Performance in the Cinema of Hal Hartley

by Steven Rawle

Description

Hal Hartley was one of the leading lights of the independent American cinema boom of the late 1980s and 1990s. Although his work never achieved the kind of crossover commercial success that other indie directors experienced, his work exhibits one of the most distinctive voices in recent American cinema. Combining wry, aphoristic dialogue with stylized performances and a muted, minimalist palette, Hartley’s films challenge cinematic conventions, especially in performance, and resist easy empathetic identification. His later work has carved out an even more specific niche, and, since 1999, his work has often explored extreme digital stylization.

Winner of the best screenplay award at the Cannes film festival in 1998 for Henry Fool, Hartley is best known for his films in the early-mid 1990s, including The Unbelievable Truth (1989), Trust (1990), Simple Men (1992), and Amateur (1994). His subsequent work has become more challenging, often examining the cultural role of the artist and the role of the work of art in the information age, as in Flirt (1995) and Henry Fool. Hartley has also experimented with digital video in his more recent work, including The Book of Life (1999), The Girl from Monday (2005), and Fay Grim (2006). Furthermore, he is well known as a prolific short filmmaker, including Surviving Desire (1991), Ambition (1991), Theory of Achievement (1991), The New Math(s) (1999) and two collections of short works released under his Possible Films label (2006 & 2010). The short films are experimental, formally challenging, and highly self-reflexive, capturing Hartley’s approach in its purest form.

While Hartley’s contemporaries often exhibited similar concerns with stylization and self-conscious narration, his work sits in an artistic lineage rooted in the concerns of the French nouvelle vague and the European arthouse tradition, following in the footsteps of Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Bresson, and Chris Marker. His work engages in an ironic critique of contemporary American culture, small town blue collar Americana, problems with communication and, above all, the performance traditions of cinema.

Despite his significant standing in mid-nineties indie cinema, Hartley’s work has never attracted a high-profile critical following. Often a bewildering source of frustration for popular criticism, Hartley’s approach to cinema has never been fully grasped by film critics, especially his films’ distinctive use of performance and performers, with reviews regularly lapsing into critical banalities, such as “quirky.” Perhaps as a consequence of this, and possibly as a response to Hartley’s lack of major crossover success, his work has never been the focus of sustained scholarly analysis, despite academia’s attention to Hartley as a significant, although minor, figure in studies of independent cinema’s golden age in the 1980s and 1990s.

In many regards, it is Hartley’s approach to performance that is a critical blockage, both in terms of scholarly and popular criticism. His work exhibits a minimalist, abstract and alienated mode of performance that denies easy empathy or identification, and his screenplays often utilize tropes of repetition that explore failures of communication and problems of performance discipline.

Hartley is an uncompromising independent artist––he has never had an agent and has run his own production company for twenty years––and, while the independent sector was bought out and co-opted by Hollywood, Hartley retained his independence, becoming a more marginal figure in the process. As his profile has diminished, his work has become more experimental, further rejecting conventional modes of performance and realism, and exploring the social, political and cultural processes behind performances and the constructions to which they testify.

With this first critical study of Hal Hartley’s work, Steven Rawle examines the physical and cultural performance practices at play in Hartley’s work. Focusing on the critical emphasis on performance and the performer in Hartley’s work, the book charts the development of this central facet of his films, from The Unbelievable Truth to the digital features. Identifying the main critical approaches to performance that illuminate this trend in his work, Rawle delves into the reasons why Hartley’s work has never gained popular recognition and explores why critical reactions to his films have never fully grasped the complete significance of performance. Part of this reason, Rawle argues, is the lack of critical tools by which to explore film performance. This book contributes to a growing body of work on film performance, taking this formerly critically neglected figure as its central case study.

This book will be an important book for fans of Hartley’s work as well as scholars of independent American cinema and of film performance.