Pithy and insightful, The Pocket Essential Hal Hartley is one of the superior additions to this series of books on film directors. Jason Wood has clearly done his research and knows his subject well; he sustains lively description and in-depth criticism and is obviously enthusiastic about Hartley’s films,. The opening, contextual essay provides an overview of the director’s personal history and work, tracing his key preoccupations, motifs, styles and themes through almost twenty years of film-making. Wood points out early on that Hartley pays ‘scant regard to cinematic fads and fashions or the dictates of dominant mainstream cinema’, either stylistically or narratively, and it is certainly this inclination that makes his films stimulating even when they are at their most flawed.
Given the limitations of space, when Wood turns to a consideration of each individual work, he manages to encompass an impressive amount of textual analysis. Hartley’s tendency to dispense with establishing shots, his penchant for ‘independent, intelligently drawn female characters’, and his moments of narrative interruption (when individuals break into dance, for example), are only a few of the many formal aspects of his work that are discussed. The attention Wood gives to his shorts, a format that usually garners less attention in film criticism, is particularly welcome. Neither merely a training opportunity or calling card, they allow Hartley the freedom to experiment with more unconventional modes of film-making, a spirit which in turn filters through into his features.
Wood also explores the status of his films historically and industrially, flagging the importance of 1989’s The Unbelievable Truth in relation to the independent American cinema scene, and pointing to its inspiration for directors such as Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith. Made on $75,000, it is a marked contrast to the later Amateur, whose bigger budget brought its own problems: the pressure of Martin Donovan’s illness, for instance, the expectations of working with a star, Isabelle Huppert, and of the difficulty of negotiating defined generic conventions. Additional mention of Hartley’s theatre work, pop promos and opera work, for any reader who is not au fait with his past, is particularly enlightening.
Only two gripes then, and one is really a fault with the Pocket Essentials series. It is an annoying, dumbing-down characteristic that they insist on using a grading system, marking a film out of 5. I for one as a reader find it unnecessary and wouldn’t be surprised if many of their writers do too. When Wood states that ‘Henry Fool just might be Hal Hartley’s best work to date’ and then proceeds to give it 4 out of 5, awarding Book of Life a full 5, we are left wondering precisely what the marking system denotes; personal taste, perhaps, rather than objective criticism. Another minor point is the fact that the female character in Henry Fool is mostly referred to as Kay rather than Fay. This jars because, as Wood himself points out, names are highly significant for Hartley to convey personality. Still, these are minor irritations in what is otherwise an excellent introduction to the director’s life and work. Truly up to date, the book also contains analysis of Hartley’s most recent feature, No Such Thing, which remains unreleased in the UK. Well worth the £3.99.