Although I have long since gone off his films, I don’t mind admitting that I owe a lot to Kevin Smith. A caption on the end of his debut film Clerks gives thanks to four independent filmmakers for ‘leading the way’. As a teenage fan of Smith’s work, I decided to seek out these luminaries and as a result had my eyes opened beyond the dick and marijuana gags that had previously seemed satisfactory to my crude young mind. The four directors flagged up by Smith as indie inspirations were Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Richard Linklater and Hal Hartley. Since then, three of these directors have become better known through crossover hits like School of Rock and Broken Flowers (Lee was already fairly well-known at the time, thanks to his superb indie hit Do the Right Thing) but Hal Hartley remains a little known director whose unique appeal will probably see him forever limited to a small, dedicated following, of which I am proud to be one.

With the various masterpieces of Jim Jarmusch (my favourite of the four and one of my favourite directors of all time) now readily available and most of Linklater and Lee’s works also easy to find, it’s truly a cause for celebration to see Hartley’s work steadily being released to DVD too. Three of his films were released by Artificial Eye in 2009, including two of his greatest works, Trust and Henry Fool, and this latest round of Artificial Eye releases sees the welcome reappearances of his most famous film, debut The Unbelievable Truth, another of his unconventional masterworks, Simple Men, and the long unavailable thriller Amateur, which these DVDs have finally allowed me to see for the first time ever. Rewatching the other two films in close succession has reminded me of just how singular a filmmaker Hartley is and of how, after these films, I was never able to go back to Kevin Smith.

The Unbelievable Truth

81Ule1uMq5L__SL1342_Director: Hal Hartley
Screenplay: Hal Hartley
Producers: Hal Hartley, Bruce Weiss, Jerome Brownstein
Starring: Adrienne Shelly, Robert Burke, Christopher Cooke
Year: 1989
Country: USA
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 90 mins

Hartley’s debut feature, a pioneering film that greatly influenced the 90s American indie film boom, may not have been as widely seen as the Coen’s Blood Simple, Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise or Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape but its strong influence on subsequent indie features is immediately apparent, from its small town setting to its quirky characters, witty dialogue and unnaturalistic acting style. The storyline here is characteristically small: Audry, a bored young woman who shuns her parents’ predictable expectations of her in favour of an interest in books and an obsession with the imminent apocalypse, meets and falls for a mysterious new arrival in town, a mechanic who dresses all in black and is the subject of much local gossip. The townspeople’s obsession with this darkly-attired drifter results in rumours that grow with every retelling, hence the film’s wry title.

This simple plot allows Hartley to focus more closely on character and he extracts rich, believable portraits of each of his many creations, even as he plays up the artificiality of it all with unlikely, sometimes even surreal, events and his trademark acting style which discourages over-emoting, sometimes to the point of horizontal deapannery. This is a feature of Hartley’s films that puts many viewers off immediately and accusations of bad acting are often levelled at his casts but it is, in fact, totally deliberate and, if you’re willing to go with the flow, fiendishly effective. Hartley’s films seem to take place in hazily unreal worlds where the mundane clashes with the extraordinary and everyone reacts as if nothing is unusual. As is often the case in debut features, Hartley takes this a little too far with tongue-in-cheek captions that flash up seemingly at random with needless interjections such as ‘Meanwhile…’ This self-conscious gimmick detracts from the world Hartley has created by playing up its artificiality to the extreme and it tends to distract from the flow of the film, even though its bold exclamations are only momentary. Hartley quickly grew out of such sophomoric novelty elements and they were gone for good by his next feature, the exceptional Trust, although he retained the experimental urge to play with narrative and cinematic conventions, which characterises most of his films and is overt to varying degrees of success in films such as Flirt, The Book of Life and The Girl From Monday.

The Unbelievable Truth - Scene Still 008

The Unbelievable Truth may seem like quaint Hartley-lite in retrospect but it’s far more than that. This low-budget milestone added another dimension to the embryonic American indie scene of 80s and 90s and, unlike some films of which the historical importance is played up to mask other shortcomings, The Unbelievable Truth is still a beautifully made, wonderfully enjoyable oddity and hopefully this re-release of the film will introduce many new fans to Hartley’s world.

Simple Men

81mKQollnZL__SL1342_Director: Hal Hartley
Screenplay: Hal Hartley
Producers: Jerome Brownstein, Hal Hartley, Bruce Weiss, Ted Hope
Starring: Robert Burke, Bill Sage, Elina Lowensohn, Martin Donovan
Year: 1992
Country: USA
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 105 mins

After making his first masterpiece with second film Trust, Hartley kept up the momentum with his second off-kilter masterpiece, Simple Men. Once again keeping the story appealingly small, Simple Men is a sort of road movie that breaks down before it gets anywhere. Reuniting with Robert Burke from The Unbelievable Truth and Martin Donovan from Trust, Hartley teasingly opens his film as a thriller by starting with a scene of a bank robbery. Robber Bill McCabe (Burke) is double crossed by his girlfriend and gang and ends up on a joint quest with his naïve little brother to track down his anarchist father (also on the run from the law) and to break the heart of the next woman he meets. This quests stalls when they break down at an isolated diner and decide to stay for a few days.

Simple Men is sharper, more incisive and less self-consciously quirky than The Unbelievable Truth, although Hartley’s unique style is immediately recognisable. The dialogue is often hilarious (Martin Donovan, fresh from his lead role in Trust, is hilarious in the small role of bad-tempered Martin (another Hartley trademark is often having actors play characters with the same name, as is also true here of Elina Lowensohn) and the story is gripping in a low-key sort of way. Although it downplays the oddball element far more than his first two films, Hartley’s third also offers long term fans a treat in the reintroduction of two characters from The Unbelievable Truth in a series of short comedy scenes that run parallel to the main action and eventually become a significant plot point themselves.

simple-men

But Simple Men is probably best remembered for one bravura scene which has become an iconic moment in indie cinema. In a wonderful prolonged sequence of drunken bonding, Hartley inserts a scene in which the cast dances to Sonic Youth’s ‘Kool Thing’. Not only is the music brilliantly fitting, aligning Hartley’s early work appropriately with its musical equivalent, the American Alt-Rock underground, as well as appropriately dating the film to its early 90s timeslot, but the whole thing plays as a thrilling non-sequitur to the awkwardness and distinct lack of ‘cool’ that dogs these hapless characters throughout the film. A year later Quentin Tarantino directed one of indie cinema’s most famous dancing scenes, with John Travolta and Uma Thurman’s Pulp Fiction cavorting. Simple Men’s dance sequence instantly brings this to mind, partly as a forerunner for that more famous moment of cinematic cool and partly because Elina Lowensohn, with her Lulu hairstyle and hypnotic movements, is strikingly reminiscent of Thurman’s Pulp Fiction character. The films were made so close together that it seems unlikely Tarantino was influenced by this scene but there is a definite link there, if only coincidental.

Amateur

81PhTUYgXsL__SL1342_Director: Hal Hartley
Screenplay: Hal Hartley
Producers: Jerome Brownstein, Hal Hartley, Ted Hope
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Elina Lowensohn, Martin Donovan
Year: 1995
Country: USA
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 105 mins

The impact of the dancing scene in Simple Men carried over to Hartley’s fourth film, Amateur. Although there is no equivalent visual moment to reference, Amateur has one hell of a brilliant soundtrack filled with great alternative artists including Liz Phair, My Bloody Valentine, Yo La Tengo, PJ Harvey and Pavement (whose seminal track ‘Here’ is perhaps the one song that most evokes Hartley’s oeuvre in its wry melancholia). The soundtrack of Amateur is perhaps more fondly remembered than the film, which has drifted into comparative obscurity due to its lack of availability, something that this re-release will hopefully rectify.

amateur

If Simple Men wrong-footed viewers with its hint at thriller territory in the opening scene, Amateur immerses itself more extensively in thriller territory. These murky underworld thrillers were extremely popular by the mid-90s and there’s perhaps evidence of a small Tarantino influence on Amateur, although only to the same tiny extent that Pulp Fiction was linked to Simple Men. If Hartley’s interest had been stirred by the American indie penchant for crime thrillers, he certainly didn’t deviate from his own style in putting that across. Amateur follows the story of Thomas (Martin Donovan making another welcome appearance) who enlists the help of porn-writing former nun Isabelle Huppert (who reportedly begged Hartley for the chance to appear in his next film) in piecing his life back together. Meanwhile, the mysterious Sofia (Elina Lowensohn again) attempts to escape her former life after murdering her husband and long-term tormentor. Although it sounds like many of the multi-threaded thrillers of the 90s, Amateur never pretends to be a complex narrative exercise, instead retaining Hartley’s trademark character focus and letting the heightened stakes subtly intensify the relationships explored. Many felt that the comedy of Hartley’s previous films was diminished in Amateur but it is in fact still present in spades, albeit in a significantly darker guise. One of the film’s most brilliant plot points is the transformation of Damian Young from a dishevelled accountant to a rampaging, brain-damaged animal who stalks the streets like a wild beast. It’s comedy of the most pitch black kind, made all the more effective by Young’s wonderful performance. Amateur is a powerful, funny, gripping thriller which nicely rounds out this set of Hartley re-releases. With all his early 90s features now readily available on DVD, perhaps we can hope for a critical reappraisal of this great director’s work, although there is a significant thrill in knowing that you’re one of the few to have discovered these under-discussed gems.

So, once again, thank you Kevin Smith for being the unlikely prophet who pointed me in the direction of so many great independent directors. I may not be able to sit through Mallrats any more but I’ll always be grateful nonetheless.

Amateur was released by Artificial Eye on 13 May 2013, with The Unbelievable Truth following on 27 May 2013 and Simple Men on 10 June 2013. Extras include making of documentaries for each film, all of which were unavailable for review

About The Author

One Response

  1. Paul L

    “A year later Quentin Tarantino directed one of indie cinema’s most famous dancing scenes, with John Travolta and Uma Thurman’s Pulp Fiction cavorting. Simple Men’s dance sequence instantly brings this to mind, partly as a forerunner for that more famous moment of cinematic cool and partly because Elina Lowensohn, with her Lulu hairstyle and hypnotic movements, is strikingly reminiscent of Thurman’s Pulp Fiction character. The films were made so close together that it seems unlikely Tarantino was influenced by this scene but there is a definite link there, if only coincidental”.

    What, no mention of Godard’s BAND OF OUTSIDERS, which was an acknowledged model for both of these sequences? 🙂

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

To help us avoid spam comments, please answer this simple question to prove you are human: * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.