Just screened Hal Hartley's new film Meanwhile
on a DVD that's available for purchase directly from his website at Possible Films
. This started out as a spec TV pilot for cable and was finished as a short (60-odd minute) feature with funds from Kickstarter. But make no mistake, it's a major work, a definite return to form after the wayward earlier experiments with video and genre in The Girl From Monday
and the overly plotted and ill-advised sequel to Henry Fool
that was Fay Grim
. It's also every bit as vital as Surviving Desire
, the other earlier work he made of this length.
I'm a huge Hartley fan. He was one of my gateways into American Independent films the way that I imagine Jarmusch was for an earlier generation. I still love films like Trust
, Simple Men
and Henry Fool
, so it's nice to see him finding his way back to a simpler way of telling stories, like he has in this film, which tells the story of a guy named Joe Fulton, an out of work drummer from Brooklyn who just got kicked out of his apartment and needs to find a place to stay. But he's a resourceful type that thrives in situations like this, a real urban survivor, always balancing dozens of plates, confident that at least one of them will pay off. He's got a kind of lowkey can-do attitude and an implicit faith that there's no problem he can't tackle and if he just keeps at it, things will turn out in his favor (that I imagine he may share with his creator). He's humble and helpful and honest to a fault.
The film follows him on a journey through Manhattan in one day, as he tries to figure where to stay and what his next job might be, encountering various friends and strangers. Hartley himself described it as "like a road movie," but mostly on foot, that gives us images of most of the famous neighborhoods on the island and revels in its digressions.
And the digressions are often about how he helps the people he runs into solve their own problems -- fixing a typewriting, helping an overburdened mover, doing housework with a friend's maid -- forever refusing reimbursement even though he hasn't got an accessible dollar to his name (his bank account was frozen). In this way he's very much the opposite of Henry Fool, who disrupted and drained the lives of everyone he ran into, except for accidentally exposing Simon to poetry, and who didn't really have any useful skills to speak of and was not at all modest.
Hartley's NYC has that mix of authenticity and romanticism about the city that very film films can match, especially on what I imagine to have been his budget. He shot on one of those new Canon SLRs and it looks great. And it's nice to see a vision of the city that's not so cold and cruel and out of human scale, but more like a street-level community of strangers. Almost like a better version of what the two Paul Auster/Wayne Wang films were aiming at. Hartley has a knack for creating a sense of place in an overphotographed city without resorting to cliche, even when he shoots icons like Brooklyn Bridge.
All in all, my favorite Hartley film in more than a decade.