The Kool Thing dance scene from Simple Men: Peak 90s American independent cinema
The "Kool Thing" dance scene from Simple Men: Peak '90s American independent cinema

Short version: There's a Kickstarter to fund a DVD/Blu-ray box set of Hal Hartley's "Long Island Trilogy," also known as his three most epochal, evocative, and beloved films: The Unbelievable Truth (1989), Trust (1990), and Simple Men (1992). The project is budgeted at $100,000. When I started typing this, 788 backers had pledged $90,634 of it with six days to go.

It's unlikely to come as a shock that I consider these films to be miniature masterpieces, or that I lament the seeming absence of early Hartley's influence on contemporary film and television: the terse wit, the absurdism, the emotion-cloaked-in-affectlessness of the thematic terrain, the deep-art-cinema-theory-roots-masked-by-light-comedy presentation, all of it. A lot of excellent art gets forgotten. That's how time works. But for a moment there, before certain other auteurs with more aggressive publicists were enshrined as voices of a generation, Hal Hartley was the definitive filmmaker of a very particular strand of young, weird, restless, intellectual culture that primarily exists now in nostalgic remembrances like the one you're currently growing weary of reading.

An illustration of Hal Hartley from the Stranger archives.
An illustration of Hal Hartley from the Stranger archives. Jennifer Daydreamer

The Unbelievable Truth strains at its low-budget constraints a bit (though it's still worth your time), but Trust and Simple Men have aged like wine, thanks largely to the weirdly distilled world of Hartley's dialogue cadences, but thanks even more to the performances.

Adrienne Shelley (R.I.P.), Edie Falco, Martin Donovan, Robert Burke, Karen Sillas, Elina Löwensohn, and John MacKay not only seemed destined for stardom; they all seemed like fully realized, fully arrived stars, because they were ideally suited to the task of peopling Hartley's cinematic Long Island of the mind. As did the repertory company of weirdo character actors—Jeffrey Howard, Matt Malloy, Chris Cooke, and Damian Young—each a definitive, low-key models of comic eccentricity, who were already living there.

The real star is the dialogue, a combination of the rat-a-tat screwball school of Preston Sturges, and the only-film-what-is-absolutely-necessary asceticism of Bresson and Ozu. The highest of the low meets the highest of the low. It crackles with impeccable pacing and bizarre interruptions ("can I keep it?") that make it hard to re-adjust to boring old "real" talk when the credits roll—sort of like how it's hard to walk for a few minutes after you go roller skating. But it also studiously avoids the bad habit some screenwriters have of coming to the point. The circumlocutions of people trying and failing to come together are the point.

Martin Donovan and Adrienne Shelley in Trust.
Martin Donovan and Adrienne Shelley in Trust.

From Trust (this exchange goes as fast as imaginable):

Maria: Did you mean it? Would you marry me?
Matthew: Yes.
Maria: Why?
Matthew: Because I want to.
Maria: Not because you love me or anything like that, huh?
Matthew: I respect and admire you.
Maria: Isn't that love?
Matthew: No, that's respect and admiration. I think that's better than love.
Maria: How?
Matthew: When people are in love they do all sorts of crazy things. They get jealous, they lie, they cheat. They kill themselves. They kill each other.
Maria: It doesn't have to be that way.
Maria: You'd be the father of a child you know isn't yours.
Matthew: Kids are kids, what does it matter?
Maria: Do you trust me?
Matthew: Do you trust me first?
Maria: I trust you.
Matthew: You sure?
Maria: Yes.
Matthew: Then marry me.
Maria: I'll marry you if you admit that respect, admiration, and trust equals love.
Matthew: OK. They equal love.

Chris Cooke as Vic, playing Greensleeves while waiting for a car to service in Simple Men.
Chris Cooke as Vic, playing "Greensleeves" while waiting for a car to service in Simple Men.

I imagine I wasn't the only one who was surprised to discover Hartley's high-mindedness in the interviews that accompanied the published screenplays for Trust and Simple Men. Or who went back to the films again and again with a deeper appreciation of what he was reaching for, which was to bring the conversation young people were having back to the arthouse. Not to let art cinema be all fancy, rarefied and admirable, but to apply it to popular genres—romance, comedy, juvenile delinquent, road movie, etc.

And it worked! This Long Island Trilogy became popular during the sharp intake of breath between when Slacker made "indie" cinema seem au courant, interesting, and cool and when Clerks ruined everything.

The now-ness of Hartley's films meant that you could love the impromptu dance scene to Sonic Youth's "Kool Thing" in Simple Men whether or not you'd never seen Band of Outsiders, or even heard of Jean-Luc Godard. (Though it's a pretty safe bet that people who knew both references loved it more.)

At a time "pretentious" was the most damning epithet you could level at any artist or person ("fascist" and "privileged" were not yet quite as common), Hartley made work that earned out its pretenses not by being, but by appearing to be as plainspoken and contemporary as possible.

The style of early Hartley even disappeared from middle- and late-period Hartley. By the time of his fourth feature, Amateur, his voice and visual concerns had changed irrevocably, or possibly he just grew out of the constraints he'd given himself. You can't blame an artist for evolving, obviously. Nor can you fault an audience for missing the kind of work they did before. (Not to suggest he doesn't still make good stuff, of course.)

People like to say that no one owns or watches DVDs and Blu-rays anymore, and that films have been supplanted by episodic TV as the essential mode for the delivery of visual narrative, and that the tenacity of '90s nostalgia is the surest sign that people are refusing to engage with the present tense, and that such refusal is the enemy of artistic expression, and an ingredient in the toxic stew of contemporary anomie in the shadow of Trump, which basically renders the prospect of a physical Hal Hartley box set about as trenchant as a Land of the Lost lunchbox full of video arcade tokens teetering on a stack of Nirvana CDs.

But memory is not the same thing as nostalgia.

(At least I hope not...)

Anyway, even it all the above were true, the prospect of getting my hands on one of these box sets would still be pleasing, for three reasons: 1) Because I love these films, 2) Because streaming is a horrible, unreliable mode of watching movies, and 3) Because the Hungarian (I think?) DVD of Trust I got six or seven years ago has a couple of little skips in it.

Oh, yeah, and 4) Because I don't want to forget, either.

UPDATE: $9,119 to go.