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Arts & Culture

Fay Grim/Interview with Hal Hartley

Fay Grim (opening at Landmark's Ken Cinema May 18) is the sequel to Hal Hartley's 1998 independent film

Henry Fool . Small indie projects rarely prompt sequels and if they do it's not nearly ten years later. But filmmaker Hal Hartley says that on a certain level, he always knew hed return to Henry Fool.

Hal Hartley directs Parker Posey in Fay Grim (Magnolia Pictures)


I found a note that seemed to have come from before I even wrote Henry Fool and it said it was to be a part of an indefinite series. As a writer, you have lots of aspirations and you always have the ambition that you want to make that super big story that you could spend the rest of your life telling. I guess I felt like this character of Henry Fool could be it.

Fay Grim picks up the story of Henry Fool nearly a decade later. You don't need to see Henry Fool to understand Fay Grim, all the pertinent details of the first film are recapped in the sequel. In the first film, Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan) arrives out of nowhere to shake up the small town where Fay (Parker Posey) lives. Despite having the name Fool, Henry is a wise man. He also has a mysterious past and seems vaguely dangerous when he confesses "I've been bad... repeatedly." He also has a remarkable ability to make people change. People like garbage man Simon Grim (James Urbaniak). After meeting Henry, Simon writes poetic rants on the Internet and becomes a pop culture sensation. Henry then marries Simons sister Fay (Parker Posey) and they have a son. Then Henry is accused of murder and flees the country with Simon's help.

We find Fay at the beginning of the new film as a single mom raising her teenaged son in Queens. Her brother Simon is in jail serving time for his role in helping Henry flee authorities. Fay's now informed by the FBI that her estranged husband may be dead and that his notebooks, containing his so-called confessions, may have a vital role in global espionage. Fay discovers that Henry may have been some kind of operative in South America for the U.S. government in FBI Agent Fullbright (Jeff Goldblum) then tries to enlist Fay's aid in recovering the notebooks. The mission involves Fay going to Europe and getting caught in a tangled web of intrigue.

Henry brought the outside world, the big world, the unknown into [Fay's] little community, says Hartley, Now I've thrust Fay into the big world in a manner that would point out her natural intelligence. In her regular life in Queens, raising her son and visiting her brother in prison, there are probably all sorts of ways her native intelligence and her goodness and her bravery are shown, but it's so mundane thats its not really highlighted. But chucking her into this impossibly huge international espionage thing would make those things more epic and big.

Actress Parker Posey has a similar native intelligence. She brings a crisp smartness along with a vulnerable naivite to the role of Fay. Hartley says that on Henry Fool she only worked for four days but I became aware that I was in the presence of a really great actor. I had this ambition that I really wanted to make a movie that took advantage of all her abilities.


Parker Posey as Fay Grim (Magnolia Pictures)

Fay Grim allows Parker to take center stage as a woman who represents what Hartley describes as representative of a certain type of American who's uninformed but who's a decent person.

The film reflects an America after 9/11 as it deals with terrorism, U.S. covert activities and global espionage. But Hartley says, the world has not changed that much since 9/11. Most of the things I drew on like the American secret services involvement in Chile in the 70's or Cuba, Bulgaria those were all things that were happening years and years before 9/11. All of these problems have a pedigree. They go back sixty to seventy years but Americas awareness of that situation has changed [since 9/11] and that's why it was really useful for me to have a character like Fay who on one level is quite nave and uninformed and she has to learn about all this.

With only a handful of feature films to his credit, Hartley has established himself as one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary American cinema. He imprints his unique cinematic vision on every frame of his films. From the moment they start you know you're watching a Hal Hartley film. Hartley's cinematic style revels in contradictions. He mixes flashes of rapid dialogue with extended silences, and uses a spare style to create films of surprising lyricism. His films are too carefully constructed to be naturalistic yet their ability to pare everything down to the bare essentials conveys a sense of purity and truth. The characters he focuses on tend to be confused or in the midst of change yet they also possess fierce convictions or a driving sense of purpose. Hartley also enjoys finding humor in serious things. But sometimes that humor is as deadpan as a Buster Keaton reaction.

Some critics have described Hartleys films as detached but Hartley disagrees. He describes his style as old fashioned modernism. This is what people like Brecht, and after him Fasbinder and Godard were doing 40, 50, 60 years ago. I'm not telling you how to feel at each moment, I'm being detached, I'm being objective, I'm being a bit of a bastard. I'm frustrating you a little bit but I think somebody who really likes being engaged, who really likes watching movies will be up to that struggle and they get engaged and I think they have an experience that is more intense, more pleasurable.

Parker Posey and Jeff Golblum in Fay Grim (Magnolia Pictures)

What's always pleasurable in a Hartley film is its intelligence. This often comes through in the distinct rhythms and cadences of his dialogue. The film's music, which Hartley composes (and used to compose under the pseudonym of Ned Rifle), punctuates scenes in a playful manner as if it were part of the scripted dialogue. There's a literary smartness to his films and he sometimes has to convince financial backers that his films arent just a bunch of people sitting around talking. Hartley says I've always thought of dialogue as action and I try to keep the dialogue as fun to hear and as provocative and thought provoking as possible. To keep it all integrated with movement and story so it always keeps things moving forward. As with the violence in the film, I'm not particularly interested in naturalism for its own sake.

Fay Grim, with all its twist and turns, global intrigue and secret codes is in a way Hartley's indie version of the Hollywood blockbuster The DaVinci Code . He says, I read The DaVinci Code twice while I was writing this just to make sure I didn't miss anything because I wanted to make good on all the genre expectations. I knew I was playing with the genre and yes I guess you could say tongue in cheek it although that seems a little dismissive about the genre. I wanted to really involve myself with it but on my own terms.

And that's how Hal Hartley has always made films, on his own terms. Fay Grim arrives like a breath of fresh air in a stale summer of big budget sequels. It's smart, breezy, serious and silly. It also allows Parker Posey to shine.

Listen to Beth's interview with Hal Hartley on These Days.

Companion viewing: Henry Fool , Trust, Amateur , Party Girl