Tag: hal hartley

Social Uniforms in Film: Trust (1990)


I have always been interested in clothing, in how an individual’s fashion choices mark them as a certain type of personality and lead to assumptions about their character. Or the opposite: how our coded preconceptions about clothing make us view a person a certain way, because they want us to, but in fact their outfit hides a truth about them, such as tattoos, or scars, or inner desires and thoughts. A conceit within film that I find myself increasingly more attracted to is the idea of characters using clothes as a personal uniform, finding that one outfit that encompasses how they would like to present themselves to the world. These are not necessarily military or superhero or employment-related uniforms, but a self-appointed costume, repeatedly and often exclusively worn, like a cartoon. Many filmmakers employ this concept as a way to subtly communicate something about their character, taking advantage of the visual nature of the medium as well as its unreality. There are various occurrences of this from Charlie Chaplin to the recent Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, and in this series I’ll be discussing some of my favorites.



Almost of all of Hal Hartley’s films have some version of this, which is appropriate considering the exaggerated theatricality and odd, emotive blocking found in all of his characters’ interactions. He creates a world very much like our own, but slightly off, where people don’t connect in the same way we do, don’t speak with the same cadences or vocabularies. His early romantic comedy-drama, Trust, which happens to be my very favorite of his movies, features probably my favorite use of the cinematic social uniform. The main female protagonist, Maria (played by the very much-missed Adrienne Shelly), starts off as a snotty, shallow teenager who accidentally kills her dad with a slap to the face after telling her family she is pregnant and was recently kicked out of school. She is unceremoniously thrown from her home, rejected by her boyfriend and best friend, and left to wander her nameless suburb alone with no plan in mind. She meets Matthew (Martin Donovan), an angry twentysomething computer engineer living with his abusive father (John MacKay), and the two immediately form an intense emotional bond, recognizing something of a kindred spirit in one another despite very different interests and experiences.

Maria spends the night at his house (to sleep! Get your mind out of the gutter, folks, she’s only 16), and after an altercation with his terrible dad she’s left with no clean clothes. Eager to get away–and take Matthew with her–she grabs a dress she finds in a hall closet and they both return to her family’s house. The dress is old-fashioned and conservative, with pale blue stripes, opposing her earlier outfit of trendy crop top and tight skirt in bright colors. It belonged to Matthew’s mother, who died giving birth to him and is rarely mentioned, but clearly a source of friction between him and his irascible father. Except for a brief scene of her in a factory uniform at her new job, it is the only thing Maria wears for the rest of the film, paired with lacy white tights, tan work boots, and sometimes her oversize letterman jacket (presumably her ex-boyfriend’s). She more regularly wears her glasses, too, which she had been too embarrassed to wear before. Her focus shifts from concern with the outer to concern with the inner.

While the narrative of Trust covers various themes–the relationships between Matthew and his father, Maria and her mother; Maria’s pregnancy and eventual abortion; a baby kidnapping; Matthew’s complicated relationship to technology–the center is the relationship between Matthew and Maria, and how they change one another. Maria’s unspoken connection to his mother’s dress is a visual marker of this. After meeting him she seems interested in maturity for the first time, in reaching out to others instead of being self-involved. She admits that she is ashamed of her stupidity, and of her youth, as she had spent her teen years dwelling on popularity and beauty, believing she could marry her high school sweetheart and have his child, never having to complete school or go to work. She is newly modest and resolute, shedding youthful pleasures and ignorance with a commitment to hard work and self-education. It is an extreme switch, partially a result of her mother’s call for penance after she seemingly gave her father a heart attack, and she spends much of the film rationalizing her status between childhood and adulthood, between dependence and self-actualization, the former visually marked by her continued wearing of her high school letterman jacket. The dress belonged to Matthew’s mother, and symbolizes his influence on her, but ultimately it becomes her own. The final shot of the film shows her putting on her glasses so she can better see him as he is led away by police, a strong symbolic moment that cements their strange but unbreakable bond.

Movie Review: Flirt (1995)

Seen: On my laptop, originally rented from Scarecrow Video in Seattle.

Months ago I was taking a train down to my brother’s graduation, and I started watching Flirt, the one Hal Hartley movie I’d been unable to find during my Hartley craze sophomore year. Then the train ahead of me derailed somewhere in Connecticut and I was ferried about from train to train for a very long, very unpleasant night. So I never finished Flirt. Last week I was on another train on the way to NJ for Christmas, and I decided to test fate and watch Flirt again. And it WORKED. Basking in his own love of repetition and theatricality, Hartley places the same story in three different settings, considering how nearly-identical scenarios would play out in New York, Berlin, and Tokyo. When one person prepares to leave for an extended stay in another country, their lover must decide whether to go ahead with a long-distance relationship or embark on a new romance with a friend who is separating from their partner. They move around their respective neighborhoods, looking to friends and strangers for advice on what to do, and each walks into a violent situation at the end.

Working in a number of his regulars (Bill Sage, Parker Posey, Martin Donovan, Karen Sillas, Elina Löwensohn, Miho Nikaido, among others), along with some new faces, Flirt is a fascinating exercise in storytelling possibilities. The premise sounds kind of dull: a bunch of people wandering around moaning about their love problems three times in a row. But, as with most Hal Hartley films, I found myself captivated. Each segment is unique, though linked by circumstances, and I was ever-curious about how events would play out. In New York the events take place primarily in a bar, with Bill Sage aching over two women and seeking advice from strangers in the bathroom. In Berlin, ultra-stylish Dwight Ewell wanders around the city as he is forced to choose between two men (one who is married), interacting with varied denizens and merging languages. Finally, in Tokyo, Miho Nikaido is a theater student torn between a fling with her married teacher and her long-term filmmaker boyfriend (played by Hartley himself!).

While linked by their supposedly flirtatious natures, the protagonists in each story are wildly different, as are their contexts. Hartley not only hints at cultural variables affecting each story but also individual personalities, so that each tale manages to be unpredictable. I loved Dwight’s attitude, but was surprised when his confrontation with his love interest’s wife morphed into a dangerous seduction. I loved the juxtaposition of performance art and realism in Miho’s story, a fun commentary on Hartley’s noted theatrical style and intentionally stilted dialogue and blocking. I of course also loved Bill Sage’s section, mostly because he’s really attractive, even if he has a terrible 1995 haircut. It’s a strange little film, beautiful in many ways and one of the director’s more daring features. I was a little frustrated with the anthology structure mainly because I wanted more time with these characters, and their stories all felt cut short. But of course it’s amazing because Hal Hartley is amazingggggg. Lovely soundtrack, too, as usual.


Pair This Movie With: After every Hartley movie I only want more Hartley, that’s just the way it is.

Movie Review: No Such Thing (2001)

You guys, I have now seen every Hal Hartley feature available in the US! Plus most of his shorts! Cool! His strange fable No Such Thing draws together two unlikely pals: Beatrice (Sarah Polley), a mild-mannered aspiring journalist, and a figure known as The Monster (Robert John Burke), a real-life mythological figure living in solitude in Iceland. After her cameraman fiance and his crew go missing in Iceland, Beatrice travels there herself, determined to find out what happened to him.

Her plane crashes in the ocean and she successfully undergoes experimental surgery to avoid being paralyzed, befriending her doctor Anna (Julie Christie). The two travel throughout rural Iceland continuing to look for Beatrice’s fiance, eventually leading her to the cruel and world-weary Monster who murdered him. She somehow befriends him and does her best to help him in his quest to die- his immortality has been his curse for millennia, and there’s only one man who can kill him. Beatrice’s opportunistic boss (Helen Mirren) turns the whole affair into a massive media blitz.

It’s hard to summarize this movie, since much of it is more episodic than over-arching in narrative. In many ways it is a typical Hal Hartley movie: over-choreographed blocking, stilted dialogue, airy violin-heavy music, everyone’s pretty pale- the usual. It’s got appearances from Hartley regulars Robert John Burke, James Urbaniak, Bill Sage, and Damian Young. The pacing is slow but the action is engaging, the ending is emotional but ambiguous, the plot doesn’t follow any normal expectations of structure or predictability… Isn’t Hal Hartley great?

What sets this apart from many of his other features is its foundation in satirical fantasy as well as its more “exotic” locations. There’s less gritty suburbia or urban Europe on display here and more rocky Icelandic terrain populated by weathered ruffians who just want their local murderous monster to stop with all the murdering. The fantasy element is dealt with matter-of-factly, with the Monster representative- and indeed, a direct product- of human failings. His violent nature is a response to the centuries of human violence he’s been forced to witness, and while at times he is quite funny in his observations and surliness, ultimately it becomes clear that assisted suicide is the kindest thing Beatrice can do for him. The metaphorical nature of his character is sometimes handled clumsily though, and made too obvious.

The story is a bit uneven, taking too long to actually bring Beatrice and the Monster together and seemingly torn between focusing on the manipulation of the media and the whole monster thing. But with excellent performances- especially the doe-eyed Sarah Polley and absolutely badass, perfectly subtle Helen Mirren- and all those wonderful Hartley accoutrement I’ve come adore, this is another intriguing and affecting addition to his filmography.


Pair This Movie With: Whenever I watch a Hartley film it pretty much always puts me in the mood for more Hartley films. So go with any of his movies, I think, especially The Unbelievable Truth or Henry Fool with this one. It’s also vaguely reminiscent of the Leos Carax short “Merde” in Tokyo! Or if you’re in the mood for another tale of a person befriending a mythological beast, there’s always How to Train Your Dragon for a change of pace.

Another Hal Hartley Double Feature: Simple Men (1992) and Trust (1990)

Yup, that’s right: “Another”. One of my first posts was for a Hartley double feature, and I’m ashamed it’s taken me this long to have another one since he’s one of my favorite filmmakers. After taking in his latest short films, I was keen on just re-watching all of his features, so on my day off I took in two that are in my own movie collection. His films always go well together, connected by actors, musical style, and punchy dialogue, so it had a nice flow.

First we have Simple Men: When brothers Bill (Robert John Burke) and Dennis (Bill Sage) find out that their activist father, a former professional baseball player, has escaped custody after his arrest for a homicidal bombing that took place decades ago, they decide to track him down in Long Island. After reaching a dead end in their search, they take refuge at a bar run by Kate (Karen Sillas), who’s recently taken in a mysterious Romanian named Elina (Elina Löwensohn). Bill has his eye on Kate and wants to stick around, while Dennis is convinced Elina somehow knows their dad and is intent on getting information out of her. Then they all dance for a while, and Martin Donovan is there. As is Bus Driver Stu from Pete and Pete. Radness.

This isn’t my favorite Hartley film, but it has really grown on me with repeat viewings. It helps that I am ridiculously attracted to Bill Sage (especially in those glasses- swoon!), but it honestly is a pretty cool movie. It’s a typical “brothers with daddy issues” premise turned on end thanks to the filmmaker’s trademark oddball characterization and ambiguous dialogue. No one’s intentions or motivations are ever entirely clear, and the plot never moves in an anticipated direction- there’s always some surprise appearance or event to keep things off-kilter. It also has a kick-ass soundtrack from Hartley and Yo La Tengo and one of my favorite musical moments ever caught on film. The script gets a little weird towards the end with the father’s activist stuff, but by that time I’m so interested in the characters that it doesn’t matter much. Good movie. The end.


Next up was Trust, a movie that makes me filled with sighs in the good kid of way. The much-missed Adrienne Shelly stars as Maria, a pregnant teenager who inadvertently kills her father, loses her boyfriend, drops out of school, and is kicked out of her house on the same day. Twentysomething computer repair person Matthew (Martin Donovan) lets her stay at his house, but she quickly discovers that he is physically and emotionally abused by his demanding father (John MacKay). She drags him back to her house, where she becomes a slave to her widowed mother (Merritt Nelson) and attempts to atone for her mistakes while Matthew tries to find a way to get them away from both of their families.

This is one of my favorite movies in general, and remains my favorite Hartley film. It was the first I ever saw from the director, as part of an “American Independent Cinema” course I took one summer in high school. That class really helped open my eyes to what film in general had to offer, and at the time Trust was a kind of movie I’d never seen before. It’s only Hartley’s second feature- he decided to make it solely for the opportunity to work again with Adrienne Shelly, who’d just starred in his first film The Unbelievable Truth. She is a talented and likable actress, heartbreakingly embodying this young girl who suddenly realizes how naive and selfish she is, and tirelessly works to make up for it. I love how she takes on Matthew’s mother’s old dress; it becomes a uniform of sorts, physically marking her inner transformation. She starts off as a seemingly simple character but is quickly revealed to be unexpectedly complex.

Of course, the other performances are excellent as well, characterized by Hartley’s stilted and over-choreographed direction that serves to highlight each word of dialogue in a theatrical manner. Donovan is stern and troubled, Merritt Nelson is intense and creepy as Maria’s controlling mother, and John MacKay is oddly terrifying as Matthew’s awful father. Many other Hartley regulars- including a not-yet-famous Edie Falco- make appearances, making for a comfortable familiarity I’ve come to associate with his body of work. His actors shift in and out of drama and comedy, resulting in a film that makes me laugh as much as it depresses me. Their actions are intentionally over the top and exaggerated, with a wonderful self-awareness that heightens the impact of the quick, snippy dialogue.

I love this movie so much. Maybe some day I’ll do a more in-depth review but for now just know that it is a seriously excellent, addictive film that moves me deeply every time I see it. The quirky chemistry between Donovan and Shelly perfectly plays off the intense performances of the supporting cast, and the goofy jokes punctuated by insightful dramatic monologues make for a memorable, complex script. Plus it’s got a great, early-90’s lo-fi grittiness to it all that appeals to me. I can’t believe it hasn’t been released on DVD (I’m still enjoying my secondhand VHS copy), but I’m hoping his company Possible Films will get to it. Luckily it’s on netflix instant.


Movie Review: Possible Films, Volume 2

I know I rarely talk about him here, but Hal Hartley is definitely one of my favorite directors. There is a unique atmosphere to his films that I instinctively respond to- the staged choreography, choppy dialogue, repetition, lilting music… There are times when I could spend (and have spent) the whole day watching his films simply because I can’t think of anyone else who makes movies the way he does. I went through my main Hartley phase a few months before starting this blog, so while I’ve seen almost all of his features and shorts, I haven’t re-watched most of them recently enough to have written about them. This weekend I took in Possible Films, Volume 2, a new collection of 5 shorts from 2009 and 2010 made while he was living in Europe. He hasn’t released a full-length feature since 2006’s Fay Grim, so even though I have found his shorts to be hit and miss, I was eager to see anything new from the auteur. I’ll just shortly discuss each one individually.

A hopeful German actress travels to Berlin with the intention of tracking down her favorite director, an aging ex-pat who’s stopped making films. She believes she can become his new “muse” and encourage him to make his first German-language film. She stalks his rumored hang-outs and eventually writes him a friendly letter, only to be disappointed by the response. This is a cute one, with Christina Flick single-handedly engaging the audience with her read-aloud letters and emails and generally personifying a well-meaning but delusional young woman. It’s a bittersweet, one-sided romance of sorts.

“Implied Harmonies”
This half-hour documentary details Hartley’s collaboration with experimental Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, who asked the filmmaker to stage his production of “La Commedia”. It’s primarily composed of interviews with the cast and crew members and footage of rehearsals. I know little about opera and I had never heard of Andriessen beforehand, and unfortunately the approach of the film seemed catered to viewers who had some grounding in the subject. I didn’t get much out of it, really, though I did love seeing some footage of the final staging, which involved multiple video projections of overdramatic videos Hartley filmed with the play’s cast.

“The Apologies”
A young American playwright leaves his Berlin apartment for New York, where he’ll be working on a modern musical adaptation of The Odyssey. He lends his place to a German actress preparing for a big audition, and she accidentally overhears an emotional monologue from his ex-girlfriend. This one was my favorite, mainly because of how absolutely adorable the lead actress is (to be honest I don’t know if she’s Bettina Zimmerman or Ireen Kirsch, the two actresses credited don’t have any kind of notation), and for its clever screenplay. I liked the parallels to “A/Muse”, with both involving a lady hanging around in a Berlin apartment, reading things aloud and planning for future theatrical stardom. There were also some good jokes with Nikolai Kinski in the beginning as he brainstorms for his Odyssey script.

This is another documentary piece focusing on a trip to Japan that Hartley took with his wife, actress Miho Nikaido. It’s composed of both footage of areas they’re visiting (including Nikaido’s family home) and interviews with Nikaido and her family. Hartley remains largely offscreen but inserts himself in narrative subtitles. It’s a bit uneven structurally but does offer interesting insight into their relationship and Nikaido’s career experiences, and I had known very little about such topics before watching it.

This is like a three minute credit sequence with footage of Godard. I didn’t really get it.

Further Reading:
Nuts4r2 review