A Book Review by John Duncan Talbird.
Ideas, for Deleuze, do not exist above life as ideal forms but come from life as a flow of forces and desires…All of Deleuze’s concepts – including irony itself – are founded upon multiplicity in this way.
–Claire Perkins, American Smart Cinema (2012)
This quote appears in the introduction of Steven Rybin’s new book of essays, The Cinema of Hal Hartley: Flirting with Formalism (in Wallflower Press’s Directors’ Cuts series, 2016). The Deleuzian concept of irony and more current discussions about “smart cinema” are appropriate for a survey of Hal Hartley’s career so far since his movies too often get simplified to the point of pure irony, characters shifting between cipher and enigma, while at the same time the films challenge mainstream audiences even as they dissect popular genre motifs. Despite their sometimes-difficult delivery, as Rybin writes, Hartley’s films are about “the flux and flow of life” (9). Rybin has assembled an impressive collection of writings on this innovative filmmaker, soliciting essays from nine different scholars (he contributes two others and an introduction), three of the writers already having published books on Hartley. Rybin’s book acts as both a sophisticated collection of viewpoints and an introduction for viewers who might not be as familiar with the films Hartley has made since his most famous output in the late 1980s and ‘90s. This is important, both since Hartley has evolved with recent changes in film technology and distribution and also the director has become somewhat less fashionable since his first appearance on the American film scene when there was such a surge of film creativity (Soderbergh, Tarantino, Linklater, et al.), the first sustained burst of good US filmmaking since the New Hollywood films of the 1970s. We need to see how he got from there to here and also be reminded of why we should care.
Rybin conceptualizes his book as approaching Hartley in three distinct and overlapping ways: “authorship, history and reception” (4). The first approach which we see evidence of in the early essays, looks at Hartley in the way he is often analyzed, as a filmmaker with a distinct signature who wears his influences – mostly Godard and Bresson – on his sleeve. The second looks at Hartley from an historical viewpoint: the history of Hartley’s film career and also how that career fits into film history as a whole. The final, and most theoretical approach, looks at the way Hartley’s films have been received – by his audience, by his stable of actors, and particularly by his critics.
The first essay, “Up Close and Impersonal: Hal Hartley and the Persistence of Tradition” is by distinguished critic David Bordwell who does a close reading of several scenes from early Hal Hartley films accompanied by many film stills for illustration. He offers a particularly fine analysis of a scene from Hartley’s third film Simple Men (1992). Bordwell formulates the usual connections between Hartley and Bresson and Godard here, comparing scenes from films, but he also makes the provocative argument that he sees much more in common with the formalist experiments of Michelangelo Antonioni than he does to either of the French directors. Jason Davids Scott also focuses on the early films of Hartley in his contribution, “‘Some Things Shouldn’t Be Fixed’: Frameworks of Critical Reception and the Early Career of Hal Hartley.” Scott wonders about the fact that Hartley is underappreciated as compared to other US filmmakers who appeared around the same time as he, directors like Soderbergh and Linklater. He attributes this is, in part, to the fact that early critics “fixed” on what seemed to be Hartley’s interest in location, shooting films where he grew up, on Long Island, his use of certain types of cinematographic strategies, his direction of his actors. Scott argues that when Hartley diverged from these attempts to “fix” his style, critics often didn’t follow where he went.
One of the strongest essays in the collection is Daniel Varndell’s “A New Man: The Logic of Hal Hartley’s Amateur.” I was particularly glad to see such a close examination of this underappreciated Hartley gem. This is the first film Hartley made after his so-called “Long Island Trilogy,” so, in some ways, Varndell’s goal is similar to Scott’s, to show how Hartley diverged from early concerns and stylistic choices while still continuing to make Hal Hartley films. Varndell reads the text of Amateur in detail, making apt and enlightening connections to other film, but also literature, building interesting connections between Hartley’s amnesiac criminal, Thomas Ludens (Hartley ensemble actor Martin Donovan), and Kafka’s Joseph K. Elsewhere, Fernando Gabriel Pagnoni analyzes two other underappreciated Hartley films, in “Poiesis and Media in The Book of Life and No Such Thing.” Pagnoni pays careful attention to the digital film technique in the former apocalyptic film and traces the disintegration of myth in the modern age of mass media in the later. He likens Helen Mirren’s media boss in No Such Thing to Thomas Jay Ryan’s Satan in The Book of Life, revealing how the villains of these stories give “the audience what they want: narrative (and predictable) forms” (131) a fitting and ironical narrative move for a filmmaker who makes “difficult” films.
Zachary Tavlin, in “Bodies, Space, and Theatre in The Unbelievable Truth (and its American Precursors)” makes a less convincing argument for how Hartley’s first film, The Unbelievable Truth (1989), owes as much to John Cassavetes’ Faces (1968) and Robert Altman’s California Split (1974) as it does to the films of Bresson and Godard. Whereas, Jennifer O’Meara contributes a very fresh take on Hartley in “Parker Posey as Hal Hartley’s ‘Captive Actress.’” O’Meara follows the trajectory of Hartley and actress Posey’s collaborations from the 1993 short Flirt to Hartley’s most recent film, Ned Rifle (2014), a total of nine films the two have made together. She locates the allure of Posey in her voice, likening it to the face of Anna Karina in Godard’s films. Whereas Godard fetishized Karina’s face, Hartley fetishizes Posey’s voice (155). O’Meara is the only female critic in this collection and it makes me wish there were more – and/or a queer perspective. Hartley’s films are so concerned with gender roles, sexuality, and performance; it would have been great to read a more diverse group of viewpoints.
That said, this is a very strong collection of essays for Hartley followers and fans, both for longtime viewers and scholars and those new to the director’s films. Rybin ends his collection with his own essay, “The Figure Who Writes: On the Henry Fool Trilogy.” This essay maps the Henry Fool Trilogy which runs almost the length of Hartley’s career so far from Henry Fool (1997) to Fay Grim (2006) to his most recent film, 2014’s Ned Rifle. The essay also explores an interesting aspect of Hartley’s films that don’t get as much attention as one would think – their literary aspects, essentially the role of writing in the films, particularly the role of writing as subject matter. Writing (and reading) is a thematic element of the trilogy, but not only that, it’s also a reoccurring motif. In many ways, Hartley is one of the most literary of American filmmakers and yet (thankfully) he’s never made a writer biopic. Interestingly, his films, particularly the Henry Fool trilogy (but also Amateur, The Book of Life and others), are more about the writing life that any run-of-the-bill biopic one might expect to see. This fine collection of essays mines the intersections between writing and reading and viewing. Hartley is not even sixty years old and, despite his waning “hipness” as a director in American cinema, I wouldn’t be surprised if he continues to produce engaging and incisive films for decades. Although this is a solid snapshot of his career so far, I’m hoping that it not only leads to further interest in this underappreciated director but also to further discussion on whatever he produces next.
John Duncan Talbird is the author of the limited edition book of stories, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar) with images by artist Leslie Kerby. His fiction and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Juked, The Literary Review, Amoskeag, Ambit and elsewhere. He is an English professor at Queensborough Community College.