If there’s one thing I can’t wrap my head around in the prevailing current school of cinematic thought it’s this idea that films are somehow quantitative and not qualitative; that there can be such a thing as a “perfect film”. The notion of “stars” and “thumbs” and numerical ratings to distill a complex opinion into a simple figure or two has been around for a long time, yet try as I might to indulge, my forays into these sorts of rating systems have always left me dissatisfied and frankly, somewhat guilty. I was particularly struck after an effort to join the site Criticker.com, which allows users to rate the films they’ve seen on a scale of 0-100, that such ratings are spectacularly arbitrary and somewhat pointless in relation to art. I struggled to pick a number on this scale for very many films, and yet there were people who had uploaded ratings in the thousands. I couldn’t do it, my opinions and tastes change daily, even hourly, especially when dealing with such a vast scale.
I am always forced to conclude that any sort of numerical rating is disingenuous. Why didn’t you rate it a 10, rather than a 7? Well, I thought that this could have been done better, so I subtracted points…What sort of a system is this? A film is not a mathematical equation. You don’t add up a good soundtrack, well-developed characters, a compelling plot, and spectacular visuals and get a 10. You might find that all the aforementioned elements of a film were, in fact, perfect – but you didn’t love it. It wasn’t the best movie you’ve ever seen. And if it isn’t, how could it be called perfect? It’s a paradox. I often hear canonically great films, such as The Godfather, called perfect, and as such they are frequently ranked at the top of favorite-films lists; very commonly, in fact, if you’ve ever browsed through the “Top 5” feature on the RottenTomatoes.com website. How could this be? How could so many people, with such vast and varying personalities and backgrounds, love the exact same film?
Making a film, or any work of art, is a personal endeavor. A good film is as varied and complex as a person, as the director, as an artist. I love some films that are imperfect, sure. Mauvais Sang, which currently sits at the top of my all-time favorites list, is as flawed as they come. At times it’s impenetrable, it drags a little, but boy is it worth it for the amount of magic and feeling that bursts forth from the screen when I watch it. It’s not perfect, sure, but to me it’s the best there is. If there can’t be a perfect person, then there can’t be a perfect film.
I also take issue with reviewers (and I’ll admit to having done this in the past, I’m at the very least a hypocrite today) that focus their energies on saying, well, if the film had done this instead of that, it would have been better – These reviews imagine an idealized film that will never be made, tailored to the tastes and beliefs of the critic. The only way to truly be satisfied is to make your own film, and even then you might not find what you are looking for. But there’s no use in saying “I would have liked the film more if it were like this” – because the film is not like that. It is how it is. It’s not a recipe that just needs a little more sugar.
What prompted these thoughts? Well, they’ve been stewing for some time, but they really exploded when I sat down to watch Henry Fool, which might not be one of my favorite movies, but it’s certainly a great one and it has a hell of a lot to say. Thomas Jay Ryan as the titular vagrant walks down the street with a bundle of notebooks and into the life of trashman Simon Grim (James Urbaniak). These notebooks, we soon learn, comprise Fool’s life’s work – his “confession”, a phrase repeated many times throughout the film. It’s almost – not quite! – finished, and Simon can’t read it until it’s done.
It’s no spoiler to say that Simon soon begins writing his own work, which Fool encourages, and soon he’s quit his job and written a poem of epic vulgarity that a few local girls call genius, but most everyone else hates. He’s rejected by dozens of publishers, most of whom tell him pretty explicitly to go to hell. And this is where the film started to really suck me in: besides its obvious appeal as a film about writing, the creative process, and getting published, I found that Hartley has a lot more to say about the nature of art than just mocking the media’s attitude toward controversial work and examining the function of scatological prose (which, by the way, explodes in a tremendously satisfying “poop joke” at a pivotal moment that’s so, so much more than what it appears to be). Taking into consideration Urbaniak’s shifty, deadpan performance and the repeated assurances by Simon’s sister Fay and their mother that everyone used to thing he was retarded, Simon’s quest to get published becomes a quest for not only societal acceptance, which proves somewhat shallow and unsatisfying, but some kind of empathy in a world that lacks it. For someone to read his poem and to enjoy it, be moved by it, is in many ways the same thing that all of us are looking for.
It would be very easy to explain away the plot of the film, and the conflicts faced by the two writers, by saying that Simon really is retarded, his success merely a satire of the confused priorities and standards of the literary world, and that Henry Fool is every bit the fraud he appears to be. It would be missing the point, though, to try to judge the literary talent of either Simon or Henry. Hartley avoids a common misstep made by films about writers and chooses not to show or to quote from the work of either character. Too often, as in Coppola’s Tetro, the work turns out to be underwhelming. I don’t think that Hartley has an opinion either way on Simon’s supposed genius, or lack thereof. The movie is more about the power that Simon’s art has to transform his life, and the lives of those around him, for better or for worse.
The America of Hal Hartley’s films is a strange fairyland, where absurdism lurks around every corner, where the world is dank, cold and drenched in vomit, and yet where the characters remain eerily, profoundly human. The moment when Henry finds Fay holding his Confession is full of Hartley’s particular magic – he approaches her, she slaps him, he puts a hand to her throat. They make love as Simon discovers their mother with her wrists slit in the bathtub and drags her outside, lying her in the front yard for no apparent reason.
Of all the films I’ve seen, Henry Fool might fit least into any preestablished genre or mold. It’s not a comedy (despite what the VHS packaging would have you believe), a romance, or even a drama. There are echoes of film noir as Henry’s past catches up to him and friendships fall apart, and as always Hartley runs slow, graceful laps around indie quirk without ever embracing it. But ultimately it is what all great art should strive to be; it is its own creature, free from convention or genre expectation. Its characters are never overwhelmed by the power of its ideas, or vice versa. It’s a quest for empathy and success on one’s own terms, and what happens when that success never arrives. Do we settle down in Hartley’s America? Raise a family? Or run to catch a plane and take the next flight to Stockholm?
I started off this review with some pretty conflicted thoughts about film, about criticism, and my role here. I don’t write about movies that much anymore, often because I end up sort of paralyzed by my confusion. I like writing, and I love films, but I think the only way to say anything significant about them is to make one yourself. Something I have yet to do, and need to desperately.
I hope what I said here makes sense. If not, oh well. I’m not perfect, and I have homework to do.