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Fool’s Gold

Hal Hartley mines a masterpiece from the bleak landscape of human frailty.

by Cory Dugan

al Hartley’s films heretofore have been defined by an idiosyncratic exactness – quick, clipped scenes; quick, clipped camera shots; quick, clipped dialogue. Flirt and Amateur, his last two efforts, were blinding flashes of brilliance dulled by slowly dwindling energy, rolling stones that gathered enough moss to stop them dead in their tracks before the closing credits. If Hartley’s dialogue is masterful, his plots have sometimes tended to meander; if his sense of satire and parody is precise, his sense of drama has sometimes been adrift.

Thomas Jay Ryan and Parker Posey
With Henry Fool, Hartley has finally found his way. If the plot meanders (and it does), it meanders masterfully; if the drama drifts (and it does), it drifts with the conviction that lost is a legitimate direction. Henry Fool is a heroic epic in human proportion, a darkly comic parable of damned souls trying to climb up to hell from a place that lacks the imagination to be limbo.

That place is Queens, shot so artfully (each scene has the clarity and careful composition of a Vermeer) that it morphs seamlessly between misery, mythology, and a sordid version of Mayberry. There we meet Simon Grim, a garbage man whose reticence is often mistaken for retardation, even by his own family, medicated mother Mary and strumpet sister Fay. Subtext: A garbage man who lives with – and comes from – trash.

Into this squalid picture strides Henry Fool, from nowhere, an indie-version Shane, with book satchel instead of saddle bags, six-pack instead of six-gun, a drunken leer on his unshaven face and an irreverent reply to any innocent comment. He is a writer, a renegade intellectual, an undiscovered genius, all by his own account, with a multi-volumed work of groundbreaking literature – his Confession – yet unfinished for an unprepared world. Fool (“Centuries ago, there was an ‘e’ on the end,” he offers to explain his name) is a somewhat seedy savior and Simon Grim is his first disciple.

Under Henry’s half-assed tutelage and half-hearted advice, Simon writes a poem – a grand epopee of the contemporary condition, we assume. We assume because we never actually see or hear any of the poem, just as we never hear or see any of Henry’s Confession. But we see and hear the reactions to Simon’s poem: It is praised as high art, denounced as pornographic and scatological (a clever, tongue-in-cheek reference to some of the film’s own grosser moments), it causes a mute woman to sing, turns a tormentor into a groupie, and brings on Fay’s period a week and a half early.

Not showing us Simon’s poem – even though it is the central element to the story – is an astute move on Hartley’s part. Unseen, it becomes the story’s “Maguffin,” a la Hitchcock and the mysterious “Process” in David Mamet’s recent The Spanish Prisoner. Plus, the device prevents the audience from acting as critic; ours is not to judge the merits of the art, ours is merely to observe the machinations which surround its origin and its dissemination.

Simon is part Faust, part Eliza Doolittle – a pathetic trashman-savant, silent and skeletal, a societal misfit who happens to be the only person in his woeful circle who works for a living. And, eventually, the only one to escape. James Urbaniak makes stilted poetry of the role, speaking the lines in repressed spasms and moving in the anxious pace of a caged animal.

Henry, as Simon’s demon and mentor, is a fascinating character, a glib con man and philosopher, despicably charming and seedily suave. Thomas Jay Ryan, in an amazing screen debut, approaches the role with deadpan understatement, portraying Henry as a distracted scoundrel whose easy intellect is ruled by an easier instinct. Henry is a complex character and role, a unique invention and a brave test of the screenwriter’s as well as the actor’s skill. As Henry’s story unfolds and each revelation shows him to be more disgusting and less excusable – “My weaknesses are many and deep,” he admits early, along with “I’ve been bad. Repeatedly.” – the audience is left in an uncomfortable position of accepting the unacceptable, of actually liking an otherwise unlikeable character.

In a role that could be just another in her regular resume of caricatures, Parker Posey digs down and pulls forth a real character in the sluttish Fay. Filling her out with not just taut sexual energy but also with a nonchalant hostility and wicked humor, Posey creates a sympathetic depth and finds an odd innocence in the role. In smaller parts, Maria Porter plays Simon and Fay’s depressive mother with a Prozac precision, and Kevin Corrigan portrays a shiftless loser who tries to find redemption in right-wing politics, with scary conviction.

But, for all its masterful performances, Henry Fool belongs to Hal Hartley. As director-producer-screenwriter (and, in true indie fashion, composer-arranger-performer of the original music), Hartley has molded a contemporary fable that not only weaves a compelling story but also manages to adeptly comment on the large topics of art and culture and politics and interpersonal relationships. If the audience can suspend its disbelief in a completely unlikely story, accept a warped fairy-tale conclusion, and admit sympathy for an unsympathetic hero, the rewards are literally breathtaking.

As the credits rolled, I was reminded of a scene early in the film. Wincing and bloody from a beating, Simon gasps: “It hurts to breathe.”

“Of course it does,” Henry nods philosophically.

 

Brian De Palma’s latest film, Snake Eyes, is a crafty thriller that is powered by perspective. It’s a movie all about angles, from the slanted camera shots to the varying points of view of the players.

When we meet Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage), he’s mugging in front of a news camera set up at the site of a big boxing match in an Atlantic City casino arena. Rick’s next acts are for off-camera only. As he struts around the arena in a shiny suit blabbing into a gold cell phone (switching calls back and forth from his wife and girlfriend), he takes a moment to shake down a drug dealer to finance a hefty bet on a fight. Rick establishes quickly that he is more or less a thug, and with a flash of a badge, he reveals that he’s also a cop.

Rick is at the fight courtesy of an old childhood chum, Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise), who is overseeing security at the fight for the visiting Secretary of Defense. As much as Rick is sloppy and loose, Kevin, a Navy man, is neat and tightly wound. Rick orders Kevin to relax and enjoy the fight, but Kevin spots a suspicious-looking redhead and leaves his seat to check her out. Meanwhile, a woman in a white suit and blonde wig takes the seat vacated by Kevin. In the following seconds, a drunk causes a ruckus, the boxing champ gets cornered, the Secretary gets shot, and the blonde takes a bullet, too, loses her wig, and disappears into the crowd.

From that moment on, the film turns to unraveling the mystery – but not so fast. Good guys turn bad, bad guys good and back again. Stories are told, and events replayed so that the only thing that’s for certain is that none of it matches up. The seeing-is-believing (or not) motif plays a big part in this film, and it has a mirror reflected in a mirror reflected in a mirror infinity. There are pay-for-view cameras circling the arena and security cameras recording everything in the casino. Then there’s the film’s own camera work, which may show a scene bathed in red or take us up and over the casino’s hotel rooms to see what’s going on behind closed doors. All of this works with the action. Characters slip in and out of a scene so that they’re caught in the corner of your eye; the good guys and bad guys narrowly miss each other; and everyone is nervously looking over his or her shoulders. Watching this sort of bobbing and weaving is the fun part – even when you could care less about some big-deal government conspiracy – and with the characteristically exuberant performance by Cage and the cold, solid one of Sinise, it all adds up to make Snake Eyes pretty much a sure bet. – Susan Ellis


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