IN THE 10 years since his debut film, The Unbelievable Truth, Hal Hartley has become something of a rarity among young contemporary film-makers, in that he has fans. Fans in the way that film-makers such as his great hero Jean-Luc Godard used to have fans, people who have bonded over his films, devoted and cine-literate, steeped in the visual and verbal tics of Hartley's very particular universe.
But the cosmos has been reorganised. If his last film, Flirt, was, by Hartley's own admission, a reaction to boredom with feature-length stories, a need "to make movies mysterious for me again", then his latest quietly creeps to the other extreme. For Henry Fool is Hal Hartley's "epic".
"My films have never really striven to be contemporaneous. Actually, exactly the opposite - I've put a lot of energy into trying to keep things... not vague, but timeless," he admits, the day before collecting the screenwriting award for Henry Fool at this year's Cannes film festival. "But with this movie I did want to leave an impression, my particular impression, of the society I'm living in. I even drew up a little list of things that I thought were representative of contemporary events, like the Internet, and a particular kind of right-wing politics in America."
Also on the list are child abuse, publishing, pornography; the film even features Camille Paglia as a pundit. Hartley identifies the core theme of his story as an investigation of influence, "of what happens if your most profound influence is somebody whom you're ashamed of, or would be embarrassed to admit". But he adds that "the ambition in this script was to make a movie about everything, you know? And at the same time keep it focused. I think that's what epics generally try to do. Anna Karenina is about everything, but it gets to it all by following Anna and Bronsky."
But for an epic, the mise-en-scene is intriguingly intimate, even claustrophobic; we don't see much outside the Donut World of Woodside, Queens. "Well, this is what I learned from Godard and Godard says he learned from Rossellini," Hartley retorts. "You have to work with what is at your disposal. This is a $1 million film. There were scenes that I would have liked to make, such as crowds - hundreds of teenage girls - running after Simon. But I couldn't. What I did is have 20 kids come in for 15 minutes and run in front of the camera. But you can think epic in lots of other ways."
Now approaching his forties, Hartley (who has shifted his home and the location of his films from Long Island to New York) is still one of the few film-makers around for whom the term "independent" seems apt. He produces his own movies, they're dirt cheap and, whatever genre they apparently occupy, the Hartley stamp is unmistakable and inimitable.
Take The Book of Life, his follow-up to Henry Fool, which was made for French television: ostensibly a film about Jesus, in Hartley's hands it becomes a "biblical espionage movie" with Martin Donovan as Jesus and the singer PJ Harvey as Mary Magdalene taking on the Devil in Manhattan.
He was asked to do a studio picture once. "But we reached the conclusion that I would drive these people crazy. And they would drive me crazy." I suggest to him that Tim Burton, another idiosyncratic talent, managed it with Batman and is set to direct Superman 4. "Now that would be very exciting, one of those long serials" says Hartley (his delivery is as deadpan as his writing). " If I was producing James Bond movies it would be fascinating to say, well, this year's Bond will be made by Alain Resnais. Next year's by Hal Hartley. Godard could make a great James Bond movie."
`Henry Fool' is released tomorrow. See page 11
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