Filmmakers simply don't come much more independent than Hal Hartley. In a career that stretches back more than 25 years, he has created sharp, literate explorations of modern life almost exclusively on his own distinctive terms. Though today his name is not as well known as those of Richard Linklater or Steven Soderbergh, the dry comedies of Hartley were an essential part of the American independent scene of the '80s and '90s.
Starting Thursday night, L.A.'s Cinefamily will be presenting the first local retrospective of Hartley's spare, non-naturalistic, moody work; running throughout April, it includes the feature films "Henry Fool," "Fay Grim," "The Unbelievable Truth," "Trust," "Surviving Desire," "Simple Men" and "The Book of Life."
And on Friday night the theater will kick off the local theatrical run for Hartley's first feature in eight years, "Ned Rifle." The third part of a trilogy, the new film is already available digitally via online video platform Vimeo.
Hartley himself will be appearing at the theater Thursday night and all weekend, and on Friday night will be joined by actress Aubrey Plaza, who appears in "Ned Rifle," along with longtime collaborator James Urbaniak and other special guests.
Hartley at this point in his career wears many hats, not only handling his filmmaking but also overseeing the business and distribution side of his work as well.
"Even back in the '90s, if I was feeling pesky I would correct journalists by saying, 'it's not so much that I'm an independent filmmaker, as I'm an independent businessman,'" Hartley said recently by phone from his home in New York. "And the reason I'm an independent businessman is the only thing that's important to me is the quality of the work and second to that is the manner that it gets out to the audience that it's right for."
Taken together "Henry Fool," "Fay Grim" and "Ned Rifle" — the films' titles are the character names of father, mother and son — are a portrait of a troubled family.
In "Ned Rifle" the young man of the title, (Liam Aiken) goes off in search of his father, Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan), with plans to kill him. Along the way he meets Susan (Plaza), who is searching for Henry for reasons of her own. The cast also features Hartley regulars Parker Posey, Martin Donovan and Urbaniak.
The big addition to Hartley's world in the film is the appearance of Plaza, best known for her work on the recently concluded TV comedy "Parks and Recreation." A longtime Hartley fan who first discovered his work while she was in film school, Plaza came to the project very quickly and was excited to work with the filmmaker. She fits in well to Hartley's stylized performances with slightly mannered, offbeat rhythms, what actress Adrienne Shelly once called the "emotional choreography" of Hartley's work.
"It was a little intimidating to be thrust into an already established world with people who had been working with Hal for years and were already familiar with working with him, but I just kind of went for it," Plaza said.
Before shooting began Plaza consulted with Posey and Donovan for any guidance on how to best prepare for the non-naturalistic performance style.
"They told me that working with Hal is like working on choreography, the scenes are like dances," Plaza said. "You have to really allow him to direct your movements and just trust that it all makes sense in the end. At first it was a little scary for me to be so specific about what I was doing but I got used to it and then I really liked it."
Urbaniak was a New York theater actor when he first met Hartley, and made his screen debut for the director. In the trilogy he plays Simon Grim, a garbageman turned renowned poet, and Urbaniak joked that it has been a challenge to get back in touch with the specifics of Hartley's style.
"Every time I revisit the character of Simon Grim I have to relearn how to be awkward and uptight," Urbaniak said.
It's not just Hal Hartley who's been getting another look lately, as it seems the revival of 1990s culture has hit high gear. L.A.'s New Beverly Cinema has also recently turned over its screen to '90s cinema, with March and April featuring nothing but movies from that decade. Titles such as "Reality Bites," "Dazed and Confused," "Boogie Nights," "Swingers," "Heat," "Living in Oblivion," "Exotica," "Run Lola Run" and "Georgia" have all shined a spotlight on the work of that time.
"People have just not given that time period enough reevaluation yet," said Bret Berg, director of programming at the Cinefamily. "People have been so stuck in the '70s and '80s cycle that they forget there are other time periods that are equally worth exploring.
"I think it's just taking people a while to catch up," Berg added. "And with Hal Hartley, the time has come to give this man's movies another go-around."
Urbaniak has also noticed that it seems people too young to have seen the films at the time have been recently coming around to the movies of the '90s and he is often surprised how well they know Hartley's work.
"A lot of younger people, like twentysomethings, will meet me and they'll all talk about how much they love 'Henry Fool,'" Urbaniak said. "And these are people who've only discovered it in the last couple of years. So while he's had a lower profile in the sort of mainstream indie world over the last few years, there is actually a new audience discovering his movies and getting very excited about them."
With the release of "Ned Rifle" and the Cinefamily series leading the way, local audiences now have an overdue chance to reconnect with the director's films. .
"The main things that fire you up are primal," said Hartley, noting that his work explores the irreconcilable contradictions so often inherent in modern life. "I discovered something about the nature of the world that cracked me up but riled me up too. And I started writing about that and I guess I still do.
"All of these stories are my manner of thinking," Hartley added, "how I make sense of the world and make sense of myself. They're certainly not autobiographical, but the issues are personal."
"The Films of Hal Hartley"
When: April 2-25
Where: The Cinefamily
611 N Fairfax
Los Angeles CA 90036