The cinema of Hal Hartley is paradoxical in its very nature. A melodramatic minimalist and pragmatic philosopher, the director is as sanctimonious as he is sincere. Arriving on the indie scene with The Unbelievable Truth (89), Hartley carved out a niche for himself with his deadpan, schmaltz-free brand of romantic comedy that garnered him acclaim on the festival circuit and a cult following among fringe-oriented generation X-ers. So with 12 features to his name, how is it that the director has remained largely under the radar of contemporary cinephiles? If Olive Films’ “Hal Hartley Collection” doesn’t answer that question, it at least provides a handful of entry points into the director’s career.
Making the most out of shoestring budgets, Hartley’s DIY work ethic, for better or for worse, translates into a palpable obsession with control; one can actually feel the weight of his formalism bearing down on his narratives. Skimping on establishing shots and freely employing jump cuts, the delineation of space in his work is at once disorienting and precise, forcing the viewer to see things from unexpected perspectives, and his trademark dialogue—studied, syncopated, rapid, and repetitive—reduces communication to performativity.
Set in Hartley’s hometown of Lindenhurst, Long Island, both The Unbelievable Truth and Trust (90) strike an ideal balance between the mundane and the absurd. Truth describes the platonic romance between a nuclear-war obsessed high-school senior (a luminous Adrienne Shelly) and the purportedly murderous mechanic who works in her father’s garage (a stoic Robert John Burke). Though darker and more polished, Trust, which also stars Shelly, similarly centers on the unconventional relationship between an adolescent girl and a slightly older man with a proclivity for violence (the potential explosiveness of Martin Donovan’s Matthew is symbolized by the live hand-grenade he keeps in his pocket). Although of a specific time and place, there is a homegrown purity to these first two films that has enabled them to age remarkably well.
Moving toward thematic expansion and aesthetic abstraction, Flirt (95) recounts the story of an amorous dilettante wavering between romantic commitment and adventure three times over in three different cities. Although its fragmentary structure ultimately undermines its potential for depth, toilet-side philosophizing and rewarding performances from Hartley regulars Parker Posey, Bill Sage, Martin Donovan, Elina Löwensohn, and Miho Nikaido (the director’s real-life wife) make for an enjoyable 85 minutes.
Thematically paired onto a single disc, The Book of Life (98) and The Girl from Monday (05) draw on otherworldly elements to flesh out what afflicts earthbound lives. Hartley’s answer to Y2K and George Orwell respectively, the former finds a conflicted contemporary Jesus (Martin Donovan) returned to earth via JFK airport to finesse the details of the impending apocalypse, while the latter unfolds in a dystopian consumerist dictatorship that deems private pleasure perverse. Neither shot with Hartley’s regular cinematographer Michael Spiller, the films are fatally flawed by scattered visuals, particularly The Book of Life, which embraces the headache-inducing distortions of low-grade digital video a little too whole heartedly.
Funded by a Kickstarter campaign, Hartley’s latest film, Meanwhile (11)—his first feature in five years—marks a welcome return to everyday concerns and aesthetic simplicities. The film chronicles a day in the life of jack-of-all-trades Joe Fulton (played by one of Hartley’s favorite bit players, D.J. Mendel), whose overarching mission to retrieve spare keys to a friend’s temporarily vacant apartment is complicated by the fact that his assets have been temporarily frozen. His on foot odyssey from Brooklyn to Uptown Manhattan is punctuated by a series of encounters with suicidal strangers, lost delivery men, famed authors, former employees, and insecure ex-girlfriends. Just shy of 60 minutes, Meanwhile is minimalistic even by Hartley standards. But its simplicity is deceptive; the stand-alone vignettes form a network narrative layered with meta-textual significance.
Despite his dire financial straits, Joe is genuinely skilled at everything he does. Aside from being able to fix just about anything, he’s also a drummer, a commercial videographer, an actor, a would-be entrepreneur, and a novelist—he just hasn’t quite made it in any of these ventures. Almost disarming in its sincerity, Meanwhile is propelled by this palpable sense of potential rather than concrete payoffs. In this respect, the film provides an apt metaphor for the director himself, who seems as unconcerned as ever with hitting mainstream benchmarks. Making a steady career from harnessing a hyperconsciousness of the everyday, Hartley has managed to maintain a firm sense of artistic independence for going on 25 years now—no mean feat. Maybe minimum is the new maximum.