No Such Thing
dir. Hal Hartley
Now available on VHS and DVD.

The announcement of Hal Hartley's debut as a studio filmmaker was exciting for two reasons. Number one was the prospect of seeing what an artist accustomed to slender means could do with some money. No Such Thing, a monster movie starring Robert John Burke (as the Monster) and the pale wonder that is Sarah Polley (as the Girl), wasn't a big-budget production by Hollywood standards, but for a director whose previous work had been at least partly defined by its financial restrictions, it was a gold mine.

The other reason was somewhat harder to admit: I hadn't enjoyed a Hal Hartley movie for a long time. Much of the work he has done in the years since his early triumphs, Trust and Simple Men--films that helped define the aesthetic of good '90s American independent cinema-- has felt tendentious, overt, and complacently experimental. It's partially a question of subject matter (his eye is increasingly attuned to pornography, violence, and human ugliness) and partially one of influence. There's always been more than a morsel of other directors in Hartley--Godard's random bursts of absurdity and cerebral romanticism; Bresson's measured minimalism; Sturges' clipped rhythms--but his recent films are heavy on the Godard, mirroring the great French director's slide into misanthropic inscrutability.

Films like Amateur, Flirt, The Book of Life, and Kimono have all offered moments of beauty, humor, and brilliance, but always in the service of work that feels joyless and incomplete. With the exception of Henry Fool, a darkly complex farce that turns artistic antipathy on its ear, recent Hartley has been a stone drag. No Such Thing sounded like an antidote to this trend, if only because of the strictures built into making a Hollywood picture. I know it's not fashionable to say that too much independence can be a bad thing for an artist, but the wisdom of the old Orson Welles axiom--that the absence of restrictions is the enemy of art--isn't limited to matters of budget. It's a question of what kinds of restrictions. In the case of Hartley, the challenge of tempering his idiosyncratic style to communicate to a wide audience, without violating the essential singularity of his artistic voice, might have pushed him to discover something new in himself. That's precisely what No Such Thing is: a new side of Hartley, combining the best of his irreverent modernity with classical archetypes. It's grim, nasty, and pessimistic. It's also his most original, entertaining, and alive film in years.

The irony, of course, is that it was never released.

Most times when a movie goes straight to video, it's because the movie is a disaster. No Such Thing is no disaster. It's odd--a hybrid of King Kong, Beauty and the Beast, and John Gardner's novel Grendel--and even Hartley's die-hard fans might find the monster conceit a tricky one to swallow. But the picture is funny and smart, and could easily have found an audience... if it weren't for September 11, 2001. Although "the events" are now beginning to recede into memory, I doubt I have to remind anyone that in the months immediately afterward, the Entertainment Industrial Complex was in an absolute tizzy. Artists wondered if their work was still valid, while corporations worried that any reference to terrorism, Muslims, unrest, warfare, airplanes, or (especially) the World Trade Center would offend the entire world.

In the second scene in No Such Thing, a cynical TV news producer (Helen Mirren) is informed that domestic terrorism is up 70 percent, homemade nuclear weapons are being traded on the open market, the government is on strike, climatic irregularities continue ("it's snowing in Johannesburg"), "and of course, the Middle East." Old news, Mirren yawns, get me something catastrophic. The scene is pure Hartley: atrocious news delivered as mundane fact and reacted to accordingly. It's funny (if familiar), and sets up the context in which the Monster's disdain for humankind (he has two soliloquies that sum it up with beautifully articulate vulgarity) makes him a fire-breathing killer who really just wants to die.

But the subtext--no wait, the text--is that regardless of what terrors are thrown our way, man does a perfectly good job of destroying himself of his own accord. This is hardly a message that the raw nerves attending 9/11's aftermath would be interested in hearing, at least not in the minds of a Hollywood studio. Had the film been released properly, the artfully sober message might have resonated with audiences who had to wait for garbage like Black Hawk Down and The Scorpion King to prove that they would still go to the movies. Or maybe it wouldn't have. So now it's left to video store shelves to find room for intelligent studio fare; in the multiplex, there's obviously no such thing.