The boom in independent film productions that occurred in America during the nineties produced countless films of various genres, most of which have been more or less forgotten. Even if the films themselves still enjoy some kind of minor popularity, as is the case with Living In Oblivion (1995) and Party Girl (1995), the filmmakers who spear headed and shaped the movement have themselves drifted into obscurity despite the quality of their body of work. Among the filmmakers for whom this is the case are Whit Stillman, Abel Ferrara, Gregg Araki, and Hal Hartley. However, this unfortunate occurrence is particularly strange in the case of Hal Hartley, whose films have become, arguably, more relevant since their initial release.
In November 1998 Ryan Gilbey proposed in an issue of Sight & Sound that Hal Hartley was an auteur in the classic sense, giving as his reason the unifying theme of Hartley’s films, a quest for identity. This quest is dramatized in Hartley’s films neither politically nor economically as would be expected, but sociologically. From Hartley’s first film, The Unbelievable Truth (1989) to the very film Gilbey was reviewing, Henry Fool (1998), the struggles of Hartley’s protagonists remain the same in that the main character must escape the confines of familial life in obscurity and assert themselves in the world outside with an identity remarkably different from that which they possessed at the beginning of the film. In the moment of the conception of these films it is obvious that Hartley is retaliating against the conservative politics of the eighties, spitting in the face of the nuclear family if you will. But to do that he must solve the problem of wealth and convenience, the springs in the trap that, at least for his generation and those that followed, prevents young people from striking out on their own, either physically or emotionally, and in some cases both.
The sociological problems Hartley recognized so early have since been heightened, even exaggerated with the advent of personal electronics and the hey day of the Internet. Today, more than ever, it has become tremendously difficult to assert ones self against the influx of information and the confines of social networking. Watching Trust (1990) or Simple Men (1992) today one is immediately struck by urgency that, back in the nineties, critics could not have recognized for reasons beyond their control. Hartley’s ability to foresee a trend in America’s social development elevates his films above those of his contemporaries in terms of a contemporary reading.
Yet, Hartley is the most obscure filmmaker out of Whit Stillman, Gregg Araki, and Abel Ferrara. Twice as many people under the age of thirty have probably seen King Of New York (1990) than have seen Amateur (1994). The principal reason for this has to do with the style of Hartley’s films. Where Ferrara is invested in reflecting reality in his films Hartley chooses to represent it. The same could be said for Whit Stillman, who also imbues his films with a decidedly literary quality, though his stylization is far more cautious than that of Hartley, who, in many cases, desires his audience as well as the film to be aware of their role and position within the cinema. In other words, Hartley represents a stylistic extreme, and like most extremists his films are not among the most easily accessible to audiences.
The inaccessibility, or rather the degree of inaccessibility, is indicative of an even more upsetting trend in American film. Hartley enjoyed a healthy reputation in the nineties; his films were mildly popular with the college demographic, the equivalent today being Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach. But if one compares the films of Hartley to that of Anderson one not only sees the obvious influence of one upon the other, but a moving away from the novelistic approach to film, which in this particular form originated with Hartley and was refined by Stillman. Fashion has dictated a certain degree of conformity amongst all American films in the last decade or so, going back to around the time Hartley completed Fay Grim (2006). The level at which audiences seem to prize this conformity is incredibly high and has inhibited the development of Cinema in America considerably. Take for instance the cool reception Stillman’s Damsels In Distress received in 2012 compared to that of his previous film The Last Days Of Disco (1998). This volatile environment is precisely why Hartley has restricted himself to short films or short features that inhabit exclusively the world of the film festival. Hartley’s work has not diminished; his audience has, just as was the case for Jean-Luc Godard in the mid-seventies.