Man or Mannikin?
Restraint and Rigour in the films of Hal Hartley.

"Perhaps the most productive work is that which produces a tension between 'the natural' and 'the strange', an acting strategy which is capable of constantly drawing the spectator into the story but repeatedly pushing the spectator away to a position of critical appreciation.'
-- Andrew Higson 'Film Acting and Independent Cinema'

"I would like to move towards making film that are in fact more like music; films that can be appreciated the way we appreciate music ... films that encourage repeated viewings"
-- Hal Hartley on Flirt

Hartley's work is characterised by a structural and expressionistic minimalism; a strict economy of performative gestures and deadpan dialogue through which the unexpected is normalised, and the quotidian made strange. Hartley's quest is for a cinematic equivalent to the mechanics of poetry and music - a precision of composition and rhythm such that the smallest of gestures may become significant in its singularity. This delicate cinematic balance positions the spectator to simultaneously examine Hartley's pictorial tableaux and look through them to their meaning. This foregrounding of performative and interpretive considerations, alludes to Brecht's theories of distantiation and Bresson's use of "minimalist naturalism." Inspired by the notion of "doing damage" to cinematic conventions and expectations, Hartley's cinema is steeped in paradox and contradiction. By articulating lines of interest at odds with one another, whether they be romantic negotiations, philosophical debates or power-brokering, room is created for the "polysemic production of meaning and pleasure" which Andrew Higson advocates.

Below: the caring cop from Amateur
Hartley's paradoxes transgress traditional modes of behaviour, and in doing so, create an absence from which the 'free-play' of ideas may flourish. In Simple Men the father-figure is an ex-pro baseball star turned anarchist bomber whilst in Amateur a whole series of ironic paradoxical personalities is presented: a nymphomaniac, virginal ex-nun, an amnesiac pornographer, a caring cop, and a schoolboy who is clearly played by a girl (perhaps a reference to Jean Vigo's Zero for Conduct in which Tabard the sissy is played by a girl). Hartley's first feature The Unbelievable Truth and his production company True Fiction Pictures voice his commitment to paradox in their titles. Working with an ensemble cast has allowed him to develop a performative idiolect of studied restraint and impassioned release - where the body in action is reduced to a set of recognisable gestures from familiar faces, with dialogue operating as an extension or layering of this gestural terrain. Hartley's use of distinctive actors like Martin Donovan, Adrienne Shelley, and Elina Lowensohn to name but a few, attribute a continuity and intertextuality to Hartley's films, as well as a certain fluidity of camera-subject, screen-spectator relationships. Hartley's characters are thus constituted as 'present absences'; their highly controlled acting producing a "double and contradictory presence of the performance, a performance which may become self-reflexive." The spectator is simultaneously aware of on-screen and off-screen realities, as well as the ambiguous separation of actor and character. Appreciation of both the verisimilitude and its construction is made possible so that the ideas, or gests, in the narrative, can be easily identified and contemplated. For example, violent and sexual gestures in Hartley's films work gestically as 'moments of summation' - in excess of their narrative meaning they provide social critique. Hartley's concern with mysogyny is thus articulated in Simple Men in the single phrase "Are you going to fuck her?"

Hartley's characters are desocialised, damaged individuals. Predominantly young and single, they are pregnant teenagers, unemployed but hard-working, philosophy students who don't know themselves, incorrigible flirts, ex-cons with moral conviction, terrorists and pornographers. The successful hybridity of these portraits can be explained in relation to parody's emancipatory power of 'dehiscence' - "a peeling apart which leaves [the performance] entire yet divided, releasing it for a new form of understanding, of reinscription." These are people characterised by lack. They lack understanding, primarily of their place in the world, and of their desires. As such, their identity is a performative crisis - an interrelational, improvised and unstable construct. This excerpt from Amateur is particularly adroit:


Isabelle: What are you doing?
Warren: I'm molesting you.
Isabelle: Am I supposed to like it?
Warren: You could beg me to stop.
Isabelle: And would you?"
Warren: No.

Not knowing themselves, they act according to the cues of others, and are accordingly impulsive, anxious, insecure and fragile. Frustrated with their assigned roles in society, Hartley's characters can only express themselves within a binarism of repressed emotion or potent liberatory violence. This tension is sourced in and countered by the pursuit of something or someone to validate their struggle. Self-knowledge and self-improvement is what constitutes desire, but as Hartley claims "knowing is not enough" Therefore 'surviving desire' becomes the crisis of performance his characters have to enact.

This tension in his films - between 'dangerously sincere' misfits and a hostile dominant culture can be traced back to some of the notable films of the 1970s. But whereas the rebels and runaways of 70's films were characterised by a weary, all-too-knowing irony and hardened alienation, Hartley's renegades react with a baffled sincerity. "Trapped within "force fields of earnestness [which] can't help disrupting a world cynically certain of itself." they remain damaged but hopeful, cynical yet sincere. Strangers strike up immediate rapport, exchanging outrageous dialogue that ranges from the intensely personal to the profane. After a straight-faced discussion of the legend of Odysseus a 12-year old schoolboy asks Thomas "Do all women have hair between their legs like this?" "Yeah I guess," replies Thomas "There's a woman on page 22 who doesn't." This emotional candor and sincerity of the aphoristic dialogue grounds the stylised performances in a humanistic hope for trust, love and faith. Audience identification is attracted to this basic dilemma of how people deal with desire. Its very commonality ensures comparison and interaction with the filmic construct.

Surviving Desire is about the collapse of ideals, of unsustainable love. Jude, dependent on the mutual love he lacks, and Henry, too philosophical to know better, are typical Hartley male protagonists. Both experience a crisis because of their self-delusion. Jude is an atheist, a non-believer with conviction (yet another Hartley paradox), with no responsibilities or ambitions outside of teaching, which he also fails to do very well. He is tabula rasa and carte blanche, the potential intensity in blankness, unwritten space. Unable to act consistently, he collapses into an armchair before making love, bursts spontaneously into dance after a kiss, flings a table over when he can't touch Sofia's hand. This performative orbit of repression and release expresses Hartley's continuing concern with the impossibility of true freedom in a social narrative oriented around ambition, arrogance and wealth. Jude is defined by a lack of love - a vacuum which both sustains and collapses his world, as reflected in Hartley's repeated use of the dissolve at the end of scenes. Similarly, the jump-cuts in Amateur and Flirt represent a gap, or lack-of-fit in the unifying narrative. These cinematic devices interrupt the cause and effect chain of narrative, stretching time and emphasising the constructed nature of the events-in-play. It is from this figurative space that Hartley's paradoxical characters emerge from.

Faces and bodies in motion are clearly the animating force behind his work. Hartley's gaze conveys a love of the single frame, shots composed to a pictorial formalism or tableaux style. This ascribes a certain flatness to the narrative structure, with actors receiving roughly the same amount of screentime. Repetitive cross-cutting creates a fragmented presence from the contrasting physiognomies of his actors. Martin Donovan's body, always repressed, bunched up at the shoulders, movement centred on his strong chin, his hardheaded yet boyish vulnerability easily read from his taut posture and the intense glare which disturbs his pensive face. In opposition to this is Adrienne Shelley's composed, bookish mousiness - her stature slight, her face softer and less drawn in comparison. Hartley's women are characterised by sharp bobs, low cut necklines, and tight black clothes in contrast to the loose ties, creased shirts, wild hair and unshaven faces of the men. In terms of audience identification, this strong contrast in visual texture imbues the characters and their relationships with a certain tangibility - a stronger relational presence. There is also an intimacy present in the camera's concentration on hands, faces, even the back of heads, with close-ups of each touch and caress, made all the more powerful because of the scarcity of facial expressions, or even eye contact.

Hartley's mise-en-scene is correspondingly tactile, hands-on and sensual. Hard wooden surfaces predominate, furniture is kept to functional minimum, and lighting is rarely diffused or softening. In Trust the action takes place from interior to interior. Bedrooms, kitchens, bathrooms, factories, bars and offices serve as temporary refuges from the outside world, denoted as cold and impersonal by the use of thin sunlight, industrial landscapes (parking lots, train stations, power plants) and the identical uniforms worn by office-workers/commuters. The focus on interior space makes explicit the constriction felt by the characters in their everyday life, and the limited options available to them.

In Amateur the sharp room angles and corners are matched with bleak colour contrasts - dark greys and blues, sharp whites and blacks. Doorframes, staircases, narrow hallways and wet cobblestone streets establish the strained relations between the protagonists and their impersonal city environment. The relation of environment to performance is foregrounded in the way the camera frames their movement through this space, with a lack of establishing shots and a shallow depth of field, the space is defined as angular and thus intrusive, cold and vaguely threatening in its asceticism. Similarly, the dislocation of characters such as Audry in The Unbelievable Truth is connoted through the cyclical repetition of dialogue (ie. the cafe scene where the waitress and Josh reiterate the same dialogue 6 times) and bland suburban backgrounds. Additionally, the indexical signs of the garage, spanner and George Washington point to outside the text, commenting on the mechanism/apparatus of capitalism, industry and wealth, as well as perhaps movie-making itself.

Hartley's mien is strongly oriented around the image, though whether this is in detriment to the dialogue is subjective. Hartley has stated that he conceives of his characters physically before he writes the dialogue, and that "When I isolate the primary elements of film I find photography, movement and sound recording - in that order. Only then do I consider dramatic action." The dialogue, whilst central in his films, enacts gestural connotations: they act as surrogates to the image - it is through them that what is implicit in the scene is often made explicit. The specificity and contemplative verbal pace of his dialogue, has a distinct literary quality, strengthened by the repeated use of quotation from books, and writing in books. The emblem of the book acts as point of identification in Hartley's films. Maria in Trust reveals her interiority when she writes in her notebook 'I am ashamed of being young. I am ashamed of being stupid." Matthew reads 'Man and the Universe, by Ned Rifle' mirroring Audrey, who in the Unbelievable Truth reads 'The End of the World' also by Ned Rifle. By emphasising the process of writing and literature in his films Hartley alludes to their constructed nature and his subjective interest in it. Thus distantiation is subtly but effectively brought about.

The use of sparse non-diegetic music and silence contributes greatly to the awareness of artifice and Hartley's controlling consciousness. The dance sequences in Surviving Desire, Simple Men and Flirt work in a similar fashion. Obviously choreographed, they disrupt the immediacy of the character-image with that of an actor playing out a rehearsed and self-conscious iconography. Through quotation these dances emphasise the intertextual nature of performance, referring to (a) West Side Story and Madonna, (b) Godard's A Band Apart, and (c) Japanese Kabuki Theatre respectively. Repetition and quotation is also located in the Keatonesque slapstick scuffles which impulsively interject themselves. Martin Donovan and Damian Young ritualistically slap, punch, shove and struggle their way through Amateur, parodying and desensualising Hollywood violence in the process. Subjected to Hartley's poetry of precision the artifice of Hollywood 'realism' is brought to the surface, and shown to be absurd. The kneejerk switch from deadpan to slapstick, impassive to berserk, breaks down the organic unity of performance such that it can only be constituted as a montage of gestures. Suspension of disbelief becomes suspension of belief - clichés like the musical sequences are defamiliarised by their sudden appearance in this milieu - it takes the audience by surprise and hence becomes something aesthetically and emotionally involving.

Why is the freeplay so involving and distancing at the same time? Hartley calls it "the principle of the striptease." It is distancing because it constitutes and interruption. But the interruption leads to suspense. Suspense holds out the possibility for something more - an opportunity. This opportunity leads to optimism. One particularly strong image of surreal craziness occurs in Amateur when two kids wearing Halloween masks suddenly run into frame and start shooting the deranged Edward with waterpistols. As a slippage of intention and effect it may run counter to Hartley's tightly controlled idiolect, but it is in fact the summation of his cinema. As an image which speaks on a purely gestical level - an event which displaces personality as the focus of attention - this tiny rupture stands outside of time. It captures the timeless sense of playful existentialism that make his films doubly active - both inquisitive and inquiring.

eugene chew
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goto: review of hal hartley's latest feature, henry fool.