DVD: Hal Hartley Retrospective

There's just something magical about that special era of film in the early '90s when independent film was simply exploding. New, gripping voices were coming out of the woodwork, and audiences, for the first time ever, were ready to embrace films made on the cheap by new visionaries we referred to as Indie Directors. The west coast gave us the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Roger Avery and P.T. Anderson. The third coast gave us Robert Rodriguez and Richard Linklater. And the east coast gave us Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch and one Hal Hartley.

Hal Hartley, for me, is the guy that epitomizes everything that everyone thinks of when they recall '90s-era New York filmmaking. Chock full of chain-smoking protagonists who often sit in coffee shops discussing things like literature, poetry and socioeconomic evolution -- his films perfectly evoked a mood of turn-of-the-century ennui, were oddly sexual, and always ended on a vague, almost unfinished, note. They're movies so heady and deliberately thick that you have to write pompous intros like this one just to attempt to describe them. And believe it or not, that's a good thing. So here's some Hal Hartley required viewing if you need to play catch up or just want a refresher course before taking in his new film, Fay Grim.

Henry Fool. Part one of what is now a two part series, Henry Fool is readily considered to be Hartley's masterpiece. It's the tale of an extremely erudite sexual predator (Henry Fool, the title character) working on his grand literary opus who befriends a garbage man and inspires him to write. Turns out, that garbage man is his generations' Allen Ginsberg. And Henry Fool isn't. Heavy, strange and at times oddly comical, this is one of Hartley's darkest, grittiest pieces.

No Such Thing. Often overlooked, this is one of my favorite Hartley films. It's the story of a young girl who suffers a series of misfortunes, the worst of which is having her fiancée torn apart by a monster. When she sets out to confront the monster and learn the true fate of her love, she in the process agrees to help the monster kill himself. Unfortunately for them, they get caught up in an ensuing media circus as her employer, a news agency, tries to exploit the monster for all the news he's worth. It's a wonderfully bleak fairy tale. The film stars a dreamy Sarah Polley.

Flirt. Much loved and easily maligned, this is the same story, repeated three times in three different parts of the world, interestingly portraying the differences and similarities we all share. No, really. It's the same script, done three times. Thank god it's only 85 minutes.

Amateur. Considered a serious misstep, I love this film for the extremely dated scene of two hitmen comparing cell phones the size of their heads while talking about the new, compact technology. And even back when these things were the size of small sedans, they couldn't get a signal.

C. Robert Cargill - - - Email Me


Austin-based Cargill, who not only loves but owns The Cutting Edge, writes on movies and DVD five times a week.