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Performance in the Cinema of Hal Hartley By Steven Rawle

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Performance in the Cinema of Hal Hartley

A review of the DVD of Hal Hartley’s The Unbelievable Truth (1989) praises the film as “quirky” and “engaging” but criticises “the atrocious acting”, where most of the cast “seems to be performing in a high-school play … in a large auditorium … where it’s necessary to yell”.3 The review highlights a common blockage that is not just specific to Hartley’s films, but also to popular and academic criticism of film. A selection of both positive and negative reviews of Hartley’s films emphasise the problematic relationship between performance and criticism with references to “laid-back silences”,4 “comically stylised hair-tearing”,5 “subtle, resourceful actors”,6 “deadpan non sequiturs”,7 “deadpan readings”,8 the “clipped, slightly elevated register”,9 “impassive”, “wooden” 10 or “controlled and carefully composed” acting,11 “stiffness and sparsity”, 12 “percussive dialogue, spoken in flat tones”,13 “unbelievable performances”,14 “opaque stage business”,15 or “flat” and “unaffecting” performances.16 Subjective opinions seem to decide whether Hartley’s approach to performance is successful or not, although few critics seem able to decipher why Hartley should approach performance in this manner. Thierry Jousse’s observation in Cahiers du Cinéma that Hartley’s preferred mode of performance strikes an “equilibrium … between the artificial and the natural”17 is one of the few reviews to determine the function and consequence of Hartley’s approach to the abstraction of performance.

Hartley has been considered a key player in the independent boom of the 1980s and 1990s, but often features, critically, as a notable, but largely secondary figure.18 Hartley has never achieved significant crossover success, unlike many of his peers. Like other noted independent filmmakers, however, Hartley portrays a highly developed authorial style, including tableaux-style composition, a distinctive writing style, particular ways of working with performers, and a recurring use of electronic and minimalist music (composed by him, previously under the pseudonym Ned Rifle). Born in 1959 and raised in Lindenhurst, Long Island, New York, Hartley grew up in an industrial blue-collar environment. After graduating from the State University of New York at Purchase, Hartley returned to this environment for his first film, The Unbelievable Truth, which was shot in Lindenhurst and provides