of The Southern Wild & Ain't Them Bodies Saints, The Tree Of Life), a focus on youth & coming of age, droning scores (Mud George Washington), sunsets, family rivalry & inner-turmoil (Undertow, Ballast & Shotgun Stories) and there has to be at least on scene of a wheat field at dawn. David Gordon Green invented NONE of these thing (especially in film) but I feel like George Washington opened the lid on this new poetic southern cinema we're seeing today.
If I may be so bold to say, I feel like the post-2005 Terrence Malick was influenced by his unofficial "pupil" (Green) post-George Washington. I know that by saying Malick was influenced by David Gordon Green really means that Malick was actually just influenced by himself, but ever since he produced Undertow, he got the courage to go even deeper in to his own style. From The New World to Tree Of Life to To The Wonder, Malick's work has become more daring & experimental.

George Washington does have a clear plot. The story focuses on a group of kids (George, Sonja, Buddy & Vernon) and the accidental death they cause one of their friends after carelessly rough-housing, like most kids do, and the decision they make to essentially cover it up. After that, we see how each of the kids deals with carrying the weight of (accidentally) killing someone.
But all of that comes secondary to the ambiance and overall atmosphere. The conflict in George Washington doesn't even come in to play until the middle of the film. Prior to that, it's pretty much a sprawling & (intentionally) unfocused story about a small southern town where everyone is connected to one another in some way, and all the residents, both; kids & adults, are on the same spiritual level with one another.

it is not about plot, but about memory and regret. It remembers a summer that was not a happy summer, but there will never again be a summer so intensely felt, so alive, so valuable - Roger Ebert

Years ago I watched George Washington with a non-cinephile friend and he was perplexed by a scene in which the characters; Buddy (an 11 year old boy) & Ricky (a 20-something year old adult) are talking about women and giving each other relationship advice. "Is this grown man seriously having a heart-to-heart with this little kid?" my friend asked. But that's part of what I love about this film so much. Green shows kids/youth on the same spiritual level as adults. Like I've said quite a few times already on this blog - it's rare that American filmmakers give children the respect they deserve like being presented as actual human beings with complex emotions. Between the voiceover narration and certain lines of dialogue delivered by the child actors in George Washington, there are quite a few moments that may sound forced & unnatural to the point where we're clearly watching lines written by an adult said by a child who doesn't fully understand the lines of dialogue they're delivering. But there are also other genuine moments where the child actors deliver heartfelt moments of maturity & insecurity.

George Washington has connections to cinema outside of just Terrence Malick. Some of its visual imagery comes directly out of Charles Burnett's Killer Of Sheep...

Killer Of SheepGeorge Washington
It was also released one year after another Malick-influenced film in the form of Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher. Both Ratcatcher & GW are feature debut's that focus on poor communities, coming of age and a young protagonist keeping quiet about the accidental murderer of a friend (there's even a scene in Ramsay's film that uses some of the music from Badlands). It should be noted that both films are part of the criterion collection too.
I'd be remiss if I didn't bring up Gordon Park's The Learning Tree as a subconscious influence on George Washington as well.

Ratcatcher (1999)
Ratcatcher / Tree Of Life / To The Wonder
I'm sure my sentiment for George Washington has to do partially with where I was at mentally when I first saw it. I happened to catch it playing on the Sundance channel in 2004 which is right around the time Tyler Perry was starting to blow up and embarrassing movies like Soul Plane, The Cookout & White Girls were at an all time high. Furthermore, when filmmakers like Spike Lee tried to criticize the direction that black cinema was headed, he was simply labeled as "a hater" or jealous. Needless to say that "black cinema" wasn't looking too great.
After watching George Washington for the first time, I was surprised that only one other black person I knew had seen it. I felt like it served (and still does serve) as a pretty good alternative to all the modern black cinema that everyone (myself included) has issues with these days. Actually, I feel strange calling this a "black film". Not that its David Gordon Green's fault, but George Washington is another predominately black casted film, made by a white director that's embraced more by white cinephiles & white intellectuals.
However, George Washington could have easily been about race yet it wasn't. All the pieces were there - young white director, predominantly black cast, story set in the south etc. I really appreciate the fact that Green didn't go the predictable route.
On a side note, I will say that it does bum me out that every film mentioned in this write-up so far focuses on the south yet not one is directed, produced or written by a black person. Black folks are just as much a part of the fabric that is the American south as any other race. Its nice that quite a few films focus on black characters in front of the camera but it would also be good to have more southern stories told by black filmmakers as well.

As much as I love George Washington, I'll be the first person to understand if one were to call it pretentious. Its slow, intentionally plotless at times and the voiceover is enough to make you wanna roll your eyes depending on your tolerance for artsy stuff. But it's beauty is undeniable. If you like cinema in the vein of The Spirit Of The Beehive, The Thin Red Line or Walkabout, you'll probably enjoy George Washington.

You have to bring a lot of yourself to this film if you want it to give something back, but the rewards are considerable - Jonathan Rosenbaum


Forget Terrence Malick. I’m almost at the point where I no longer care when his next few films, which he’s simultaneously working on, are coming out. PINNLAND EMPIRE favorite Abel Ferrara has been quite busy these days too. How has he not been getting the same kind of press/buzz as Malick? He’s been just as busy. Even before the release of Ferrara’s upcoming film; Welcome To New York (a story based on the Dominique Strauss-Kahn sexual assault case, starring Gerard Depardieu), we’re already getting stills from his next project about the last day of Pier Paolo Passolini with Willem Dafoe in the title role.

A few years ago during a Ferrara retrospective at Anthology Film archives he spoke about this Passolini project while it was still in its infancy. It’s really great to see it come to life.

I don’t know about you guys, but I’m pretty excited…

Welcome To New York
Untitled Passolini Project
Untitled Passolini project

HEY! In a strange twist of fate, I ended up quickly meeting Willem Dafoe the other night while watching Nymphomaniac: Part 1. Nice guy...

Wednesday, March 19, 2014


I didn’t completely dislike Grand Budapest Hotel. I remember laughing out loud at least four times, I felt everyone pretty much played their part, it’s always nice to see Harvey Keitel in anything popular/reputable these days, and it was a pleasant surprise to see Lea Seydoux in this even though she did only have four minutes of screen time. But I did have more than a few problems with the film overall. As I watched Grand Budapest Hotel I found myself internally asking things like; “Did Wes Anderson seriously just remake clue?” or “why does this feel like a mash-up of Tenenbaums, Life Aquatic & Darjeeling” or “what is this white guy’s obvious fascination with Asian Indians?!” (Be honest, Wes Anderson’s love for Indian people & culture is a little strange).
I can’t hate on Wes Anderson too hard tho. He knows how to make a film that can fill up a theater which I imagine is one of the things he strives to do as a popular filmmaker. But at the same time it almost feels like he’s phoning it in, yet his movies still manage to come off big & grand (mostly thanks in part to his all-star casts) and to the average movie goer/non-cinephile it still appears like he’s trying. I’m at the point where it's like if you’ve seen one Wes Anderson movie in the last decade (Life Aquatic through Grand Budapest) you’ve seen ‘em all. I’m well aware people have already felt like this for quite some time. I guess it just took me a little longer to get to this point. This isn’t even a review of Grand Budapest Hotel because I don’t feel the need to actually talk about specific scenes or give any kind of an analysis on it. Whether I like Grand Budapest or not, my opinion won’t matter. It’s a Wes Anderson movie with an appearance from Bill Murray & Owen Wilson. You’re all going to go see it just based off of that. I kind of appreciate Anderson picking new actors to work with on each film, but we all know everyone looks forward to seeing Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman or at least one Wilson brother.

I think it’s obvious that Anderson’s style has been bigger than him for quite some time now which isn’t a good thing. There’s nothing wrong with a director having their own unique style. I think that should be one goal of every filmmaker. It’s nice to watch something and know who directed it without needing to see the credits. But sometimes it’s a bit much in the case of Wes Anderson. With Grand Budapest Hotel he has officially become the “indie” version of Tim Burton – That filmmaker with a very recognizable style that still feels the need to shove it down our throats. Turn the colors down, man. I get that you like red & purple, but Jesus Christ…

I’m not suggesting Wes Anderson mimic other filmmakers I like who have a recognizable yet more subdued/toned down style (Claire Denis, Michael Mann, Lodge Kerrigan, Carlos Reygadas, etc) but I think it’s important to not let the “look” or quirkiness of your work take first place over the story, performances or other important elements that go in to making a movie great. Does Wes Anderson not know it’s ok to try different types of film scores or deviate slightly from his signature style of cinematography or work in a different brand of humor? Imagine a Wes Anderson film with only two recognizable/big names and the rest of the cast as unknowns or up & comers. That would be a breath of fresh air. I’m sorry but these all-star casts are working against him in my opinion. As long as his films remain under two hours (which they mostly are) there just isn’t enough time to fit everyone in. Grand Budapest started to feel like a cameo-fest/mixtape of quick appearances by famous faces rather than an actual movie. The posters for his last few films come off more like “HEY! LOOK AT ALL THE FAMOUS PEOPLE IN THIS” instead of “HEY! COME SEE MY MOVIE. IT’S GOOD!”

I know you sometimes need big names to get people to watch your movie, but enough is enough. It’s become too distracting (Wes Anderson isn’t the only filmmaker guilty of this. I’m not putting this all on him). In Grand Budapest Hotel you see people like Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman and a few other recognizable faces for two minutes then they’re gone for the rest of the film (one of the minor issues I had with 12 Years A Slave). It just all seems cheap and/or pointless.
I feel like people either don't get my frustration in this or they do get it, but for some reason they still always end up flocking to the theater to see Anderson's work because they feel like they have too. As I sat in the Brooklyn Academy Of Music theater watching Grand Budapest, the sold out crowd I saw it with kept laughing at stuff on the screen, but nothing funny actually happened. Seriously. And I'm not saying that the audience members laughed at things I personally found to be unfunny. I'm saying that there would be a random shot of Jude Law sitting in the bathtub or F. Murray Abraham looking off somewhere and the whole audience would snicker or mildly laugh in unison. WHY ARE YOU ALL LAUGHING? NOTHING HAPPENED YET! Their laughter was so transparent. It's as if they were so insecure & scared about missing a small quirky moment that they had to laugh at ANYTHING that appeared to be "off" or possibly cute.

Can’t you all feel both my apathy & frustration right now? I think that’s a problem because I like Wes Anderson overall. Bottle Rocket is always on rotation in my DVD player and I feel that Rushmore is one of the defining films of Generation Y (my generation) along with Ghost World, Welcome To The Dollhouse & Home Alone. I also know that both The Fantastic Mr. Fox & Moonrise Kingdom have appeared in my end of the year reviews in 2009 & 2012, respectively, but Grand Budapest Hotel has me kind of regretting these decisions.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that when it comes to Wes Anderson these days, the thrill is gone...

Wednesday, March 12, 2014


If you were to watch a montage of only the violent parts from A Touch Of Sin you might think it was something along the lines of Death Wish or Taxi Driver. In the opening moments of the film, one of the four main characters rapidly shoots a gang of hatchet-wielding thugs without blinking an eye as if he were Bernard Goetz. Later on in the film, another one of the main characters is pushed over the edge, like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, and goes on a shooting spree where almost no one in his path is spared. But A Touch Of Sin is hardly just a shoot 'em up style movie. It's an anthology film about corruption, greed, exploitation, and the misuse of power within modern day China. Director Jia Zhangke just uses the type of violence found in a Takeshi Kitano film as a way to get our attention. Like The Battle Of Algiers, Z & Carlos before it, A Touch Of Sin is another layered socio-political story with plenty of bloodshed (I also wouldn't be surprised if Haneke's 71 Fragments Of Chronology Of Chance was a major influence on this given the similar subject matter, tone & structure of both films). 
I admit that I slept on A Touch Of Sin last year. On paper it didn't look that appealing - A "message movie" where various characters are all in some way connected to one another? I hate to come off like a snob but that really sounded like something I'd already seen a million times in the 90's alone. I also read a few reviews that compared A Touch Of Sin to the work of Tarantino (an instant turnoff for me these days). But I should have known that any modern Asian movie with a touch of violence is automatically going to draw some comparison to Tarantino in the same way that anything "weird" or "strange" is going to get compared to David Lynch. Step your game up movie critics!
This turned out to be one of the best movies of last year that I didn't end up seeing until this year (along with Thomas Vinterberg's The Hunt).

A Touch Of Sin is broken up in to four separate stories...

In the first story we follow "Dahai" - A miner who’s grown beyond frustrated with his employers exploiting him & his fellow co-workers. After taking a beating that leaves him in the hospital, courtesy of the people he works for, Dahai decides to take vengeance with a shotgun...
The second story focuses on "Zhou" - a mysterious migrant worker/vigilante who has a fascination with guns & violence.
Story #3 follows "Xiao Yu" - a receptionist at a massage parlor/bathhouse who’s beaten and almost raped until she finally defends herself.
The final story is about a teenager, "Xioa Hui", who quits his job at a sweatshop in order to work in a hotel (which is really a front for an upscale brothel) but he ultimately succumbs to the pressure of having to support his mother & siblings.

Clockwise from top left: Stories Dahai, Zhou, Xiao Yu & Xiao Hui
The four stories that make up A Touch Of Sin are somewhat connected, but it’s not what you think. The characters don’t step out of one story and cross paths with a character from another story like in Pulp Fiction, Happiness or Magnolia. Instead, Jia Zhangke makes spiritual connections between his characters. In the first story, there's a seemingly random scene of a man whipping a horse repeatedly on the side of a road which is mirrored later on in the third story where another man repeatedly beats a woman with a wad of cash over & over in the same manner. Both scenes eventually end in explosive violence. In the fourth story, we see the young protagonist take the train from one town to another in order to find a new job, while in the previous story; one of the supporting characters boards another train on the same railway that eventually has a derailment. And as I said earlier, the main characters in the first & second stories (who are the only two main characters to share minor screen time together) go on shooting sprees for various reasons. Social media & the sex industry are also recurring elements throughout the film and all four main characters are a part of the Chinese working class.

Some of the murders in A Touch Of Sin may seem random & senseless at first but it all serves a purpose at the end of the day. For a moment I found myself questioning why Jia Zhangke makes violence the final outcome for all of his characters. I understand there are cases where people feel that their backs are against the wall and have no more options, but resorting to randomly shooting (and stabbing) people seemed a bit over the top. Did he just not know how to write a good script and in order to make up for it he just threw in random moments of violence?
After the recent news of the retired Florida cop shooting a man in a movie theater over an argument about texting, I immediately thought about my love for the scene in Bobcat Goldthwait's God Bless America where the two main vigilantes shoot up a movie theater because the audience was acting unruly, and I felt a little guilty for enjoying that. Violence in film has become a mirror to what’s going on in real life now more than ever and it's honestly turning me off. But then I quickly realized that's just it - A Touch Of Sin is in fact a mirror of what’s going in the world and it needed to be made. I eventually came to discover that all four stories are based on true events ripped from the headlines of various Chinese news reports. With the exception of our mysterious central figure from the second story, all of our main characters have truly reached their boiling point and see no other choice but to resort to violence (or suicide in the case of one of them). If two men are forcing you to have sex when you don't want too, like in the case of the third story, and no one is around to help, you really have no choice but to take matters in to your own hands. If you're just a teenager (which is essentially still just a kid) faced with the pressure of supporting not only yourself, but your demanding mother back home, and you make very little money to begin with, you're eventually going to lose hope like the teenage protagonist in the fourth story.

the have-nots in A Touch Of Sin
Jia Zhangke steers clear of the Dardenne Brothers approach in exploring the poor and/or working class by not making all the characters out to be perfect, angelic do-gooders who just get shit on (we'll actually be getting in to the Dardenne brothers next month). These are real people who make poor choices, are dislikeable and sometimes do dishonest things. Dahai, although 100% on point with his frustration of being exploited, is very stubborn & somewhat unpleasant, while Xiao Yu is having an affair with a man knowing that he's married. But at the end of the day we still sympathize with these people. This is something I wish Ryan Coogler did more with Oscar Grant in Fruitvale Station. True, we saw an imperfect side to him, but overall, Grant's portrayal still felt a little a too perfect to the point where it taints the atrocity that actually happened to him.

Parts of this film are a tad bit film schoolish and some people might find certain scenes to be random for the sake of being random, but it’s the overall picture Jia Zhangke paints that makes A Touch Of Sin so great. It’s a violent, heartbreaking & complex story. There's multiple scenes that'll have you either choked up, enraged or both (the scene of Xiao Hui getting chewed out by his mother over the phone for not earning enough money is enough to make you wanna cry).
One might think A Touch Of Sin is just a reflection of Chinese society (and it is for the most part) but given the world's relationship with China (the products we all use in our daily lives that come from over there), to the ridiculous amount of gun violence plaguing America these days, this is a film anyone from any culture could appreciate.
Money, power, greed, materialism & corruption were all huge themes in cinema last year (spilling over in to this year) with films like The Wolf Of Wall Street, Pain & Gain, Spring Breakers & American Hustle. A Touch Of Sin fits right in with those films but what also sets it apart is that Zhangke actually shines a light on and gives a voice to the exploited & less fortunate. While the aforementioned films only focused on the exploiters & hustlers, A Touch Of Sin actually focuses on the have-nots. If anything, this is the ant-Wolf Of Wall Street. There's a quick scene towards the end of Scorsese's latest film were agent Denham (the FBI agent who busts Jordan Belfort) rides the subway and we get a glimpse of all the every day, working class and/or poor people who are either director or indirectly affected by those abusive people in power that Belfort essentially represents. I found this to be mildly insulting because in a 3+ hour film, we only got about 20-30 seconds of light shed on the struggling people of America while the rest of the film was dedicated to the crazy antics of these glutenous rich people who abuse their power. Jia Zhangke does the opposite and gives the powerless people a voice.


I'm happy to announce that I've now written about the (feature length) filmographies of some of my favorite active filmmakers. Take some time throughout the rest of the year to get familiar with their work...

(*click each movie title for the individual review*)

Carlos Reygadas
Ratcatcher (The Pink Smoke)

Monday, March 3, 2014


For me the fun in making motion pictures is in trying to make the invisible tensions and connections between people visible through activity. When the boy places his hand on the table and the girl removes hers and returns it to her lap – what’s that mean? Depending on what’s been going on previously, it can mean anything. It’s almost like composing music. I treat dialogue the same way, as activity. And people do evasive things when they’re using words to communicate - Hal Hartley (Curnblog)

Once dubbed the "Jean-Luc Godard of Long Island", Hal Hartley gave Edie Falco her start (he also gave Sopranos co-star Michael Imperioli a few supporting roles early on as well), made Adrienne Shelly an "it girl', directed Martin Donovan In his greatest performance (Trust) and directed Karen Silas in her second greatest performance (Simple Men).

Whether you're a fan of Hartley's work or not, there's no denying that he was one of the most unique voices to emerge during the American indie renaissance of the late 80's/early 90's. His influence over the last two decades may not be so obvious to some but he still made a small dent in indie film. Watch how the dialogue is delivered in an early Hal Hartley movie then go watch Clerks. Watch Trust, Simple Men or Henry Fool then go watch something by Miranda July (Me & You & Everyone We Know), Bob Byington (Somebody Up There Likes Me) or just about half the stuff that plays at SXSW, IFC or The Angelika and tell me he hasn't had some kind of an impact on filmmakers who came after him. My love for the cinema of Hal Hartley brings out the angry movie snob in me from time to time. I sometimes lose count of how many illegitimate children Hartley has running around the American independent landscape trying to imitate or emulate his work. That's not to say Hartley doesn’t borrow or tip his hat to filmmakers who came before him either (as you'll see in this write-up) but the amount of young modern filmmakers who emulate, borrow & steal from him today is too evident to ignore (sometimes I feel like I'm alone on this).

This cinema off... entry has been on ice for quite some time. Since this series got underway it was always my plan to do one on Hal Hartley but his filmography is pretty dense (these explorations take a lot of time that I don’t really have these days). But I was finally able to gather all the images, print screens & video clips that I feel best represent his work...

Literature might be one of the top three driving forces in the cinema of Hal Hartley and is one of the few elements that still remains constant in his work to this day. Whether degenerate (Henry Fool), saint (Beatrice in No Such Thing), know-it-all bratty teen (Audry in Unbelievable Truth) or former athlete-turned anarchist (William McCabe in Simple Men), the characters in Hartley's films are always reading or live their life by some prolific excerpt they read somewhere. Some of Hartley's films are even directly inspired by or loose remakes of famous books like The Bible (The Book Of Life) or Beauty & The Beast (No Such Thing)
Henry Fool

Surviving Desire
Simple Men
Unbelievable Truth
Ned Rifle

Booze is another driving force in Hartley's work. This is something that usually gets overlooked. In the back-story for Unbelievable Truth, Josh Hutton kills his girlfriend in a drunk driving accident, Matthew Slaughter and Maria’s mother have a drinking contest for Maria’s "freedom" in Trust, there's a scene in Simple Men where the five main characters get drunk together in an effort to bond, and lets also not forget two of Hartley's most notorious characters are full-fledged alcoholics (Henry Fool and the monster from No Such Thing).

Henry Fool
No Such Thing
Unbelievable Truth

Although a lot of the characters in Hartley's films are dumped (Surviving Desire), lied to (Simple Men) or cheated on by their significant others (Flirt), love (along with passion, desire & romance) is a constant theme in his work starting with Unbelievable Truth going all the way up to Fay Grim.
Henry Fool
Surviving Desire
Simple Men
Theory Of Achievement 


I know this category is starting to get a little played out, but unlike Abel Ferrara & Carlos Reygadas, Hartley Genuinely seems like an atheist yet the presence of religion flows all throughout his work. He even did a modern re-telling of the last day on earth with The Book Of Life featuring Martin Donovan as Jesus. I think there's a priest, nun, rabbi or minister in almost every one of his feature films.
Outside of Martin Donovan as Jesus, Hartley sometimes momentarily turns some of his normal human characters in to Christ-like figures as well. At the start of Henry Fool, Simon practically kneels at his feet and their relationship eventually turns in to that of a prophet (Henry) and a disciple (Simon).
After Beatrice survives the grueling surgery that should have killed her in No Such Thing, all the locals in the village touch her in disbelief as if she rose from the dead. And the final pose in the dance sequence in Surviving Desire is pretty self explanatory...
The Book Of Life
Fay Grim

Simple Men
Unbelievable Truth
Martin Donovan as a modern day jesus in The Book Of Life
The locals all touch Beatrice as if she's the 2nd coming in No Such Thing
Simon Grim kneels at Henry Fool's feet in Henry Fool
Martin Donovan strikes a jesus pose in Surviving Desire

Although Hartley doesn't specialize in action movies (or any other traditionally violent movie genre) he certainly makes guns prevalent in damn near every one of his films post-Surviving Desire. Given Hartley's unique style and quirky world view, he makes the audience see the pointlessness that comes along with violence. When someone holds or shoots a gun in one of his films there's this almost apathetic/mechanic-like action to it to the point where its kinda funny (Damien Lewis shooting the hitman at the end of Amateur or Jeffery Howard firing a pistol off in to the air in Simple Men).
But that's not always the case surrounding a violent death in Hartley's work - Martin Donovan's death at the end of Amateur as well as Kevin Corrigan's death in Henry Fool are far from humorous...

The Book Of Life

No Such Thing
Simple Men
The Girl From Monday
Ned Rifle

Music is also quite prevalent in Hartley’s work. If there isn’t some kind of a choreographed dance sequence (Surviving Desire & Simple Men) at least one of the characters in his films are playing some type of instrument. And like John Carpenter or Shane Carruth, Hartley often composes his own music for his work…
Surviving Desire
Simple Men

Theory Of Achievement
The Book Of Life
Unbelievable Truth


You can write about Hal Hartley all you want but his unique style can't be fully conveyed through words or even images. This is one of those rare cases where you need video examples to show things like the deadpan delivery of his actors to the repetition of is dialogue...

Besides the obvious Godard influence, Hartley draws inspiration from plenty other (mostly European) filmmakers like Bergman & Bresson. In fact, Hartley was once dubbed the Jean-Luc Godard of Long Island…

Simple Men / Band Of Outsiders
Amateur / Persona
Simple Men / Mouchette (thanks to Jason Hedrick of Ecstatic)

Amateur/Band Of Outsiders
Simple Men/Mama Roma

Beauty & The Beast/No Such Thing
The Tenant/Ned Rifle

Surviving Desire
Sisters Of Mercy
Theory Of Achievement 
Unbelievable Truth
NYC 3/94
Unbelievable Truth
The Book Of Life


Nothing like a machine to make a man feel insignificant... (excerpt from Simple Men)

In almost every Hal Hartley film we get at least one scene of a character struggling to understand some form of new technology or trying to fix some kind of broken appliance. And on the flip side, there’s usually a genius close by who knows how to fix something with ease (Matthew Slaughter in Trust, Bill in Simple Men, etc). It should also be noted that Hartley was showing laptops in film as the portable devices they really are long before other filmmakers jumped on board.
The Book Of Life
No Such Thing
The Girl From Monday
Unbelievable Truth

In the 2nd half of Hartley’s career, his films have taken us across four continents. Along with Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley is one of the last American filmmakers to embrace globalism and show the world as the multi-national/multi-lingual planet that it really is


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 - (excerpt from No Such Thing)

Ever since 9/11, the presence of police, terrorism & authority figures has been at an all-time high in his cinema. In fact, one could say The Book Of Life & No Such Thing were precursors for 9/11...

The Book Of Life
The Girl From Monday
NYC 3/94
No Such Thing
The Girl From Monday
Fay Grim
Fay Grim


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