" I guess you used up all the ugly in the family "

MRQE Top Critic

Alias: Season Three

In its third season, Alias pulls off a hat trick with another round of pulpy page-turner adventure —Matt Anderson (DVD review...)

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Watching Fay Grim, the sequel to auteur Hal Hartley’s 1997 film Henry Fool, I kept asking myself, But is this art? As I debated whether it was Parker Posey or her character, Fay, who lacked a center, my internal dialogue siphoned some of my attention from the absurdly complicated plot involving international espionage and the contents of her disappeared husband Henry Fool’s “Confession,” several notebooks containing gibberish — or perhaps something more. As Gertrude Stein asked about Oakland, I spent the next few days reflecting on the film and asking myself again and again: Is there any there there?

The melodramatic dialogue, the absurd and frequently introduced plot twists, and Fay Grim’s unsatisfyingly odd reactions to everything around her were among the reasons I kept questioning the art-to-entertainment ratio in this film, which seems at first glance to have elements of films from several genres: action thriller, mystery, caper, comedy, spy drama.

Trading Places

Was it Parker Posey or her character who lacked a center?
Was it Parker Posey or her character who lacked a center?

By the end of Henry Fool, the title character (Thomas Jay Ryan) has traded places with Fay’s brother Simon (James Urbaniak), who at the start of the story had been a beaten-down young garbageman living in Queens with his sister, Fay, and their mother. Henry Fool had come out of nowhere to rent an extra room in the Grims’ basement home: he needed a place to finish writing his “Confession.” The hard-drinking man-of-action Henry unleashed his personality on everyone around him. By the end of Hartley’s 1997 film, Fay and Henry had married, Henry had a child with Fay, and Henry had descended into utter louthood. His writings had been proclaimed “bad” by everyone who read them. Meanwhile Simon, encouraged by Henry to start writing, became the infamous-yet-reclusive “garbageman poet of Queens” and won a Nobel Prize.

After seeing Fay, Simon, and Angus, Simon’s literary agent, react to Henry’s writings in Henry Fool, I too figured Henry’s scribblings for the gibberish of a deranged mind. The first thing we learn in Hartley’s latest film, however, is that we should not have been so quick to judge Henry Fool. The notebooks containing his “Confession” are now in demand as they are believed to contain coded information about various international conflicts over the past twenty years (the Iran-Contra arms deals, more shady dealings in Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, and so on).

Webs of Deceit

Fay Grim, as the abandoned wife and mother of Henry’s child, is at the center of this hunt, which involves secret service agents from several countries, international espionage, and an Eastern myth that might turn out to have a true story, Henry’s own, at its core. All of this calls into question everything we might have assumed so far. Simon is in prison for his role in abetting Henry’s escape (after Henry killed a neighbor in a fit of rage over the neighbor’s abuse of his own wife and daughter, an event that further deepened the mystery of whether Henry is a man of integrity or just an egomaniacal, drunken womanizer and pedophile).

Early in Fay Grim, when everyone realizes that no one actually saw Henry get on the airplane using Simon’s passport, it is suggested that Henry Fool didn’t really vanish. Fay is as shocked at this as she is when her fourteen-year-old son Ned (played by Liam Aiken, who also played a younger Ned ten years ago) brings a curio to school: an old-fashioned tin box that allows you to view an orgy scene that gets his mother called in for a meeting and reprimand at the principal’s office. “Have you ever considered moving to another town?” the principal asks Fay. Apparently, the fact that having a notorious and absent father and an uncle (the prize-winning poet) in prison for aiding and abetting Henry Fool’s flight from justice has not only deprived Ned of the only potential father figure around but has only added to the boy’s notoriety at school, which is growing by the second.

True Confessions?

Suddenly the phone rings, the ringing cell bringing a new twist, a common device in this story. Fay quickly learns that the journals of Henry Fool might just be of value after all, despite their initial appearance of being terrible. “Times have changed,” Simon’s unctuous literary agent Angus tells Fay. “We mustn’t take such a hard line on these things. Anything capable of being sold is worth being published.”

Jeff Goldblum then pops up in Fay’s house as Agent Fulbright, sporting a keen interest in the doings of Henry Fool, as well as a mop of nice hair and a partner, Agent Fogg (Leo Fitzpatrick). They become yet another force that sets Fay in motion the way a leaf blows in the wind.

Despite being out of the picture, Henry Fool, Hartley’s monster, continues to exert his gravitational pull on Fay Grim’s characters. As Fay chases Henry’s traces across Europe in search of the last notebook of Henry’s work (either of encoded traitorous messages or gibberish, depending on who’s telling the tale), we keep hearing that the vortex of this story is Henry and his true intentions, have superficially appeared to involve Henry’s search to slake some of his superhuman appetites for booze and women; both Henry and his motives remain mysterious until the last few minutes of the film.

Peeling Back the Layers

Even without seeing Henry Fool, all of the background is easy to gather, much of it delivered in melodramatic dialogue in the style of a noir thriller or screwball comedy. Both Henry Fool and Fay Grim have this quality; the characters snapping words and phrases back and forth at one another with what is said sometimes having little relationship to what they mean. I often found the melodramatic dialogue laughably absurd yet I felt simultaneously tickled by its outlandishness. People who suffered through some of the more explicit material in Henry Fool (I imagine the toilet scene cost Hartley a few fans) will find Fay Grim far more accessible. There’s nothing as grotesque or excruciating here as in Hartley’s earlier film. Violence is suggested in sequences of still photos.

It is difficult to draw conclusions about who Fay or the other characters really are in Fay Grim. This seems as deliberate as it was in Henry Fool. When Fay is in New York, she looks like any busy single mother, but in her pursuit of Henry’s notebooks and of Henry himself, she is transformed into a sexy action hero and finds others like herself along the way, characters as rootless or as ambiguous in their true motivations as she is. Hartley’s character-based mysteries are compelling — it’s always enthralling to learn of someone’s double life, of a complete reversal in direction. In telling these stories, Hartley works with people’s potential for reinvention while simultaneously showing us, the audience, the limits of our initial presumptions about the characters. He then calls our attention to these efforts, which gives us yet another layer of information to peel back and deconstruct.

Blowing in the Wind

I find something in the planes and proportions of Parker Posey’s face and features utterly irresistible to watch. As Fay careens around rooms, people, and plots in Fay Grim, I thought of Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Cross Mulwray in Chinatown, in which Evelyn seemed a creature formed entirely of pain and reaction. Posey seems similarly buffeted about by her circumstances, but Dunaway’s shell was so brittle you thought she might shatter at any moment, whereas Posey often seems she might blow away in a strong wind or hit her head during a fall and roll under a piece of furniture, never to be heard from again.

Like the story as a whole, it is a stretch to believe in Posey’s Fay as an action heroine; like the film, she looks fabulous and spy-like in her stylish coats as she staggers between New York, Paris, Berlin, and Istanbul. Although Fay finally starts to show some satisfying steel toward the film’s end, an ending that left Henry’s story more ambiguous rather than laying out his ties to middle-Eastern terrorist cells would have made this a more engaging installment in the strange saga of Henry Fool. As it is told, the story ends with enough has untied threads to justify a third installment (to be called Simon Grim, perhaps?), but Henry has ceased to be a mystery to be solved.

Flying in the Face of Convention

While auteur may sound to some like a pretentious way to say director, Hartley earns the moniker by communicating through all of the channels that film makes available. As he has done in most of his films, Hartley not only wrote and directed Fay Grim but also wrote the score. Instead of the typical portentous swellings of an orchestra or flavor-of-the-moment indie pop songs, Hartley’s soundtrack music has a more spare and classical approach, the moods amplified instead of prescribed by dramatic voicings of a few notes played on one or two instruments at a time.

Superimposed titles start out ordinary (“A few hours later”) but edge into different territory (“Her new coat had hidden pockets”), tweaking your ideas about what purpose film titles should serve and where background information should come from. Some might argue that the more artful director allows the story and dialogue to provide all the background information, but Hartley seems to point directly at more of the many layers of information a film can provide: the dialogue, the characters” motivations, the acting, the screenplay, the setting, the director, the titles, the music, and the cinematography.

Despite feeling unfulfilled by Fay Grim’s finale, I found Hartley’s mash-up of genres and tweakings of film conventions in Fay Grim inspiring. I believe that Fay Grim is like a magnet looking for her piece of metal and that Parker Posey understood the character’s limitations — the only problem with that is it’s hard for us to get involved in her quest when she’s so detached. I am sure this is art, but I also know it is not the best storytelling you’ll find in a film this year.. Yet I still want to see the next one, if Hartley decides to continue playing out this drama on film.