Hal Hartley's Self-Ostracized Intellectual

Coming out of my most recent episode of isolated melancholy, I’m ready to admit to a shameless affection for romantic comedies. I do not claim to be particularly well educated regarding film-studies, although I have studied, and I was the President of Film Club in high school, for what it’s worth. Ultimately I’m a romantic who just likes movies, and I write to announce my recent discovery of the perfectly composed sad-sack, black rom-com gold that is Surviving Desire.

After a few weeks of mostly just Netflix Instant Queue and me, I’m about ready to reach out and touch somebody, be with somebody, dance with somebody, etc. I want to share this excellent director, whose relatively small notoriety surprises me. Especially in light of this apparently official 90’s revival, Hartley’s work deserves another glance. After garnering some hype about 20 years ago, the director shunned the mainstream. Turning down photo-shoots for magazines like Vanity Fair, the magazines eventually stopped calling. Hartley presses on however, and based solely on the strength of his back catalogue, especially his first four films, I’m looking forward to the release of Meanwhile, currently in post-production.

Beginning his career in the late 80’s with his first feature-length film, The Unbelievable Truth (’89), Hartley then made Trust (’90), followed by Surviving Desire (’93). Originally this article was going to be about how excellent Trust is and how the late Adrienne Shelly’s transformation from a high-school dropout ditz to self-empowered female who willfully gets an abortion (fuck off Juno, teen pregnancy isn’t quirky) is sustained at such a solid pace and pitch that the rising action evokes a rare catharsis akin to live theater. I was going to try to convey Hartley’s dead-pan, arm-chair philosophy indebted dialogue and dark humor as “quirky,” “nerdy,” and “endearing” in the way all urban artists want to be, but watch the movies before you let me taint your interpretations. Of all of Hartley’s films that I’ve seen, I want to recommend Surviving Desire first.

Surviving Desire, is a film about the exploitation of love for art, which can in turn be considered reflexively as the exploitation of art for love. In the end, the viewer is given two fully formed archetypes, completely unrealistic by definition, but perfect examples of the type of commitment we idealize; if not quirk for quirk, we at least want to be as devoted to our philosophies as Hartley’s characters are embodiments of theirs.

Hartley is of a breed of directors who rehash the same infinite subject matter with the same actors in similar situations. The director sites the plays of Brecht and Artaud as an influence, although Goddard is more easily recognizable (YouTube “Simple Men dance” and you’ll see Vivre Sie Vie in an early 90’s pallet) and Surviving Desire is his best demonstration of new-wave meets no-wave. Under the pseudonym Ned Rifle, Hartley composes a lot of the music for his films, while also sampling Yo La Tengo and Sonic Youth. Surviving Desire, at just fifty-three minutes, less than an hour, beautifully enacts Hartley’s cinematic approach to theater/cinema as a form of philosophic dialogue. Terms like “hyper-realism” fail to encapsulate Hartley’s rough lens, although his attention to detail and aesthetic is pruned and pristine.

As I said earlier, Hartley’s work continuously interrogates the same themes, most commonly that of the self-ostracized intellectual: one who holds themselves to impossibly idealized standards of purity in art and ideology. When faced with the impossible task, Hartley’s characters inevitably fuck it all up, getting drunk, threatening suicide, or lowering their defenses. The gain, however – and this is why we all get drunk in the first place – is that when you can come to understand that the world is a priori un-ideal, we can lower our defenses too, and the romantic notion of true love is allowed in.

Throughout Hartley’s films notions of alienation, assimilation, and the other are consistently debating the value of sheer human endeavor. Hartley’s extreme attention to detail and simply brilliant gift for plot construction manage cinematic dramedies that provoke not only giggles but sincere moments of heart wrenching allure. His style is unique: with dead-pan dialogue and near VHS-quality film stock, his intentions are sweepingly universal and relatable in the way philosophy addresses the nature of all things.

I cannot presume in 1,000 words to convey Hartley’s singular, (and almost self-righteously independent, though he prefers the term ‘personal’) filmmaking but only urge you to devote less than hour of your meaning(less/ful) lives to Surviving Desire, available on Netflix Instant Queue. After you fall in love with that one, check out Henry Fool, and the pseudo-sequel Faye Grim (both featuring outstanding performances by indie-darling Parker Posey). Then watch Trust, followed by Simple Men; then maybe stop feeling like such a piece of shit when you’re standing by yourself at some Navy Yard party and all you want to do is read a book, smoke a cigarette, start a seriously dangerous fire, and runaway with some archetypal babe. Because Hartley will let you believe that the archetypal love you’ve so rigorously deprogrammed yourself from believing in might be real, or might at the very least, can be found in the “cult comedy” section on Netflix instant while you cry yourself to sleep every night, alone, in a bed too big for one person physically, and not big enough for one person emotionally. TC mark

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