Henry Fool (1997)

24 01 2015

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.

1

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.

2

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.

3

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.

4

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.

5

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.

6

Advertisements




Do widzenia, do jutra / Goodbye, See You Tomorrow (1960)

13 01 2015

Narrative film has, since its inception, maintained a vested interest in depicting love. The problem, if there is one, is how close to reality these depictions have been. Rather than experiencing love first hand, many of us are indoctrinated into a culture of heteronormative romance fueled by cinema’s bursts of passions that seldom hold weight in reality. It’s not an entirely new idea, but so much of what we construct and understand as romantic love, is informed and inspired by a Hollywood screenwriter from the 1930s. This isn’t to say someone like say, Lubitsch, touched on the truth from time to time, nor is it a call against old Hollywood. Instead, I think any serious discussion about Janusz Morgenstern’s breezy but fascinating should begin with the question: what is love to us, and what are the pieces we use to stitch together this idea?

1

Jacek is a young and charismatic theater student who, one day, stumbles upon the fickle yet beautiful Marguerite. She resists his advances, but doesn’t push him away entirely. Instead, she makes it clear that while she is willing to have fun with Jacek, she is also quick to leave him. The two’s spontaneous tennis date ends with her running off with a man who has both a better grasp of her native language (French) and tennis. Jacek’s feelings remain and the two manage to continually run into each other around the city, which leads to further spontaneous dates. To Jacek, this inspires poetry but to Marguerite, it is nothing more than a distraction until she leaves the country. Maybe Jacek’s longing is all just an attempt to get into character anyway.

2

The setup here is filled with potential problems, but Morgenstern (in this, his first feature) carefully tiptoes around them. While the narrative is indeed built around Jacke and his feelings for Marguerite, never does the camera suggest that such feelings are logical. In fact, the film ends with the concept that the feelings have just been a performance anyway. There’s plenty of snappy and cute films (many birthed from various new waves) that offer us a protagonist like Jacek, but they present his desire as the only factor deserving of our sympathy. The cute girl, ever rejecting the male protagonist’s advances, is suppose to be as maddening to us, the audience as she is to our male hero. Here, the opposite is true. Jacek’s ideas on love seem preposterous while Marguerite, despite being 7 years younger, is the much more grounded and rational of the two.

3

So why bother with Jacek at all anyway? The frame story here posits the idea that his courting of Marguerite was either just a performance on his part or just a very intense imagination. Of course, the answer could be both, but the idea of performance is the one that gives us the most to work with. The proposition could then be that the experience of love is something of a performance, no not a conscious acting out, but a thing that we feel like we’re suppose to do because well, we’ve been fed the images to believe in it since we were born. I’m not enough of a cynical asshole to say that love is completely fake, that’s simply ridiculous. Instead, I think what the film gives us is the idea that we are eager to take on a certain role in relationship. Romantic love exists, but it takes more than what Jacek has to offer here. Throughout the film, we’re treated to a show involving hand puppetry. The movements of the hands, visually removed from the rest of the body, are oozing with sexual potential. It’s Jacek’s sensuality that has him pining for Marguerite. As she herself says, “The unreal life is the best I can offer you.” The ability to recognize and point out the differences is Morgenstern’s biggest accomplishment.

4





Nanatsu no umi: Zempen Shojo-Hen / Seven Seas: Virginity Chapter (1931)

4 01 2015

Ambitious projects such as the Seven Seas one would not be the norm for Hiroshi Shimizu, at least for what survives from him. The peaceful, quiet, but equally heartbreaking phenomena that occurs in his best films (Mr. Thank You and Ornamental Hairpin, to name just two) is boisterous and tragic. At least, that is the case for this film, the first entry in the two-part series. The technical bravado that runs through all of his work is present, yet it seems to take on a completely new meaning in the context of a film that is more dramatic on the surface (which comes from its literary origins, surely) yet demonstrates something very specific and unique about Shimizu’s abilities as a filmmaker.

1

Yumie is a working class girl engaged to Yuzuru. She gets invited to a party put on by her fiance’s parents, but she initially ignores the request. She’s busy, and has better things to do. She submits to the family’s pressure, though and at the party she meets international playboy Takehiko. Takehiko falls hopelessly in love with Yumie, at least that is how he explains his possessive behavior around her. Yumie quickly feels uncomfortable and leaves, but the next day, he proudly declares his love for her, which makes her visibly but she tries to console him. Playing off of her good will, Takehiko is able to take advantage of Yumie. The repercussions of his act begin to disintegrate what was once a promising family.

2

With this first part of the series being titled “Virginity Chapter” it is tempting to assume that the main dramatic conflict revolves around it. While Yumie’s chastity does play a part in the drama, the reality is less her “indiscretion” (and it seems problematic to call it that) and rather the responses of those around her. Her father is heartbroken, to the point that he feels validated in violently tossing her away when she crawls to him crying for help. Yumie has not “slipped” but rather has been pressured, with Takehiko’s threats of violence, into sexual activity. Despite some characters’ insisting that Yumie is at fault, she has become a victim of sexual violence. As is the case even today, her experience, her very own pain is the thing used to denigrate her.

3

The “Virginity Chapter” ends with the suggestion that Yumie will accept the potential nightmare of becoming Takehiko’s wife. She acknowledges the pain, but her face suggests a potential scheme. She might not have an elaborate plan for revenge, but as Takehiko’s object (and I think it’s important to use the word object here, as Takehiko clearly doesn’t care about her as a person) of desire, she suddenly has some control. To be anything short of the unreasonable expectations would frustrate him, let alone openly defying his orders. Her tragedy has given her the opportunity to be in control. It’s a revolutionary thought, though one can criticize this for providing a dramatic shift that absolves Yumie of her past trauma. If this all sounds like a little too much for a Shimizu film, it’s important to remember this pain and this violence was always lurking in the corners of his protagonists’ past.

4