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HARTLEY, HAL : Henry Fool

HENRY FOOL – A TALL FELLA’S TALE
Hal Hartley maintains he makes films that are an alternative – to mainstream: it’s his equivalent to the notion of ‘independent.’ His latest film and perhaps his best, is Henry Fool, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, where PAUL FISCHER spoke to Hartley.

In the midst of the chaos of the Toronto Film Festival, Hal Hartley manages somehow to retain a quiet composure. A few months previously, Hartley's Henry Fool scored a best Screenplay Award at Cannes, and the critics were raving. Hartley has always been something of an enigmatic figure in the American film industry, and in terms of the independent scene, when asked how he sees himself within it, the tall fella jokingly replies: "Much taller than most, except for John Sayles."

Hartley finds it difficult to assess himself in those terms. "I actually have a hard time using this term 'independent'," he explains. "Speaking as a producer, you're always DEPENDENT on SOMEone. For some time there, people used the word 'independent' as some sort of qualitative tag, when you make a certain kind of film that is less mainstream. But that's really never been the case as far as I'm concerned. However, it is true that there came a point in American filmmaking towards the end of the eighties, when people wanted to see more diversity, and I think that people in the business realised there was money to be made from exploiting films that were idiosyncratic. So I'd rather use the word 'alternative' than 'independent'."

Hartley has always remained on the periphery of Hollywood movie making, and concedes that he's never been asked to join that world "and it's unlikely I'd ever want to, because I could never do the kind of work I do now within that corporate environment."

"dealing with the difficulties of having a relationship with somebody"

Asked what it is that defines a Hal Hartley film, the contemplative director defines his work, thematically, as "dealing with the difficulties of having a relationship with somebody, whether it's a father and child, mother and daughter or friends. I like to look at the difficulties of ultimately good relationships." Henry Fool certainly fits into that category. The film revolves around the shy, mumbling garbageman Simon Grim who is mostly viewed as slightly retarded, but not Henry Fool. New in town, Fool is a transient with a boundless ego, a horrifying past and an eccentric intellectualised view of his world. Henry has boldly taken up residence in the basement of the home Simon shares with his seriously depressive mother and his secretly sex-crazed sister Fay. In the cellar, Henry hand writes his autobiography, "Confessions," in which he discloses his many sins. He is sure that the finished book will rock the intellectual world. Henry likes Simon and so encourages him to express himself via poetry. At the same time, the busy Henry ignores the horny Fay but seduces her mother. Simon proves to be a brilliant poet and causes an international stir with his work, much of which the locals and Midwestern conservatives find pornographic. Still, Simon's newfound popularity leads him to learn some truths about Henry and escape his oppressive influence, something which causes a major quarrel between the friends which does not heal for many years.

"As well as being a tale of a unique friendship, what I wanted to explore with Henry Fool is the teacher-student relationship. Also, I was interested in reflecting upon the difficulties, again, of influence. I'm often asked: who is my biggest influence? And that's a very complicated question and answer." It's an issue Hartley continues to grapple with. "If I'm asked, I tend to hedge my way through and basically say stuff that I don't understand. But why it's difficult, is that you always feel like you're answering not only for yourself, but you're usurping responsibility and answers for this other person, who was supposedly this big influence. So with Henry Fool, I thought of this situation: what would happen if a person who was this big influence on your life made or encouraged you to test yourself, and achieve something that is potentially great, with the kind of person who could NEVER do anything on their own."

But the title character of Hartley's film is far more than that as well, he hastens to add. "For this particular character, I reached back into traditions of literature and mythology a lot and sort of cobbled this Henry Fool character together. He's a variation of the Faust myth. I like to read biographies of famous people and got very interested in that mentor/student problem, because it's very real. Anyone who's had a teacher who meant something to them will understand that. "

"to raise good, meaty questions about contemporary media"

Henry Fool explores many other of Hartley's deep concerns regarding art and the media. "I wanted the story to raise good, meaty questions about contemporary media and about the popular cultural assessment of what art is, what artistic endeavour is worth and what it might look like if it came along. Also, to express something of the ambivalence any creative person ought to have. I have a lot of ambivalence when I try to think about what good art is, even good art that I'm involved in, and what constitutes my talent. I think it's really easy for media to say, "Oh, he's made seven films so he really knows what he's doing. Look at the consistency of his themes" and all this stuff. I wanted to - in not too heavy a way - express the schizophrenia that's involved with being somebody who does this kind of work, who's chosen to live this kind of life."

Despite its obvious weightiness, the film remains Hartley's most accessible and commercial film to date, a fact that comes as no surprise to the filmmaker. "When I was writing it I felt this is going to be much more popular than anything I've done. That excited me, because I think it's a much more aggressive movie than any of my others. Just as criticism can be art, art has got to be criticism, and Henry Fool is a criticism of art and culture. I don't apologise for Henry. I think he's a necessary ingredient in our culture. But what I'm feeling in my bones right now is our culture calling out for a particular kind of movie and I said, "Yeah, and I think it's Henry." Even people who don't like the movie will want to argue about what it brings up."

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