In Hal Hartley’s first feature film, The Unbelievable Truth, Adrienne Shelly’s character refers to the 17th century French playwright, actor, and poet Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known by his stage name Molière; she says her favorite play is Molière’s The Misanthrope. This detail is not simply a matter of characterization. Instead, it reveals something of Hartley himself—how he writes his stories and how he directs, how, even by way of the satire, he develops his characters from a place of nuanced humanism, and how, from a knowledge and appreciation of the stage and its history, Hartley adopts an actor’s voice in a way that rejects naturalism and finds truth in an expressive style.
The Misanthrope—now Molière’s most celebrated work—was unique for 17th century farce. The play features dynamic characters, lacking entirely the flat villains typical of the genre. Each character contains within them good and bad qualities, and the potential energy for a change, a surprising action or redemptive turn. Rather than focusing on plot progression, Molière centers character development, allowing his players to roam about the stage, engaged in long conversation not necessarily pertinent to the movement of the narrative. These two qualities—complex characters and a disinterest in plotting—define much of Hartley’s early work. Combined with a penchant for expressively stagey acting direction, Hartley’s screen becomes a vessel for the humanity, simplicity, and theoretical density of the stage, the special powers of the monologue, the Brechtian distancing of artifice, and the assumed everyday normalcy of performance, a self revealed versus a self hidden.
The tradition of the stage is all over Hartley’s work: the spontaneous musical or dance performances in Surviving Desire (1992) and Simple Men (1992); the parody of the opera in his short work Opera No. 1 (1994); the soliloquies, often laid one on top another, throughout Trust (1991); and his meticulous blocking and attention to the moving bodies of his performers. For Hartley, the stage is a site of inspiration for the screen, for re-purposing familiar techniques to the cinema, to make them fresh and part of a fabric of unreality. By borrowing these stage techniques, Hartley distills the thoughts and emotions of his characters and realizes them plainly. Pain becomes an impossible outburst, guilt a spontaneous confession, and love a trust fall.
In 1998, Hartley would turn his experience in the cinema back onto his inspiration in the stage, writing and producing his own play Soon, about the tragic 1993 standoff in Waco, Texas between the devout Branch Davidians and the U.S. government. Formalistically minimal, like most of his film work, the play featured an empty set, except for a series of walls of tall glass windows that soared upwards, towering behind Hartley’s performers. Rather than discreetly miking his players, Hartley has each of them hold onto microphones (a technique also used in his short digital feature The Book of Life). Attached to deploy-able stands, the microphones are used as props throughout the performance and not just for voice amplification. Blocking is central. Hartley substitutes a close-up with his performers moving to the near front of the stage; distributing his performers across the stage stands in for a wide-angle. For Hartley, each medium informs the next, and each becomes a set of tools to be lent forward for experimentation and a honing of craftsmanship. The cinema becomes stage, and the stage the cinema.
I first discovered Hal Hartley when my friend told me he had found something amazing; he had watched Trust and was determined to show it to everyone he knew. After I saw it, I was determined to do the same. Its satirical bent was sweetened by its emphatic touch; its characters paradoxically existed as both complex humans and as archetypes; his sentimentalism, surrounded by the philosophical cynicism of his characters, seemed measured and emotionally mature; the dialogue was quotable and the soundtrack was a Casio keyboard banger. I enthusiastically watched most of Hartley’s filmography, reveling in the thematic echoes and the idiosyncratic stylizations.
Making one-of-a-kind films in his native Long Island, NY with little to no money, Hartley was an exciting and now unfairly overlooked figure of the early ’90s American independent scene. With a sensitive touch, but no less dangerous than his more famous contemporaries, his satires had teeth, even when they were compassionate and bittersweet. His movies were a revelation for me, a vision of a mending of styles, inspirations, and a concentration on actors—a cinema alive with possibilities and a daring creative energy that flowed from the mind of an artist. Hartley continues to work today, still merging the techniques of the stage with the particularities of the cinema and his own uncompromising voice. And I continue to trust his voice, to find resonance and pleasure, and an exciting expressionism in his films.
Hal Hartley will appear in conversation with director Paul Shoulberg as part of the Filmmaker to Filmmaker series at IU Cinema on Thursday, May 27th, kicking off a weekend mini-retrospective at the Cinema. On Friday, Hartley’s films The Unbelievable Truth and Amateur (starring the great French actress Isabelle Huppert) will be shown—Hartley is scheduled to be present for both screenings. Shoulberg’s film The Good Catholic (shot and produced here in Bloomington) will be screened with Shoulberg scheduled to be present. On Saturday night, Hartley’s Henry Fool plays, the first chapter in what would become Hartley’s grand trilogy (incl. 2006’s Fay Grim and 2014’s Ned Rifle). Sunday, Hartley’s 1995 love and romance triptych Flirt screens and the retrospective closes with 1998’s apocalypse fantasy, digital short feature The Book of Life.
Nathaniel Sexton enjoys the films of Andrzej Żuławski, Alex Ross Perry, and Jerry Lewis. He reads comic books, plays pinball, prefers his movies sad or slow, and volunteers at a video rental store. He likes to travel west by car but always misses movies when living out of a tent.