In 2012, Baltimore’s Center Stage, the State Theater of Maryland, celebrated its fiftieth anniversary by soliciting scores of American playwrights, both established veterans and emerging voices, to answer the question “What is my America?” with a short monologue. Fifty pieces were ultimately commissioned and director Hal Hartley filmed them all for Center Stage. Twenty-one of these pieces are woven into the feature My America.
This is not a collection of Hartley film shorts, at least not in the way we think of a “Hal Hartley” film. Whether working in short film or feature-length modes, Hartley’s voice is unmistakable and he puts his camera in service to the word, or more precisely the lively, playful interplay of words. Imagine a college grad student’s reworking of a screwball comedy with a deadpan approach and Godard-ian flourishes. Conversation, debate, argument, lecture, philosophical musing, and the odd poetry of intellectual discourse in the measured cadences of call and response and cyclical talk, those are the heart of Hartley’s cinema and until now he’s written his own screenplays.
My America, a collection of monologues, raps and one-way conversations by American playwrights grappling in one form or another with the identity, the dreams and the realities of the American citizen, is Hartley engaging with other voices.
The production is minimal and minimalist, shot in empty apartments in New York and Los Angeles with nothing but a chair, a piano, a window and sometimes even less, just a blank, neutral white backdrop. A soundscape suggests the world around them, whether it’s the quiet din of city sounds or the bustle of unseen crowds or customers. The aesthetic puts the focus on the actor, the performance, the words. Which is to say that while My America may share the spare, stripped-down visual aesthetic he has perfected over his defiantly independent career, it doesn’t speak like a Hartley film. The familiar cadences of his dialogue and the trips down the rabbit holes of philosophical musings are gone as Hartley explores new voices and engages his actors—most of them theater veterans—to follow these characters wherever they lead, which is to a multiplicity of takes on the American condition.
The timing of this project seems propitious for Hartley. He was a quintessential American indie filmmaker of the nineties and early aughts, steadfastly making small, personal films with a company of stock players and a penchant for Godard-ian technique spun with an amiable American cheekiness. But even with smaller budgets and a more international canvas—shooting in Germany, Japan, Iceland—he was losing his audience, or perhaps distribution models were failing them. So the Long Island-born filmmaker moved to Berlin for a few years, where he shot Fay Grim (2006) and directed theater, and he staged the world premiere of Louis Andriessen’s opera “La Commedia” in Amsterdam, finally, segueing back to cinema with a series of shorts in 2009. His voice (and his noodling, minor-key music) is recognizable in The Apologies but his theatrical collaborations expanded the voices of his shorts and his time outside the U.S. gave a new perspective to his take on American culture. You can see some of that in Meanwhile (2011), his first feature since Fay Grim, but it really comes to the fore in My America.
The opening piece, Gwydion Suilbhan’s “Anthem,” is a bittersweet slice of self-discovery, a touching story of one man’s connection with the meaning of American identity, a sense of belonging and history and possibility that hits home with a rush of overwhelming emotion during an otherwise familiar event: the playing of the national anthem at a baseball game. Which, of course, simply mortifies his young son. Cody Nickell delivers the short monologue (written by Gwydion Suilbhan) with a chagrined candor, less a piece a theater than a group therapy share, just a guy opening up about something personal to the camera-as-colleague. It sets the tone for the entire tapestry of perspectives with an intimacy that reverberates with our sense of authenticity in spite of the rarified frame Hartley puts around the piece, or perhaps because of it. The humble backdrop, the world flowing by outside the window, the refusal to construct a “realistic” set to place the words in a specific context, all give the moment a naked immediacy. This isn’t high drama or master statement, it’s simply a privileged glimpse into one man’s modest epiphany.
My America moves on to short stories and emotional vignettes, satirical sketches of privilege and sobering observations on powerlessness, examples of courage and cowardice, hypocrisy and generosity, aspiration and resignation. There are easy pot-shots to be taken—a dim beauty pageant contestant (Christy McIntosh) pleading an incoherent case in a hilarious parody that cuts awfully close to real-life Miss America gaffs in Alena Smith’s “Miss America,” or a Puerto Rican hardware store owner (Angelo Lozado) railing against the blacks and the Mexicans and the Dominicans with an invitational wink (you get it, right?) in Danny Hoch’s “Phil”—and there is a fair share of warped mirrors up to the American Dream twisted into sales pitches (“John” by Kenneth Lin), auction spiels (“Amazing America Auction” by Lynn Rosen) and satirical raps (“From a Distance” by the 5th L, “Me American” by Greg Allen).
But that’s all part of the inclusiveness and they bounce off of a rich pageant of experience and observations and anxieties. Brian Tyree Henry is heartbreaking as an African American man lamenting how one bad decision and a misguided culture of drug policy derailed his future in Kia Corthron’s “Nate’s America,” made all the more powerful by the understatement of a performance defined not by anger but exhausted resignation. Kelly McCreary offers the confusion and anxiety of a sleep-deprived new mother trying to get a handle on a “Hit and Run” in Kirsten Greenidge’s contribution, circling around inarticulate feelings of disappointment in her fellow citizens in the aftermath of a traffic accident. These are not the self-contained neurotics and obsessives and New York characters you’d find in one of Hartley’s earlier films.
My America shuffles the pieces together so that they collide and ricochet off one another: a rap taking on consumerism and the contradictions of culture is followed by a grown child of privilege getting impatient for her perfect life to fall into place; an African American priest in a conservative community seeks a kind of absolution for his moral hypocrisy to placate his parishioners’ prejudices, followed by a blithely racist immigrant justifying his bigotry as an American value. Hartley creates a conversation of the monologues, or perhaps a theatrical mix-tape of verbal solos. He’s not the composer for this line-up, he’s more of a record producer or cinema club deejay, shaping the riffs into something more than the sum of its parts. It’s not theater and not quite cinema, but it’s engaging and challenging and every once in a while it is transcendent, bringing the conversation back from race and class and culture to the experience of simply being human in the world. That’s what Hartley leaves us up ponder as the last word of My America. If that’s not the America that Hartley sees, it sure feels like the America he’s looking for.