After two viewings of Henry Fool, I am still, despite my love for Hal Hartley, ost. My brain continues to work all of it into something resembling expressible thoughts, but I sit here to unpack a film that I’m not entirely sure can be unpacked. The secret to Henry Fool, assuming there is one, might be to understand that the various reactions to the film, might be the very thing being addressed. To clarify, the film’s most visible concern is a conversation about art, particularly our (the audience) reception to it. Like the titular character itself, art can be both fascinating and repulsive. It’s to our discretion to decide which impulse we find ourselves most comfortable with that shapes our critical reception.
Simon Grim is a quiet and rather plain garbage man working in Queens. He lives with his sister, Faye, and their mother. However, there is little evidence of social interactions outside of his family. Even within the family’s house, he maintains his flat affect. He gets caught watching a couple being intimate, which leads to physical abuse. At home, a sound prompts him to lay his head on the concrete. Out of nowhere, Henry Fool appears. Henry quickly informs Simon of his troubled past, but skips on the details. To be short, he establishes himself as a runaway rebel, an artist too uncompromising to possibly keep his head above water in such a sanitary world. Henry encourages Simon to write, which he does. Simon’s poetry is polarizing – it causes a deaf mute to sing, but many others are repulsed by it. Deemed unfit for publication, Henry decides to publish Simon’s poetry on the internet, where it receives unfathomable attention.
In drawing a narrative outline for Henry Fool, I managed to allude two rather important things: Henry’s “unconventional” courting of Faye Grim, which leads to a child and marriage. The second is the Grim’s mother, Mary. Heavily medicated and resigned to spend afternoons on the couch, she is a character whose tragic nature lurks in the corners of Hartley’s frame. Sure, his films are just as serious on the surface as they are comical, but the humor, the snark, the staccato-like rhythm of the dialogue all seem to gloss over the tragedy and violence that do exist in Hartley’s work. Usually, these elements are manifested towards the end where Hartley’s trademark bittersweet music begins to swell and we reach a conclusion that works as both the climax and resolution, emotionally. He’ll leave us with plenty of questions, but closure has been communicated to us cinematically. Mary’s story is never augmented by such gestures though, she suffers and eventually dies quietly. The sadness that informs her death is based around the two Grim children, not her.
In most responses to the film, Mary’s death is ignored. Sure, mentioned in some recap of the plot, but never given the same consideration as Henry, Simon, or Faye. She’s a peripheral character, which might explain it, but many could say her death is handled poorly. It happens too quickly and we’re not given the time to embrace the enormity of her absence. It’s these swift movements that make much of Hartley’s work both difficult for some and devastating for many like myself. It’s not bad filmmaking, in fact I think it is perfectly intentional that Mary’s death just happens as films too often provide us the space and time to grieve, and then forget. Here, we’ve never made it past the first step. The two scenes that take place in the church – Mary’s funeral and Henry and Faye’s wedding are both interrupted. In any conventional film, these sequences would provide us with a proper and comfortable release of emotions – both happy and sad. Hartley teases us, though. In the case of Mary’s death, it feels more like an event that will continue to occupy an upsetting but unavoidable part of brain. Dealing with death in real life, seldom involves dealing with it, and then moving on. It’s always there, and Hartley’s incomplete dealing with Mary’s tragic end seems to evoke that dreadful sensation.
In the foreground of Henry Fool however, is a very concise and clever conversation around art reception. Simon’s poetry produces intense emotions in anyone who reads it, but every response seems to contradict the next. Of course, we’re never privy to the actual content of his work, which is an intentional move to emphasize the reaction, not the art itself. Perhaps it is disgusting, but then again, maybe it is profoundly beautiful? While working as a garbageman alongside Simon, Henry finds what he believes to be a ring. Simon corrects him, it’s simply an unremarkable loose part. Henry keeps the “ring” and after a rather violent bowel movement, he inadvertently uses it to purpose to Faye. The metaphor might be forced on Hartley’s part here – Henry’s literal trash is, while he is taking a shit, interpreted as a symbol of undying love and devotion. The obvious parallel with Simon’s poetry is easy to draw, though the literalness of the sequence comes off as humorous rather than cumbersome.
Henry Fool might be Hal Hartley’s most maddening work, but it is also his most dense and strangely, his most accessible. The temptation to link my own reaction to the film with its titular character is far too great. Henry Fool the film is fascinating, vital, and funny just as it is mean-spirited, brutal, and violent. The most frustrating part of the film might be its brisk handling with domestic and sexual violence. Juxtaposed with Hartley’s other work, though, it is hard not to see this as representing the vantage point of Henry, the walking id of white male “tortured artist” types. Thankfully, it doesn’t condone his spirit and it doesn’t require moral handwringing to make that clear. The fact that my response to Henry Fool is so murky and undefined might prove its point exactly. Art, like life, is complicated and our response should reflect that.