Henry: Portrait of a serial auteur

AT THE RISK of sounding didactic, an "auteur," from the French-derived "auteur theory," is a film director whose particular themes are traceable across his entire oeuvre. Hal Hartley's Henry Fool, for example, is about a garbage man (James Urbaniak) who miraculously becomes known for his poetry, much like Hartley's Amateur was about a "nymphomaniac virgin former nun" (Isabelle Huppert) who miraculously becomes known for her pornographic fiction, and Flirt was about a filmmaker (Hal Hartley) who'd miraculously become known for his films. Such consistency need not be calculated by the auteur, but when it is, he may also be regarded, like Hartley, as a "formalist."

Some even more highly evolved auteurs wear their preoccupations on their person, and Hartley is one of these. Meeting the press in the restaurant of the Minneapolis Hilton, the studiously refined director appears Ivy League preppy in a blue blazer and polo shirt, enunciating impeccably and listening always with his lips slightly pursed. Hartley is an auteur who can talk in great detail about his own work. Not to compare him to his character Henry Fool (which would suggest yet another sort of auteur), but the director's press-kit description of wanting to render Fool "knee-deep in creatureal [sic] reality" and to "amp it up to a comic book clarity" seems to recall Fool's definition of his opus as "a poetics. A politics, if you will... A pornographic magazine of truly comic-book proportions."

Speaking of outspoken auteurs, Hartley has been compared by some cineastes to Jean-Luc Godard, the genius French critic/filmmaker who helped define the auteur theory through his '50s criticism and his '60s filmmaking. Critic J. Hoberman once wrote of Hartley's "Godardian mixture of ardent talk, deadpan hyperbole, and unexpected action"--but the comparison has always been lost on this reviewer. I ask Hartley to explain his appreciation for Godard and we wind up talking at length about the ultra-rare, early-'80s videotapes of Godard in interview that Walker Art Center film/video curator Bruce Jenkins pulled from the vault and duped for Hartley on his previous swing through town (the privileges of being an auteur, n'est-ce pas?), and about Hartley's meeting with Godard four years ago for their Q&A in Filmmaker magazine. "But we shouldn't be talking about Godard," Hartley says. "We should be talking about me."

Mais oui.

CITY PAGES: What was your impulse to make Henry Fool?

HAL HARTLEY: On the one hand, I wanted to reach back into tradition for examples of modes of storytelling, to Faust and Kasper Hauser. But the most immediate desire I had--apart from the sheer joy of telling a story that could be really big--was to create a mythic-size character in a work that achieves any relevance it might have from our experience of contemporary America, in the process bringing this epic character down to a recognizably human, everyday, creatural level.

Henry Fool starts Friday at Lagoon Cinema.

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