Hal Hartley

For a certain group of New York film lovers, the Hal Hartley retrospective hosted at Metrograph this past January has come to feel like a distant memory from a moment now firmly closed off to the past. Following Metrograph’s opening in 2016 and the Quad’s reopening in 2017, there was a sense that repertory cinema was entering a new golden age, with an unbelievable wealth of rare and interesting films playing on New York screens on any given day. By 2019, the Quad began to phase out its repertory programming, and while there were still Metrograph, Anthology, BAM, MoMA, MoMI, Film Forum, and Lincoln Center, the failure of Moviepass meant that many cinephiles could no longer reasonably afford to attend as many screenings as they once had. What once seemed like a golden age now felt more like a brief period of serendipity inevitably destined to end.

Even so, it would have been unimaginable to think that all these institutions would be non-operational by March 2020. The full effects of the COVID-19 outbreak on the state of repertory cinemas in the city will likely only become clear once the pandemic has ended. However, there is a sense that whatever comes next will not simply involve a return to normalcy—that the infrastructure being built during this time is not a temporary remedy but rather a base for the future of the industry.

Either way, the Hartley retro can be marked as New York’s last major cinephilic event, the last time the disparate and nebulous group of moviegoers known informally as rep rats came together for a few weeks to celebrate a single body of work (February’s Angela Schanelec retrospective at Lincoln Center seemed to cause less excitement, though I found it just as invigorating). It would be difficult to choose a more appropriate filmmaker for the occasion. Initially focusing on his Long Island hometown before moving his attentions to the city, Hartley became one of the great New York filmmakers, crucially concerned with the unlikely and beautiful possibility of human connection among social outcasts and oddballs rebelling against an increasingly corporatized American culture.

If that description seems to place him alongside such chroniclers of Reagan-era youthful revolt as John Hughes or Cameron Crowe, it is not by accident. His early work united the more lowbrow genre pleasures of the teen rom-com with highbrow influences like Jean-Luc Godard and Robert Bresson, a combination which allowed idiosyncratic films like The Unbelievable Truth and Trust to find an audience. As his career progressed, however, he began to lean into his artier tendencies, and the popular potential of his work largely vanished as a result. He found some success with Henry Fool, the epic tale of a garbage-man turned poet, which led to his first and only major studio film, MGM’s No Such Thing. But his later work feels small, highly specific, and decidedly non-commercial. Unlike Jim Jarmusch or Spike Lee, his contemporaries in early independent cinema, he did not parlay his initial hits into a recognizable and marketable brand. Instead, at a time where “indie” has replaced “independent” and stripped the term of all its meaning, Hartley remains a true independent. In recent years, he has been working to obtain the rights to all his work, and has also funded a new film, Where To Land, through a Kickstarter campaign.

When I talked with him in early February, I began by asking him about his expectations for the retrospective in light of its success:

Hal Hartley: I really didn’t know what to expect. Jacob Perlin, who runs the Metrograph, and I started talking about it a year ago and he was very certain that it would do good business. So I deferred to him and let him direct me. I was entertained and surprised by the combinations he put together in his programming. It was a fresh way of thinking about the whole body of work, by presenting it in a different way.

Double Exposure: Have you had retrospectives of this kind of scope before?

HH: Not comprehensive like this. This is really everything, every feature film and all of the short films. But there have been retrospectives every couple of years somewhere. I think the last one was in Buenos Aires, and then there was one in Berlin, and another one in France just earlier this year. So it comes up every once in a while.

DE: It does make me feel that there’s a renewed interest in your work, with a new generation connecting with it in some way.

HH: That’s definitely true. I can see when I go to these retrospectives, whether they’re here in the States or in France or Japan. It’s clearly a new generation of people who, probably like yourself, are film enthusiasts, and have read a lot. I remember having this experience in Poland a couple of years ago where there was a retrospective. During the ’90s, when I made a lot of those films, Poland was kind of broke, so people didn’t have much money to go to the movies. But they did read a lot of French and English magazines. So they knew about the films but they had never seen them, and it was very exciting to be with them and have a totally different conversation. Even though they had read stuff, they weren’t that affected by how people spoke about the films in the ‘90s or the ‘00s. They came at them completely fresh, and they asked completely different kinds of questions in the Q&A.

DE: On that subject, I was going back and reading a lot of film criticism that was being written about your early work around the time of The Unbelievable Truth and Trust. One thing that interested me was that a lot of writers were talking about your work in relation to David Lynch and Twin Peaks. It seems like The Unbelievable Truth was coming out just around when that was blowing up on television.

HH: Yeah, it was a little after that. That always surprised me, because as much as I admire Lynch’s work, it wasn’t something I thought of as an influence. When I sat down to write or shoot scenes or edit, I wasn’t in that mindset. But that’s just how it goes. No one really cares what you think. It’s about what they think.

DE: In terms of your influences, Godard gets repeated a lot.

HH: But that was very clear. And I spoke a lot about that at the time too.

DE: Do you think as much about influence now when you’re writing or thinking about a new work?

HH: No, not at this stage. After so many years of doing it, you find your own voice and your own way of thinking through problems and articulating things. There’s comparison, I think. Just to mention Godard again — while I was writing the newest film, which will shoot in April, I had a friend who had just seen Every Man for Himself, and she wrote to me and talked a little bit about it. I had it, and I hadn’t seen it in many years, so I took it down and I watched it. It was actually quite helpful because it is a film he made in his 50s and he’s addressing issues that you have to be in your 50s to even bring up. That is very much like my new film. It’s a farce about the kinds of things that people in their late 50s are thinking about—family wise, career wise, socially, politically—and it was helpful to see how somebody else did it. It’s a very different kind of film, of course, but still about people of a certain age trying to be engaged in their society as well as having to deal with their personal issues. So it’s not so much influence but comparison. Whenever I read books, novels, or whatever, some part of my creative apparatus is comparing what I’m inclined to do with what other people do.

DE: One thing you touched on there was thinking about age, and a lot of the early writing on your work was talking about capturing a certain spirit of youth. I recently watched Ned Rifle for the first time, and it seemed like you were again going back to writing movies about young people, even though Ned would not be considered a typical youth for his time.

HH: Yeah, but some of the fun of writing Ned Rifle is writing as a 50-year-old, or whatever I was at the time, after having spent some time teaching and spending a lot of time around 18 and 20 year olds when I was in my 50s. When I was writing The Unbelievable Truth, I was writing from a youthful attitude, being 27 or 28 years old. In those stories, the adults were the unknown territory, so I was looking at them and trying to figure them out. Now, when the characters are young, I’m looking at them from a certain remove, but trying to remain true to my own 60-year-old experience and assumptions, rather than simply assuming that I understand everybody’s motives when they’re 20 years old.

DE: Does that make it harder to write for those characters or just different?

HH: No, not if you remain true to your own perspective. You always start with superficialities anyway: ‘Why do they do that like that? This is how I did it when I was a youth.’ So it provides a platform for investigating our shared life a little bit deeper. To indicate the differences, sometimes very superficially. In the new film, the main character is 58 years old and he has a niece who’s 20 years old and goes to college and mostly the differences are about technology. She grows up using a phone, and he doesn’t. It’s very superficial but it provides a platform to investigate how we are together.

Ned Rifle (2014)

Ned Rifle (2014)

DE: I wanted to ask some more questions about your writing process. I took a screenwriting class last semester and one thing that got drilled into us was this idea that endings should be ‘surprising, yet inevitable.’ I’ll never be able to get that phrase out of my head. But your films seem to do that in a way that isn’t obvious.

HH: I was struck early on by the possibility of resolution that doesn’t complete. Trust is a good example, watching him be driven away. It’s kind of a musical term when I say resolve. You go down to the tonic, the first note of the key, and it’s the end. Or you can keep it unresolved, suspend it, where the last foot hasn’t fallen yet. Henry Fool very much ends that way as well. Fay Grim’s ending is very undetermined. So I’ve often done that. Otherwise, a lot of my storytelling and screenwriting strategies, or creative strategies, are old fashioned. I read a lot about fiction, and I believe that the world of a story can have its own internal coherence, and you have to remain true to that. So even if your film isn’t particularly naturalistic or realistic, you still have to keep your shit detector on and know if it coheres to itself. Every story sets up its own alternate reality, but inside that reality there are certain rules. They’re basic human expectations, recognizable human reactions, even if it’s a David Lynch film.

DE: When people talk about your writing, they’re usually talking about your dialogue, but I’ve been moved by a couple wordless sequences in your films. In No Such Thing, I really loved the scene where the Sarah Polley character gets drunk with the Icelandic villagers, and the blocking of that scene. I also just watched your short film Kimono, which is completely wordless. How do you approach writing visually?

HH: It was easier for me when I first started out to write dialogue. Once I discovered I had a talent for that, it was easy for me to conceive of movies in dialogue, and I could write dozens and dozens of pages pretty easily. But once I made two or three films, I recognized that I was also a powerfully imagistic person, and I liked those aspects of motion pictures that are wordless and activity-based. Not necessarily action movies, but there’s a lot of physical activity that I pay attention to. By the time I was making No Such Thing and Kimono, which were made around the same time, I was making a concerted effort [to avoid dialogue]. I was very happy to take on the challenge of making a half-hour, wordless motion picture. It took a lot more time. Talking can fill up half an hour pretty easily. But when you’re just watching somebody move or do something else… It took a while to gain confidence in that. By the time the mid 2000s came around, when I made Fay Grim and Meanwhile, I recognized that what I enjoyed doing is working with physical activity in much the same way I liked working with dialogue. And in the best circumstances, I have performers who are equally good at speaking and moving. Jeff Goldblum in Fay Grim is a great example of that. Parker [Posey], of course, I always use that way.

DE: Do you approach writing feature films differently from how you approach writing shorts?

HH: I think so. The feature length stories, even an hour long story, adhere more to the conventions of fictional narrative. Whereas with the shorts, they’re like sketches. That inner coherence we were talking about before is not as pressing. Sometimes with the shorts, it’s just a particular idea and I fill that out. Also with the short films, I allow myself to invent while I’m making the film. Whereas with the features, I’m very strict about [sticking to the script]. I write and I rewrite and I revise until I know that this is really how it’s got to be. And then we go out and make the film, and we feel that that is the best way for all of us to have the most amount of creative freedom, because we know we have a rock solid thing in the script. We know it’s going to work if we get all these pages shot, but we invent and discover things in terms of images and movement.

DE: Flirt is kind of an interesting example to talk about in that regard because it started as a short and then developed into a feature.

HH: Yeah, we made the New York section of Flirt all on its own because we needed to learn how to use Avid. It was one of the first films in New York to be edited on a computer, on an Avid. My company had bought Avid and we needed to know how to use it before we made Amateur later that year. So we made this 20-minute film. And I liked it, and I joked to Ted Hope, my co-producer, “You could probably take this story and just transplant it. The same dialogue and we’ll just do it with a gay couple, or people in a different country.” That idea stuck, so when we finished Amateur, people were interested—we shot in Berlin and Tokyo, where the two companies that wanted to be involved were located. But then it still grew. Taking that simple idea of transplanting the dialogue into a different language and into a different milieu didn’t work. It could’ve worked but it would have been boring, at least for me. So that’s why in the Berlin section, we have the construction workers/philosophers talking about whether this film could succeed. So things do grow, even though you’ve set yourself a specific task and you apply yourself to it. It gets you thinking in a certain way, but then if you’re honest with yourself, you develop and invent things anyway.

DE: What you said about Avid leads nicely into a question I had about shooting formats. You started off shooting on film, and then in the middle of your career you shot on DV, and then more recently you began using HD digital cameras. It feels like there are three distinct visual styles which came with each of those formats.

HH: These days when I’m shooting on high definition, it feels more like the old days when we shot on film. It’s finally good. Standard definition video in the ‘90s was exciting, but what really bored me was when people tried to make movies with it that looked like movies, and they disregarded the qualities of that particular material. So I spent some time trying to see what the machinery could do on its own, that film couldn’t do. And that was that blurry, super lo-fi visual imagery. That’s what excited me about that technology. I had always hoped that digital technology would get where it finally got some years later. Fay Grim in 2004 was the first film I shot in HD.

The Book of Life (1998)

The Book of Life (1998)

DE: That film does feel a little more indebted to what you were doing with The Book of Life and The Girl From Monday, with the canted angles and some of the blurriness as well. I actually wanted to ask you specifically about Fay Grim. I wanted to know what the reception was like at the time, because seeing a movie made at the height of the War on Terror where the lead character ends up working against the US government to aid a suspected terrorist felt pretty daring.

HH: People were excited—professionals and journalists I would talk to at festivals. In terms of business, nothing much happened. The company who owned and distributed it didn’t really know how to position it. So unfortunately I don’t think too many people saw it until recently because I got some rights back and I’m distributing it myself now through my company. People in other parts of the world are getting to see it. It was distributed here in the United States, in theaters and on DVD. But a lot of my fans around the world were constantly asking for it. It was au courant, I guess. There were other films like that at the time, though different. Syriana deals with terrorism and certain aspects of American international—what-do-you-call-it, we’re not allowed to call it terrorism when we hurt people—international relations. Actually, I liked Syriana but I found it a much more complex and hard-to-follow film than Fay Grim. A lot of people… I don’t know how they reacted. They were befuddled. I remember doing a Q&A out in Long Island—where I’m from, there’s a great arthouse in Huntington—and my niece’s boyfriend raised his hand. He was probably 22, and he was shocked that I had gone to that part of the world, meaning Istanbul. There were a lot of people in the audience who wanted to ask the same thing, and I said “Istanbul is part of the West, really.” I was shocked at how little they knew about the world, Americans. That’s my memory of how people responded to Fay Grim. Maybe they were just confused. What is this filmmaker trying to say? Are we bad guys too?

DE: Something that I’ve heard a lot from people who have been seeing your films in this series has been how many of your films feel ahead-of-the-curve. I think you got a question during the Q&A for Henry Fool about Kevin Corrigan’s character and Trump. But also in that film there’s a bit about e-publishing that feels pretty prescient. Theory of Achievement and Williamsburg as the new art capital of the world, too. Do you think about that kind of stuff while writing?

HH: I try to keep my ear to the ground. I don’t do anything more than read newspapers and periodicals to keep up with what’s going on and what people are talking about. In 1996 or 1997 when I was writing Henry Fool, all that stuff I wrote about the Internet was the stuff I read in newspapers and magazines. It’s possible that the newspapers and magazines are not mainstream. The New York Review of Books, Harpers, whatever. So maybe to the general public it seems a little ahead-of-the-curve, but everybody was talking about that stuff at the time. Those were the hot button topics.

DE: It was interesting seeing that one of the major plot points in Henry Fool involves Simon Grim kind of going viral, which I don’t think was really a thing at the time. Maybe I’m wrong.

HH: It was probably a theory at the time. I didn’t make that up. I’m sure I did my research and somebody said “it’s possible that somebody could go viral.” We definitely would not have used that word at the time. But I was immediately fascinated by that prospect. What happens if Simon’s sister inadvertently puts his poem on the Internet and then it disseminates that way?

DE: Another thing I noticed that runs through some of your movies—hopefully this isn’t too Freudian—but there seems to be this interesting relationship between sex and death. In The Unbelievable Truth, there’s the car accident which happens just before Josh is going to lose his virginity. In Henry Fool, there’s the intercutting between Fay and Henry having sex and the mother committing suicide. The end of Ned Rifle with the tryst between Henry and Susan, and then they’re both dead by morning.

HH: That might just be good, old-fashioned storytelling. Sex and death are the big things. I don’t feel I can comment on it too much, but I think it’s a worthwhile thing for someone to pursue thinking about, how I connect those things. I think in Henry Fool, juxtaposing the sex, which would be the birth of Ned, and the death of the mom—there are all kinds of classical balancing things at work there. I really wanted it to be complex. I wanted it to be funny, gross, and deeply sad at the same time.

DE: One more question: There’s this line that has recurred in a couple of your films, which is “The world is a dangerous and uncertain place…”

HH: Right, “a few good moments of blah blah blah is about as good as life gets”… Yeah, that’s in Ambition, and it is in another movie somewhere. I don’t know where that came from. A bunch of writing that I had that became Ambition came out of my notebook. I was writing different kinds of philosophies and poetry, and it’s a corruption of some more elegantly stated and thought-out philosophical doctrine, which I was banging my head against for a couple months before finally I just broke it down to that. It was something I was doing a lot in those days, in the early films in the ‘90s. I liked writing characters who were getting their quotations all wrong. What they actually said is meaningful, but it’s also meant to be seen as a misapplied principle.

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