Sunday, January 24, 2010

Underrated Movie #21: Simple Men

Title: Simple Men
Year: 1990
Director: Hal Hartley (The Unbelievable Truth, Henry Fool)
Writer: Hal Hartley
Stars: Robert Burke (Rescue Me), William Sage (Precious), Karen Sillas (What Happened Was…), Elina Lowensohn (Amateur), Martin Donavan (Trust)

The Story: A beloved-shortstop-turned-‘60s-radical-terrorist has disappeared from a prison hospital. His two sons, one a college student, the other a petty crook, search for him. When the search bogs down in a small Long Island town, they make some new friends and question their goals.

How it Came to be Underrated: There was a whole generation of lo-fi filmmakers who emerged during an exciting era that coincided with the rise of Sundance. A few, like Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh and Richard Linklater slowly found their way to the mainstream but too many, such as Hartley, Atom Egoyan, and the previously mentioned Whit Stillman, have faded away. (Of that generation, only Jim Jarmusch seems to have found a steady niche outside the mainstream alongside previous indie icons like Woody Allen, David Lynch and John Sayles)

Why It’s Great:

  1. People always do a little bit of a double-take when they start watching a Hartley film. They wonder, “Uh, isn’t this acting bad? Isn’t this cinematography flat?” But then you adapt to his peculiar rhythm. The performances and compositions have both been turned down a notch to create some distance between the viewer and the movie, so that we’ll be aware of our own reaction and response. This is art as artifact- Harley wants to see if we’ll still like the object if we’re aware that it’s an object. Some viewers never warm to his style, but I find it endearing and honest, like a good deadpan comedian.
  2. They say that bad screenwriters write complicated stories about simple people, while good screenwriters write simple stories about complicated people. Despite what the title says, this story is one of the latter. The brothers are each trying to formulate personal manifestos, like their father did, but instead they keep learning how hard it is to know anything.
  3. Each actor here got a few bites at movie and TV stardom after this, but none of them broke big. I was sure that Karen Sillas would be a star, and I still love to see her pop up in TV guest spots. She’s so flinty.
  4. Though he's hardly the good guy, little bits of the Burke's armchair philosophy have stayed with me. His mother asks, “Is this dirty money?” He responds with a chuckle: “All money is dirty money, mom.” Or, to his brother: “I just fuck with the law. Dad fucked with the government.” “It’s the same thing” “It’s different. The government doesn’t have to obey the law.”

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Hartley’s first half-dozen or so movies are all pretty great. My favorite was actually an hour-long film he made for PBS called Surviving Desire.

How Available Is It?: On dvd and Watch Instantly

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Beautiful, Glittering Mottoes Which the Public Likes So Well!

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