Despite how in vogue independent American cinema has become in the past decade, the work of Hal Hartley (Fay Grim) has remained truly under the radar. Perhaps it’s because he actually possesses independent thought and makes films that don’t depend on a vaguely hipster-ish soundtrack or carefully designed character quirks that have become the hallmark of the “indie” movement, now all but completely subsidized by major corporations everywhere.
Hartley’s intense anti-naturalism can be seen in one of his earliest films, Surviving Desire, an hour-long work recently released in a remastered edition by Microcinema International. The film’s talkiness and exploration of male desire recalls the films of French New Wave master Eric Rohmer, but Hartley is clearly blazing his own trail here.
Despite being shot on 16mm, the film eschews any ragged New Wave-esque visual style, and has a very measured look that could appear cursorily mainstream. But Hartley is working with characters and dialogue that are anything but, achieving an almost hyper-theatricality that transforms nearly every line into a soliloquy — in word if not in tone. Hartley turns his characters inside out, using uninhibited honesty to reveal their motivations and to create an off-balance world that thrives on unnatural turns of phrase.
Baring his longing soul at the heart of the film is a college professor named Jude (frequent Hartley collaborator Martin Donovan), who’s been reviewing a single passage of The Brothers Karamazov with his class for several months. The only student not bursting at the seams with frustration because of it is Sofie (Mary Ward), a dark-haired pixie who Jude admits he is in love with to his friend Henry (Matt Malloy).
Soon, Jude and Sofie begin a whirlwind love affair that quickly reveals his elations and insecurities, and Hartley snappily dissects the character’s psyche both in dialogue and deadpan surprises, like an impromptu dance number in an alleyway that recalls Godard’s Band of Outsiders.
At a mere 53 minutes long, Surviving Desire doesn’t have much time for pretense, so Hartley strips away the preliminaries and achieves insights that are warmer and more honest because of it. It’s not a film that’s lacking for ideas, and yet its running time seems to suit the film perfectly.
The new DVD replaces an old Wellspring release that has since gone out of print. Like that DVD, this one includes two short films Hartley also made in 1991, "Theory of Achievement" (17 minutes) and "Ambition" (9 minutes). New to this release is a 10-minute collection of interviews with Hartley, Donovan, and producer Ted Hope. The remastered image still has a few digital artifacts here and there, but looks to be a fairly accurate translation of the source materials.