Fringe Benefits: Hal Hartley’s Meanwhile And Web-Driven Return

First published on The Quietus (19th May 2012) //

Long Island’s singular independent film auteur used Kickstarter to fund the distribution of his first feature in six years. Declan Tan finds out more

If there was one director working today whose style could be instantly recognisable from that first frame, it would be Hal Hartley. At least up until Meanwhile, his first feature in six years, Hartley’s films have shared an often divisive aesthetic completely unique to his work, making him one of those notable auteurs who require a muttered warning before any recommendations.

Only ever dipping his toe into the mainstream in the late ’90s, after the serial Sundance Film Festival success of The Unbelievable Truth (1989) and Trust (1990), not to mention a Best Screenplay Award at Cannes for Henry Fool (1997), Hartley has sculpted a style thick – though not conspicuous – with humour, subversion and experimentation. He pokes a stick not only at the conventions of narrative and character development, but also audiences, to create his trademark minimalism. Asked in a New York Times interview in 1996 whether he wants viewers to enjoy his films, he said: “Enjoy? No, they have to work. Anything worthwhile necessitates work.”

This overtly Brechtian intent is perhaps one reason for his now selective appeal. Riffing off the Verfremdungseffekt (distancing effect) of Brecht’s dialectical theatre, though minus the Marxism, Hartley’s execution forces his audience to be constantly aware they are watching a film. It’s the very nature of his work – not only financially but also artistically independent – that keeps him out of the mainstream, distancing the viewer from any inauthentic connections while challenging commercial ideals of false realism and ‘creating illusion’. Shunning any deceptions of naturalism, his dialogue is often conspicuously literate, philosophical or just plain outrageous, creating work that has earned a cult following.

He sought out this cult following last year by initiating a Kickstarter campaign to pre-sell the DVD of Meanwhile, a movie more constrained and leaner than his earlier work. This fundraising drive eventually exceeded the $40,000 target by $16,433. The money went towards financing ‘deliverables’ to secure online distribution with New Video Group, who then sell on to various digital platforms (such as Netflix, Amazon and iTunes), guaranteeing a healthy chunk of repeat royalties for the director’s company Possible Films (generated largely by soundtracks), to then restart the process and re-invest in their next production. At risk of marketing his films direct-to-audience and no further, Hartley has previously insisted he doesn’t want to preach to the converted. Pre-selling films straight to a core fan base “sounds a bit too safe”, he opined at Sundance 2005 when premiering The Girl From Monday.

Meanwhile could well be the film that gets audiences and critics addicted to his work again. Far more accessible than its convoluted 2006 predecessor Fay Grim (which, in retrospect, seems the culmination of all that theory), Hartley has opted instead to develop the style of his short film collection Possible Films Volume 2, made in Berlin, where he lived for four years. He has since returned to his native New York, the setting of Meanwhile, which comes across in the shots of the city as a place constantly under construction, forever changing. Through Hartley’s lens we see it as somehow alien but familiar, the focus always on a face or a body moving through his frame. Early on there’s a certain amount of softening in regards to his European dramatic theory.

The story is also a simple one. It follows renaissance man Joe Fulton (DJ Mendel), who can seemingly fix anything. The static camera watches him travelling by foot from Brooklyn at one end of the city to Washington Heights at the other. First he must pick up some keys from a friend, the real-life wife of an unseen ‘Hal Hartley’. When we first meet Joe he’s fixing some plumbing for a woman, possibly an ex-girlfriend, who, wearing only an iPod and a pair of white panties, pays him cash that he refuses. It’s an act of pride or duty or something else that we see Joe do on many occasions. He then embarks on various side-projects: auditioning for the drummer’s seat in a band; importing energy-efficient windows from Germany; selling his novel; making a film.

Along the way he encounters problems, often monetary. Joe’s bank has, without warning, frozen his assets due to unpaid taxes, making it impossible for him to even use his mobile, never mind kick-start his business venture importing energy efficient German windows. But these problems are always secondary to those of others. He compulsively comes to the aid of a seemingly suicidal woman on the Brooklyn Bridge, a stranded deliveryman, a cleaner, a volatile actress and a writer, among others.

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/260302407/meanwhile/widget/video.html

Broken into short numbered chapters that at first seem to parallel the film Joe is trying to make, titled The Stations Of The Cross, the story quickly becomes soaked in meta. The outward simplicity of the plot churns into something dense and more familiar to a Hartley film. Each line is loaded with possible interpretations, each action simultaneously a representation of one thing or another, and in all of it Hartley’s voice seeps through. You’re left pondering the connection between German windows and his work, or the significance that Joe’s novel, read cover to cover by Hal’s assistant in the Possible Films offices, is titled Meanwhile. Or that the film appears to be set in 2009, the year Hartley returned to New York. Or the subtext of Joe’s conversation about success and the odour of failure with the laconic writer in the bar. And so on. But even with all of this chewing over, events are not void of humour, and it’s a recognisably wry wit with which Hartley’s script critiques his subject. Joe attempts to cast his vain ex-wife as the ageing Virgin Mary. She sternly informs him on a number of occasions, however, that she now has a “semi-regular recurring role on one of the most watched crime dramas on American television”.

Even its duration signals Hartley’s progressive attitude towards how we will consume content in the future, with a keen eye on online distribution. Having presaged the idea of movie streaming for The Girl From Monday, back when the technology wasn’t yet available, he set up the Possible Films website. And typical of his iconoclastic nature, indifferent to feature-length edicts, this new story is a lean 60 minutes. It’s the sign of a director in control. There are no lost moments, no wasted shots. The musical score, often intrusive in his other pictures, is toned down here, with a few excellent selections from The Lost Patrol and Pete Galub. Hartley has refocused. We’re presented with an oddly alien yet familiar world that seems stiff and formal, and within these frames surprising, loose things happen. New York takes on this sharp and steely digital finish. Joe moves through it deliberately, Mendel’s physical intensity barely contained within his skin.

After Henry Fool, Hartley said that he had achieved all he wanted to in cinema. Meanwhile tells us there’s still a lot more material to mine. Having shunned the studio system, instead opting to make films his way, the question is where he will find an audience if no longer in the movie theatre. But if honing an original style is an aspiration of great artistry, then Hartley has both reached and endeavoured to reinvent it. And rather than the silver screen, it might now be the computer screen that you see this on.

Various formats of the Meanwhile DVD and soundtrack can be ordered direct from Possible Films.

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