23 July 2005

The Girl from Monday

Why do good filmmakers go bad? In the case of Hal Hartley, it may be the effect of trying to apply a limited style to a range of subjects -- what seemed amusing and absurd in Hartley's films through Henry Fool has, in the more expansive settings and more serious attention to philosophies and "issues" of The Book of Life, No Such Thing, and The Girl from Monday, turned to awkward sentimentality, sophomoric self-righteousness, and mannered tedium.

The Girl from Monday seems like the work of a film-school student who's seen a bunch of Hal Hartley movies: it's got the same affectless performances, off-kilter photography, and rhythmic editing, but the tone is more plodding, and what was once so prevalent in Hartley's best films -- surreal and absurd moments interspersed with naked realism -- has become a rarity. Hartley's early films worked so well because they applied what seemed to be a self-consciously Meaningful style of acting, filming, and editing onto stories that were ephemeral and cliche -- reduced to its plot, for instance, Trust is a teen movie (the packaging of the old videotape I have makes it look like a relative of Pretty in Pink) complete with an impossible-but-right relationship and lots of trouble with parents. Onto that template, Hartley added sharply strange dialogue, flat performances, and a plethora of odd details. His early movies were not parodies, but were, instead, revitalizations of formulae that had, through being churned into cliche, lost whatever power they once had to communicate. Through the wrenching effect of putting square pegs in round holes, Hartley created films that were fresh, funny, and often surprisingly moving.

He could have done something similar to science fiction with The Girl from Monday, but instead Hartley chose to take his material seriously, and instead of invigorating the cliches, he drowned in them. The story of a future world where sex is literally commodified and nothing that isn't profitable is worthwhile is the sort of thing that people who haven't encountered much science fiction would think is new and profound. Hartley fans could be excused for thinking he would recognize the familiarity of this conceit and have fun playing with it. Alas, no. He thinks he's offering a Serious Vision Of A Disturbing Future. He thinks he's making a Social Comment. He thinks he can Save Us.

We should have known. After all, in The Book of Life, Hartley went looking for God, and tried to redeem the world with digital video. The Girl from Monday is also shot on digital, and with the same low-frame-count impressionistic swirls that made The Book of Life difficult to watch. After starting out as a sort of suburban Gogol-lite, Hartley has become as insufferable as Tolstoy in his last days.

It's sad to see once-interesting artists decide that they have messages to communicate to the world. Hartley's early work had lots to say about the hollowness of contemporary life, the desires cramped by middle-class ennui and alienation, the challenges of being alive. The richness of meaning came through playing around and refusing to tie up any single, over-riding meaning, allowing the viewer to discover the implications between the scenes. Hartley has lost that, because now he wants to make up our minds for us. Once upon a time, he thought his audience was intelligent. Now he just thinks it's there to be enlightened.