To reach Hal Hartley’s office, you must descend into the basement of Sever Hall and wend your way through a maze of low-ceilinged corridors, stopping in momentary perplexity at restroom doors and emergency exits until you find yourself in the warren of rooms that houses the filmmaking faculty of the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies (VES).
It seems an appropriate prelude to an encounter with this independent filmmaker who has such a knack for portraying everyday environments in a way that makes them seem strange, disconcerting, and, at times, hauntingly beautiful.
“You know within three or four minutes of watching any of his films that it’s a Hal Hartley film,” says Bruce Jenkins, curator of the Harvard Film Archive. “He’s one of the most interesting and important contemporary practitioners, and I think he brings a very contemporary and very American approach to filmmaking.”
Hartley’s feature films include “The Unbelievable Truth” (1989), “Trust” (1990), “Simple Men” (1992), “Henry Fool” (1997), and his most recent feature, “No Such Thing,” which has its U.S. premier tonight (March 21) at the Carpenter Center. He has also made many short films, several music videos, and one commercial. For all of his films he has served as both writer and director, and on many he has produced, edited, and written the music as well.
For one who has created such an impressive body of work, Hartley, a tall, slender man who seems to radiate an atmosphere of measured calm, can be refreshingly matter-of-fact about the process of filmmaking.
“Making a film is not that mysterious,” he says. “There’s a lot to think about, but it’s a large process made up of a lot of simple tasks.”
Hartley, a visiting lecturer in VES, is currently teaching students about those tasks in his studio course on filmmaking. His approach is to emphasize the skills one must master in order to make a film. For this purpose, he often provides his students with scripts, much as an English composition teacher might give students assigned topics on which to write.
“It’s a lot to learn in one year. My advice to them is not to get hung up on trying to appear more brilliant than they are.”
Hartley’s own path to filmmaking was a somewhat indirect one. He grew up in the suburban town of Lindenhurst on Long Island with an interest in drawing and playing classical guitar. He went to the Massachusetts College of Art thinking he might become an illustrator of record albums, but after taking a film course he changed directions.
“I discovered a real affinity between my drawings and making motion pictures. My drawings always seemed to have a narrative quality.”
Money problems forced him to drop out after a year and get a job, but he continued making movies in a Super-8 format. Thus, he was able to add these creations to his portfolio when his financial picture changed, enabling him to reapply to college, this time to the State University of New York, Purchase (SUNY-Purchase), known for its prestigious film program.
Hartley credits SUNY-Purchase with turning him into an independent filmmaker with more interest in expressing himself than hitting the box office jackpot. One of his biggest influences was the late Richard Rogers, who later taught at Harvard and directed the Film Study Center.
Jenkins finds that, although Hartley makes fiction films, the work has qualities in common with the sort of documentary filmmaking at which Rogers excelled.
“Hal’s work is very close to observational cinema. It has at its core a real relation to seeing the world with clarity,” Jenkins said.
But the teachers at SUNY-Purchase who helped form Hartley’s sensibility and intellectual interests were not all in the film program.
Told that he would need to work on his language skills, Hartley enrolled in a series of recommended literature courses, discovering an affinity for the poets, playwrights, and prose writers of the Renaissance.
“I ended up with a Renaissance humanist education, which created an interesting dynamic with what I was learning as a film student. The writers I encountered for the first time in college are still very much an influence on my work. To this day when I travel anywhere, I have Montaigne’s essays with me.”
This concern with the written word turns up repeatedly in Hartley’s films. In “Henry Fool,” for example, the title character, a disreputable bohemian who blows into town puffing a cigarette and lugging a shabby suitcase stuffed with manuscripts, predicts that when his autobiography is finally published it will shake society to its foundations. Henry fails to achieve this grandiose result, but his protégé, the erstwhile garbageman Simon, publishes his poetry on the Internet and ends up winning the Nobel Prize.
The influence of Montaigne, Shakespeare, and other Renaissance writers can also be seen in the extent to which Hartley’s films are dialogue-driven. In a typical Hartley film, characters are apt to make lengthy speeches full of ironies and non sequiturs, like fractured Shakespearean monologues, delivered with a characteristic deadpan detachment.
Hartley’s use of irony and exaggeration bordering on the grotesque have caused some critics to label his films as cynical, a characterization that he finds puzzling.
“I don’t understand why critics can’t wade through the irony and see the more optimistic attitude underneath. I’m often almost embarrassed at the warm-hearted fuzziness of them.”
It isn’t the warm-heartedness alone that redeems Hartley’s irony. The filmmaker still looks at the world with the eye of an artist, filling his films with beautifully composed and exquisitely lighted shots, even when the surroundings are no more picturesque than a hospital corridor or grimy loading dock.
“I’m still applying design sensibilities to the world around me,” he says.
Hartley’s latest film represents something of a departure for him. It is the first film he has made with a major production company (Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studio). It is also a genre new to him – a monster movie. Hartley’s movie breaks with convention, however, by introducing the monster right up front. There is no suspenseful buildup. The monster, a hideously ugly creature who kills and eats people in addition to having problems with alcohol and nicotine addiction, is simply another character.
Hartley says the people at Zoetrope were not thrilled by his decision to dismiss monster movie conventions so cavalierly, but he also says that his decision to put the monster on screen without all the usual creepy foreshadowings and triggerings of the audience’s startle response is one of the most Hartleyesque aspects of the film.
It is a decision that reflects Hartley’s grounding in Renaissance humanist writers who start from the premise that man is the measure of all things. Hartley may try on a Hollywood genre or two, but he is bound to tailor its conventions to his own abiding concern with the human predicament.
“I think that movies are an effective arena for considering the truths of what it means to be a human being,” he says.
Hartley will introduce his latest film, “No Such Thing,” at the Harvard Film Archive tonight (March 21) at both 7 and 9:15 p.m. Admission is $10. See Calendar for details.