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Peter Bowen On Hal Hartley’s Amateur

When asked to explain the title of his most recent feature, Amateur, Hal Hartley responds, "There is a nice anecdote about Hitchcock once dismissively calling Charles Laughton an amateur. Laughton responded, ‘Well, I love my work.’ That is the meaning of the word I intended. You know the root of the word is ‘one who loves.’"

While Amateur clearly promotes this particular and poetic definition, it also explores that less pleasant, but more immediate meaning – the sense of being unprofessional, inexperienced, even incompetent. Here, as in much of Hartley’s other work, characters not only learn by inexperience, but also experience love as a form of unlearning, as something that undoes what they think they know of the world. This complex linking of desire and experience, so succinctly articulated in the title of Hartley’s 1991 American Playhouse short, Surviving Desire, highlights not only the thematics of Amateur, but also Hartley’s filmmaking in general.

As a filmmaker, Hartley himself is clearly no amateur. Now with his fourth feature, in addition to a score of other short and television work, Hartley is, as Andrew Sarris has already canonized him, a leading American auteur. Yet Hartley continually strives to maintain the mindset of an amateur. This is, as Hartley is quick to remark, no reflection on the finances, production, or "look" of the new film, which, if anything, is his (and regular D.P. Mike Spiller’s) most mature work, as it replaces the shallow suburban landscapes of his earlier films with the eerie blue depth of alienated urban spaces. Rather, the term "amateur" here denotes Hartley’s concerted effort to maintain his own version of things, either by maintaining strict control (over set design, acting styles, script, etc.) or by altering conventional genre, editing, and shooting techniques to his own ends. Hartley imagines that if he were to make a film titled The Professional, it would "deal with the implication of submitting your own personal morality to standards which don’t personally have anything to do with you." Such was for Hartley the point of his 1990 feature Trust in which "a character refuses to take a standard corporate ideal of efficiency and submit to it, or even contribute to it."

Due to be released in April by Sony Pictures Classics, Amateur focuses on a tangled web of four characters. Thomas, played by Martin Donovan, awakens bruised and without his memory on a city street, only to be taken in by a former nun, Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), who is currently pursuing, albeit unsuccessfully, a new direction as a pornographer. Unknown to either Isabelle or himself, Thomas was in his previous life one of the world’s most celebrated and sadistic pornographers. His ex-victim/star, Sofia (Elina Lowensohn), now believing her director to be dead, tries to establish herself as an independent woman with the assistance of Thomas’ ex-accountant, Edward (Damien Young). But when her clumsy attempts at self determination unleash the wrath of an international crime syndicate, all the characters begin running for their lives in a thriller which is as slapstick as it tragic.

The effects of amnesia, so clearly linked with the film’s definition of "amateur," find a interesting twist in the film’s casting. With three of the stars (Donovan, Lowensohn and Young) closely tied to Hartley’s earlier films, their appearance here uncannily replays Thomas’ dilemma of being eerily familiar yet unknowable to himself. They’ve all been recast as new people.

Internationally known French film star Huppert – who sought Hartley out for this role – adds a new dimension to Hartley’s film world, one that Hartley has commented elsewhere brings a slice of French film history with it. In effect each of the other three actors plays out in his or her role the particular fate of Donovan’s character – they are all beginning new lives with the associations of their old ones still intact. As Hartley points out, "All the characters are in some way unprofessional: Elina is an unprofessional con artist, Isabelle is a unprofessional pornographer, and Martin is an unprofessional human being. Each of them end up doing things out of a sense of love." And the last character, Edward, who is at once the most essential and the most peripheral, is also the ultimate amateur, an amateur at love.

But with this film, Hartley, perhaps, is the most sophisticated "amateur" as he systematically unlearns his knowledge of genre and film editing, refusing, for example, to make a formula thriller or adhere to standard practices of establishing shots and camera placement. Hartley explains, "I thought I could take genre elements – a guy running into a place with a gun or things like that – and have fun with them and still avoid it being a genre piece." And while Hartley watched box-office blockbusters like The Fugitive and Jurassic Park, as well as generic TV police dramas, as models, he tried to view them through the eyes of a neophyte so that his film could become, as he quipped to Graham Fuller, "a TV cop show made by someone who doesn’t know how to make TV cop shows." Indeed, even the film’s violence explodes as both too much and too little, so that when a character is endlessly gunned down on a grassy pasture or repeatedly electrocuted by a solitary desk lamp one can never tell if the scene is being played for comedy or terror.

Moreover, Hartley’s use of costumes and art direction reflects the different characters’ own limited understanding and control of the worlds they live in. In setting the scene, Hartley describes how "I don’t want anything that is not useful," so that the sum of the film’s on-screen objects forms a sort of calculus of character. Hartley relates, for instance, how in the dressing of ex-pornographer Thomas, "Martin wanted to go for tasteless, but I felt that was too obvious. " Rather, the costume and the acting must "come from an understanding of character." And since Thomas can’t remember anything, Donovan was to look and act as if he had no memory. As Hartley told Donovan, "the whole mechanism of this piece won’t work if you know anything about the old Thomas." Likewise, Hartley points out that "the design of Isabelle’s home began with the notion that she was a nun, so we tried to make something like a nun’s cell. It’s sparse, except for the absolute necessities – the books, the crucifix, and, we argued, the television since she was trying to be a pornographer." These are not only props, but also souvenirs of what the character has done and what she has loved. "Isabelle’s books," Hartley jokes, "when I see the stack of them in that shot, I crack up. I say, ‘O my God. I see the past.’ What I see are all the hours Isabelle sat on the can reading."

You don’t often see in Hartley’s films anything outside the immediate borders of the their narratives. Hartley is quick to point out that the New York of his film is only that which is necessary to tell his story: "[Amateur] is not about New York; it just happens here. It had to be New York and Amsterdam, because they are the two international import/export cities where English is a major spoken language." Even though the film’s locations include many noted New York settings (Grand Central Station, the Cloisters), they are barely recognizable, even to a native New Yorker. Just as he does with Thomas, Hartley configures New York as a city with amnesia, unaware of its life in other films or of its previous history, reacting only to the particular nuances and needs of this film. Moreover, one of the stranger qualities that Hartley achieves in the film is the subtle erasure of the distinction between public and private space. Characters easily walk in and out of others’ private residences, or violently confront or comfort strangers in cafes, theaters, and on the street, as if they had no prior knowledge of the conventional practices of everyday life, or are just amateurs at living in the world.

For Hartley, it is the randomness of everyday life that defines the real world, and it is his uncomfortableness with this sense of chaos which finally fixates his own brand of "amateurism." As to the random activity of public spaces or the disruptive effects of urban violence, meticulously staged in most Hollywood films, Hartley remarks, "I’m just not comfortable yet in creating it. For example, the telephone fight that happens on the street [in Amateur] is still not random enough, because I’m still not comfortable with all my equipment and the crew on the street." For viewers, this highly stylized attitude towards the film’s mise en scene and central narrative oddly has the effect of turning its viewers into amateurs, people struggling to gain enough experience through watching the film to learn how to read it. But for Hartley’s purposes, the fact that his growing audience so intensely identifies with his vision, anxiously waiting each new film, marks them as amateurs in that other way too, as people who love.


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