Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Hal Hartley and Whit Stillman - missing in action

The other week, my best friend and I watched Hal Hartley's Trust, separately. I had found the DVD for cheap in HMV, he paid to watch it online. How strange that we should have both returned, unprompted, to this idiosyncratic film that was emblematic of the burgeoning US indie cinema scene in the late 1980s, early '90s. (In another coincidence, I just uploaded my copy of Pilote's Dotinowman, which features dialogue from Trust. Hartley has also popped up recently in reviews of Lourdes, which stars an almost unrecognisable Elina Löwensohn who, some particularly esoteric critics have noted, of course also featured in the director's 1994 Amateur, alongside Isabelle Huppert.)

I followed my viewing of Trust with Hartley's breakout feature, The Unbelievable Truth (1989). (The late) Adrienne Shelley was the star of my double-bill, opposite Hartley regulars Robert Burke and Martin Donovan in Truth and Trust respectively. They're what are usually described as off-beat romances; the theme of trust is central to both, which Hartley seems to associate with elevation somehow. The films are only separated by one year, but Hartley markedly honed his camera style and dry dialogue of non sequiturs between the two. As this process continued, it inevitably produced the almost unwatchable sparse anger of such later films as Henry Fool (1997) and The Book of Life ('98).

And, because I was thinking of Hal Hartley, my mind wandered to another US indie talent who emerged at the same time: Whit Stillman. The scene they were identified with when their films were sold in the UK is probably the main connection between them, an interest in young characters - often New York (sub-)urbanites - and language notwithstanding. Hartley continues to direct while Stillman's last was The Last Days of Disco back in 1998, but they're often seen as lost talents. For me, they'll be forever linked for offering an exciting vision of cinematic possibility.

Stillman is the notably warmer film-maker. His only other two films - Metropolitan (1990) and Barcelona ('94) - are filled with sparkling dialogue and sympathetic portrayals of idiots (they are, he says, only young). An unofficial fan site says he long ago abandoned plans to direct an adaptation of Christopher Buckley's Little Green Men (probably no bad thing) though he may still be working on a film on Jamaican music he wrote about in the Guardian - four years ago! This is a guy who even takes a long break between penning newspaper articles.

Probably the nearest to these two directors' tone in recent cinema is (500) Days of Summer: quirky, natch, sharp (though the dialogue could have done with being a bit wittier) and even bearing a Hartley-esque dance sequence. It would be lovely to have Stillman back but, as one of the main protagonists says at the end of Metropolitan, 'You don't want to over do it'.


  1. Hey, nice piece. Our mutual friend (Anna Matussek) recommended your blog. I was not aware of Hal Hartley, but I will now check him out. I've been a fan of Whit Stillman for a while.


  2. That's very kind, thank you. Really like your photos!