Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Henry Fool

Henry Fool is more about Simon Grim (James Urbaniak) than Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan) Henry is more a helpful devil on Simon's shoulder than the lead of the film. Simon is an awkward and introverted trashman who has resigned himself to a miserable existence, living with his severely depressed mother Mary (Maria Porter) and extremely promiscuous sister Fay (Parker Posey) Nothing in the world ever goes right for Simon and he has stopped expecting anything at all.

Simon couldn't be more unremarkable if he tried. He's the personification of "quiet desperation," at least until he meets Henry Fool who comes walking down the road out of nowhere, to find Simon with his ear to the ground. "Get up off your knees." Henry says, describing his characters whole purpose. Henry ends up renting a basement room from the Grim's. This allows him to be lit by a furnace while speaking to Simon, adding to his Luciferian overtones.

Henry is obnoxious, pretentious, confrontational. He frequently proclaims himself a literary revolutionary and has nothing but the highest praise for his own work, an unpublished manifesto, (which he won't let anyone read) which will, according to himself, shake up everything.  Simon eagerly listens, impressed by his worldliness and clear knowledge of literature and many other topics.

Henry does gives Simon a notebook and pencil after noticing that Simon has trouble expressing himself. Simon decides that he'll try this and we're well aware that this is a significant moment as Hartley zooms right in on the pencil touching the paper and holds there as he makes his first scratch. Simon ends up with a book length poem, which is everything that Henry claimed of his own work. (It also happens that Simon writes naturally in iambic pentameter.) Henry tells Simon they need to get it published, but nobody's interested, until it's posted on the internet and starts to cause a stir.

Simon's work has profound effects on its readers, like causing a mute girl to sing, and also causing outrage with it's "pornographic" content and "sick ideas." But in any event, everyone's talking about it. Soon every publisher wants the manuscript and Simon is living the life that Henry imagined he'd have. A publisher agrees to publish Henry's "Confession" in order to get the rights to Simon's work. Of course this changes once he reads it and Simon understands their problem as he has read it himself. Henry's work is apparently, just not any good.

Fortunately Henry has other interests aside from the literary. He manages to sleep with Simon's mother and then sister, eventually setlling down with Fay. Parker Posey does a great job transitioning from the youth obsessed slut character to stable domesticity in what seems a very natural progression. Meanwhile, Simon is whisked away into a life of success, Henry takes Simon's old job and almost entirely assumes Simon's old place, (right down to the same uniform) at least until a serious complication changes everything. Despite his earlier claims of connections, Simon is the only friend that Henry has, and we get to see the complete reversal of the two characters when Simon is called on to save Henry Fool.

It's interesting and understandable that neither of the two manuscripts are ever seen in the film. To try to produce work that is as "brilliant" as Simon's or as "bad" as Henry's would be nearly impossible as it would immediately open up a debate of taste, (which is a point mentioned heavily in the film) Both pieces work better when imagined. I didn't see this film as about the work itself as much as the opposite journeys that Henry and Simon take and the power that the work can have.

It's a beautiful idea that Simon could save himself by listening to his bad angel and writing out all the twisted things he's bottled up in order to function. However to take that approach we have to ask why Henry's work only dooms him further. Is it a matter of natural talent, taste, discipline or the shifting demands of the reading public? Is it Simon's necessity that creates the voice of "brilliance" (Henry seems fairly content with his lifestyle) A lot of questions are raised, but few are answered defininitively. (Even Henry's work which is seen as "bad" by Simon and his publisher manages to affect Fay very deeply.)  There's plenty of unpleasantness in this film's world, but at least it's a world where a mute girl can sing when she reads the words that an unassuming trash collector forced into the world.

Hal Hartley has a unique perspective when it comes to filming. His dialogue is both inflated and sharp. His characters pronounce deep truths and then move on. He's not afraid to have his characters spell out exactly what he wants you to know, but fortunately he chooses actors who can deliver without seeming forced. Henry can say things like "An honest man is always in trouble"  because his character imagines himself a philosopher. Mary, speaking to Simon of Fay's loud love-making in the next room, can tell Simon "She might as well get it while she can, she won't always have that ass." because her mental state excuses it.

His visual focus is much the same, every scene is carefully composed of exactly what Hartley wants you to see. If we need to see what Simon's saying, he zooms right in on Simon, not afraid to cut off Henry's head in the background. If a notebook is the important element, he'll zoom in on just the notebook for a moment. Every detail also carries weight and he has no fear of being symbolic. For example, Simon continues to wear his trashman's uniform even after he's quit his job. He doesn't change clothes at all, until he has a publishing deal.

I should also mention that there is a sequel, Fay Grim, which Hal Hartley refers to as his "Empire Strikes Back" It's a far different movie, although it does shed a new light on the characters in Henry Fool (particularly Henry Fool and his Confessions) I prefer to think of Henry Fool as a stand alone piece. (This is not a knock against Fay Grim, but it came out nine years after Henry Fool. so my experience with Henry Fool was well cemented by then, and I was just happy to see the characters again.)


Lana A said...

You can always tell it's a Hal Hartely film by the stilted, overblown, but mystifyingly absorbing dialogue. These characters in his films may have time-travelled from Guy de Maupassant's short stories and taken on American proclivities. Truly one of my favorite directors.

INDBrent said...

Yes, he is a unique director, but once he gets under your skin you can't help but appreciate him . I made Josh (my son) watch it with me. When he saw Thomas Jay Ryan appear on screen, he said "Hey, isn't that Jesus?" because he remembered the Hal Hartley film, The Book of Life, which also had Ryan in it. (Martin Donovan was Jesus though.) He was just recognizing Hal Hartley!