Sunday, January 30, 2005

Hal Hartley's The Girl from Monday

Hal Hartley makes no secret of his fondness for Godard, and this is what makes his films so interesting (and so out of step with virtually everything else going on in American film). Eschewing mainstream story-arcing and conventional characters, Harley has always tried to take elements of Godard's approach in the 60s and translate them into an American idiom. The obvious formal debts -- the guerrilla-theater location shooting, the choppy editing, and so on -- bleed naturally into conceptual debts. There are voiceovers with overlapping voices; we have characters who read to each other from books or who speak only in quotations. The dialogue is typically stylized to a deadpan, haiku fineness. There's much toying with what is and isn't diagetical, with genre expecations, and with what sort of verisimilitude is expected in an actor's performance. Hartley, as well, invites a kind of capriciousness into his film's structures, a breathing spontaneity which works well against the pruned, stilted diaogue. He restores the shock and cruelty to violence, while mining pathos from otherwise ludicrous moments. He attempts socio-political critique that dares to be both oblique and ham-fisted. And like his idol, he tends to fetishize beautiful short-haired women. In Simple Men he appropriated a lot of Godard's A Band of Outsiders -- particularly the amazing dance sequence -- without slavishly imitating it; The Girl from Monday, a science-fiction dystoipia shot in contemporary New York, does the same in coopting Alphaville without being simply derivative, finding new meanings and possibilities in the course of translating it. (Hartley owes a lot as well to Chris Marker's brilliant short film La Jetée -- its plot and particularly its use of evocative still frames and first person voiceover.)

In Monday Hartley posits an America in which the government has been replaced by an advertising firm, and the perpetual stoking of insatiable desire, consumer or counterrevolutionary or otherwise, is the primary order of business. Like Gary Becker's notion of the indvidual consumer as a kind of business firm "producing" satisfaction for himself, Hartley imagines a society where individuals self-consciously see themselves as firms, where their acquisitive individualism is pushed to its absurd endpoint, wherein all behavior has become as self-interested as neoclassical economists imagine it to be -- sexuality becomes directly linked to credit rating, becomes an income generating act, which thereby depletes it of its sharing, loving aspects. One of Hartley's early films, Surviving Desire seemed to be about this at the level of the personal relationship -- the inexplicable force of desire imposed from outside, albeit by women with short dark hair as opposed to advertisers. In a sense, the uneasy feeling evoked by the inaccessible short-haired woman in the Surviving Desire is extended in the new film to an entire society, which revolves around desirable inaccessibility, how much of it can you embody without being compromised by your own desires. Another common Hartley trope, the idea of trust revolving around whether or not you'd turn someone in, or whether or not you'd exploit them, given the chance, crops up in this film as well, but the disquieting message seems to be that it doesn't make much difference whether you do or not -- there is no "right" side to be fighting on, to be loyal to, since it all contributes to the manufacture of alienating desire.

Opposed to the society of ultraindividualists is an alien race of ultra-communitarians, who all share one body and all feelings and can no know desire. The film then works out the various trade-offs involved in obtaining a concept of self, a sense of identity, even if this means submitting to market forces. There are hints at the ways in which the desire to have, to have a self and many things and so on, can become indistinguishable from the desire to merge, to be at one with society, to move beyond one's own limits, to discover the unlimitedness that would obliterate all ego. Humans are all trapped in this paradox, but corporations, made up of no particular humans, transcend this and can thereby perpetually profit from it. Institutions, immune to desire, can always position themselves to exploit it, and forever. In the film this is made explcit by the ad boss realizing both revolution and counterrevolution are good for the ad business. All desire, understood as discontent and instability, is good for business, even if desire's paradoxicality and ambivalence is bad for the specific humans who make up the businesses. So humans end up carrying out the business of the institutions that traps them in their quixotic desires, that exacerbates their need while offering the tentative and incoherent soultions of selfhood and selfishness.

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