This page as PDF

Hal Hartley

In Good Faith We Trust


Has Hal Hartley become a forgotten name in cinema, and is this the rightful place for a director so obviously under the influence of Godard; who admits in an interview with the great man, ‘In Images We Trust’, that he feels perhaps he could move towards making better films? This is not the place to offer dismissive opinion, but instead to offer, instead, constructive singularity. How often do we read critics and what they provide us with is not the singularity of the filmmaker’s world, but the singularity of their own: their own expectations of what a film ought to be over what the film happens to be? Yet at the same time of course a piece on a film or filmmaker is an act of subjectivity; it is a response to an aesthetic world from a position of affective impact. If we cannot accept that Hartley or anybody else’s films are worth no more than a casual put-down, equally we cannot pretend the films are works of technical, relative objectivity there to be taken apart and analysed. An art work is something that we respond to and at the same time take apart, neither a food we can say we like or dislike, or a machine that we simply want to use. It is this in-betweenness that can usefully be opened up by Deleuze and Guattari’s distinctions in What is Philosophy? between functives and concepts, and precepts and affects.  As they say: “the object of science is not concepts but rather functions that are presented as propositions in discursive systems,” while concepts are “not vague or fuzzy sets, subsets, but totalizations that exceed all power of sets. They are not merely empirical judgements or opinions but proto beliefs, urdoxa, original opinions as propositions.” Affects and percepts, meanwhile, link up with sensations. “We paint, sculpt, compose, and write sensations.”

There is often when watching films a reaction that is a little like rejecting a food we have never tasted before, and we might wonder whether the food has been badly cooked – burnt, over-boiled, clumsily seasoned etc – or cooked in a manner in which our taste buds find alien. Hartley’s films often seem somewhere between food that hasn’t been cooked properly and food that has been cooked differently. How do we do justice to this aesthetic without rejecting it as amateurish (it is not entirely accidental that Amateur happens to be the title of one of Hartley’s films), nor crediting it with an originality that it cannot sustain? In the Godard interview,  Hartley says to the French director,  “I see (humor) in the smallest things: in the self portrait, you sitting down at the desk to write out your thoughts; or in Helas pour moi the girl dropping the bike; or in any number of things. That’s what I go to the movies for I’m finding, that kind of activity.” Partly the awkwardness of Hartley’s aesthetic lies in searching out the moment over momentum, so that his films often do not build narratively, nor even ‘scenically’, in the sense that the scenes are unified even if the whole film feels disjointed, more that an action or gesture interests him and that the film builds around these instances.  How can we do justice to this interest in the moment without either dismissing it (why am I watching this?) or too readily accepting it (oh this is like Godard)? If one feels Amateur is better than earlier films like Unbelievable Truth and Trust, it rests partly on our sense that this acceptance becomes Hartley-esque and not Godardian. It isn’t only because we have other earlier Hartley films to compare it to that creates the expectation of a Hal Hartley film, it is also because Hartley creates in this fourth feature what we might call an ‘aesthetics of justification’, a means by which the film can be seen on its own terms.

Yet to talk of a film on its own terms is to beg questions. Is any film on its own terms; doesn’t a film however original fit into an aesthetic mode that is indebted to a number of films that come before it? Obviously this is so, but if for example one watches The Unbelievable Truth and sees the director practicing a gest, a performance, that is indebted to Godard, and echoes Brecht, then what we are responding to is not the Hartley-esque but the homage to others. One senses that the percept is not sensational enough, that the affect feels second-hand, or, perhaps a more useful word, indebted.  How does the artist create a sense of aesthetic surplus and not debt seems to be a vital question for art, the sort of question Italo Calvino writes interestingly about in one of his Six Memos for the Next Millennium, ‘Visibility’. Talking of the “growing inflation of prefabricated images”  in relation to the fantastic, the options he proposes are: “We could recycle used images in a new context that changes their meaning. Post-modernism may be seen as the tendency to make ironic use of stock images of the mass media, or to inject the taste for the marvelous inherited from the literary tradition into narrative mechanisms that accentuate its alienation.  Or we could wipe the slate clean and start from scratch. Samuel Beckett has obtained the most extraordinary results by reducing visual and linguistic elements to a minimum, as if a world after the end of the world.”

Clearly Hartley is closer to the former than to the latter, but the prefabrication doesn’t rule out singularity, even it is always threatened by indebtedness. Yet many a non post-modern book and film plays with indebtedness without remotely acknowledging the debt. Numerous television programmes and many predictable films utilise the tropes, clichés and expectations of established form, as if, by virtue of the many occasions we have seen a character or situation before, we don’t expect the filmmaker or writer to create much of a context for his behaviour: the down-on-his-luck detective, the hard-drinking cop, the hard-bitten whore with a soft heart and so on. There is nothing self-conscious about their use, but they are equally indebted. However, there are numerous filmmakers for whom the surplus of gratitude is greater than the debt. When David Bordwell offers (through Harold Bloom) the term strong precursors, in Figures Traced in Light, these are ‘credit’ directors – Eisenstein, Rossellini, Antonioni, Jancso, Tarkovsky, and yes, Godard: despite his self-reflexive indebtedness to cinema tradition, few filmmakers have offered greater possibilities in the form. They are closer to the Beckettian as Calvino would define it. Yet even filmmakers who remain in debt, can nevertheless find a way of generating a sort of aesthetic profit, and if we admire Amateur over the earlier films it lies in this sense of a filmmaker paying his own way.

Now we are using horribly mercantile language here, but this has nothing to do with the checks and balances of the filmmaking industry, but instead only of the cinema art, and perhaps we can here change our metaphors.  How does a filmmaker produce images that seed as readily as sow, that don’t create fallow land but are constantly nurturing it so that fresh images can be produced? In this sense, filmmakers searching out the Beckett approach are much more useful than those offering the too readily post-modern.

Yet Hartley is a filmmaker in many ways in the post-modern tradition, a director who makes images out of other images (as his admiration for Godard reflects) and evident for example in the dance scene from Simple Men out of Bande a part, the inverse casting of Isabelle Huppert in Amateur as the nun out of the prostitute she plays in Godard’s Slow Motion, and the casting of Robert Burke in the Belmondoesque role in Unbelievable Truth as the murderer with charm.  However, there is in Hartley’s work an acknowledgement of deracination and consequently recontextualisation. When he borrows from  Bande a part he is in a long tradition of filmmakers post-Godard who have tried to reenergize a situation with dance movement, whether it happens to be Carax in The Night is Young, Garrel in Regular Lovers or Tsangari with Attenberg. In each instance, it as though they haven’t only homaged Godard in detail, but also in thematic enquiry, in musing over the underlying problem of energy that comes from somewhere but need not always be kinetically generated by narrative event. When for example Mike Wayne in an article on Tout va Bien, in Film International, mentions Godard’s cameraman, Raoul Coutard, saying Godard doesn’t make movies he makes moves, Wayne reckons Godard’s films are a composite of these moves. Does this mean that the event cannot come from ready cause and consequence, but must come from singular pockets of energy within characters, and is this what diegetic music used at certain moments can give the film? This doesn’t then merely become a homage to Godard, but an attempt to open up a problematic Godard was perhaps the first to explore in films like Vivre sa vie and Bande a part. The deracination of homage allows for the replanting of thematic enquiry.

The question then is whether Hartley’s work which might seem amateurish and derivative on occasion, can achieve a meaning beyond the images it borrows from, and achieve an affectivity greater than the apparent ineptitude it initially offers. Let us think of a scene from The Unbelievable Truth (and there is a similar one in Trust), where characters talk about their ambitions. In the first, we have Audrey’s boyfriend smugly telling her: “the whole world is out there in front of me and I’m ready for it,” while the camera reverses in front of them as they walk in a long tracking shot reminiscent of key moments of false consciousness and hope in Fassbinder’s Katzelmacher. Yet where in Fassbinder’s film there is aesthetic self-consciousness in the form that is not quite the same thing as saying it is self-reflexively film historical. If Fassbinder acknowledges the formal dimension of his work by utilising fixed frames throughout his film with the occasional tracking shot showing the characters’ dreamy ambitions, this is formal self-reflexivity. But when Hartley does it, it seems to contain another layer of the self-reflexive that incorporates the historical. One has no idea whether or not he has seen Katzelmacher, yet his interest in the outsider  and how the people in the small town absorb and reject the interloper, resembles Fassbinder’s film, and it feels like a scene with layers of self-reflexivity. Fassbinder’s film seems to posses only one.

Perhaps a safer example comes from Trust, where we have the over-head shot into a cup of coffee with a cigarette butt floating in it. The overhead shot of a coffee cup Godard uses in Two or Three Things I Know about Her, and various other films including Taxi Driver and The Piano have utilised the shot since, and so Hartley cannot in good faith use it without an implied self-consciousness. He does not create a fresh image, but he will at least comment on his debt to cinema that comes before him. Now if a filmmaker does so then cinema can find fresh images through the refusal of using images as if they were new, and assuming that the audience will not know any different and accept this newness that is actually nothing of the sort. This is cinematic bad faith in the sort of existential terms Jean Paul Sartre would couch it when saying, “the true problem of bad faith stems obviously from the fact that bad faith is faith. It cannot be either a cynical lie or a certainty…” Does this not often apply to filmmakers who believe that the audience does not need to know that what they are offering has been offered many times before, but that the acknowledgement of that debt would merely confuse the viewer and impact on their pleasurable identity with character and situation? Such a stance would then insist not that Hartley was acting in bad faith but that he was narcissistic, elitist, playing to the minority. The filmmaker wouldn’t acknowledge their ignorance; they would justify it through believing in the viewer’s own

By useful analogy one can mention a fine, short piece by Milan Kundera in Encounter where he writes on Juan Goytisolo’s The Curtain Falls. Here in the story an old man’s wife dies and he cannot recall the memories as he would wish and Kundera reads the novel aware that memories are destroyed, but perhaps in some ways for the best. In the novel, the old man and God are in conversation; and God reminds the old man of a visit to Chechnya. “It was the time, after Communism fell, when Russia went to war with the Chechens. For that reason the old man had taken along a copy of Tolstoy’s Hadji Marat, a novel about the war of those same Russians against those same Chechens, some 150 years earlier.” Kundera notes also that he too read Tolstoy’s novel at the time of the recent war, yet he never heard a journalist, an intellectual or a politician, mentioning Hadji Marat. “They were all shocked at the scandal of the massacre, but no one was shocked that the massacre was a repetition.” Why out of such repetition, with memory so oblivious, do people go on producing, Goytisolo’s blaspheming God wonders. Kundera concludes by saying: “Because the scandal of repetition is forever charitably wiped away by the scandal of forgetting (forgetting: that great bottomless hole where memory drowns”, the memory of a beloved woman as well as the memory of a great novel or of a slaughter).”

One cannot remember everything, but there is obliviousness and ignorance, and the bad faith would lie not in not knowing Tolstoy’s book, especially, but in thinking it was irrelevant. Perhaps for Hartley stealing a scene from Godard could be justified because what matters isn’t only the scene, but the genealogy of the scene, and while obviously not all viewers watching Hartley’s film will have seen Bande a part, that doesn’t mean Hartley will assume we have not. It is that assumption residing in a history of forgetting that so concerns anyone from Kundera to Hartley, and that plays too readily into the hands of a lazy capitalism. History is not bunk, they would claim, but for cinematic Fordists the past is ignored for the technology of the present, for the new products on the market.  Hartley seems to want not so much to be a product oblivious to cinematic history, but in dialogue with that history, just as when he interviewed Godard he was literally in dialogue with a filmmaker he admires.

But what we want to do in conclusion is look a little closer at several of these examples of what one might call dialogical homage, moments in film where one senses the filmmaker hasn’t taken a scene from an earlier work and remade it in their own image, so that all traces of the earlier scene are absorbed into the new one, but still live actively in dialogue with the earlier image. When Quentin Tarantino gives us the dance scene between John Travolta and Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction it is indebted but not quite in dialogue, and the same might be said of the opening to Jackie Brown that resembles the beginning of the Graduate. The homage is absorbed so completely within the diegesis that the dialogic doesn’t take place. Yet when Belmondo passes his thumb over his mouth in A bout de souffle the gesture contains the dialogical: it is Godard in conversation with classic Hollywood, as Hartley is in dialogue with Godard and other filmmakers, as Goytisolo is in dialogue with Tolstoy.

However, just as we’ve noted the dialogical homage in reference to other scenes – like the coffee cup insert out of Godard, and the tracking shot from Fassbinder – so frequently in Hartley it doesn’t always take the form of direct reference, but can be indirect: an inference. Take for example a couple of dialogue scenes; one from The Unbelievable Truth and the second from Trust. In the latter, Martin Donovan’s character is at the bar and he gets into an exchange with a woman who seems to be looking for a pick-up. In the sudden burst of classical music that strikes up, as Donovan sits down with his bottle of scotch, and that plays more quietly throughout the scene, though they happen to be in a bar where it would be unlikely classical music would be playing at all, in the abrupt shot/counter shots between the two characters, and in the dialogue exchange itself, one cannot but watch as a self-conscious viewer.  As the woman looks like she is interested, so Donovan asks her to get lost, before giving her information about the ozone layer, telling her he doesn’t have relationships and finally asking if she wants to go round the back and fuck. Suddenly the forward woman takes a step back, and hurtfully announces that he can’t talk to a mother of two children like that. Throughout, the conversation plays up its artificiality, and with the exchange possessing the pace of a screwball, but with a combination of non sequiturs, shifting behavioural patterns, and blank statements in the place of double entendres, the entire exchange is cinematically self-conscious. When Donovan says at one moment that “if you are through talking, you want to go out back and fuck”, it could be a line out of an Eastwood film.

In The Unbelievable Truth, the thirty odd year-old Robert Burke gets propositioned in a diner, moments after an argument with the teenage girl he likes. He sits there reading his book and a young woman slides into the seat and says she knows what he needs, reckons the other girl is crazy, repeating several time she knows what he needs, as he repeats himself also as they get caught in a conversational loop. The scene is shot in the opposite manner from the one in the bar in Trust: in one long take and without music. But both sequences demand of the viewer the self-conscious awareness that this is not dialogue but film dialogue, not people but characters, and characters caught in situations we have seen many times before, with dialogue that is hardly fresh, but where Hartley can at least make it self-reflexive.

Perhaps this self-reflexivity is especially pronounced in Amateur, where the self-reflexive seems constantly to be paying homage to other films but achieves its own internal momentum out of the moment. In some of the other works there is a self reflexivity that endangers feeling, or rather expects feeling too readily despite the awareness of the clichés deployed. In both The Unbelievable Truth and Trust, Hartley wants us to believe in the emotions of the couples in each instance without us quite believing in the situations they find themselves in.  It is a characteristic he picks up from Godard, but where Godard can film a love story with more love in the image than there is in the story, Hartley’s images remain too unsensuous for that. When Godard makes Le mepris, the sensuality is not especially between the couple, but between the camera and what it films, and the same with Pierrot le fou. It is as though colour gave Godard the necessary third dimension to relationships he didn’t want to make dramatically three-dimensional. He wanted us to believe in the images if not always in the story. Godard might once have said the central character [Paul Javal] is the first of my characters who is realistic, whose psychology can be explained – on a purely psychological level”, but do we believe in the character or do we believe in the world Godard creates?  If we are moved by the end of Le mepris, is it because of the deaths of Paul’s wife and his producer, or because of the colour and the music which indicates a tragedy foretold? Hartley has the same attitude as Godard often does to ellipsis of character, but does not possess Godard’s concentration on the image, on the image as beautiful in and of itself. Hence the love stories in The Unbelievable Truth and Trust have a knocked off quality that isn’t augmented by the concentration of the image’s beauty.

In Amateur, the love story is less conventionally pronounced, the purpose more dramatic, and the form more challenging. Take the scene near the end of the film where the amnesiac Martin Donovan talks to who happens to be his wife, Elina Lowensohn. Here the exchange is again circular, as in the scenes mentioned in The Unbelievable Truth and Trust, but they are underpinned by an emotion that feels more than a conceit whilst still acknowledging the predictability of the scenario. Here Donovan and Lowensohn are in an attic bedroom when the phone rings, and, after Donovan asks how he is supposed to know who it might be, she replies: “How are you supposed to know? Before you knew everything.” Donovan asks her to tell him what he used to know, and he ends up vociferously insisting she tell him who he is. This has the repetitive exchange quality of the earlier films, but sitting within it is the emotional memory of the couple, with the man not sure who he happens to be: he is accessing emotional memory, whilst at the same time ignorant of his previous actions.

Equally, the scene is filmed somewhere between German Expressionism and Vermeer, with the attic space offering cramped angles and the windows utilised for their airy light. During the exchange Lowenshohn is filmed in a painterly fixed frame that suggests tranquility; Donovan often in low angles against the diagonals of the space in a shot/counter shot that creates two different visual worlds. Then there is Isabelle Huppert, first introduced to us as she sits trying to write pornography despite her lack of sexual experience: she has been a practising nun; her instinct towards nymphomania countered by her choosiness which has left her a virgin approaching middle-age. Her character might be presented as a light paradox, but she isn’t too far removed from her sexually inexperienced but perversely motivated Erika Kohut in the later The Piano Teacher.  Huppert has often played roles containing an ambivalence towards the sexual, and so the role isn’t simply a one-line gag it could have become, but a nuanced portrayal of a spiritual oxymoron. Whilst Donovan and Lowensohn have experience a plenty (Donovan as a gangster; Lowensohn as a porn star), Huppert is the experientially ignorant who is nevertheless capable of great feeling that Hartley will capitalise on at the end of the film.

If The Unbelievable Truth and Trust conclude with a sense of the knocked off, a story concluding but without thematic heft, Amateur seems to wonder about what experience adds up to when you have two characters who fall for each other without one of them possessing much emotional experience, and the other without much memory. Just before the end of the film, before Donovan will meet his tragic demise, there is a discussion between Huppert and Donovan where he explains that he is sorry, even if he doesn’t know what he is sorry for. That must mean something he insists, and the scene is shot in a shot/counter shot manner that again indicates two characters in slightly different worlds. Much of the scene is shot from behind Donovan’s back, looking away from Huppert, while Huppert’s shots are slightly high angle. There is a mis-match here but also spiritual feeling. If the earlier moment with Lowensohn indicated a stale love with memory and feeling on her part, and lost memory and feeling on Donovan’s, this scene indicates an inexplicable spiritual coincidence.

The film may have been called Amateur, but this fourth feature film was surely the moment when Hartley could call himself a professional.  He has found a voice amongst the gaggle, managing to homage in some ways the ending of A bout de souffle, but equally drawing upon other filmmakers like Bresson for a story of spiritual sustenance against the odds, and no matter the human tragedy.  In the Godard interview Hartley talks about his new film: namely Amateur. “My new film is called Amateur, actually. And its title is used in that regard. An urge, you know, to see new. Yes, younger.” Yet it is this very youthfulness perhaps that gives the film a maturity Hartley can call his own. Dave Kehr in The Chicago Tribune once said his films are easy to take but just as easy to forget. Amateur has the capacity to linger with an amnesiac recall: we might not remember the details but we recall the feeling. Where earlier Hartley films left us more with the details and a weakened feeling as he respected the importance of his forebears, in Amateur the forebears are acknowledged but strangely sublimated. It is as if we, a little like Donovan’s character, know there is a past that we can feel but that we cannot quite place. That past is a cinema history never ignored but dialogically present. It create not cinematic bad faith, but a certain type of good faith instead.


©Tony McKibbin