Hal Hartley has long been one of the truly iconic figures of the ‘90s independent filmmaking scene. He is also one of the very few to have remained true to his vision and not used his Sundance Film Festival street cred as a mere stepping stone to directing big studio adaptations of comic books. But it hasn’t been a cake-walk and Hartley has spent many years watching his audience dwindle in size. His last film The Girl From Monday was barely released and financing his unique work has never been easy. But it’s still somewhat shocking to find out that his latest film, Fay Grim is actually some kind of sequel to his most profitable film, 1998’s Henry Fool. Has he finally given up? Has “Hartley Gone Hollywood”?
The quick answer is,"no". First of all, while it was Hartley’s biggest success at the box office, Henry Fool was certainly no blockbuster. It certainly did not really warrant a sequel of any kind let alone one this unusual. Fay Grim is a sequel like no other, so non-sequel like, it exists in some kind of parallel universe to the events of its predecessor. Among other things, Henry Fool was a satire on the pretensions of the literary world with the title character being presented as a mad, hack writer inventing all kinds of lies about himself. But instead of following through on this concept, Hartley creates a revisionist history of the first film and, using the same cast of characters, turns the plot inside out. He transforms the literary context of the former into a complex satire on the cliches and conventions of the spy film. Like most of the ‘90s independent “wave”, the joke is on genre once again, this time the sequel, which these days can be considered a genre unto itself. Hartley attempts to subvert the sequel by switching genres within the same essential situation. He pretzels his faux spy plot into Syriana-like knots and ends up with a fascinating if somewhat flawed absurdist romp.
Fay Grim begins with a series of scenes designed like a soap opera recap of the events of Henry Fool which left Fay “sort of single” following the disappearance of her no-talent novelist husband Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan) and raising their 14 year old son, Ned (Liam Aiken) who wants nothing more than to follow in his father’s footsteps. This gets him expelled from school and Fay to agree to help a dubious CIA agent, Fulbright (Jeff Goldblum) in order to have her brother, the notorious Nobel-prize winning/ garbage man poet Simon Grim (James Urbaniak) released from prison so the boy can have a strong male role model around. Fay is sent to Paris to claim several volumes of Henry’s rambling journals which are now believed to have international importance. She is immediately thrust into a complex plot full of crosses and double crosses as agents and operatives from around the world chase after the books and the international man of mystery Henry Fool, who may still be alive and clearly not who he seems.
While Fay cuts a fashionable figure in Parisian spywear dodging Saffron Burrows as an enemy agent and helping the eccentric Elina Lowensohwn as the accussed terrorist Bebe, her friends and family at home, including her new beau, Simon’s publisher Angus (Chuck Montgomery), play a Da Vinci Code parody in which a strange toy mailed to Ned from his father is decoded. The plot thickens and thickens.
None of this should work. On paper, it sounds like a screenplay cooked up by the 14 writers that Jerry Bruckheimer has rewriting each other to create explosive chaos. But the nearly incomprehesible plot has nothing to do with the movie’s tone and style which is genuinely witty and full of wide-eyed fun. Few filmmakers have such a specifically mannered style as Hartley whose films seem to be as much about photographic composition and the posing of actors as much as the story and dialogue. It’s interesting to watch veterans like Jeff Goldblum wrap their own mannered personas around this stylized staging, framing and dialogue. While coming dangerously close to parody, Hartley has still managed to create an absurd narrative that mocks narrative and yet have it work narratively. You actually DO care what will happen next while at the same time you are very aware that it’s all just made up nonsense that is an excuse for the action. Somehow it’s fun to just glide along with nonsense when everyone seems committed to enjoying the ride.
Beneath all of the absurdist plotting and one liners, Hartley clearly has something more serious in mind. Fay Grim is set within a very specific post-9/11 world in which everyone is paranoid. It’s an “Alice in Wonderland”-like world where spies cannot come in from the cold and the United States government may just have gone mad. While it’s admirable that Hartley is actually considering these contemporary issues, as a filmmaker he’s tripped up by it. After a fanastic and mischievous first two thirds, Fay Grim suddenly becomes very grim. All of the wit is sucked out of the movie and the characters actually begin to behave irrationally, even within the context of the absurdity that preceeded it. The last 40 minutes feel as though Hartley was moving his characters around a dramatic chessboard and they seem confused as to his motives.
Still, there is much to love about the movie and the performances are simply wonderful. Has there ever been an actress like Parker Posey? I cannot imagine a more uniquely neurotic and yet intensely photogenic persona than Posey. She’s at once dim witted, clumsy self-reliant and even defiant. The rest of the cast, from the Buster Keaton like stoneface of James Urbaniak, the bearded compassion of Chuck Montgomery to the most Hartley-esque actor of all, the deadpan Liam Aiken as Ned, are all perfect. Hartley and cinematographer Sarah Cawley indulge in one Third Man-styled dutch angle after another but instead of annoying, it seems right for the movie. After all, Henry Fool is presented as nothing less than a contemporary Harry Lime, only here he remains as elusive at the end as he was in the beginning.
This is yet another release from Mark Cuban’s HDNET films which releases new features to all available formats at the same time. So while I saw this movie on DVD, I could’ve made the trip into Philadelphia to see it in the theater or if I subscribed to HDNET itself, I could have watched it on the cable channel. If this seems like a crazy idea, don’t be surprised if you see bigger budget films cut down the window between theatrical and DVD more and more as well. Domestic theatrical is a smaller piece of the pie these days and the studios are getting ancy to collect money from all available sources at once.
Fay Grim was shot in Hi-Def so this isn’t really a transfer to DVD at all rather than an export to disc. Unsurprisingly, it looks great, although the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is not the best mix I’ve heard. I kept having to raise the volume to hear the dialogue, which kept being challenged by Hartley’s self-composed thriller score.
The disc comes with several interesting extras as well, with Hartley being very forthcoming about his motives and working methods. "Behind the Scenes: The Making of Fay Grim” is an interesting featurette that seems to be shot by Parker Posey and is a fairly in-depth look at how Hartley makes his films. We see how he carefully plans out his camera movements and blocking in advance and tries to help his actors get around the fact that much of it is “unmotivated” movement. With his sketches and camera floorplans, Hartley’s working method seems less like his indie contemporaries and more like Alfred Hitchcock. In any case, it works wonderfully onscreen as much of the humor is actually derived from the pauses and movements laid out by Hartley, which creates a strange subtext non-existent on the page.
An episode of HDNET’s series, “Higher Definition” is included as Dallas Observer film critic Robert Wilonsky dryly interviews Grim’s cast and creators. Much of this information is already covered in the Making of featurette. The extras are rounded out by about a minute of deleted footage and Hartley’s own stylized theatrical trailer for the film which proves that not even he can fully express his own film in the context of a sales tool.