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"Henry Fool" marks a departure for Hal Hartley

By Ray Pride

JULY 20, 1998:  All seven of Hal Hartley's dark comedies, with ironic titles like "Trust," "Amateur" and "Simple Men," share the same characteristics: dour, good-looking thirtyish characters, speaking in a clipped deadpan, struggle through doomed romance and dead-end jobs, occasionally breaking out in fistfights or dance numbers, while Hartley's own guitar-pop score jangles anxiously around them.

Hartley studied painting before becoming a filmmaker, and it shows in his sparse frames that burst with carefully designed patches of color and light. The languorous mood drives some viewers to distraction, and others go along with a line from "Amateur": "It's poetry, and don't you try and deny it."

The 39-year-old, Long Island-born auteur has never had a breakout hit, continuing to work on small budgets in order to focus on his fascinations. "Henry Fool" has gotten the most lavish critical reception of Hartley's decade-long career, including a boisterous mash letter from Janet Maslin of The New York Times.

After "Amateur"'s quick exit from theaters, Hartley made several experiments with form, including "Flirt," his three-part work in which the same script was filmed in three countries. The experiments led to "Henry Fool," a bold parable whose title character insists, "An honest man is always in trouble."

The trouble starts when Henry (played with epic bravura by Thomas Jay Ryan, right) arrives in Queens and insinuates himself in the household of the Grim family. Simon Grim (James Urbaniak, left, consciously patterning his role after the young Samuel Beckett) is a garbageman who almost never speaks, but Henry's influence will lead him to pen a momentous poem that changes the life of all who read it, whether in the World of Donuts down the block or worldwide on the Web. While Henry brags about his "Confession," his own sheaf of composition notebooks --"It's a philosophy. A poetics. A politics, if you will. A literature of protest. A novel of ideas. A pornographic magazine of truly comic-book proportions" --Simon delivers.

Hartley also delivers, taking his work out of the art school - and art-house - ghetto, into a wider, darker, more troubling world. There are sallies into politics, pop culture, scatology, pedophilia and the value of literature in the marketplace that are new to his work.

"I really wanted to make something that showed some aspects of contemporary common experience," the quiet-spoken Hartley says. "I never really made a list, what's contemporary, what's topical. Even things like the particular type of child abuse that is indicated in movies. I really was reaching for basic generalities. I didn't want anything too specific or too obscure, or peculiar. It's funny when people tell me this is an odd film, because this is our world. I mean I really think this is a realistic movie." He laughs self-consciously. "I was very excited to try to pit my skills and my sensibility against those things because I often try to avoid them, consciously or unconsciously."

Hartley believes in confronting his anxieties, including that of being able to continue working in today's megaplex movie marketplace. "I've always been the type of person who's wanted to think of his work, not as a series of presentable items, y'know, products," he says, "but as a continuum. I have certain interests as a creative person, and I'll probably spend my entire life pursuing an expression of them and an investigation of them. Having sensible budgets provides me a degree of freedom that I see other people losing because they take more money from outside sources. I think that a consistency of momentum is important in one's work, if one thinks of one's work not as a bunch of presentable items but as a lifelong commitment to a particular type of creative activity."

Hartley has expressed an interest in making movies that take several viewings to decipher, but took a step back with "Henry Fool." "This is consciously more emotionally obvious. It just wants to be that kind of movie, that gets people excited in a more accessible way. The entire conceit of the movie is a little bit like Henry's case. I wanted to create a situation where the audience was constantly engaged - I hope that their moral assumptions are challenged [by his boorish behavior and criminal past] if we're enjoying his company, so to speak, if we are enjoying him being loud... and arrogant... and disgusting."

One of the more disgusting scenes, which starts as a riff on the explosive diarrhea scene in "Dumb and Dumber," turns into something tender within the same shot. Hartley went for that contrast hoping to earn his laugh. "Our culture is infatuated with this 'Dumb and Dumber' stuff. And I said, 'Well, I want to talk about some more serious things, but I don't want to talk about it in an academic atmosphere.' I didn't want Henry and Simon to be wearing tweed coats and have Ph.D.s. They needed to be, to a certain degree, disgusting. It was important that Henry just be disgusting and that we experience a lot of disgust around him. I think that the shit scene is one of the most sophisticated comic things I've ever done. There's a complexity that keeps the sophomoric, scatological humor legitimate. It's a legitimate laugh when people crack up at that."

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