The third film in Hal Hartley’s lunatic epic trilogy about an ex-con with literary delusions and his relations with a garbageman from Queens and his sister opens this week at the SIFF Film Center. Released in 1997, the first film in the trilogy, Henry Fool was, as far as I can tell, Hartley’s most successful release, taking in almost one and a half million dollars at the box office. While his reputation rests on the series of films he made in the early 90s, hallmarks of that decade’s American independent film movement (Trust, The Unbelievable Truth, Amateur, Flirt), his career seems to have sputtered over the last 20 years, with only a couple of features seeing completion. The second film in the trilogy, 2006’s Fay Grim, grossed only 10% of its predecessor, and the new film was funded by Kickstarter. I believe this says more about the state of independent film production distribution and exhibition in the United States than it does about Hartley as a filmmaker.
With nine years passing between the release of each film in the trilogy, comparisons are inevitable to the work of another oddball refugee from the early 90s indie scene, albeit a vastly more commercially-successful one, Richard Linklater. There’s the element of watching people grow up of course, in Boyhood and of course the Before Trilogy, in which each film is also spaced nine years apart. But that’s probably where the comparisons should end. Richard Linklater at his most esoteric (say his animated films or Slacker) is Hal Hartley at his most accessible. Rather than revisit his characters over time within the same generic formula to see how they have changed with age, as in the Before movies, each film in Hartley’s trilogy is wildly different in style, tone and genre, with the result that taken as a collective the films are not so much examinations of characters as they are reflections of the worlds in which the films are made, snapshots of cinema, and a generation, as it was in 1997, in 2006 and in 2015.
The first film is an intimate epic about the friendship between two men: garbageman Simon Grim and drunken degenerate raconteur Henry Fool. Henry’s verbose embrace of life, his loquacious lust for unconventional, immoral experience inspires the shy recluse Simon to write poetry, poetry so incendiary in its scatology that it in turn inspires miracles and denunciations in equal measure. As Simon’s fame grows it eclipses Henry’s, whose own unpublished novel (his “Confession”) languishes unread for years, and, once read, is determined to be just plain bad. Simon wins the Nobel Prize while Henry knocks up Simon’s sister Fay and gets married, taking on Simon’s old job as a garbageman. Filling out the edges is a whole community: a local priest, a convenience store owner and his daughter, a hooligan-turned right wing activist-turned wife beater, Fay and Simon’s invalid mother, a book publisher, adoring high school students, a whole neighborhood brought to life. The film ends with Henry’s escape, one step ahead of the law, leaving his family behind.
With 2006’s Fay Grim, we’ve entered a whole new world. More of a piece with mid-aughts classics like Olivier Assayas’s Boarding Gate or Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control than the off-beat Americana of the first film, Fay (played once again by Parker Posey, as luminous as ever) is recruited by the CIA (in the form of Jeff Goldblum, because of course) to help track Henry down. It seems that his novel was too terrible to have been written in seriousness, but is in fact a coded record of highly sensitive national secrets accumulated during his 15 years working for/betraying the Agency across the globe, from Chile to Afghanistan. Shot entirely in off-kilter Dutch angles (well, almost entirely, Hartley claims that the only times the camera isn’t tilted in the film are when he and his cameraman forgot to move it), the film adopts an international techno-thriller tone as Fay hops from Queens to Paris to Istanbul, following Henry’s obscure trail and accumulating a dizzying array of enemy foreign agents as the conspiracy theories surrounding Henry and his book grow ever more hilariously incomprehensible. The earthy humanity of Henry Fool is abandoned in favor of wild leaps of implausibility, leavened only by small acts of friendship and Parker Posey’s impeccable hair and smashing wardrobe.
Ned Rifle heads off in yet another direction. Henry and Fay’s son, now 18 years old and a devout Christian, leaves the home of his Witness Protection foster family (headed by a reverend played by Hartley-stalwart Martin Donovan) in search of his father. He blames him for the fate of his mother, now imprisoned for life as a terrorist, and wants to kill him. His quest takes him to the Northwest, ostensibly Seattle, Portland and Spokane but quite obviously not shot here (it was entirely filmed in the state of New York). Along the way he meets up with Aubrey Plaza, an odd woman with an incompetent way with lipstick and an obsessive knowledge of the works of Simon Grim.
If each film in the trilogy is in a way an encapsulation of its time, then Henry Fool is about reconciliation, specifically the reconciliation of the demands of art with the mundane requirements of domesticity (and the rejection of that reconciliation), the merging of the brows between the poetic aspirations of its heroes and their ugly, lustful, grossly scatological needs. Fay Grim likewise chronicles the descent of its generation into the paranoid madness of the Bush years, with terrorism seemingly everywhere and a surveillance system to match, everything is connected and none of it makes any sense. With Ned Rifle, a new generation emerges, one that rejects all the values of its parents (Ned speaks of literature and poetry with all the disdain an intelligent 18 year old can muster). While Simon clumsily grasps at relevance (the Nobel Laureate has become an aspiring stand-up comic: he has a video blog) and Henry withdraws once again into delusion (riffing on a joke from Fay Grim there remains the possibility that he’s a 400 year old sidekick of the Devil) and Fay finds time to read at last (she starts a book club in prison, weighing each tome by number of pages: Don Quixote, War and Peace, Les Misérables), Ned has a clear-headedness, a moral sense, a belief that the others, for all their worldliness and wisdom and experience find utterly, bafflingly incomprehensible. Our children become monsters.
Ned Rifle opens Friday, April 10th at the SIFF Film Center.