I saw Henry Fool when it came out on video. I remember watching Hal Hartley then fade from view on the cultural landscape. I misunderstood it at the time, as a matter of my changing personal relationship with his work; as it turned out, that shift was collective, and seemed to include Hartley himself, who also grew tired of his own sensibility.
I had been drawn in by Trust, which in suitably Hartleyesque fashion, I had shoplifted on VHS from the local grocery store, Carrs, in Wasilla, Alaska, where I lived. Martin Donovan and Adrienne Shelly together resonated so deeply with my thirteen-year old self that they were all I ever wanted from adulthood, or from life. That it ended poorly for them was no deterrent, pubescent fatalist that I was. Everyone in it seemed so smart, so sexy, so dangerous, that was enough to justify the consequences. Simple Men, same: I mean, shortly thereafter, I majored in Philosophy, for god’s sake. I should sue Hal Hartley for that.
Amateur and Flirt left me nonplussed, but Henry Fool was where he lost me, me the insufferably pretentious undergraduate by this point, who thought he had moved beyond this trifling epiphenomenal allusiveness and gesturing of Hartley’s. I had picked up philosophical references from Woody Allen as a kid, but began to take them seriously with Hartley and his arthouse predecessors, and then it metastasized into something awful. I was going all in on the Ding an sich, maybe even Dasein itself, or so I thought. I meant Heideggerian phenomenology, not Hegel, that’s the kind of bore I had become. I had recognized Martin Donovan in Trust as a waggish autodidact, but I calibrated poorly and became a pompous one. Watching Henry Fool in the house I was sitting for an English professor, I thought, who is this jerk? If he wants to comment on Art, why doesn’t he write a book? Narrative film is a silly and shallow medium, the fool.
Those were bad years, for me and the people close to me. I’m still ashamed of many things. Eventually I came full circle, attempted to make some amends, and admitted that I should have gone with my friends to see that White Zombie show with the Toadies opening instead of holding my nose up in the air and being an elitist dick. I came to hate the things that had shaped me, maybe because they made for convenient excuses. I never watched another thing from Hartley, though, who, fairly or not, felt tethered to a version of me I preferred to leave entombed in the Nineties.
Two full decades passed. One was spent on the east coast, though I’ve still never set foot on Long Island (and I’m not immune to that sort of geekery, having toured Staten Island chasing Andy Milligan’s ghost). And then somehow I realized this final shot of Henry Fool—
–was shot at Newark Liberty International Airport, and that was all it took.
It was something of a private ordeal to revisit Hartley and risk dredging up these submerged and unpleasant memories, so naturally, I went all in for a near-complete retrospective. The early stuff holds up remarkably well, shorts included. I’ve developed a visceral antipathy toward the cinema of trying-to-sound-smart, which is nearly 100% overcompensatory grasping by men who are not as smart as they purport but have learned to harness intellectualism as a come-on much like emo guys who practically weaponize their vulnerability, and look, I can’t entirely hate on any of this, it effectively sums up the entirety of my lifetime flirting practices, but it nearly always, everywhere, makes for shitty films unduly impressed with their own allusions to Nietzsche. Not so for Hartley, who comes across as genuinely sharp when his characters riff on metaphysics or whatever.
The later stuff, I had never even been curious about, and it proved a revelation: Book of Life, The Girl from Monday, Fay Grim, Meanwhile, Ned Rifle, these are all truly thoughtful and deeply felt works, savvy, resonant, and accomplished. The only thing I disliked was the 2000 short The New Math(s), a fairly miserable exercise in mirthless zaniness. The only thing I skipped was Trust, which I feared would trigger some navel-gazing melancholy so intense that I might try to remember my LiveJournal password from fifteen years ago, and that’s just not where I’m at in life right now. I still have that stolen VHS tape, though. Someday.
So this leaves Henry Fool. It’s fitting that it, and Hartley’s glory years, taps out here in Newark: we all find ourselves out there on that tarmac someday, running to or from something. (The film has nothing to say about Newark, nor does it even explicitly acknowledge its location in the scene, which is why this is part of my Newark film blogging but more about me than it). As I remember it, this was the end of an era, or at least a moment; my memories of late-90s American film are largely a soggy Miramaxian funk, all Shakespeare in Love and uninspired Tarantino knockoffs, before everyone picked up and went elsewhere, be it HBO or shifting from making Swingers to Jason Bourne movies.
This was his micro-epic, an abrasive cacophony of a film, Hartley’s earthiest, with puking, belching, explosive shitting that gets misconstrued as a wedding proposal. He wants to burn it all down, all of the wretched Sundance Nation that 90s independent film had become as refracted through the final frames of Two-Lane Blacktop, the terminal point of an era gone sour, shot at a real terminal for punctuation. He switches gears, but by jamming it into all gears at once. It creaks and grinds, stumbling through the old Hartley poses, now run slightly ragged, worse for the wear, a shopworn drollery, some tinny dialogue, Kevin Corrigan instead of Bill Sage. Thomas Jay Ryan performs by shouting everything, and James Urbaniak gives an ingrown hair of a performance that you nearly need to squeeze out manually, and painfully. It all involves poetry, failure, and unpleasant sex, and it goes on forever. You can’t even tell if it’s deliberately failing.
And yet: it never gels but it does compound, until there you are at the end, with that old calmly stirring Hartley score, and damn. Hartley’s achieved some sort of post-Brechtian inversion where your very alienation as a viewer makes you all the more eager to emotionally invest when he does offer some cracks in the film’s hard surface. Ryan’s title character is running, and you’re ready to forgive it a lot (it needs it, but that’s the point of forgiveness).
It left Ebert confused (“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. Things happen, and I don’t know what they mean”), while Hoberman later called it “a seriously frivolous allegory on art, fame, fate, and the power of the Internet.” It has problematic gender politics, and whatever points it gets for challenging the national sex panic that led to shamefully punitive measures for offenders, it loses for failing to think through its challenge seriously enough, leaving hanging plot threads such as the nascent poet Simon Grim seemingly harassing young girls at a library in emulation of his sleazy muse Henry Fool, a bit too disturbing to sit as a throwaway subplot. Cheryl Dunye beat Hartley fair and square to a Camille Paglia joke a year earlier in Watermelon Woman (one of the best films of the decade), and did it better.
Still, it sits with you, confronts you, maybe haunts you even. Parker Posey is great, as she is in everything. I was wrong to dismiss Henry Fool back in the day, though it was the right thing for me at the time. Twenty years later, I hope I’m less insufferable. I think I’m ready for a healthy relationship with Hal Hartley. He should come back to Newark sometime, this was a pretty short visit.