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John Lamb, Published March 05 2013

Off-kilter: Hal Hartley’s films force audiences to look at the movies a different way

FARGO – Hal Hartley may not be a household name.

Known to critics and cinephiles for his off-beat, low-key storytelling, the 53-year-old director is instead a major art-house name in the film world.

Hartley is the big name at this year’s Fargo Film Festival. Tonight he receives the Ted M. Larson Award, given annually to someone who has furthered the appreciation and studies of film. He’ll screen his latest release, preview an ongoing project and discuss his work.

“We’re very, very lucky to host someone of Hal Hartley’s renown,” says festival board member and film critic Greg Carlson. “Some would say (he’s) one of the seminal filmmakers of the so-called American indie movement that began in the late 1980s.”

Hartley may not give himself the “indie” tag others ascribe to him, but it fits. In his 30-year career he has worked outside of Hollywood and the studio system, making small-budget, dialogue-driven films.

Even after making a name for himself, winning screenwriting awards at both the Sundance Film Festival (“Trust” in 1991) and Cannes Film Festival (“Henry Fool” in ’98), the filmmaker followed his heart instead of a paycheck.

The film he’s showing tonight, 2011’s “Meanwhile,” which follows one man’s quest across Manhattan and the New Yorkers he meets along the way, was never released in theaters, and instead went straight to DVD and video-on-demand services, as Hartley planned. He used the crowd-sourcing site Kickstarter.com to fund the DVD release, asking visitors to his site for $25 or more. Contributors got a copy of the movie as well as a poster and some other goodies.

“I was skeptical, but it was overwhelmingly successful. We got a lot more money than we needed,” Hartley says from his home office in Harlem, N.Y. “One of the good things about crowd-sourcing and Kickstarter, you can really see who your audience is – the people who buy your DVDs, the people who buy your music. That’s a big help. Especially if you’re not making work that’s mainstream, it’s important to know who the people are.”

Even though he has a clearer idea of who likes his movies, he doesn’t cater to any particular audience.

“I couldn’t just make an anticipated product for a known market,” Hartley says. “I’m pursuing a group of films, writing music, that are all part of something that’s deeper than simply manufacturing product.”

Though he’s known for scoring his own films (under the name Ned Rifle), Carlson credits the director anticipating the impact of indie rock by using music by Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo and P.J. Harvey, the latter two physically appearing in his film “The Book of Life.”

“The dialogue, the music, the way the characters move, the sound design, how the photography is framed, I want it all to be in concert, every aspect talking to every other aspect,” he says.

Still, it is the dialogue, often stilted, filled with pauses and philosophical themes, that has become a Hartley hallmark.

Still, he says the actors instinctively know how the lines should sound and that he doesn’t offer any direction on the stylized diction.

“Most of the actors I’ve worked with have said it’s clear from how I’ve written it how it needs to be delivered,” the director says. “I don’t recall having to tell any actor how to deliver a line. I spend a lot more time talking to them about how they should move.”

Hartley often turns to a stable of actors and was key in the early careers of Parker Posey, Edie Falco, Martin Donovan and Adrienne Shelly. He refers to Posey and D.J. Mendel, who stars in “Meanwhile,” as two of his favorites, who are great with dialogue and moving.

“Both actors have said to me at some time, ‘Once we start moving, I know how to say it,’ ” Hartley explains. “There is a connection between moving and speaking.”

His last two movies, “Meanwhile” and “Fay Grim,” were shot on high-definition video, and Hartley says he doesn’t miss film at all.

“The technology of high-definition now is so good, so reliable. It looks just like film,” he explains. “I’m kind of a purist, too, but I’m not a fetishist. It looks good, is much less expensive and much less unwieldy and gives the filmmaker a tremendous amount of freedom.”

In the case of “Fay Grim,” it allowed him to shoot much of the movie at tilted angles.

“Hartley has often said an audience should have to work when they go to see a movie,” Carlson says. “That’s one of the things I love about his filmmaking. There are no easy answers. … This runs counter to the way most mainstream Hollywood filmmaking spoon-feeds us everything.”

He recalls seeing Hartley’s “Flirt,” “Amateur” and “Henry Fool” at the Fargo Theatre, movies that never would’ve played large cineplexes.

“You sort of knew what you were getting into when you went to see a Hal Hartley movie in the theater,” Carlson says. “It was going to be something kind of weird. Something unusual, unorthodox and pretty funny, even if you were frustrated by the experience.”

If you go

What: An evening with Hal Hartley

When: 7 tonight

Where: Fargo Theatre, 314 Broadway

Info: Tickets for this event are $8; $5 for students. Festival passes start at $100. (701) 239-8385

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Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533