Far from simple

What the hell are we to make of Hal Hartley’s “Simple Men” (1992)? The dialogue is so overtly written that one questions whether it consists entirely of literary quotations (à la Jean-Luc Godard’s “Nouvelle vague” [1990]); the performances are so intensely mannered and stylized that one questions whether Hartley didn’t shack up with a bunch of Brecht plays before determining how he wanted his film to move and sound; the soundtrack is so repetitive, bland and yet weirdly clingy that one questions whether one is losing one’s mind as one succumbs to the film’s absurdist brand of logic sometime during its second half.

Hartley is quite self-conscious when evoking the aforementioned JLG; indeed, the specter of Godard (himself far from dead) looms over every single sequence in “Simple Men.” Perhaps it’s a testament to the film’s third-hand uniqueness and derivative originality that it more closely resembles Godard’s sublime 80s output than it does his more widely-recognized 60s streak (“Breathless” [1959] through “Le gai savoir” [1968]).

The film’s characters might be machines built to spew pith and poetry, but “Simple Men” is also marked by an incredibly delicate sensibility manifested through its thoroughly Godardian mise en scène; whereas another director might’ve been more concerned with the swagger of his actors or their fidelity to the spirit of the letter when delivering lines (I’m looking at you, Tarantino), Hartley demonstrates his—once more with feeling—Godardian reverence for the aesthetic excess of the image and the purity of the artificial moment.

The film’s plot is, of course, nonsensical.  The hairstyles, the clothes and the soundtrack (featuring Sonic Youth’s “Kool Thing”) are all overwhelmingly 90s. By the time that I made it to the second half of “Simple Men,” I found myself even more engaged with its system of big moments and tiny details than I’ve been with some of the gorgeous but inflexible Godard efforts from the same period.

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