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Falling Through Shadows


by Tom McSorley

Any man who has fallen never stood securely.

Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy

It’s coming to America first,
the cradle of the best and of the worst.
It’s here they got the range
and the machinery for change
and it’s here they got the spiritual thirst.
It’s here the family’s broken
and it’s here the lonely say
that the heart has got to open
in a fundamental way:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

                                               Leonard Cohen, “Democracy”    

It’s been two decades since an awkward, solitary New York garbage man named Simon Grim bent down and put his head to the ground. What he saw, and perhaps even heard as a distant rumble, was an approaching tumultuous mystery named Henry Fool striding into his life like an epistemological tsunami. When Henry, with his bags and books, ambles into full view things change in Simon’s quiet and, for the moment, marginal world. 

Since the arrival of the first part of the Henry Fool Trilogy in 1997, Hal Hartley’s eccentric, oddly resilient cinematic “Family Grim” and his United States of America have both changed dramatically. Spanning nearly two decades, the Henry Fool Trilogy (1997-2015) stands as an articulate, prescient, amusing, and absorbing triptych of a turbulent American zeitgeist. As intimate as it is expansive, the Trilogy sweeps its searchlights across the lives of its characters and the gathering shadows of 21st century America.

In Hartley’s earlier work, shadows were also present, though lightened in the witty and winning love stories of his first three features, the so-called “Long Island Trilogy”: The Unbelievable Truth (1989), Trust (1990), and Simple Men (1992). Consistently engaged and formally daring, all of Hartley’s films in this period examine the mounting vulgar materialism of American society and its drift from its founding ideals, locating these tensions in the lives and loves of offbeat and alienated characters who search constantly—and often hilariously—for meaning and for some form of—however inchoate—spiritual nourishment. This earlier work grapples with America’s paradoxes of liberty and repression, its genius and its failings, its apprehended but as yet unacknowledged fallen state. 

The shadows intensify in Amateur (1994), in many senses a transitional film that anticipates the darker tonal shifts evident in the Henry Fool Trilogy. At this point in his career, it also demonstrates Hartley’s increasingly internationalist storytelling and production styles (casting legendary French actress Isabelle Huppert, for example), and precipitating his expanding storytelling milieu beyond New York, as he would do with Flirt (1996).

Revolving around Thomas, a man who has lost his memory and his identity, a man who may or may not be a violent criminal being pursued by his past and the police, Amateur’s narrative uncertainty extends to the essence of knowledge itself. As Thomas will come to realize with the unorthodox help of a former nun turned pornography writer (Huppert), a man whose life has fallen in such a manner is likely never to have really “stood securely.” 


This is a lesson that will underline both the limitations and the possibilities of the principal characters in the Henry Fool Trilogy’s sprawling, transatlantic narrative. Simon Grim, Fay Grim, and, ultimately and especially, Ned Rifle (using his grandmother’s maiden name as an alias) move from innocence to experience and, in a positive sense, back again to an innocence now better informed and more genuine, durable, and productive. But, of course, it is around Henry Fool that the Trilogy revolves, whether he is on screen or not. 

One of Hartley’s most richly drawn characters, Henry is part Milton’s seductive Lucifer, part Byronic satyr, part Bukowskian anti-hero, part G. Gordon Liddy, and part shabby Nietzschean superman. His indefatigable energy and appetite are equalled only by his strange, seductive bursts of language. Shortly after his arrival and installation in a basement apartment in the Grim family home, Henry describes his eight hand-scribbled notebooks to a spellbound Simon: “It’s a philosophy, a poetics, a politics, if you will: a literature of protest, a novel of ideas, a pornographic magazine of truly comic book proportions. It’s gonna blow a hole right through the world’s own idea of itself.” 

While Henry’s notebooks will turn out to be all and none of the above, their very existence will become a catalyst for seismic change in the lives of the family he has blundered into. Indeed, Henry himself is a catalytic character, a verbose whirling dervish of consciousness and consequence. Like Amateur’s Thomas, he is also fallen. He speaks of his past and of having had sex with a 13-year-old girl named Susan, and of having spent seven years in jail for his transgression. But Henry also hints at other parts of his shadowy history. As the Trilogy unfolds, we will witness the breadth and depth of that history involving not only the Grim family and that same now adult Susan but the United States of America itself. 

Taken together, these three films present a densely textured weave of existential drama, absurdist comedy, political observation, and cultural critique. What these many layers also accumulate into, beyond the absorbing family drama of the Grims and Fools, is an astute, critical, and compassionate portrait of contemporary America. 

The Mexican poet Octavio Paz once observed that his neighboring northern republic had, over the course of its almost two and a half centuries of existence, transformed itself from a democracy into an empire. Hartley’s Trilogy charts that shift in the lived realities of the citizenry, from Fay’s initial naiveté in the trustworthiness of her government, to the sensitive scepticism of Simon, to the world-weary cynicism of Agent Fulbright and, finally, to the possibility of hope in the figure of Ned. While Hartley does not dwell on this larger historical trajectory, he does register it and vividly presents its multiple realities, its personal and political manifestations in the lives of all of the characters. 

There is a pivotal moment in Fay Grim that fuses together the Henry Fool Trilogy’s multileveled exploration of epistemological uncertainty. In keeping with Hartley’s distinctively American mode of globalism, it happens far from the United States. When Fay visits the Istanbul shop where Henry bought the enigmatic pornographic optical toy that he sent to her son, she is told by the blind shopkeeper the meaning of one prominent character in the orgy scenes contained therein—the “Harem Fool”.

The Fool’s role, we are told, was to tell stories to keep the sultan entertained. Failure to do so was to meet certain death. Like Scheherazade, the Harem Fool spun fantastical yarns, kept himself moving in the dangerous company of the powerful, engendered new stories while recounting old ones, and invented and reinvented the world imaginatively in order to survive. This is Henry Fool, the character and, in its totality, the Henry Fool Trilogy. In many senses, it is also Hal Hartley—an inventive contemporary American storyteller. His insightful and intelligent trio of films illuminates not only America as “the cradle of the best and of the worst,” but also reminds us, perhaps, that to have fallen, in whatever sense, is an opportunity to perceive and to affirm that one never really did stand securely in the first place. This is a critical issue in grasping the Trilogy. In Henry Fool, Simon must finally accept that his mentor, despite his considerable and messy charms, might be bogus. In Fay Grim, the well-meaning but uninformed Fay is forced to conclude the authorities, the defenders of law and order—of whatever nation—are all a bunch of short-sighted double-dealing careerists.  In Ned Rifle, Ned must finally admit his inherited Christian certainty of the damned and the saved is perfectly beside the point. To arrive at such awareness is to discover, albeit presupposing an open heart, a new place to begin, a new place of possibility. As the moving denouement of Ned Rifle intimates, to rise against dire circumstance—to face it squarely—and, as Ned bravely does, resolve notto run away, is to begin to transform that peculiarly American “spiritual thirst” into a fresh new fuel to power an often elusive but utterly essential “machinery for change.”

Tom McSorley is Executive Director of the Canadian Film Institute in Ottawa, Canada