STUCK IN THE ’90S: UNSUNG FILM HERO HAL HARTLEY AND THE DIY APPEAL OF AMATEUR

There’s much to love from the the 1990s, pop culture wise (I could write a Masters thesis on the brilliance of low-fi indie rock, like a sad Pavement fan who still wakes up each day in his Wowie Zowie t-shirt, thinking the band will reunite again for a complete tour and new album, but I digress.) But is it because my formative teen and adult years were spent there? Is it, gasp, nostalgia? Is it something else? I don’t ignore other decades’ cultural contributions, including contemporary offerings (except for the glut of superhero movies), in favor of All Things Nineties. (I have met people who ignore all pop-culture artifacts after a specific, arbitrary date: “Doug has locked the door to all things after 1990. He prefers to stay in his pre-‘90s vault.” Doug is a misbegotten ignoramus and yes, I’ve changed his name so I don’t get ambushed on the street—and you thought Film Twitter was bad!). It’s certainly part nostalgia, but I think it’s also because the ’90s were when I became aware of film as a legitimate art form. I’ve written previously about how David Lynch’s Blue Velvet opened my eyes to a film’s allure and power, a filmic stepping stone leading me to seek other filmmakers to by which whet my appetite.

In 1993, as a university freshman, I had been eager to work on the campus newspaper, The Gauntlet, as either a movie reviewer or a cartoonist (the latter never happened, which helped convince me to put down my fancy pens and disassemble my drafting table). After an embarrassing experience reviewing a movie (it was the Tom Selleck baseball opus, Mr. Baseball), I enrolled in a Communications class on writing about the fine arts; it was a godsend. I discovered how to think critically about the fine arts, particularly film, and it introduced me to “independent cinema,” a term that would be used a lot, often contentiously, for the next 20+ years, haunting many film critics’ dreams. My late friend, Brian, a fellow film geek (he got married in a movie theater), referred to independent cinema as “quirky,” eschewing them mostly for the comfort of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Superman. He never elaborated on what made independent films so quirky, but I suspect it’s because they are often bleak, dealing with subject matter avoided by the Hollywood studios; it’s ironic considering that dark subject matter was embraced by Hollywood in the ‘70s, until high-concept blockbusters and cocaine changed the industry in the ‘80s.

My Comms class assignments were essays and group presentations, but I relished whenever we were assigned to attend film screenings in any of Calgary’s three arthouse cinemas; it was The Uptown Stage and Screen, a palatial downtown repertory theatre, the foundation of one of Calgary’s iconic buildings, the Barron Building (“A stylish combination of art deco and art moderne influences,” architect Stephanie White wrote in the Calgary Herald in 1979—a rarity in a downtown constructed of uninspired glass and metal towers for oil and gas companies), where I fell in love with independent cinema. It was at the Uptown where I discovered the grainy, low-fi pleasures of ‘80s-‘90s cinema: the Coens’ Blood Simple; Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant; Bruce MacDonald’s Highway 61; Lars von Trier’s Riget (AKA The Kingdom); Italian zombie horror (Dellamorte Dellamore AKA Cemetary Man); Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train and Night On Earth; and Amateur, a film by an unknown-to-me director, Hal Hartley.

Amateur received a review in the Herald’s Arts and Entertainment section with an accompanying black and white publicity photo of a beautiful, vampy, sophisticated woman (Romanian actress Elina Löwensohn) standing at a payphone, looking frightened. If one could be affected emotionally by a smeary newsprint image, consider me smitten! Amateur opened at the Uptown on a Friday and I went to a matinee screening the next day (it only played for a week). I sat in darkness and fell in love with Hartley’s dialogue-heavy, stage-like style and his very deadpan sense of humor. Amateur is emblematic of the DIY nature of independent cinema, but it’s also a response to many early ‘90s indie films’ reverence of film noir (paging Mr. Tarantino…). Melancholy and humor are rooted firmly in the narrative, creating an intersection of disparate characters who have more in common than they realize.

A man (Martin Donovan) lies still on a cobblestone side-street in New York City; a mysterious woman (Elina Löwensohn) examines him before running away. He jolts awake, bleeding. A woman (Isabelle Huppert), having recently left a convent, sits in a coffee shop, speaking each word of the steamy short story she’s writing in her laptop. The man stumbles into the coffee shop and the woman, Isabelle, comes to his aid, caring for his wounds and taking her back to his apartment to recuperate. The man suffers from amnesia. The mysterious woman, Sofia, meets up with a disheveled accountant, Edward (Damien Young), to help her run away from her abusive husband, Thomas. She tries to blackmail one of her Thomas’ business associates, Mr. Jacques (Edward’s former employer), which goes badly, as he sends a pair of enforcers after her, finding only Edward. At Isabelle’s apartment, the amnesiac man is drawn to an adult movie starring Sofia, but he can’t remember why—how does she figure in his as-yet-unknown life?

People often say Seinfeld is apropos of nothing, but Hal Hartley’s films are really nothing more than character studies; plot is a just a device to propel the characters along in a series of existential crises. Amateur is arguably Hartley’s most plot-oriented film, but that doesn’t mean he betrays his personal style of having his characters intersect organically through individual crises. Hartley’s signature interrogative dialogue will unnerve and exhaust some viewers, but even decades later, I’m still fond of his style; to this day, my fiction is focused primarily on dialogue—back-and-forth conversations that say more than any narrator or expository paragraphs could, a testament to Hartley’s films’ impact on my younger self. Characters will ask each other to describe the action the viewer sees, which can admittedly be off-putting, but Hal Hartley is an exception to the “show don’t tell” rule: in his films, characters show AND tell. An example is when Isabelle goes on a “date” to a movie theater:

ISABELLE: What are you doing?

DATE: I’m molesting you.

ISABELLE: Am I supposed to like it?

DATE: You could beg me to stop?

ISABELLE: And would you?

DATE: No.

ISABELLE: I have to go.

The dialogue exchange is meant to show how out of place Isabelle is in the world outside of a convent. She looks uncomfortable and horrified, questions her date’s repulsive action, analyzes the awkward physical interaction, and decides that she will not tolerate it, ending the date. The situation leads her to encounter Sofia, asleep in the theater. Isabelle replaces Sofia’s fallen purse on her lap and stands up for her when the movie usher (hey, it’s Holt McCallany!) tells Sofia to leave. It is a key intersection that will drive the film’s climactic convergence. Amateur is a series of character pieces, discussing nymphomania, commodities, porno magazines, and floppy discs.

Even when characters from different backgrounds appear, they all tend to share the same narrative voice, which is ridiculous, but accepting the conceit is surprisingly easy as one watches. It’s a clever way to provide both plot information and characterization, often imbued with humor, as evidenced in typical character exchanges, such as Parker Posey’s squatter character tending to Edward, post-torture. She revives him with some thimbles of alcohol and he stumbles out of the abandoned warehouse like a hell-driven orangutan. From a distance, she calls out, “Are you going to be okay? You be careful out there!” like a concerned parent for a child who has just left home. It’s also part of a Hartley trait in giving small incidental characters a moment to shine, whether it’s the policewoman, Officer Melville, who feels too much empathy and not enough “steel” (as if that’s a detriment to police work); George the Pornographer, who hates Isabelle’s story, yet blames himself, conjuring up lost dreams as an investigative journalist, while he tries to encourage her to write a truly filthy pornographic story:

ISABELLE: Well, what do you think?

GEORGE: Well, frankly, Isabelle, it’s quite bad.

ISABELLE: It is?

GEORGE: I’m afraid so.

ISABELLE: But what’s wrong with it?

GEORGE: It’s not pornographic.

ISABELLE: Yes it is! At least the first part.

GEORGE: It’s poetry and don’t you try to deny it!

ISABELLE: I’m sorry. I failed you.

GEORGE: a mistake is not necessarily a failure, Isabelle.

ISABELLE: No?

GEORGE: Look at me. I’m a fairly successful editor of dirty magazines. I never intended this. My aspiration was defamatory journalism. My big ambition in life was to get my hands on smutty pictures of the President’s mistress. I wanted to undermine huge corporations. Sow the seeds of revolt by publishing the sordid details of high-level government corruption. But, you know, things happen. We drift away from our vocation.

Isabelle’s publisher, though uncharacteristically generous (how many publishers give writers $100 for an unused piece?!?), is much like her, but at least he’s aware of how differently his life turned out. In a major metropolitan centre like New York City, there are countless lives diminished by unfulfilled potential. The universality of people fumbling through life isn’t new in film, but in Amateur, Hartley examines it via his distinctive style.

Amateur’s title might seem cryptic in a ‘90s minimalist way, but it’s a succinct title to describe nearly all of its characters. They aren’t very good in their current states in life: Isabelle cannot write raunchy pornographic stories; Sofia is not very good at blackmailing criminals or killing her husband; Edward is not very good at friendship, as he fails Sofia. The ancillary characters are also “amateurs” in life: Mr. Jacques’ henchmen are former accountants (and acquaintances of Edward) who aren’t very good at being henchmen (both dying as a result), a pornographer with heart who yearns to be a journalist. Thomas fares the worst, as his horrific past is wiped clean, in what could be a gift, but alas, he’s not good at moving on with a new life–his obsession with Sofia Ludens, “The Most Notorious Porno Actress in the World,” undoes any chance of a new life. Hartley’s characters stumble about New York City, amateurs struggling to find purpose in their static lives—there is no happy ending for any of them by the time the end credits roll.

Deadpan humor is a major component of Hartley’s ‘90s filmmaking and it’s in Amateur in abundance: even with so much darkness present, there are needed moments of levity: the two accountants-turned-henchmen argue over cellphone models, Isabelle hilariously clashes with fellow patrons (and a temperamental server) as she writes second-rate Anaïs Nin fiction, multiple characters have a running gag that “floppy discs” are neither floppy nor disc-shaped. In one bizarre scene, henchman Kurt describes Sofia as a commodity matter-of-factly, as he unties her shoes in order to torture her with a pair of pliers:

KURT: Can I ask you a personal question?

SOFIA: Leave me alone.

KURT: Do you resent your position as a woman in the motion picture industry? I’m sorry. I find you very attractive, and I’m interested in commodities?

SOFIA: What are you talking about?

KURT: A commodity is an article of trade. A product in the purest sense.

SOFIA: What has this got to do with me?

KURT: You’re a product.

SOFIA: I am?

KURT: You’re a commodity. Thomas tendered your body in exchange for money.

SOFIA: So I’m an article of trade?

KURT: Yes. A useful thing in terms of classic capitalism. I studied economics, I know what I’m talking about.

Such an exchange as a prelude to torture isn’t normally found in crime films, but that’s the joy of Hartley subverting the genre for comedic effect. Other funny scenes include Thomas and a school-kid exchanging porno magazines and a copy of The Odyssey in a park as they discuss both Odysseus’ journey and if magazine models are shaved or au naturel. Additonally, Thomas and Isabelle’s exchange about nymphomania is one of the funniest scenes in the film:

THOMAS: Have you ever had sex?

ISABELLE: No.

THOMAS: How can you be a nymphomaniac if you’ve never had sex?

ISABELLE: I’m choosy.

Gentlemen, never argue with Isabelle Huppert. Hartley’s back-and-forth dialogue works well, even in absurd moments, and Donovan and Huppert sell his words beautifully with the perfect amount of detachment—there is no comedic mugging to be found in a Hal Hartley picture. If there’s to be blackmail and torture in a film, Hartley’s deadpan humor gives viewers a chance to catch their breath.

Hal Hartley employs an informal repertory of actors in Amateur, as Martin Donovan returns for his third collaboration, having appeared previously in Hartley’s Trust (1991) and Simple Men (1993). Donovan is an ideal Hartley performer, able to convey sadness and humor interchangeably and yet provide a soulfulness as Thomas the amnesiac. As Sofia and Edward unveil the grisly aspects of Thomas’ previous life, it’s shocking, yet the viewer still roots for Donovan’s potential second chance with Isabelle, courtesy of Donovan’s gentle, subtle performance (he’s also quite charming in his white t-shirt and Armani suit). As he, Isabelle, and Sofia head for the convent, Thomas grows more agitated, soon to collide with his past, the weary present-day Odysseus returning home. It’s an organic progression for a character who wants to know his past yet is afraid to embrace it, lest he cannot find true happiness with Isabelle. Donovan and Isabelle Huppert have fantastic chemistry together, portraying two lost, sad souls who have found themselves seemingly by happenstance, the first intersection of the film.

Huppert, already a national treasure in France, reportedly wrote to Hartley, asking to be considered for Amateur; Hartley could not have refused her, rewarded by her stunning performance. As Isabelle, Huppert is deft at delivering Hartley’s rapid-fire dialogue, but she imbues weariness and melancholy with a simple expression (although I don’t buy her excuse that she doesn’t know how to smoke—she’s French!). She embodies her namesake character, a woman living in a spartan apartment with only the Virgin Mary portrait and piles of books (including the bathroom) for companionship. She’s convincing as an ex-nun who feels like she’s biding her time until she fulfills a childhood vision given to her by the Virgin Mary. When she makes her presence known to henchman Kurt in Sofia’s apartment, she turns to the camera, clad in black leather and holding an electric drill, and it’s easy to see why Kurt is stunned with a simple “Wow”: she’s a dark yet luminous angel who steps in to rescue Sofia. She succeeds, but at great personal cost.

Elina Löwensohn, another Hartley regular, is wonderful as Sofia, an adult actor trying to escape a horrible life she was forced into by Thomas. Like Donovan and Huppert, Löwensohn is able to express a multitude of emotions, fear, surprise, joy, sadness, with little effort. Perhaps I was smitten with both Sofia and Löwensohn during the scene in which Sofia tries to blackmail arms dealer Mr. Jacques by telephone, sounding business-like (when she’s clearly a novice at blackmail), and her look of surprise and delight when he agrees to her terms. How can you not love her? Despite having no money, Sofia is able to use her conversation skills (and her Goth good looks and mannerisms) to convince a kind-hearted doorman (The Sopranos’ Michael Imperioli) to allow her into a nightclub without a cover, sleep with a band member for temporary refuge, and melt Edward’s cold demeanor to help her flee Mr. Jacques. Despite being penniless, Löwensohn’s Sofia still projects class and elegance with a simple brush of her hair or the way she smokes a cigarette. It’s easy to see why Michael Almereyda cast her as Dracula’s daughter in Nadja (one of two black-and-white vampire films to be released in 1994—I love indie cinema!).

Damien Young, also part of the Hartley repertory, is a delight to watch as the World’s Most Disheveled Accountant, looking and sounding detached from life, despite having created a new life away from the porn industry (and illegal activities). Once he and Sofia commiserate over Thomas’ indiscretions, he appears as a man with newfound purpose, inspired by Sofia’s predicament. He’s won over, not just with flowers (which is admittedly a nice gesture), but by her innate kindness, even if she’s desperate to reach out to someone who will agree to help her. The transformation from accountant to beast, courtesy of some nefarious electrocution, is a needed respite from the film’s glum tone. Edward lurches like Frankenstein’s Monster, as if he’s learning how to use his body for the first time. Young delights as he pushes a mother aside from a pay phone and attacks the mechanism, all while she screams at him and her kids spray him with water guns, as Jesus Lizard’s “Then Comes Dudley” screams in the background. It’s a silly scene, but it’s a wonderful moment. Young embraces the physical comedy, particularly during the ridiculous climactic “shootout”; he runs and staggers about, shooting henchman Jan repeatedly, even from impossible angles, as he won’t stay down. Some might feel the scene doesn’t fit, but it’s also a declaration of love for Sofia from Young’s beastly Edward, a form of payback for her mistreatment.

One of the benefits of ‘90s independent cinema is that it thrived at the same time as indie rock bands took up the mantle of angst and DIY know-how left behind by Kurt Cobain. Like independent film, indie rock, long a staple of university campuses across North America since the ‘80s, became empowered with exciting new voices and music styles. Mainstream Hollywood films of the ‘80s relied on unrelated pop music to fill scenes, but now the DIY synergy enabled many independent filmmakers to employ indie bands as part of their films’ soundtracks. It’s part altruism, but it’s also part pragmatism—it’s cheaper to licence songs from indie bands than bands signed to major record labels who demand exorbitant licencing fees. Amateur has an effective original score (co-written by Jeffrey Taylor and Hartley, using his “Ned Rifle” composer pseudonym, with violins used insidiously to make me well up with tears in certain scenes), but it uses the likes of PJ Harvey, Pavement, Bettie Serveert (if you aren’t won over by “Tom Boy,” your heart is indeed cold), Liz Phair, My Bloody Valentine, Yo La Tengo, and others to add sonic texture to the film. The indie artists serve a couple purposes: contemporizing the film noir elements for ‘90s sensibilities and augmenting the comedy and maudlin moments. Many people cite Trainspotting or Pulp Fictions or even Batman Forever (seriously, its soundtrack is really good) as the greatest film soundtracks of the decade, but I’d throw in Amateur as well. Oh well, it’ll be our secret.

It’s debateable whether or not Amateur is Hal Hartley’s best film, but it’s certainly my favorite among his body of work. If it wasn’t for that Saturday matinee in 1994, my film education would have taken longer, but it would be missing a vital component. Independent filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch and Steven Soderbergh got more publicity and subsequent film projects made by Hollywood studios, and I certainly don’t begrudge them: good filmmaking isn’t about having a small budget—it’s having integrity as a filmmaker, whether the film budget is $1,000 or $100M. While many of his contemporaries had dream projects financed by deep studio coffers, Hal Hartley stayed in New York and toiled away at his films into the millennium. I admittedly have lost track with some of his work post-No Such Thing (2001), a retelling of Beowulf that my friend Brian called “especially quirky” (and turned my partner, Amanda, off future Hartley film viewings—maybe it was my undying love for Sarah Polley?), and disappointed many film critics and cinephiles. Amateur taught me that having a small budget didn’t matter, as long as there was a good story, an ambitious cast, and a dedicated crew to put it all together. There’s a certain delight in a small group of devotees refusing to share a beloved work of art with the masses and I think that’s what I think of Amateur and what it did to me. Other filmmakers can have all the acclaim and fancy, slick magazine profiles, but I’ll never forget what lessons Amateur, and Hal Hartley’s ‘90s films, taught me about art, cinema, and life.

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