by Ben Sachs
Real-life experience has taught me much that I might have overlooked as a poet laureate and cultural touchstone. People want a good laugh now and then. A bit of slapstick, some innuendoes, a well-timed fart joke. Enough with the earnest reflection, the tragic but unifying and elusive nature of the human spirit in modern times and so on.
Hartley's satire isn't subtle here. His point, which he makes repeatedly throughout Ned Rifle, is that our culture has marginalized poetry to the point of irrelevance, and that this development reflects a growing indifference in secular society to spiritual concerns. Whereas Simon's success as a famous poet was a charming fantasy in Henry Fool (released less than two decades ago), now the idea of anyone becoming a famous poet in America seems downright absurd. Even more ridiculous than Simon's change of heart is the revelation that his onetime mentor Henry Fool—who re-created himself as a rogue spy in Fay Grim (2006)—has been living in secret at a pharmaceutical research facility in Oregon, where the staff believe that he suffers from the delusion that he's the devil incarnate. Another poet, another spiritual crisis, hidden from a public that probably doesn't care about him anyway.
It's hard not to read the film as Hartley commenting on his own marginalization, one of the most dispiriting turns (pun intended) of 21st-century American cinema. The director's modest art house hits—from The Unbelievable Truth (1989) to Henry Fool (1997)—look even more special today than they did in the 1990s, suggesting an unlikely (though accessible) middle ground between the sprightly comedy of Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges and the cerebral French cinema of Robert Bresson, Eric Rohmer, and 1980s Godard. Hartley remains as funny and thoughtful and as exacting in his visual style as ever—it's the world around him that's changed. Simply put, no one wants to finance an American independent whose strongest affinities with American cinema lie in 1940s Hollywood. Ned Rifle marks the first narrative feature that Hartley's managed to complete in almost ten years. Like Meanwhile, a rejected TV pilot he refashioned into a featurette in 2011, much of the tiny budget was raised through a Kickstarter campaign.
What made Hartley so unfashionable? I think it comes back to poetry. Hartley's filmmaking isn't "poetic" in the pretty and associative manner of Terrence Malick, whose roots would seem to be in free verse. Rather, Hartley's poetry is rigorous and concentrated in the style of haikus, sonnets, and modernists like Ezra Pound. His style is tightly controlled; each exactingly composed frame contains just a few carefully selected visual details, which gain in resonance from how they interact with the ideas expressed in the dialogue. There's a definite rhythm to both speech patterns and editing, and there are always lines of dialogue that recur like refrains in a song. Hartley's deliberate structural devices, like Jim Jarmusch's, reflect a very old literary tradition, though both filmmakers' erudition has often been mistaken for superficial mannerism.
As Hartley looks for meaning in fidelity to form, his characters are always searching for some ideological system that will give order to their lives. The influence of Catholic theology is most explicit in Amateur (1994), which stars Isabelle Huppert as a laicized nun, and The Book of Life (1998), which imagines a resurrected Jesus visiting contemporary New York. But Catholicism informs how characters talk about their life pursuits (writing, crime, auto repair) in all his films, providing his work with a moral seriousness that throws his breezy humor into relief. Yet the desire for transcendence through patient devotion, especially in the context of movie comedy, is seriously out of step with a culture obsessed with instant gratification. Ned Rifle mines this discrepancy for ironic humor, a constant of Hartley's cinema and a consistent source of pleasure here.
The title character is Henry Fool's son, raised by a minister since his mother was sent to prison for life. Upon turning 18, he vows to find and kill his father in revenge for his mother's unjust incarceration. "Oh, what my life would have been if I hadn't met your father," says his mother when he visits her in jail, adding after a perfectly timed split second, "apart from having you, of course." (Parker Posey, like Urbaniak and Martin Donovan, was a Hartley discovery, and she delivers her dialogue gloriously.) Ned, whose piety has led him to take a vow of chastity and compulsively reread the Bible, feels he's carrying out an act of divine retribution.
In his quest, Ned crosses paths with Susan (Aubrey Plaza), a graduate student who's also searching for Henry. She's been obsessed with him since he deflowered her at 13, an episode she considers the most joyous of her life, and that she's been striving to recapture ever since. As written by Hartley and performed by Plaza—whose deadpan comic style meshes perfectly with his—this premise registers instantly as a comic metaphor, a variation on Ned's misguided longing for transcendence through violence. Plaza's involvement in the film might help Hartley reach a young audience for the first time in years (ever the good sport, she plays several scenes in just her underwear). Few cinematic events of 2015 would make me happier.