He may not have been invited to the Grüner Hügel yet, but in Salzburg, Hal Hartley was able to do a play of his own as early as 1998. And only last year he was a guest at the Berliner Festspiele with his libretto for the opera Inanna. Film directors in the theater were still a rarity almost ten years ago when, aged 36, the American filmmaker announced in interviews his temporary departure from narrative screen cinema in favor of other forms of presentation.
In fact, Hartley has been at home in many of the arts right from the start. Before finding his way to the moving image he was a painter. He composed the music for his films himself under a pseudonym. And the motion sequences of his feature films were calculated so exactly that it was just a short step to creating purely choreographic works.
Born in 1959 into a working-class Catholic family in Lindenhurst, Long Island – practically a suburb of New York City, Hartley made his first feature film The Unbelievable Truth in 1988 with a $75,00 loan from his employer and the help of friends and relatives. In Trust (1991) and Simple Men (1992) he soon honed and established the special Hartley style, which defamiliarizes the experiences of his own suburban youth in laconic scenes of luminous transparency. With Amateur (1994), Hartley made his first attempt at a genre film. This ironically produced variant on the thriller was set in New York and featured a genuine star – Isabelle Huppert, as a pornography-writing nun.
Despite all his successes he never really succumbed to the lure of Hollywood. But his independent spirit, original film language, and the equally refreshing and heart-warming plots won Hartley the hearts of European film afficionados as well.
To call him a secret European because of his non-conformism, however – as not a few have done – is to disregard flagrantly the quintessentially American foundations of his imagery. It is true that he loves European cinema: Godard and Murnau, Eisenstein and Renoir.
The lanky New Yorker, with the alert, boyish face, has had a practical working relationship with Berlin for a decade. In 1994 he spent two months there preparing a 27-minute sequence for the film Flirt. Back then he had been surprised to find that the streets, which he had only known from old black-and-white films, were bright and colourful in reality. The film, which tells the same story in three different cities, placed the German capital on equal terms with New York and Tokyo, which, given the local cosmopolitan ambitions, must have permanently endeared its creator to his hosts.
By 1997, with Henry Fool, Hartley had already gone back on his decision to withdraw from directing feature films. Since then, however, he has repeatedly occupied himself with other - mainly choreographic - projects parallel to his films. The lucid leanness of the early work, however, seems to have yielded to a certain ponderousness.
Perhaps this is due to a settled existence, in which the old restlessness has been replaced by a search for furniture. Or it may be that the questions that an older Hartley is still willing to confront in his work get more complicated. His last film (co-produced with Iceland), the monster parody No Such Thing (2001), was regarded by many as hopelessly over the top and, in the intensified competition for distribution slots, did not find its way to German film screens. The most recent project, The Girl from Monday (presently in post-production), is supposed to be a satire on consumerism.
At least we may hope that Hartley will single out Berlin for its premiere. What else he plans to do here remains to be seen.
Translation be Iain Taylor