Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Blurry Truth Behind Hal Hartley's The Book of Life: When PJ Harvey Met Mary Magdalena

It’s been a rough decade for Hal Hartley. While there is certainly much to admire in No Such Thing, The Girl From Monday and Fay Grim, none of them come close to matching the astonishing string of films Hartley wrote and directed between 1989 and 1999. Hartley’s last truly great work to my eyes remains the intriguing and rather haunting digital short he shot in 1998 entitled The Book of Life. This audacious telling of the second coming of Christ is one of Hartley’s great, if under seen, works and I have revisited it often in the past ten years. The film’s most ingenious move can be found in the casting of P.J. Harvey as Mary Magdalena, the first and to date only film performance the legendary singer-songwriter has tackled.

Hartley’s films often demand a quality that conventionally ‘great’ actors can not give, a fact that makes the untrained Harvey seem so utterly perfect for one of his works. Polly Jean, like Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Deborah Harry and David Bowie before her, has the kind of wonderful screen presence that seems specific to actors who come from the world of rock n’ roll, and her work in The Book of Life is truly unforgettable.

I often think when revisiting The Book of Life that in a perfect world the film would have marked the first of many collaborations between Hal Hartley and PJ Harvey. Of course, in a perfect world the decade would have turned out differently in a lot of ways…as it stands The Book of Life remains Polly Jean Harvey’s only major film role, the last great Hal Hartley film, and sadly one of the last classic 'New York Films' for reasons too tragic to go into here…


Chuck Williamson said...

Perhaps this ages me somewhat, but I can definitely say that I've been an acolyte of the cult of Hal Hartley for some time now. Films like TRUST and HENRY FOOL easily found a place within my personal canon when I was younger and, for a while, it seemed like he could do no wrong. But, as you said, he's had more fumbles lately than successes (though I've definitely found his most recent work worthwhile, if not as groundbreaking as his nineties stuff). Unfortunately, I think the recent critical consensus against Hartley has made him a bit less prominent (if not invisible) amongst younger film aficionados, and it's a bit disheartening to see his status as a major independent filmmaker atrophy to this degree.

With that said, I have to admit that I've never seen THE BOOK OF LIFE. So thanks for the recommendation--I'm definitely going to check this one out.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks so much Chuck for your thoughts on Hartley. Hope I didn't come across like I didn;t think there wasn't value in his more recent works, as I do believe there is without question. Like yourself, I just think there has been a drop off...regardless of whether I love all of his stuff though he will always be a favorite especially because of his work with Adrienne Shelly and the monumental Henry Fool (a film I would put on a film class schedule if I taught one as one of the key and greatest works of the nineties).
Anyway, thanks again for commenting and check out The Book of Life if you get a chance. It takes a couple of viewings to warm up to but I find it really rewarding.