Henry Fool's One Of The Best Films Of The Year, Even Without Arnold Schwarzenegger.
By James DiGiovanna
DECEMBER 28, 1998: IF YOU'VE EVER seen a Hal Hartley movie, you must have wondered how different it would have been if Arnold Schwarzenegger had been involved. There's always a bit of violence in a Hartley film, and I think Schwarzenegger would approve of that; but it's usually unpleasant violence. It lacks the right-wing joie de vivre of such Schwarzeneggerian moments as the big explosion in True Lies, or the big explosion in Predator, or even the big explosion in Last Action Hero. Rather, Hartley makes violence seem sad and stupid, which I think Schwarzenegger would object to. It's okay to give lip service to the idea that violence is bad, in the most general and vapid sense of the term, but to make it seem stupid really goes against everything that Schwarzenegger's America stands for.
For example, there are two violent scenes in Henry Fool. In the first, painfully geeky garbage man Simon Grim is beaten by a thug (played by the increasingly visible Kevin Corrigan), who sees Simon leering at his girlfriend.
In a Schwarzenegger film, Simon would return later to spout some kind of pun while disemboweling, burning, decapitating, or best of all, blowing up the thug. But in Henry Fool, Simon just tries to avoid the thug. When they finally do meet up, the thug has given up thugishness and is wearing a cheap suit while giving out campaign flyers for a xenophobic, reactionary congressman. It's a sad and stupid outcome to a sad and stupid beating.
Meanwhile, Simon has begun to write a poem that is a big hit with the local youths in his Queens, New York, neighborhood. Queens is the perfect setting for a depressing film without Schwarzeneggers, as it's perhaps the filthiest and least pleasant place on earth. It has all the crowding, noise and rudeness of Manhattan without any of the charming boutiques or decent restaurants.
Somehow, in spite of the filth and squalor of his surroundings, Simon's poem finds an audience in a high school newspaper, and he becomes something of a local rock star. When bits of the poem are leaked to the press, the Pope himself comes out to condemn it. In a statement from the Vatican, the Pope decries the bad influences on contemporary youth, including "rock music, violent movies, and modern poetry."
O, would that there were a world where modern poetry actually exerted an evil influence comparable to that of violent movies. Once again, I can only think that Schwarzenegger would not approve: He must want violent movies to reign supreme in our national consciousness.
The second moment of violence comes late in Henry Fool, when the titular character, a mysterious drifter who has influenced Simon to become a poet, gets in a fight with the same thug, years later. By now the thug has graduated from thugishness and Republicanism to wife beating and child abuse. No good comes of this sad and stupid fight, which, in a Schwarzenegger film, would have been the perfect opportunity for cold justice to have been meted out against the offending and inhuman villain.
Both Hartley's films and Schwarzenegger's films make use of extreme closes-ups, but Hartley uses them more sparingly, and his images carry more significance. For example, in The Terminator (a Schwarzenegger film that Hartley had very little involvement with) there is a close-up of the timer on a bomb that is about to explode. One doesn't need an advanced degree in visual semantics to decode that one. In Henry Fool, one of the very few extreme close-ups is of a pencil tip.
Henry Fool, the drifter, has just appeared in the life of repressed, victim-of-bullies Simon Grim. Grim is not very verbal, and Fool has given him a pencil and a notebook, telling him that he should try to write down his thoughts the next time he's blocked on what to say. The camera pauses on the pencil tip, and the image stresses three things: the pencil was hand sharpened, probably with a knife--this pencil did not belong to someone who works at an office, or even has a place at home where a pencil sharpener would be kept. The pencil is riddled with tooth marks. The fingers holding the pencil have a ground-in griminess indicative of Simon's job as a garbage man, and of his social stigma and unconscious but uncomfortable lack of concern with his appearance. Hartley packs a lot into the shot, even without a timer ticking down.
Perhaps the strongest similarity between a Schwarzenegger film and a Hartley film is the acting. Hartley directs his actors to deliver their lines in a stiff and artificial manner, very stagey and Brechtian. In Schwarzenegger's early films, he, too, speaks stiffly. Perhaps there is cross-influence here.
On the other hand, Hartley's characters utter some of the best dialogue in contemporary cinema. Where Arnold would say "Hasta la vista, baby," and leave it at that, not expecting a response other than his interlocutors imminent disintegration, Hartley's characters speak to each other in rich philosophical language, or in layered and hilarious non-sequiturs. For example, when the young thug, now a Republican, asks Simon's sister "Are you a registered voter?" she replies, "Don't you dare talk to me like that!" Employees at a publishing house, trying to convince the CEO to go digital, repeat the mantra "we have charts." Henry Fool observes that the U.S. was founded by Puritans, "people so uptight the British kicked them out!"
What really distinguishes Hartley's work from Schwarzenegger's, though, is the way music is used in their respective films. Most Schwarzenegger movies make use of densely orchestrated numbers that are designed to tell an audience exactly what it should be feeling at any given moment. We all know the bass-line cue for suspense, the driving beat of action, and the sweeping violins that must swell when they kill Arnold's partner.
Hartley uses a different approach. He composes all the music himself, and it's never intrusive. Instead of defining an emotion for every scene, his sparse scores give the film an overall sense of slow reflection. Solo piano, playing one note at a time, very slowly, is occasionally joined by quiet electronic noises or very simple flute accompaniment. Much of the film is not scored, leaving the actors silent space for their work.
This is one of the many small touches that make a Hartley film so interesting, and which make Henry Fool one of the best films of the year. I could go on with others: the parole officer named for a famous experimental filmmaker; the extremely strong and distinct performances by Parker Posey, James Urbaniak and Thomas Ray Ryan; the nuanced way that Hartley's film makes fun of its own seriousness. But to understand the force of this movie it's best to go see it for yourself, and then to think, "What would Schwarzenegger have done differently?"
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