Sunday, August 25, 2013

The heart is a muscle

Spoilers herein. 
Why should the films of Hal Hartley - specifically, his endings - be so moving? As a filmmaker, Hartley does everything he can to avoid classical strategies of empathy and viewer identification. His precise visual compositions and rigorous (but elegant) choreography act like a cerebral address to the viewer, who must pass through Hartley's graphic approach to filmmaking before any sort of emotional connection to character or actor can be forged. Hartley himself ranks the various elements of his film style in a hierarchy. In a piece written for the script book of Flirt, he says: "...despite the fact that I love story, character and dialogue, 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 ... Film is essentially graphic for me" (xix).

The graphic intensity of Hartley's films is part of what makes his endings - and, specifically, the final frames of his films - so fascinating. In some cases, the fascination comes from a slight shift in style patterns, as in the tilt up to the blue sky at the end of The Unbelievable Truth, the coda to a film which keeps its otherwise fairly static camera eye firmly on the ground. In other films, the final frame serves as a punctuation mark on a graphical and rhythmic logic that has worked its way through the whole film: at the end of Flirt, for example, we end on a shot of Hartley (playing himself in a film about the making of the film we are presently watching) sitting in an airport with his finished film in a can. This is a fitting end to a self-reflexive movie which begins with the sounds of a movie set on the first day of filming. And even at the end of Hartley's epic Henry Fool, which features a grand image of the title character running toward his uncertain future, Hartley cannot resist graphical play: his careful framing of the image in the airport (as much conversation about the film has noted) wrests Henry away from any precise geographical location, making it impossible to know for sure if the character is running towards the plane or back to the community from which he appeared to be fleeing.

So the films are purely intellectual puzzles if you want them to be. (Hartley pokes gentle fun at this perception of his work in Fay Grim, the sequel to Henry Fool, in which characters joke about the ambiguous ending of the earlier movie.) But, again, I also find these films, and their endings in particular, very moving, in a way that Hollywood "puzzle films" never are for me. Perhaps this is because, after immersing myself in Hartley's poetic strategies for two hours, my ear and eye have so adjusted to the musicality of his images that, as in the final movement of an orchestral piece, I cannot but help be moved by his final images. I have recently been struck by the phrase "the heart is a muscle," the title of a collected book of production photographs Hartley put out a couple of years ago. These words evoke the fact that, in his films, your heart and mind will find much to respond to and empathize with, should you first be willing to do the work (and it's enjoyable work, I think) of passing through the graphic and rhythmic qualities of his films. Engaging with his form is like exercising your heart, preparing that little muscle for the emotional moments in his films when do they arrive. Thus, it is not that empathy and engagement do not have a place in Hartley, but that they come a little lower on the hierarchy, and are not easy to simply slip into, as with most narrative films. But our engagement with characters and actors in his films is perhaps, at the end of the day, more intense for this, given that our hearts will be more sensitive to their doings after close attention to Hartley's style has prepared us for a very particular connection to them.

And Hartley, although in some respects a rigorous formalist and creator of "closed" worlds, always gives his characters open futures, and casts actors who have magnetic, endearing personalities that spill beyond his sensibility. (I have, for example, always been struck by how perfect Adrienne Shelly was for his sensibility as a director, and yet also by how different her own films as director were.) For a filmmaker whose graphical logic is so rigorously organized, Hartley's endings almost always find the people in his worlds in an uncertain line of flight: at the end of Trust, we see Shelly stand staring at an open road, a stoplight blowing in the wind behind her, unsure of where to go; and in Surviving Desire, one of the best of Hartley's short films, we find two lovers in very much the same spot where they began when it is over, as uncertain of their next step as they were when they began. Strange, then, that although Hartley puts story and drama below photography, movement, and sound in his formalist hierarchy, his stories and his dramas nevertheless end up being more potent and poetic than most films that I see.

Final images from a few Hartley films:

films pictured:

The Unbelievable Truth (1989)
Trust (1990)
Flirt (1995)
Henry Fool (1997)
Fay Grim (2006)
Meanwhile (2011) 

For further reading on Hartley, I recommend the script books of his early films put out by Faber and Faber; Kent Jones's great article "Hal Hartley: The Book I Read Was In Your Eyes," in the July/August 1996 issue of Film Comment; David Bordwell's piece on Hartley's place in cinema history; and the book of interviews entitled True Fiction Pictures and Possible Films.

(Three recent monographs on his work were recently published, by Steven Rawle, Mark L. Berrettini, and Sebastian Manley; I'll be checking these out soon).