Hal Hartley has encountered a lot of criticism in his 20 year career. Cold, overly intellectual, uninvolving and sloppy are often terms used to describe his body of work. Even acclaimed films like TRUST and SIMPLE MEN often are considered great almost in spite of Hartley. I suppose for many of his films a lot of these complaints are true, especially in the last ten years with very flawed films like NO SUCH THING and THE GIRL FROM MONDAY. I should be seeing Hartley's newest film, FAY GRIM later this week and thought I would post on the one film that really does prove he is one of the most important American filmmakers and writers of the last two decades.
1997's HENRY FOOL is, along with Vincent Gallo's BUFFALO 66 and Sofia Coppola's THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, probably my favorite American independent film of the nineties. It's a big, bold and surprisingly emotional look at art and what exactly defines an artist. While the Indie movement of the nineties often collapsed in a maze of politically correct sentimentality, HENRY FOOL is at times a scatological, ugly and always biting film. It's as bruised and damaged as it's title character. Like Henry says early on, "One of you poor underpaid jerks is gunna have an eye ripped out of its socket. I promise. It's a small thing, perhaps, all things considered. But I will succeed. Because it's the only thing I have left to do in this world."
Hal Hartley was three years past his popular AMATEUR when he premiered HENRY FOOL at the Toronto Film Festival in the fall of 97. The film's reception was mixed between critics who praised it as Hartley's masterpiece and others who seemed to take personal offence to it. Roger Ebert would have an intriguing thought in his mostly negative take on the film, "I wonder if the fault is in myself. I don't think this is a bad film, but after seeing it twice I'm unable to respond to it in any clear way." As I am sitting here writing this I kind of feel the same way, I want to write on this film which I love very much but am at a bit of a loss as to what to say about it.
HENRY FOOL centers on two men, our title character and a seemingly dim-witted garbageman named Simon. Much like Terence Stamp's stranger in Pasolini's TEOREMA, Henry appears from seemingly out of nowhere to Simon Grim and his family and turns their world completely upside down. Henry is a great writer, or at least he claims to be, and he weaves great stories about his life and the major work he is nearing completion of. At Henry's urging Simon begins to write down his often angry thoughts and it turns out that he is a truly great writer whose work is soon proclaimed as groundbreaking and important, while Henry is left broken and unknown.
Hartley never allows us to hear any of Henry's work, we are only allowed to hear every one's distaste for it. In their eyes and in the thoughts of many viewers Henry is a total sham, a delusional con-artist, but Hartley is wise enough to let us think that perhaps he is indeed ahead of his time. Perhaps in all the wild tales he weaves and past indiscretions that are discovered does reside a major misunderstood artist. We don't know but, great artist or not, Henry Fool is one of the most unforgettable characters in all of American independent cinema.
Thomas Jay Ryan plays Henry Fool brilliantly, Ryan with his striking hang dog face and sad eyes makes us want to believe Henry even when he is weaving a tale as unbelievable as being nearly murdered by hired killers in South America. Obsessed with beer, pornography and underage girls, Hal Hartley's Henry Fool is as far removed from the safe cardboard characters that have always populated much of American film.
Joining Ryan are James Urbaniak as Simon and in one of her greatest performances, Parker Posey as the sex and attention starved Fay Grim.
Posey is a wonder in this film. Lovely, talented and ultimately heartbreaking Posey injects Fay with the kind of weighted performance that she is rarely been allowed to give. Most filmmakers have used Parker Posey for her quirkiness, but in Henry Fool Hartley uses her for a striking emotional honesty and intensity. Posey is in a class all by herself in this role and whatever failing FAY GRIM might have in store for me, one of them won't be Parker Posey.
Hartley directs the film with his usual Godardian touches and supplies the wonderful score, probably the best he has ever written for a film. His script is filled with the most clever dialogue of his career but more importantly it seems to be the most thought out and fully realized work in his canon. While most of Hartley's films always feel slightly underdeveloped, HENRY FOOL stands as a complete work which is perhaps why the idea of a sequel is pretty baffling.
The last act of HENRY FOOL is Hartley's greatest moment as a filmmaker and writer. Simon has a become an isolated and world renowned literary figure while Henry and Fay have married and have a child. Henry is falling apart and one particularly great scene occurs late when in a bar when Henry drunkenly stands up for the friend who betrayed him. The, should be famous, final shot of the film shows us Henry running. Is he running away or towards something? Is he escaping the law or himself? Along with what Bill Murray whispers to Scarlett Johansson at the end of LOST IN TRANSLATION, the last shot of HENRY FOOL is one of the most beguiling mysteries in modern American film.
Hartley's finely crafted and literary script won the best Screenplay award at the Cannes Film Festival and the film was nominated for the Golden Palm. It played across America for a brief period in 1998 before landing on video in 99. The current dvd that is out is a disappointing barebones affair that doesn't do justice to this great film. It's apparently become part of an IFC promotion at Target and can be purchased for ten dollars. What an odd place for it to end up but if it allows more people to see it then all the better.
Hal Hartley would follow up HENRY FOOL with the great short THE BOOK OF LIFE in 1998. After that though he began to slip and while NO SUCH THING and THE GIRL FROM MONDAY are well worth seeking out they are ultimately among his weakest works. I am extremely sceptical about FAY GRIM but hope that it turns out to be a pleasant surprise.
Ten years after its release HENRY FOOL remains a highwater mark in American independent cinema. Like the works of John Cassavetes, it is a striking example of a singular and unique vision that it distinctly American and defiantly original. Perhaps Henry sums up an artist like Hartley when he says, "We're outsiders. We think and feel too much and too deeply. And the world can't handle that. Our mere existence is a threat to its illusion of security."
For information on Hal Hartley, I highly recommend visiting his official site at:
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