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Hal Hartley on “Fay Grim”

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By Aaron Hillis

IFC News

[Photo: Left, Hal Hartley; below, “Fay Grim,” Magnolia Pictures, 2007]

During the ’90s-cusp American indie wave (Spikes, Mikes, slackers, et al.), writer-director-composer Hal Hartley became an auteurist staple with films like “Simple Men,” “Trust” and “Amateur,” known for their erudite and elliptical dialogue, quirky dance sequences, complex blocking and a stellar troupe of regulars like Martin Donovan and the late Adrienne Shelly. 1997’s “Henry Fool,” however, might just be his masterwork, a darkly prescient and epic satire on politics, literature and society writ large. Thomas Jay Ryan starred as the titular Fool, an ostentatious blowhard and convicted sex offender who moves in with — then helps make a poetry superstar of — factory worker Simon Grim (James Urbaniak). By its end, Simon’s brash and promiscuous sister Fay (Parker Posey) has married and had a child with Henry, who is last seen about to flee the country as a fugitive, while Simon’s involvement gets him incarcerated. It was a critical peak for Hartley, but his fans have been less than supportive in the decade since, perhaps because his films have abandoned his early trademarks for philosophically heavy ideas that are increasingly more ambitious in scope. Released in theaters last Friday and on DVD this week, “Fay Grim” looks back while pressing forward, as Posey reprises her “Henry Fool” character as the lead in their continuing adventures, this time with FBI agent Jeff Goldblum and a crypto-global-espionage-thriller bent. (Like I said, ambitious!) I spoke with Hartley, who had returned to his native New York from his new home in Berlin for the U.S. premiere.

Were you ever concerned that “Fay Grim” might seem like a creative retread?

No, I knew it wouldn’t be old ground. It would be a return to these characters we fell in love with when we were making “Henry Fool.” I knew particularly that the Fay character was very rich and that sort of thing makes me curious. What would she be like under different circumstances? Let’s investigate her, more than her brother and Henry. The first film is really about Simon and Henry, their relationship. At least at that time, I think that was everything we needed to know. She was kind of a supporting character, but if Henry’s the chief catalyst in that story, she also contributes by putting the poem on the Internet. She changes quite a lot in the film. Towards the end, she’s already becoming the girl you see at the beginning of “Fay Grim” — more responsible, nervous about her abilities and thinking of herself as a very intelligent person. In fact, she is intelligent, very brave and a decent person. I also just liked her. Sometimes you have a character, and it’s like, “Wow, what’s she thinking about?”

I’m surprised you’ve never had this itch before, considering how open-ended your films are.

I agree, my movies often end on a suspension. “Henry Fool,” though, left a lot of questions about what would happen to these people. At the end of “Trust,” which is not fully resolved, you still know something about these characters. It’s gotten to a place, and it’s kind of satisfying. Even “Amateur” ends that way. The feeling at the end of “Henry Fool” was always, now what? It took me a number of years to answer that question.

In April of 2002, I called Parker and asked her if she would consider doing it. We had talked about it, half-jokingly, for years. I didn’t have the plot points worked out, but I had the general situation, that the world is — actually, it’s a quote from one of my earlier short films — the world is a dangerous and insecure place, and the few moments of trust and affection are as good as life gets. Yeah, Fay gets involved in this impossible-to-understand scheme of counter-espionage and stuff like that, but somehow she cuts through the madness and saves Henry through sacrifice. It’s really old-fashioned tragedy, in that sense. Then I had to research to make it plausible yet still be ridiculous. It’s a careful balance of facts with the spin that facts can be told to you by different personalities, and that took a long time. I wrote from that spring and finished it in the fall of 2004, so it was a good two years.

How do you feel about the way “Fay Grim” changes perceptions about the characters, almost like a revisionist history of the first film?

I’m excited by it. It’s a dynamic that could not have been anticipated at the time. I wrote and directed “Henry Fool” so that Henry, as ridiculous as he is, and as much of a bullshit artist as he appears to be, he never lies. Henry doesn’t lie. He says exactly what he means all the time. It gets perceived to be one thing or the other, but I just went back to the first film and used it as a text. Henry says he was in South America and Paris. Fay doesn’t believe him, you know? Of course, the big conversation I find so interesting in the years after is that people argue about whether he’s running to or away from the plane. I knew that was how to start. “Henry Fool” had a life — it still has a life — but the film didn’t answer it one way or the other.

I always presumed we weren’t supposed to know which direction he was running.

No, we shot it with him as written. If you read the screenplay, he’s running to the plane. But there was something about ending the film that way. It didn’t have the lift and resolved too neatly. Or, it resolved neatly, but didn’t have the requisite pitch of emotional intensity. I like aesthetic resolution, but not necessarily story closure. It’s a balance. I think a film could stay more alive when you leave the movie theater or turn off the television set, which happened with “Henry Fool” because people talked about it. That’s just the most obvious example of the way I would treat all the scenes. It’s a particular type of work; I also enjoy seeing movies that I forget 20 minutes after I’ve seen them — great entertainment that lightens things up, compels you, makes you forget about time.

Before “Henry Fool,” your scoring work was always credited under the pseudonym Ned Rifle. What’s the story behind that?

Ned Rifle was the hero of my senior thesis film in college. There was a small group of us, 13 or 14 people, who had lots of writing courses and assignments. We’d try to meet the requirements and entertain each other in class. I was good at coming up with these ridiculous names that sounded like they were from classic films. I used Ned Rifle in almost all my assignments. If there was a young man, it was always about when he would be revealed as Ned Rifle. As it turned out, in my senior thesis film, which was based on this character, I never used his name. I cut out every reference, so it was kind of an in-joke in my earlier feature films.

I also didn’t know how I felt about my music. [There was some] shyness. It was almost like sound design, kind of a non-music. Around “Henry Fool,” that music I had made under the pseudonym, it was business. Selling CDs, getting royalties, it was getting complicated. I needed to simplify everything.

I’d like to ask you about the unusually high number of Dutch angles in “Fay Grim.”

I see it a lot more. It’s not as pronounced in films, but then you see something like Rodriguez’s “Sin City,” based on comic books, which have always given themselves that kind of freedom. I was never a comic aficionado, but I look at anything graphic. I was thinking more German Expressionistic films and James Bond movies. I wanted to let the audience know right away that it’s okay to have fun with this; you can laugh. A lot of the people are talking, big ideas, whatever. [laughs.] But don’t let it get oppressive.

How do you react to critics who have turned their back on you in the years since “Henry Fool”?

I just let it lie. Sometimes you’re popular, sometimes you’re not. It’s not going to change the nature of the work I do. Those [earlier] movies seem to mean a lot to people of a certain age at that time. And yeah, they don’t want you to change. They want The Who to be the old Who. [laughs.] “Please don’t change.” But you grow older, you have different experiences of life, and you want to address different things. You can’t do that by making movies about young boys and girls being in love all the time. It’s great to have fans, to know that people are being entertained and compelled to think and re-think by the confrontations of your films. When you’re being an independent person, forget about filmmaking, it means independence of flattery. You won’t grow as an artist if you’re dependent on being loved all the time. You become a whore, if that’s all you can live with.

After “Henry Fool,” I wanted to work in a different way and not in a commercial mode at all. That manifests itself in an odd way. It was almost as though I didn’t realize I was making feature films during those years. Really, “Book of Life,” “No Such Thing” and “The Girl From Monday” were all conceived around the same time as an exercise in genre, treating a bigger group of concerns. There are certain kinds of things you do when you’re young, and there are other people doing that now and better because they’re young. Personally, I’m not sentimental that way.

“Fay Grim” is now in theaters (official site).

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.