Be Good to Her And She’ll Be Good To You
THE LONG ISLAND TRILOGY
by bell hooks
Hal Hartley’s films are slow meditations. They create on screen an aura of stillness that invites audiences to pause and reflect – to really hear what the characters are saying, to really look at actions close-up.
In Simple Men, the security guard takes off the rosary that hangs around his neck, giving it to the bank robber with the clear admonition: “Be Good to Her And She’ll Be Good To You.”
This statement echoes in my mind and that of the other women viewers I know who love Hal Hartley films. More than any other contemporary film-maker he turns the camera on to masculinity. He lets us see aspects of maleness from the perspective of male abjection and vulnerability.
While Hartley’s films are, as one of his advisors says, about “romance and spirituality,” those issues are approached by a number of different film-makers. Hartley’s films have a distinctive flavor because of the way he constructs male characters. He gives us men who rebel against the conventional patriarchal masculinity as much as any female advocating feminism. For their part, the women in his movies are always – always – claiming the space of adventure for themselves, no matter how turned on they might be by these strangelove male creatures Hartley dreams up.
In Trust we see images of troubled families where females and males are trying to bust out of the prisons set by overbearing and sometimes abusive moms and dads. Hartley captures the matter-of-factness of it all, the raw dailiness. His work is stylish without aestheticizing. All his films explore domestic space as a reflection of the inner psyche. Space is never just arranged to fit with narrative. It is there to offer compelling details and hints about what is really going on behind the scenes, as the camera seeks to capture and interpret the minds of his characters. Tables, refrigerators, the bookstore – all the stock objects suddenly look different in his films, arranged and not arranged.
In The Unbelievable Truth, Trust, and Simple Men, ordinary landscapes convey tedium and the sense of meaninglessness and hopelessness that depresses everyone now and then. Against these landscapes, small dramas of betrayal and abandonment are enacted. In Simple Men, two sons search for their father to understand the truth of who he is and the legacy he is leaving them. They never find anything but fragments, yet as they search we see their vulnerability exposed. We see behind the mask of masculinity.
Amateur takes it further, exploring issues of forgiveness and reconciliation. Resurrected from symbolic death as the film begins, actor Martin Donovan rises as a man with no memory. He leaves behind one woman exploited, oppressed, and terrorized, then finds another to whom he offers care and solace.
Without memory he hopes to be given a second chance. The women struggle with whether to trust him. In the end it does not matter. All is not redeemed. Betrayal, Hartley’s films remind us, makes everyone long for redemptive love, a way to start over. Life, his work tell us, offers us all just this – a constant opportunity for a change of heart.
Lion’s Roar, July 1996