Friday, July 4, 2014

New from Hal Hartley --via FANDOR-- the highly theatrical, diverse & funny potluck MY AMERICA

Just about the perfect "watch" for Independence Day (on which day the film made its debut via FANDOR), MY AMERICA, the new work from Hal Hartley, is almost nothing like what you usually get from this man, one of America's premier independent filmmakers ever since his first full-length feature premiered in 1989 -- the same year, by the way, that Steven Soderbergh premiered his first full-length feature. While you could hardly find two more divergent career paths, for me it has long been Hartley who has kept the faith, so to speak -- even if some of his more recent films have failed to find much or nearly any audience. Still, Hartley (shown below) has maintained his "quirk," offering us many good films and one great one (Henry Fool), while Soderbergh bounces from independents to commercial blockbusters (or would-be) and back again with ease.

Hold on, though: If you're expecting anything like the usual Hartley endeavor, better set your expectations differently. My America is a compilation film with its roots in legitimate theater, made up of around 20 short monologues written by 20 different playwrights. These have been culled from the 50 monologues that were first presented at Maryland's Center Stage in 2012. From those 50, these 20, I guess, were chosen to grace Hartley's 78-minute finished film. Since the left-out playwrights include the likes of Anna Deavere Smith and Christopher Durang, one can only marvel or worry at the process of selection.

As good as many of these monologues are, My America also made me pine for Hartley's writing, nudging me to realize that, as a filmmaker, his work is even more dependent on his screenplay and dialog than on his visual sense. So, once you've set your mind to enjoying these varied and interesting, funny and not-so theater pieces, photographed in differing locations, some of which could easily be (and maybe were) the stage itself, you can relax into appreciating what these writers have to say about America today. And also appreciate the consummate skill with which most of the actors perform the playwrights' work.

The fact that these monologues are at least two years old hardly changes their worth or timeliness, since our country is in pretty much the same shape now as it was in 2012. As with any series of individual pieces, some are better than other. None take a nose dive, however, and several -- including Bekah Brunstetter's piece in which a Southern mom (two photos up) talks about food, death and the one percent; Dan Dietz's soldier's tale (above) of Afghanistan; and Kristen Greenidge's "Hit & Run" (below) -- are splendid little gems.

The performers are often quite wonderful, too, helping their monologue take off into the stratosphere. Kristine Nielsen, shown at bottom, plays a lady in pearls who tracks the decline of modern civilization back to a very odd and funny source, while Thomas Jay Ryan (below) essays a half-hidden fellow who tells us of fallen Presidents and asks if we are the cat, the mouse, or just "one of these assholes." Mr. Ryan is, as he often proves to be, funny perfection.

Themes covered here range from our current economic times to the "magic" of real estate, from our non-ending war(s) to our ever-present racism, prison, aging, Asians and more. There's even a Southern musical interlude, written by Polly Pen and performed by Jeb Brown (below), about little Jimmy spinning in a baseball field.

Think of the film as a welcome antidote to the latest confusion from Dinesh D'Souza and his America. The only piece here that D'Souza might cotton to is the first: Gyydion Suilebhan's monologue about a dad going all teary-eyed patriotic at a sports event.

All in all, My America is a rich feast of hors d'oeuvres, rather than dinner. Yet I suspect that it may seem even better and more nourishing a few hours after viewing. Which you can do now, thanks to Fandor.
Click here for specifics.  (If you live in the NYC area, you can also see the film at a one-time screening at the IFC Center, this coming Wednesday evening, July 7, at 7pm, hosted by Hal Hartley and Fandor's Ted Hope.)

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