Armchair Cinephile 

A Not-So-Simple Filmmaker

In our lives and on the news, trust can be a hard thing to come by. So is Trust, the second (and most accessible) feature by idiosyncratic indie filmmaker Hal Hartley. Despite constant requests from fans, the video rights are currently held by a company with little interest in issuing it on DVD. (Hartley's short films are another matter - watch possiblefilms.com for eventual news of a compilation disc.)

Happily, three missing links in the auteur's filmography have just been filled. Trust and the experimental triptych Flirt remain unissued, but all the other features are now accounted for.

Simple Men (Image)

Amateur, Henry Fool (Columbia/TriStar)

Off the Charts (Shout Factory)

The Four Complete Historic Ed Sullivan Shows Featuring The Beatles (SOFA Entertainment)
Armchair Cinephile

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 John
 DeFore

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DVD
Simple Men is the best bet for Hartley novices. Although full of stylistic quirks, it revolves around an easily digestible plot: Two brothers are looking for their father, a former baseball star who is now a fugitive; along the way they're taken in by a woman who has her own trouble with outlaws. Like the two films that preceded it, Simple Men has an obvious hook for the young males most prone to cinephilia: Its protagonists are good-looking men who combine the looks and manly volatility of matinee idols with the introspection, insecurity and philosophical obsessiveness of matinee patrons. Every man here is joined by a common inability to understand the women they desire, and most viewers who have ever felt that particular inadequacy should find the film very funny.

Ditto for Amateur, even if that "funny" isn't always of the ha-ha variety. The plot's kookier than Hartley was previously willing to go. Isabelle Huppert plays a former nun who now writes stories for porno magazines, Martin Donovan is an amnesiac, and the two run afoul of sadistic accountants. The movie's detour through genre territory does tie in with the intellectual concerns of Hartley's earlier movies, but this was a big step away from their unassuming indie vibe; it's also the first not to offer some sort of wish-fulfillment in the end.

Henry Fool flies even further from the quirky cuteness of The Unbelievable Truth. It's a more difficult film, in which the hyperbolic pretension of the title character might be mistaken on casual viewing as the movie's own. Pay no attention to the quotes, on both front and back of the DVD package, that this is a comedy. Although it's certainly satire, big laffs are not this film's highest priority.

(Inexplicably, Columbia/TriStar isn't releasing Amateur and Henry Fool in their original aspect ratios. It would be less weird (though more frustrating) if they simply pan-and-scanned them so they would look "normal" to those philistines who don't like letterboxing. Instead, they've letterboxed them in the wrong format: Amateur is narrower than it should be, while Henry Fool is wider, meaning that the black bars at the top and bottom of the screen are actually more prominent than they should be.)

On final note from Hal-ville: possiblefilms.com just released a CD compilation of some of Hartley's music. Of all the themes directors have written for their own work, only John Carpenter's Halloween music comes to mind as being as perfectly matched to the movie as these tracks are. Listen for two seconds to any of these cues, and the atmosphere of the movie it accompanied comes rushing back.

Fortunately, Hartley had his movies to put his songs in. Other aspiring songwriters aren't so lucky, as Off the Charts reveals, chronicling the strange world of mail-order tunesmiths who take a customer's lyrics and put them to music. Last year's Song-Poem Anthology brought some of the quirkiest of these to CD; now that disc's fans can meet some of the artists. My favorite moment is a brief, music-video-like montage to the political anthem "Jimmy Carter Says Yes!"

One singer in Off the Charts recalls an incredible story: At the ninth Grammy awards, he was in a band that bested the Beatles in the category for Best Vocal Group. Chances are you've heard that February 9 was the 40th anniversary of the Beatles' legendary first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show; you may not have heard about the new DVD titled, in self-explanatory and long-winded fashion, The Four Complete Historic Ed Sullivan Shows Featuring The Beatles. It's just what it says it is, commercials and all. Obviously, having the performances in their entirety is a boon for any Beatlemaniac - but in a more general pop-culture sense, the other stuff on these shows is a fascinating picture of how square TV-land was before the moptops came to play, and how much things changed that night, for a nation of kids who (as the audience shots prove) were literally panting for something fresh. •


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