This weekend, Hal Hartley's new film FAY GRIM opened to decidedly mixed reviews with some critics like LA Times
Kevin Crust celebrating Hartley's stalwart indie aesthetic, "This film feels like Hartley has been handed a Bourne or a Bond movie to direct and maintained his own style and low-budget aesthetic while thoroughly enjoying and deconstructing his new toy." While others, like EW's Owen Gleiberman lambasting Hartley for his indlugence, claiming the film "is really just a convoluted plea for the relevance of precious indie artistes (i.e., Hal Hartley)."
That this film is presented as a sequel to Hartley's HENRY FOOL (1977), his last real critical and box office success, places some unfair expectations upon the work. The film has been hailed by some as a "return to form" to the formal "Hartley style" of the 90s, a celebraton procliming him back from the wilderness in which he's been toiling on "experiemntal" Digital Video works like The Book of Life, No Such Thing and The Girl From Monday.
Attempts to hail this film as the beginning of a "new chapter" or a "return to form" are a mistake.
Once you get past the films superficial appeaqrance as a "sequel", it becomes clear that FAY GRIM is no more a sequel to HENRY FOOL than Godard's GERMANY YEAR 90 NINE ZERO is a sequel to ALPHAVILLE.
Rather, this film is a radical reimagination of the fictional world estabished in HENRY FOOL, as set in a Post 9/11 Universe. Whereas HENRY FOOL concerned itself with late 90's hipster NYC-centric issues like art stars, celebrtiy cult status, and the origin of creative inspiration, the world of FAY GRIM is global, one in which the actions of an itinerant garbage man have international implications. The world of FAY GRIM has been compeletly knocked off it's axis--shot compeletely in cock-eyed Dutch angles everything in FAY GRIM seems to be teetering on the edge of reason.
Spechen Sie Dutch? (An off-kilter shot from FAY GRIM.)
As such, FAY GRIM fits perfectly into Hartley's current cycle of "experimental" Digital Video works.
Rather than rest of his laurels, or reach back to his mid-to-late 90's "hey day", Hartley appears eager to explore, challenge and question. He may not have all the answers--but in Godardian fashion, the pursuit is sufficient in and of itself. The enigmatic and undeven results notwithstanding, his work should be celebrated for it's sheer determination.
(This reading runs in stark contrast to Elbert Ventra's Reverse Shot review which criticises Hartley for hermetically sealing himself off from the real world--hitting his stride, "making detached movies that unexpectedly seeped pathos"--but ultimately creating work that "feels like the product of a sensibility in stasis.")
This film, shot in HD, is part of the Cuban/Wagner virtical intigration trifecta from Magnolia Pictures, Landmark Theatres, and HDNet. The film is being advertised thus:
"SEE IT THE WAY YOU WANT: On the Big Screen at the theatre, Airing on HDNet Movies or on DVD avialable May 22nd."
With the DVD coming out on Tuesday--it will be interesting to see whether or not this hybrid Day/Date approach yields the desired results Cuban and Wagner . (Because Cuban/Wagner ostensively control all three pieces of the pie, there seems to be little risk for them here, but I'm not sure they have put themselves into a position to maximize returns on this model yet.
This film, like Soderbergh's BUBBLE, is "challenging." Despite efforts to frame it otherwise, there is little doubt that this is a hard sell. Hartley's uncompromising work has limited chance for cross-over appeal, no hope of breaking out. He has created a niche work for a limited, but deveoted following.
As such, FAY GRIM will do little to prove whether this model can really succeed.
I am beginning to get the feeling that this model is a dumping gorund for "challenging" works or damaged goods. If they had he courage of their convictions Cuban/Wagner would release every MAGNOLIA film this way--irregardless of a film'sbreak-out potential. I am eager to see whether such a model would work on films like WHAT THE BLEEP or WAITRESS or how about on a horror genre acquisition like THE SIGNAL?
For those of us of a certain age, Hal Hartley--along with a handful of others liker Lee, Linklater, Soderbergh and Jarmush--embodies modern American Independent Cinema.
When he came to Atlanta for our Closing Night Extravaganza screening of FAY GRIM and after party, I was genuinely honored to meet him.
He did not disappoint.
His Q&A was informative and entertaining. He eagerly interacted with local filmmakers, and engaged iin the Closing Night party festivities, including partaking in a Warholian photo booth session.
Photos from Closing NIght of the Atlanta Film Festival:
IMAGE Board member Linda Burns shares some words with Hal in the Landmark Midtown Art Lobby
...and they compare boots
Dutch angels of Hal at the Magick Lantern photo booth