The generation-spanning human drama of Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool trilogy

Made over 17 years, this unlikely series is among the indie writer/director’s finest achievements.

Words

Anton Bitel

“My life’s work. My memoirs. My confession… 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 gonna blow a hole this wide straight through the world’s own idea of itself.”

This is how Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan), in Hal Hartley’s eponymous 1997 film, portentously describes the collection of hand-scribbled notebooks that he one day wishes to publish as his Great American Novel. An amalgam of Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski and Joe Gould, Henry talks endlessly about his monumental, iconoclastic text, but is very secretive about the specifics of its contents. Yet when he walks into the lives of the Grim family, renting the basement of their home in Queens, New York, he will insinuate himself into their closed dynamic and introduce the kind of change that his writing is meant to engender.

A loud, brash, aggressive wordsmith, Henry seems the exact opposite of Simon Grim (James Urbaniak), who is a stammering, bullied, barely articulate garbage man, friendless and believed – even by his own family – to be “retarded”. Yet from the moment they meet, Henry recognises something of himself in Simon, and decides to encourage him to write down his innermost thoughts, to get into trouble and to take on the world.

By the end of the film, Simon has moved out and transformed into an internationally renowned poet, the published author that Henry has always failed to be himself, while Henry has more or less settled into the Grim house with Simon’s sister Fay (Parker Posey), become a father of questionable merit to young Ned (Liam Aiken) and, in the final sequences, had to flee once more from a past that he seems unable ever to escape. That Henry is last seen travelling under Simon’s name and identity cements these two initially very different men’s assimilation and reversal of roles.

While we never even glimpse the content of either Henry or Simon’s writings, we do see their extremely divisive effect on readers. Simon’s poem gives rise to a violent range of responses: it induces a mute woman to sing; it brings on Fay’s period early; it is condemned as ‘scatological’ and ‘pornography’, and denounced by the local board of education and even, indirectly, by the Pope; it provokes a series of aggressive rejections from publishers; and eventually it will earn Simon the Nobel Prize.

Henry’s manuscript too, though read by far fewer people, produces similarly distinct and extreme reactions: a glimpse at just one of the draft’s “dirty bits” persuades Fay immediately to have sex with the author, while Simon and his own eventual publisher Angus James (Chuck Montgomery) are agreed that Henry’s writing is so bad as to be unpublishable in any form whatsoever (although we are aware that this is what Angus had originally thought of Simon’s work too).

If Henry Fool is a text about varied textual reception, interpretation and appropriation, this metatextual, self-referential focus continues in Hartley’s sequels Fay Grim and Ned Rifle, where it turns out that Henry has had a galvanising effect not just on all the members of the Grim household where he has come to stay, but also seemingly on anyone else who has ever entered his orbit, including Central and South American dictators, Western spies, Middle Eastern terrorists, and Susan, the 13-year-old girl for whose statutory rape he was once tried, convicted and jailed.

In Fay Grim, Henry’s once-rejected work has, as a missing piece in the story of the reclusive Simon’s rise in the literary world, become a sought-after commodity in its own right – but it is also revealed to be a palimpsest encrypting dangerous secrets from Henry’s past as a globe-trotting operative. Meanwhile, falsified copies of Henry’s work – “a collection of fakes”, as Simon puts it, “of a book that has never itself been written” – have been produced and circulated by different international agencies, and have themselves assumed crucial importance in the current War on Terror.

As Angus, with his publisher’s eye, sees it, Henry’s book is “a self-perpetuating literature of obfuscation, hearsay, rumour, innuendo and outright lies – a bestseller for sure.” Fay’s intercontinental quest for the missing, maybe dead Henry is also a search for his now fragmented writings, whose meaning is both constantly evolving and forever evaporating.

In Ned Rifle, yet more text has proliferated from these semi-literary lives. The adult Susan (Aubrey Plaza), still obsessed with the man to whom she lost her virginity aged 13, has devoted her doctoral thesis to arguing that Simon’s poetic writings encode his relationship with Henry; and she has also ghost-written the imprisoned Fay’s autobiography of her life with and without Henry. Even as she perpetuates Henry’s legend, Susan is trying to find a persistent place for herself in his story. Meanwhile, with his own writings still unfinished and unpublished, Henry’s most fully realised creation, his son Ned, living pseudonymously under witness protection, has now reached an age of adult independence and, torn between murdering and saving the author of his mother’s and his own woes, may not prove quite a chip off the old block.

In other words, Hartley’s Henry Fool trilogy is preoccupied with the shifting value of art, capable of transforming and of concealing, of being reinterpreted and misinterpreted, of being imitated and repurposed – and if both Henry’s life, and the manuscript of his life’s confessions, come across as a slippery postmodern artefact, then that is equally true of these three films. For the trilogy mixes highly allusive literary and cinematic motifs with literally trash sensibilities (and a heavy emphasis on bodily functions), constantly switches genre, confuses the political and the personal, foregrounds treachery and imposture, and exposes honesty as a principle that attracts only trouble.

Seemingly everyone here, viewer included, is on a Fool’s errand in trying to pin down the ever-fugitive Henry, all at once self-mythologising and mythologised by others, high in his ambitions yet low in his interests, and inspiring either love or hate (or both) in all who encounter him – which makes this most elusive of characters a perfect figure for a trilogy whose own significance is difficult to capture.

Made over 17 years, and with events (including flashbacks) spanning three generations, the Henry Fool trilogy showcases many of Hartley’s regular cast – including Martin Donovan (Surviving Desire), Robert John Burke (The Unbelievable Truth), Karen Sillas (Trust), Elina Löwensohn (Amateur) and Bill Sage (Simple Men) – and offers the kind of canted camera angles and misdirection in dialogue and action that have become the writer/director’s wrong-footing stock in trade, keeping the viewer in a constant state of amused surprise.

Yet for all its wild excursions into espionage and revenge, this remains very much a human drama – a family saga that rings the changes on our shift into the digital age. Mostly, though, it is as philosophical, political and pornographic as Henry describes his own work to be – an expansive comic book ‘novel of ideas’ all at once provocative and funny, which will come to be regarded as Hartley’s life work.

The Henry Fool Trilogy is released by Possible Films on Blu-ray on 19 Feb, 2018, and is available exclusively from halhartley.com

Published 19 Feb 2018

Tags: Hal Hartley

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