HENRY FOOL A
USA (137 mi) 1997 d: Hal Hartley
Written, directed, produced, and music written by and performed by the director in a truly amazing display of offbeat hilarity and intelligence, winner of the Best Screenplay award at Cannes, this superbly directed film has a flair for imaginative visual imagery. An immensely enjoyable film featuring stellar acting, James Urbaniak plays Simon Grim as a dour and humorless garbage man who is quiet, nonverbal, and totally nerdy, a lonely outcast living in a dysfunctional family that includes his more exhibitionist, nymphomaniac sister Fay, the always alluring Parker Posey, who never ceases to amaze with her electrifying performances. While Posey is simply sensational, she’s quite a contrast to their depressed and mentally unstable mother (Maria Porter) who requires a heavy dose of looking after, and even heavier doses of medicine. Into their lives walks Henry Fool, Thomas Jay Ryan in a stunning movie debut, who simply inhabits the role of a lifetime as a beer-guzzling, chain-smoking, fast-talking con man, a colossal egomaniac and self-styled intellectual whose motto is “An honest man is always in trouble.” Preoccupied with writing his memoirs, Henry carries around with him a bundle of handwritten notebooks, a multiple volume “Confession” that he claims will “blow a hole in the literary establishment,” describing his manifesto in painstaking detail, “It’s a philosophy. A poetics. A politics, if you will. A literature of protest. A novel of ideas. A pornographic magazine of truly comic book proportions. It is, in the end, whatever the hell I want it to be. And when I’m through with it it’s going to blow a hole this wide straight through the world’s own idea of itself.” Among other things, Henry is an overly pompous, hedonistic sham, but also a lecherous man who was recently released from prison after serving 7-years for having sex with a minor, is always on the run from his parole officer, and takes up residence in Simon’s basement apartment in Queens.
In a story partially inspired by the real-life friendship between Irish novelist James Joyce and his younger disciple Samuel Beckett, Henry, a true instigator of dreams, encourages Simon to overcome his exceedingly low self-esteem and take up writing, inspiring him to write “the great American novel.” Unbelievably, Simon writes a bombshell, an epic poem denounced as obscene and pornographic by the local school board, but hailed as a visionary work. At first recognized only by Henry, who convinces Simon to publish, he is rejected at every turn until Henry comes up with the idea of putting the poem on the Internet, causing a worldwide groundswell of attention, literally changing the lives of all who read it, making Simon the equivalent of a rock star, eventually awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, while Henry’s work is denounced as inept and pretentious, causing him to utter such self-congratulatory remarks as “A prophet is seldom heeded in his own land.” While this change of fate creates a certain degree of friction, matching the twists and turns in the storyline, each more improbable than the last, however the tender relationship between Simon and Henry is highly developed and truly unique, two improbable lost souls locked together in a bleak, but disturbingly absurdist world, perhaps perfectly captured by the strange cast of characters inhabiting the “World of Donuts” down the block, a convenience store that seems to be a neighborhood conduit to which everything else in this film is connected in some strange way.
As we follow the rhythm of life in deadpan faces, oblique angles, and clipped phrases, distinguishing characteristics present in all Hal Hartley films, here the donut shop becomes a meeting place people come and go, where it’s impossible not to notice the owner’s sister singing softly when she first reads Simon’s poem, but also the irritating politics of pretense represented by a losing reactionary congressional candidate who props himself up with the support of a neighborhood bully, but then makes his own assessment of Simon’s poem on television, calling it a disgusting outrage to the moral fabric of the country. It’s only a matter of time, of course, before Henry’s life sinks to the bottom, consisting of hanging around in depraved, low-life bars spouting his own self-styled philosophy like, “You need to do something to be ashamed of every once in a while,”or “You can’t put a fence around a man’s soul, we think and feel where and when we think and feel. We are servants of our muse and we toil where she commands,” while rationalizing a life avoiding responsibility and work of any kind, complaining, “I can’t work for a living, Simon, it’s impossible. I’ve tried once. My genius will be wasted trying to make ends meet. This is how great men topple.” But he finds time to impregnate Fay, where we witness the neverending flow of Budweiser, a wonderful dance scene at Henry’s wedding, and *the* memorable bathroom scene that leads up to the wedding. Henry is always chasing his own shadow, turning darker, elusive, and more troubling with each passing year, but he continually searches for his humanity, his moment of glory in a world dulled by doomed romances and dead-end lives. Epic, and yet small and intimate, the clever intensity of the dialogue makes every word matter as the film challenges the worth and meaning of art, the random and elusive nature of success, while exploring the evershifting role of an artist in the modern world. While exploring the entire dynamic of artistic expression, the ultimate irony is pouring your heart and soul into a work that is largely ignored by the viewing public, the curse of the low-budget, independent film movement, where in a business that prefers to finance and celebrate films that make the most noise, those devoted cineaste followers of lesser known, more outlandishly original films are a dying breed.