Almost ten years after New York magazine asked “What Ever Happened to Hal Hartley?”, we still don’t have a satisfactory answer. In the 1990s, Hartley established himself as an eccentric torchbearer for American independent cinema and made (more than once) a very specific type of great film. Filtering Gen-X grunge through a punctilious Bressonian formalism, and anticipating the deadpan dolor of Wes Anderson and Todd Solondz, Hartley wrote and directed irreverent date movies for and about self-fashioned intellectual misfits. No other filmmaker has gotten as much mileage out of filming people read. The quotable ennui and well-protected romantic core of these films mark them, perhaps, as embarrassingly earnest totems of youthful self-importance.
Mannered, minimalist and arch, even the director’s best movies can seem a little diffident about their power. Often accompanied by Hartley’s own tinny, melancholic synth scores, they foreground their artifice in order to cloak their optimistic sweetness. Though he favors working-class settings, Hartley strenuously avoids naturalism in favor of a choreographed simplicity. His characters move within tightly composed spaces, intoning their dialogue with a precise, expressionless diction. They are unusually sincere and declarative, often philosophically astute, but they’re rarely listening to each other. “It hurts to breathe,” complains the beaten and bloodied garbage-man poet in Henry Fool (1997). “Of course it does,” answers his friend, lost in an abstract daze.
After that uncharacteristically epic-length magnum opus, one of the most exquisite and poignant dark comedies of all time, Hartley turned his energies toward sketchier, DIY patchworks of half-formed ideas that barely qualified as feature-length. The audience got small, too. But an unexpected bounty of re-releases from Olive Films enables viewers to sample the highlights and missteps of a bold and uncompromising career, and even nurse hopes of a renaissance.
Hartley’s earliest, Long Island–set low-budget features, The Unbelievable Truth (1989) and Trust (1990) (Blu-Ray $29.95; DVD $24.95), owe much of their confidence to his starlet muse, the late Adrienne Shelly. Innocent, insouciant, ironic, beautiful but resolutely unglamorous, Shelly wasn’t just the perfect avatar for the ’90s indie film boom, but also one of the cinema’s most fully realized teenagers. Protecting an open heart with a tart tongue, she confronts everyday injustice with a stubborn sense of conviction. She seems somehow more substantial than any space she inhabits.
The Unbelievable Truth is a romantic melodrama set up as a western. We first meet Josh (Robert John Burke), a convicted murderer and aspiring mechanic who looks suspiciously like a priest, hitching a ride from prison back to his hometown. Shelly plays Audry, a teenage local who shrugs off her bright future—Harvard and a modeling career are her two viable options—in order to obsess over an impending nuclear holocaust. Only logic, common sense and public opinion stand in the way of these star-crossed lovers, but when the movie asks whether flawed human beings are deserving of faith, it answers in the affirmative.