Hal Hartley has never fit in with the American independent film scene. He had the good luck of making his first feature, The Unbelievable Truth, in the middle of the Sundance-fueled indie boom, which gave his subsequent films a measure of hipness and cachet. And yet, for all of their eccentric cool—embodied by doe-eyed muses Elina Löwensohn and Adrienne Shelly—Hartley’s ’90s films were unlikely touchstones. His visual style was rigorous, his dialogue was writerly and anti-naturalistic, and his themes were sincere.
While his like-minded peers—Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, Todd Haynes—crossed over into the mainstream, Hartley remained stubbornly anti-Hollywood. Henry Fool, the closest Hartley ever got to the arthouse mainstream, was a dense, novelistic comic tragedy about a charlatan who turns a Queens garbage man into a Nobel Prize-winning poet. It was the kind of project that no studio would touch then, and no indie outfit would finance today.
As of this writing, Hartley is busy finishing Ned Rifle, his second sequel to Henry Fool, after the oddball spy flick Fay Grim. Though he hasn’t released a feature in eight years, he has kept busy, releasing shorts and producing a TV pilot, which was later reworked into the Kickstarter-funded medium-length Meanwhile.
Hartley’s latest “in-between” project, My America, is a collection of monologues originally commissioned by Baltimore’s Center Stage theater and available exclusively through the streaming service Fandor. Shot in a bare rehearsal room, the project finds Hartley adapting his style—in which the movement of actors is often choreographed around a severe camera angle—to each writer and performer.
In some cases, he emphasizes the emptiness and theatrical artificiality of the space; in others, he frames in close-up, layering sound effects to create the illusion that the monologue is being filmed elsewhere. While many of the pieces are presented as single, static takes, a few—like the faux-patriotic, free-associative screed performed by Greg Allen, head honcho of Chicago’s Neo-Futurists troupe—use editing to emphasize speech rhythms.
Unsurprisingly, the quality is variable. Some of the monologues are insightful, some are merely glib. A few justify the whole project: Rajiv Joseph’s “Roosevelt Island,” told from the perspective of a retired, tennis-obsessed Cold War spy and directed by Hartley in a pseudo-documentary style; Kia Corthron’s War On Drugs narrative “Nate’s America”; and Jeremy Kareken’s “Two Days Before My Taxes Are Due,” performed by Henry Fool star Thomas Jay Ryan, who radiates fidgety paranoia while hiding behind the rehearsal space’s piano.
What emerges is a cross-section view of the American stage, with 21 playwrights (Neil LaBute is the biggest name here) each getting a few minutes of screen time. Hartley, whose work has often flirted with theatrical conventions, serves as a perfect channel, conveying strengths and weaknesses alike.