Grim Reaper & the Holy Fool

By Rosy Rockets

henry-fool-hal-hartley.jpgHenry Fool, 1997

Henry Fool is a Shakespearian treatment on human suffering and kinship; it is also an antiestablishment, humanist work with all the exuberance and irreverence of a 1930s screwball comedy. Written, produced, directed and composed by Hal Hartley, it won the award for Best Screenplay at Cannes in 1998 and is still resonant almost ten years later, in a society ground down by bureaucracy and obsessed with the concept of everyman turned celebrity.

Since 1997, Hartley had accepted that his art had led him astray from his established fan base. However, despite the flagging interest in his circling explorations of Truth and Trust, he found impetus in Henry Fool, a film whose rhythms run on departure and arrival. It is a film which also marks a departure and arrival for its creator. Fool is a return to familiar themes, which are refracted through prismatic new characters.

Henry Fool is a Luddite ronin with a skeleton in his closet and an albatross around his neck, seeking redemption and challenging the notion of Petrarchan love in his dealings with a soot-eyed gazelle, who has turned lioness by the end of the film. These elements do not mark the film out from its predecessors: the difference is in its current. There is a pervasive feeling of continuum, of immortality in the characters. The earthbound agonists of "Henry Fool" cohabit a world with the foreboding of John Cassavetes and the breathlessness of Jean-Luc Godard. The ubiquitous cigarettes are not just film noir ciphers, but symbols of toxic energy – they are puffed upon constantly, like internecine smokestacks.

At the beginning of the first act, Simon the garbage man puts his ear to the ground as though tracking running horses, and soon enough a lone ranger, Henry Fool, appears. Is it Martin Donovan? No, it's Thomas Jay Ryan, who appeared the following year in The Book Of Life as the devil to Donovan's Christ. If "all this world's a stage," then Fool is surely the melancholy philosopher Jacques, "sighing like furnace" in Simon's basement flat, "jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel, seeking the bubble reputation / Even in the cannon's mouth". He conjures Russell Crowe and Philip Marlowe. He encourages the monosyllabic Simon to express himself in writing, and soon the main character of the film – Henry's poem – makes itself known. Fool establishes himself as Tyler Durden/Salieri to Simon's emerging talent, and convinces him that a cat may look at a king – in this context, the king of Queens is a publisher, Angus James.

henry-fool-hal-hartley-2.jpgHenry Fool, 1997

Initially Simon's poem is rejected, but the piece provokes varying degrees of petits morts within the community. The mute clerk in the Dengs' delicatessen (played by Hartley's partner, Miho Nikaido) reads Simon's first words, and rediscovers her own voice. Simon's mother Mary, already a lifeless husk of despair, is driven to suicide, overwhelmed by the hitherto unheard cries of the son she had dismissed as "retarded". Petulant, promiscuous sister Fay begins to snap her gum a little faster, and her period starts early. Simon's poem has clearly shifted the tides, on an increasingly grand scale. The power of any great cinematic monster lies in the unspoken and unseen, and Hartley does well to shy away from any direct quoting of Simon's poem, allowing the havoc wrought by Simon's words to speak through action.

The word-beast is unleashed via the Internet, with deliberate inaccuracy: Fool suggests to Fay, "Type that part of Simon's poem onto the Internet", a remark worthy of a technophobic grandmother. The film's faux-naif approach to media and technology echoes the ridicule meted out to the floppy disk and the shoebox-sized mobile phones in Hartley's earlier work, "Amateur". In any case, the successful viral marketing of the piece re-ignites the interest of the publisher, and the commodity of controversy is called into question.

The exchange between writer and publisher draws heavily on Hartley's own experience as a young artist finding fame and struggling with his sponsors, and evokes Hartley's favourite scene in A Hard Day's Night, where George Harrison has a run-in with a soul sucking TV director. Ultimately, a distorted Faustian sacrifice is made. The Fool in King Lear warns against selfishness disguised as altruism, and Henry falls foul when his protégé vows to refuse the publishing of his poem unless Henry's memoirs are published also. When the publisher refuses to accept this condition, Simon breaks this vow, and estranges himself from his friend and from his family. The focus shifts to Fool in a wrenching climax where Fool's dark past is exposed, and he and Simon are both offered the chance of redemption. Both men must prove to the world and to themselves that they have not become what they most despise – an abuser of children, and a corporate whore. Fool's efforts leave him in dire straits, and Simon comes to his rescue. Fool adopts Simon's unwanted public identity, a vicarious taste of the success and infamy he craved. It is the straw man, not the soul that is sold: two souls are saved.

henry-fool-hal-hartley-3.jpgHenry Fool, 1997

Hartley's style is consistently described as "deadpan". Whilst the performances he directs are certainly stylised, to the degree that he meticulously choreographs each performer's movements, their intercourse is neither incommunicative nor emotionless. Their ennui and stoicism is imbued with as much vitality as their rage and lust. Their delivery may sound careless, but the look behind the line is yearning, gleeful, introspective – never "deadpan". Hartley's own soundtrack completes the ballet – the lonely piano and jilted music box refrains fumble along with the dyspraxic protagonist as he finds his feet.

"Fool" is a piece wherein epic poem meets epic theatre. The language is often gratuitous, its meaning more spiritual than literal. The two male leads deal literally and figuratively in rubbish: bluster and garbage. Hartley's Shakespearian fascination with the music and texture of words may result in exchanges that at first sound meaningless or idle, but his characters are built around a language of prose poetry which conveys profound wit and emotion to the careful listener. "Cop a feel," Fool urges Simon, "Impose yourself on 'em. See what happens." He's talking about the cute girls in the library, or is he talking about the world at large? He speaks in anti-epitaphs, in neat phrases that issue with all the compact colour of a gumball from the machine in the Dengs' deli. Like Lear's Fool, he acts as chorus, mocking and tossing poetry.

The characters that populate a piece of epic theatre are intended to personify arguments, archetypes and stereotypes. However, Hartley's characters do not break out through the fourth wall as per Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt, but rather invite the viewer to venture through from the other side and collaborate in their play. And like Brecht, it is then suggested that the audience's reality is just as constructed, just as filled with hypocritical, jejune posturing as the world behind the screen. Hartley's set pieces are as colourfully wooden as a puppet show, as maddening as a mime, memorable as a montage. His meaning is in his stories, not in his words and pictures.

henry-fool-hal-hartley-4.jpgHenry Fool, 1997

In one of his first productions, Brecht famously erected signs which read, "Glotzt nicht so romantisch!" ("Don't stare so romantically!"). Hartley's own way of defusing the romantic is more Rabelaisian – Simon vomits onto a girl's bum, Henry's own bum explodes with diarrhoea in a deliberate homage to Dumb and Dumber – a literal depiction of the Freudian anal expulsive - these messy moments jar but they do so for a reason. Primarily, they are funny – they epitomise the absurdity and frailty of man. Stylistically, what better way to convey the festering of human emotion and creativity, the need to create or purge, than to condense it to a physical act of excretion? In Simon's case, where his only medium of catharsis and expression is puking, he learns to find release through his writing. But acts of defecation and regurgitation are an honest and universally resonant articulation of fear, or disgust, or of yielding to fate. They provoke sympathy, amusement, repulsion. They are a timeless, effective symbolisation of all the petty anger and despair of modern times. In Henry's case, the bathroom scene serves also to galvanise his cool image: he rides the brown storm as manfully as the Man With No Name rides a horse.

It is tempting to analyse the meaning behind the name "Henry Fool", and Fool's own comment that it "used to have an e on the end". Hartley has said that his character names are important in understanding their personality. In Elizabethan English, "fool" was a term used to mean "child", and Hartley's players interact with all the cruelty, melodrama and sexuality of the playground. They deliver key lines with the earnest relish of a schoolboy discovering a new swearword. Lear's Fool is a hanged man: hangdog Henry's humour dangles from the gallows but his feet are planted on the ground. He fools around, he deals in fool's gold, he stumbles after a fool's paradise, and he plays the foolosopher. It is tempting to see cyphers in Hartley's wording and naming, to speculate and to seek patterns. For instance, the only salient cultural reference to a Foole since the 14th century is in the title of a comedy album released by George Carlin, who played prophet and escort in a journey from anonymity to great destiny in "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure". But Hartley's story encourages empirical and spiritual rumination through its gentle hyper-reality, and any intellectual dissection would be futile and misleading. Henry's dropped "e" lends a vaguely archetypal air, and suggests an ironic reference to the adage "If a fool knows he is a fool then there is hope" - and it is this first impression that counts.

fay-grim-hal-hartley.jpgFay Grim, 2006

The story was inspired by Harold Bloom's book "Anxiety of Influence", which describes an anxiety familiar to all writers from poets to student plagiarists. Henry Fool, a literary gourmet driven by the hunger for posterity, is probably incapable of creating a saleable work. Simon Grim, inarticulate library novice, produces effortless punk poetry that shakes the world. The language of Hartley honours his heroes, from the avuncular Renaissance wordsmith Michel de Montaigne to the caustic wit of Preston Sturges: take for example such delicious lines as "You need to do something to be ashamed of every once in a while," and "I've been bad. Repeatedly". But the "anxiety of influence" is averted – those who Hartley cites as his influences receive skilful homage but are never exploited.

During the filming of Fool the promise of a sequel was a running half-joke among the cast – and although each character completes his arc, one does sense that only a chapter of the bigger story is being revealed. Fool set itself on the runway and almost ten years after, its sequel takes flight. The story of Fay Grim turns to Henry Fool's rejected memoirs, which prove to be the proverbial ticking time bomb, the Hartley hand grenade…

Fay Grim plays at the 51st London Film Festival next month.

Rosy Rockets is a freelance journalist based in Cambridge.