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A Human Geometry: The Films of Hal Hartley

Lecturer: Jon Roffe

Originally Taught: Winter School 2020

The cinema of Hal Hartley has been the victim of the worst tendencies in popular film criticism. By relegating his films to the associated, reductive categories of the ‘independent,’ the ‘quirky’, or worse, to the cul de sac of its own alleged ‘stylistic niche’, this criticism has predominantly precluded a meaningful engagement with these films, overlooking in particular the formalist elements of his work.

The aim of this course will be to develop a comprehensive conceptual portrait of Hartley’s cinema that moves beyond, while situating, the two prominent features of mainstream film criticism: the framework of genre, and the focus on narrative.

The set readings will be a series of interviews with Hartley, along with a small number of other more theoretically oriented texts. Each seminar will conclude with a screening of one of Hartley’s films.

Seminar 1: Hartley’s formalist realism. Beyond genre.

Our ultimate aim in this first seminar will be to understand the sense in which Hartley’s cinema is a formalist realism, in a sense that both encompasses and transforms these two broad, well-known and contested tendencies. This first seminar will also introduce the central formal device in Hartley’s films: the tableau.

Screening: Trust

Seminar 2: Form of expression. From the tableau to the threshold

This seminar, we will focus on developing a robust concept of the tableau, in both its plurality and the unity in composition that it provides the formal organisation in Hartley’s films. In this seminar we will also pay attention to two other formal features of Hartley’s work: the lack of establishing shots in any conventional sense, and a persistent, positive use of the out-of-frame. The latter point will allow us to see in what sense Harltey’s films involve an extremely rarefied place for events.

Screening: The Book of Life

Seminar 3: Form of content. The asymptote of humanity

In this seminar, we will return to the question of genre by examining its role in a trio of films: The Book of Life (1999), No Such Thing (2001), and The Girl From Monday (2005). More broadly, our interest will be to grasp the formal components of Hartley’s anthropology: his presentation of the form of social reality, and the concomitant form of resistance to this reality.

The grace of the Fall. The fall is grace itself.

Screening: The Girl from Monday

Seminar 4: Substance of content. The impossibility of misanthropy

This seminar will consider Hartley’s moralism, and the major claims made in his films for a kind of inverted misanthropy. The fourth seminar will also consider the status of dialogue in Hartley’s films, oriented by his claim that these films are essentially examples of the Western in which the dramatic element of the gunfight has been replaced with dialogue itself.

Screening: No Such Thing

Seminar 5: Summary. The inverted gaze

The final seminar will present an overview of the account developed in the previous sessions. In order to summarise the trajectory of the course as a whole, however, Hartley’s cinema will be presented as an effort to undo the logic of the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, at both the level of content and that of expression.

Screening: Henry Fool