What happened to Hal Hartley?
Back in the early ’90s, Hartley was the epitome of cool in the indie world, doubling down on the deadpan minimalism of Jim Jarmusch while asserting his own unmistakable cadences. Key films like The Unbelievable Truth, Trust, Simple Men, Amateur, and the hour-long “Surviving Desire”—all produced within a fertile five or six-year period—established Hartley as something like the voice of his generation, or at least a voice for college-age Gen X-ers who appreciated his balance of brittle wit, Godardian deconstruction, and occasional moments of genuine feeling and insight into matters of the heart. At the time, it was inconceivable that the arguments over his work—or the legions of passionate Hartley devotees, for that matter—would ever go away. But his staying power has undeniably diminished as his career has crept further and further toward the margins. To give but one example: 1990’s Trust, perhaps his signature film and easily among his best, isn’t even available on DVD in America. And that’s no longer true of, say, Howard The Duck. (It can be watched, however, as an instant viewing selection on Netflix.)
Somewhere between the abstract triumph of his 1997 opus Henry Fool and his widely (and in my opinion, unfairly) derided 2001 studio effort No Such Thing, the bloom started to come off the rose. Some of it might be attributed to the arthouse scene evolving away from him: As the Tarantino Age brought artistic legitimacy to genre fare, there was less room for Hartley’s quirky, literate dissections of modern love and the movies. But really, I think Hartley simply lost his cachet, mainly because his work was becoming ever more arch over time, and the elements that so endeared fans in the beginning—the unique cadences of the dialogue, the almost geometric structure of the scripts, the understated-to-the-point-of-robotic performances—grew into familiar shtick. His films after No Such Thing have more or less circled the drain, including the homemade science-fiction movie The Girl From Monday, which loses the thread on a politically loaded corporate plot, and Fay Grim, a Henry Fool semi-sequel that found Hartley gazing endlessly into an auteurist hall of mirrors.
Nevertheless, the Hartley mystique lives on among the diminished cinephiles of his generation, and Trust has lost little of its sidewinding charm over the years. Though it’s loaded with comic absurdities, it has an earnestness that’s equally persuasive, and you can see where Hartley disciples gleaned some philosophy on navigating the uncertainties of love and work—or barring that, at least a cool movie that might get them laid. I’m only half-kidding about that last part: Among likeminded eggheads, the director’s studied detachment was undeniably alluring, because it doesn’t come on too strong, only hinting very subtly at the depth of feeling under the surface. Trust also stars the late Adrienne Shelly, once the indie world’s chief object of desire, as a pixie-ish sprite who combines a girlish innocence with a stubborn, uncompromising toughness. She’s shorter than Zooey Deschanel—the current standard-bearer for indie adorability—but her pugnaciousness more than bridges the distance.
Nearly 20 years before a little movie named Juno came along, Trust followed another pregnant teen who doesn’t know what to do with her unborn child, though the similarities more or less end there. One major difference is that Maria (Shelly) doesn’t flee the abortion clinic, in spite of the chain-smoking nurse who offers her a glass of Scotch during the initial counseling session. Beyond the practical issue of having a child she isn’t ready to raise, Maria has a few more pressing problems: Her father drops dead of a heart attack upon hearing the news (their last words to each other are “bastard” on her end, “slut” on his), the jock boyfriend (Gary Sauer) who knocked her up doesn’t want to derail his prospects for a football scholarship, and her belligerent mother (Merritt Nelson) has decided to kick her out of the house. Her pregnancy is a dilemma, but her real crisis is existential.
Enter Matthew, an unsettled young man played by Martin Donovan, a Hartley favorite who handles his flat, disaffected line-readings better than any other actor. Though older than Maria, Matthew also still lives at home with a belligerent parent, in this case a knit-hat-donning blue-collar slob who insists on a spotless bathroom, even if it takes his son three tries to make it happen. Matthew has a preternatural gift for fixing electronics, but he’s a man out of time, spiteful of companies that cut corners to improve the bottom line, and resistant to the mind-numbing allure of television. He and Maria first meet at an abandoned home where they’ve both gone to escape, and Matthew offers her a temporary place to stay. From there, their relationship develops under the cloud of her impending motherhood and a pervading sense that they simply don’t belong—either in their respective homes, or in the world at large.
It should be said up front that Trust, aside from any deeper emotional or thematic underpinnings, is flat-out funny much of the time. And it’s often absurd and melancholy simultaneously, like when news of Maria’s situation literally kills her father, or when her hilarious stereotype of a jock boyfriend breaks up with her without pausing in his training regimen. There’s something sad and funny, too, about Maria’s older sister Peg (a young, superb Edie Falco), a hard-living divorcée who also lives at home, and whose mother considers her damaged enough to make a better partner for Matthew than Maria, the less-spoiled daughter. Hartley also has fun noodling with archetypes: One subplot has Maria searching for a businessman who will come off the Long Island commuter train wearing a trenchcoat and smoking a pipe; it turns out that description fits all businessmen.
Though such deadpan absurdities are a longstanding element of Hartley’s work, they’re also the albatross that hangs over his lesser films, because it can be hard to see the sincerity and depth behind them. Yet that’s never the case with Trust, which speaks to Shelly and Donovan’s wonderful chemistry and the touching way Hartley ties their tenuous romance with their desperate need for rehabilitation and change. Maria begins the film as a broken woman, guilty over the wreckage she’s caused within her family, and made to feel worthless by a boyfriend who didn’t appreciate her as anything more than an easy lay. (Her cold realization about him is about as straightforward as Hartley ever gets: “He was seeing my legs. He was seeing my breasts. My ass. My mouth. He was seeing my cunt. How can I have been so stupid? That’s really all there is to see, isn’t it?”) For his part, Matthew is so despondent that he carries a grenade in his pocket at all times, and his unwillingness to compromise on the job results in some erratic behavior, like putting the boss’ head in a vice over faulty computer boards. Their convergence requires some drastic changes on both their parts—some of it healthy, some of it painful sacrifice. And in this crucial scene, they try to figure out where they stand with each other. (Apologies for the crummy quality and Spanish subtitles; not on DVD, remember?):
Respect + admiration + trust = love. Only Hartley would attempt to devise some sort of metric to quantify a feeling as intangible as love; one critic, I can’t recall who, suggested that Hartley’s scripts were so hermetic and rigidly plotted that it’s as if they were written on graph paper. But while his films definitely give the impression of being fully worked out well before the cameras roll, that doesn’t necessarily condemn the end results to being stale and overly calculated. For one, actors like Shelly and Donovan have more than enough charisma, and in Trust specifically, Hartley zeroes in on universal problems that affect many young men and women trying to make their way in the world. Who can’t identify with Matthew, who’s forced to trade in his stubborn idealism for grown-up responsibility by swallowing his pride and taking a job in TV repair? Or Maria, who’s redeemed by love in a very old-fashioned way, once you look past Hartley’s cool detachment and eccentricity?
And that’s really the key to appreciating a Hartley film like Trust: Hartley isn’t the sort to wear his heart on his sleeve, so fans have to be willing to peel back the layers of self-consciousness, absurdity, irony, and remove to get to the core. To my mind, Trust remains an ideal gateway into the Hartley universe, because other than maybe the first third of No Such Thing, it’s probably the closest he’s gotten to unalloyed sincerity. It’s little wonder that arthouse mavens at the time were so enchanted by Hartley’s wayward notions of romance, and it’s perhaps also little wonder that as he got less engaged with humanity, his audience drifted off in kind.
Next week: Quick Change
June 25: I [Heart] Huckabees
July 2: Darkman
July 9: Lost Highway