Hal Hartley

In the ’90s, New York film director Hal Hartley seemed to be everywhere. Fans could reel off his scripts without a beat, often citing that bluntly unsentimental line from
Simple Men, “there is no such thing as adventure. There’s no such thing as romance. There’s only trouble and desire”. Yet since 1998’s Book of Life, in which the sharply-attired Jesus, Satan and Mary Magdalene converge on New York for the last day of the 20th century, Hartley’s profile in Australia has been on low-beam. While he has been busy, particularly with theatre, teaching and making short films, his invisibility is due to recent features (No Such Thing; The Girl From Monday) not being released in Australia.

Does it annoy Hartley that Australian audiences probably think he’s been absent all this time?  “No,” he says. “I wanted to step out of the radar for a while. Sometimes you have to get out of the radar to grow a little bit more. I felt like I had recently been married and that I wanted to grow a little faster.”

Growing, of course, includes reflection, which was inevitable with Hartley recently producing DVD re-releases of earlier films, such as
Trust (1990), Surviving Desire (1991) and Simple Men (1992).  Looking back on them with his cast left him with “a good feeling”. “It was a very tough world to make art in … I always had to hold onto this feeling that, ‘no, this is good’. It might not be popular, but it’s good. And it will be popular enough.”

Given how individual Hartley’s work can be, it’s understandable he will never have blockbuster status. For instance, the short film available on
The Book of Life DVD, NYC 3/94, is an eerily prescient work juxtaposing urban life in New York with a war-time soundtrack. Residents hide from invisible planes and run amid invisible gunfire. Made in March 1994, it takes on a fresh context because of the World Trade Center attacks in 2001. It was actually inspired by the 1994 WTC bombings, which happened close to Hartley’s home.

While Hartley is inventive, it’s his wit he’s renowned for. No other filmmaker would feature a gambler, tricked into a Faustian bargain, approaching Jesus with the line, “Can you help me? I think I’ve just lost my girlfriend’s immortal soul for a long shot”. Then again, not many directors would make
The Book of Life, where a suited, laptop-wielding Jesus returns to earth to do his father’s dirty work through negotiation with His lawyers (a firm titled Armageddon, Armageddon, Armageddon and Jehosophat). Or have Mary Magdalene, played by PJ Harvey, act as Jesus’ street-smart secretary. There’s a particularly amusing moment in this movie - one of the earliest to use digital video - when Jesus checks into a hotel under the name D. W. Griffith, the pioneering filmmaker. “Yeah, that’s a little in-joke,” confirms Hartley. “Also the meaning for me was that Jesus decides to go under the alias of someone who was at the beginning of something, and I was very conscious of the end of cinema [laughs] in terms of this new video technology.”

For Hartley, the challenge of the new is important, hence his recent foray into theatre with
Soon, a choreographed work inspired by the Waco stand-off. “I just needed an earthquake, and that was it,” he says. “By the time it was all over, I felt like I wasn’t going to keep making the same kinds of films that I’d been making.”

Fans may lament his progression from intimate films on how love, faith and betrayal can drive us to flashpoint, to more genre-driven films (eg. the political sci-fi tendencies of
The Girl From Monday), but Hartley isn’t oblivious to criticism, which he is come under for Monday’s didacticism. Though he can’t read reviews, he has staff paraphrase the sentiments, especially if they’re along the lines of “well, The New York Times still thinks you’re a shithead”. He says with a laugh, he needs that distance, because “I’m just a human being”. In the past he read everything and it stuffed him up “really badly”. Even the good reviews.
Hartley may return to familiar territory with his next film, a sequel to the dark fable,
Henry Fool, which won Best Screenplay at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival. He jokes that while making Henry Fool, he thought the story could extend beyond one film, because he’d justify cutting great scenes by joking, “don’t worry about it, we’ll do that in Part Seven”. The new film’s protagonist will not be the devilish Henry Fool but Fay Grim, played by Parker Posey in the original. While Fay Grim promises to be a compelling espionage thriller, will the saga extend beyond the sequel? “I guess it could really go on forever - the James Bond of the diabolical [laughs]. But I don’t know, my ambitions right now are just to make a great film out of Fay Grim”.

Lee Tran Lam

Limelight magazine, July 2005