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
"dealing with the difficulties of having a relationship
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
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."