Alistair Harkness: Welcome return of Hal Hartley

Adrienne Shelly as Audrey in Hal Hartley's The Unbelievable Truth
Adrienne Shelly as Audrey in Hal Hartley's The Unbelievable Truth
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Alistair Harkness welcomes the chance to revisit an indie auteur who was as important as Quentin Tarantino or Richard Linklater

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, any discussion of the emerging American independent film scene would have been incomplete without namechecking Hal Hartley. If you were young and serious about cinema back then, his first four films – The Unbelievable Truth (1989), Trust (1990), Simple Men (1992) and Amateur (1994) – are just as likely to be imprinted on your cultural DNA as the early efforts of Jim Jarmusch, Richard Linklater and Quentin Tarantino.

Not that he necessarily felt part of an indie scene, per se. “I don’t think I had a feeling of some larger movement or innovation occurring,” he reflects today. “That might have been my own naïveté.” Actually, if Hartley is being honest, he reckons he felt more affinity with the alternative music scene of the early 1990s, something reflected in the way he would often score his movies with chunky guitar riffs or might suddenly have his characters break into syncopated dance routines to Sonic Youth records.

But it was the philosophical, pop-culture laced dialogue – arch, deadpan, dripping with screwball wit and unpretentious sophistication – that really became his trademark. Seemingly emerging fully formed in The Unbelievable Truth, it’s something that grew out of Hartley’s love of Molière. “I thought I could try to do something similar in my own idiom, my own culture, language, and surroundings. Strangely but happily it seemed there was a connection too with the dialogue in American screwball comedies of the thirties. So I was bouncing back and forth from Preston Sturges to Molière for encouragement.”

Though the audience for Hartley’s films seemed to diminish as the 1990s wore on and he experimented with different styles and mediums – “By then I was making fewer films and the ones I made were less commercially accessible” – the re-release over the coming weeks of The Unbelievable Truth, Simple Men and Amateur (Trust remains unavailable) is a great reminder of why he meant so much at the time. How does he feel about those films now? “Generally, I’m impressed. I’m glad I was the young man who made those films, though I don’t get a sense that there is a particularly new generation discovering them. But it’s true people discover movies in different ways now. It’s not just something they see advertised in the paper. Sometimes they’re just shopping for something online and bump into a recommendation for a Hal Hartley film! It’s peculiar.”

• Amateur is out on DVD and Blu-ray now; The Unbelievable Truth follows on 27 May. Simple Men is available from 10 June.