Hal Hartley on Film and Physicality

By Walter Donohue | November 3, 2010
Faber & Faber Faber & Faber

Seminal 90s indie auteur Hal Hartley discusses his portrayal of the human body in his movies, in an extract from the introduction to Faber & Faber’s Hal Hartley: Collected Screenplays.

To celebrate Hal Hartley’s 51st birthday, Faber & Faber’s Walter Donohue presents an extract from “Finding the Essential: Hal Hartley in conversation with Graham Fuller,” the introduction to Hal Hartley: Collected Screenplays.

No one typifies the American indie movement in the 90s than Hal Hartley. Over that decade a steady stream of features and short films flowed from his imagination. These films also brought to the fore a similarly distinctive set of actors: Martin Donovan, Edie Falco, Parker Posey, Robert Burke, Bill Sage, Elina Löwensohn – and the incomparable Adrienne Shelly.

In an interview with Graham Fuller, Hal Hartley had this to say about how he uses the human body in his films:

Hal Hartley: When we were making Trust, may cameraman Mike Spiller and I would ask ourselves, “In every image we make, what does the human body have to do with this picture? How does this picture gain in significance from the body in it?” Even in landscape shots, we were thinking of how to show towns – that particular Middle American kind of town – without having to get away from a human being. We might show someone walking by a bunch of power plant wires and fences and whatnot, simply to convey a sense of the landscape graphically, in juxtaposition to the human from.

Graham Fuller: There’s an elliptical treatment of the human body in your films that reminds me of Robert Bresson.

Hal Hartley: I am very affected by Bresson and, more and more, I am consciously using that knowledge – whatever that means. Sometimes it’s just an emotional clarity that I sense in his films, that I try to bring to mine when I’m writing. When I’m shooting too. Bresson cuts right past everything that’s superfluous and isolates an image that says exactly what it’s meant to say.

In Surviving Desire, I show Jude’s hand reaching across a table to almost touch Sophie’s hand. My treatment of that action struck me as Bressonian. Recognizing that the gesture itself was expressive. Nothing else was needed. It’s about getting rid of the superfluous and the presumptuous – that’s what keeps coming up in my notebooks. And this approach of getting rid of what’s unnecessary requires being totally alive at the moment of photography. I always thought that this particular shot in Surviving Desire would be done in close-up or two matching singles. I thought it was their faces that were important at that moment. But it wasn’t. It was their hands and nothing else.

Whenever I’m doing anything, the material I’m working with tells me certain things about what is appropriate. By the time I get all the footage back from the shoot, it’s like starting from zero again. In a way, the first couple of cuts of the film are just awful, because I haven’t flushed out all my preconceptions yet. I have to imagine I’ve just found all this stuff in an attic, and I’m going to try and make meaning out of it.

Graham Fuller:  The key to your work seems to be that paring down.

Hal Hartley: Essential. That’s a word I use a lot. Finding the essential.

Extract taken from “Finding the Essential: Hal Hartley in conversation with Graham Fuller,” which is the introduction to Hal Hartley: Collected Screenplays (Faber & Faber, 2002).

Essential Viewing: The Unbelievable Truth [Buy], Trust, Ambition [Buy], Theory of Achievement [Buy], Simple Men [Buy], Amateur [Buy], Henry Fool [Buy], and No Such Thing [Buy]

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