By Elbert Ventura
Dir. Hal Hartley, U.S., Magnolia Pictures
For this impressionable cinephile in the Nineties, Hal Hartley was nothing less than a revelation. His handmade movies were at once diffident and precocious, a deft fusion of the literary, the theatrical, and the cinematic. Poker-faced performances, witty aphorisms, exquisite pratfalls, and Godardian flourishes sat side by side, dissonant pieces that somehow fit together into a coherent style. Like the movies or not, one thing you couldn’t call them was impersonal, so insistent was Hartley’s authorial voice in every frame.
The decade that gave birth to indie saw Hartley, for a moment, assume the vanguard of a movement. Kevin Smith, in the end credits to Clerks, lumped him in with Richard Linklater, Jim Jarmusch, and Spike Lee, thanking them all for “leading the way.” By 1997’s Henry Fool, Hartley fans were giddily (yet also warily) anticipating a mainstream breakthrough, a leap that seemed all but assured by an appearance on Janet Maslin’s top-ten list and a screenwriting award at Cannes. Then…nothing. His next feature, 2001’s No Such Thing, was a major disappointment, leaving even his loyal cult unmoved. By then, the Nineties Sundance ship had sailed on to bigger ports, while Hartley was left stranded on his own island.
Which was probably just fine with him. Part of Hartley’s appeal was his adamant refusal to participate in the scene he unwittingly helped build. He seemed the kind of guy who just wanted to be left alone to do his work, who had little use for tastemakers and trendsetters. (It wouldn’t surprise me if Hartley finds that Clerks credit less poignant than I do now.) In some ways, Fay Grim seems exactly the kind of thing we tend to praise—a personal, uncompromising movie by an outsider making the kind of picture that he wants to make. And if movies were judged by only the convictions behind them, then Fay Grim would be an unqualified success, instead of the forlorn reminder of past relevance that it is.
How apt that the movie is about the ineradicable—yet unrecoverable—past. Henry Fool left us with the image of Thomas Jay Ryan’s title character, a fugitive from the law, making a dash for a plane. Years later, we find out that he did get away, but left behind considerable debris. His wife, Fay Grim (Parker Posey), is desperately trying to keep her makeshift life together; her brother, Nobel laureate Simon (James Urbaniak), languishes in prison for helping Henry escape; her son, Ned (Liam Aiken, a Martin Donovan in the making), has just been expelled from school for possession of a retro porn gadget he received in the mail. The porn actually kick-starts the narrative, a half-baked gloss on The Da Vinci Code, Graham Greene, and Hitchcock. Ned discovers that inscribed in the background of the flickering three-way is an indecipherable message. Out of the blue, CIA agents descend upon Fay’s Woodside home to tell her that her husband died in Europe years ago, and that his notebooks—his unpublished “Confessions”—are actually of vital national security importance. Recruited to recover them, Fay goes to Paris and plays the credulous American surrounded by sinister schemers.
To call the plot “half-baked” is hardly an insult. Henry Fool may have been the prequel, but Amateur (1994) is the movie’s real precursor. That movie, a Hartley joint masquerading (badly) as a thriller, let us in on the joke with its very title, the director’s nod to his own ineptitude (and disinterest) in genre filmmaking. Hartley evinces the same disregard here, using the conspiracy thriller as a frame to revisit pet themes and tropes. Wobbly throughout, the movie does find its footing every so often. At first, it all seems a droll send-up, replete with Dutch angles, convoluted exposition (delivered most winningly by Jeff Goldblum, a natural at Hartley-speak), bumbling spooks, and a hilariously transparent MacGuffin. To the Hartley devotee, the peculiar pleasures are familiar: the deadpan readings, the Kabuki-like choreography, the welcome intrusion of low comedy (a bit involving a phone on vibrate comes to mind).
Posey isn’t quite right for the role—she’s wound too tight—but the sight of a frazzled Fay running around Europe in runway get-up is the movie’s most consistent pleasure. If Fay is Hartley’s Holly Martins, then there must be a Harry Lime. It isn’t much of a spoiler (how can you spoil a movie that doesn’t give a fig for plot?) to reveal that Henry returns, to little effect. By the time that twist rolls around, the movie has exhausted its ideas and our patience—not least because of its shift from lark to dark. Initially a play on the conspiracy thriller, the movie then morphs into an actual one, with an Osama bin Laden stand-in and even a suicide bombing. The shift from the pop abstract to the political concrete is jarring and inexplicable (its stab at the geopolitical makes Syriana look like a Council of Foreign Relations production). The same tendency reared its head in No Such Thing, in tin-ear harangues about media and society. Hartley the critic works best when he keeps his touch light, as in a throwaway line by Simon’s publisher that “avant-garde poetry is losing its popularity.” The foray into the real world underscores a fundamental weakness of Hartley’s—namely, his lack of interest in the real world. That was just fine in his earlier movies, which featured reluctant romantics and addled neurotics pontificating on loftier things: love, morality, identity, and other grand preoccupations. When he ventures into earthly matters, it only reveals the unflattering side of his hermetic art.
Not in the least affecting, Fay Grim gets worse the longer it lingers. There is no pleasure in noting that the same could be said for Hartley’s career (though give him this much—he has made a living staying on his idiosyncratic, uncompromising path). Always more interested in ideas than in people, Hartley for a while there hit his stride, making detached movies that unexpectedly seeped pathos. Performers like Martin Donovan and Adrienne Shelley—she will be missed—gave Hartley’s movies their beating heart; their vulnerability clashed nicely with the mannered mise-en-scène. For all of their cleverness, movies like Trust, Simple Men, and Amateur stayed with you because of their wounded romanticism.
Where did the love go? It’s still there, but one wonders if it’s marooned in nostalgia forever. Hartley’s stagnation is all the more glaring when compared with a contemporary’s rise. Richard Linklater, another of Kevin Smith’s heroes, made a Nineties indie hit and followed it with a sequel set nine years later. The yawning disparity between Before Sunset and Fay Grim says it all. The former was a movie that movingly embodied the evolution of the artists involved; the latter feels like the product of a sensibility in stasis. You never doubt why Before Sunset had to be made; Fay Grim ends with that question remaining unanswered. It’s as if Hartley keeps making movies because it’s the only thing he knows to do, not because he has something to say. And that is why one of them is still “leading the way,” while the other seems to have lost his.