Garbageman Simon Grimm sits at the kitchen table, writing in a composition book with a stubby pencil. His mother (Maria Porter) and his sister Fay (Parker Posey), wrapped in bathrobes and cigarette smoke, observe him. "What are you doing, Simon?" asks Fay, in that deadpan way director Hal Hartley has patented. "Writing a poem," responds Simon. His mother and sister look at him, look at each other, and collapse into helpless, hooting laughter.
directed by Hal Hartley
starring Thomas Jay Ryan, James
Urbaniak, Parker Posey
opens Friday, theater TBA
Henry Fool is, among other things, a powerful dose of revenge for poets everywhere. Simon does write his poem, a piece of writing so powerful it engenders worldwide debate, even a response from the Pope.
But first, Simon must discover his strange muse and sit down to write. Our hero is a hapless soul, quiet and ill-spoken, a true "simple Simon." Then one day a whirlwind arrives at the house he shares with his mother and sister: Henry Fool, larger than life, clad in the uniform of the bohemian wanderer, complete with grubby suit, hobnailed boots, and lanky, overgrown hair. Henry could have strayed from Dickens, or from Kerouac, or from the coffeehouse down the street. He's a timeless type—isolated, preserved, and pinned like a butterfly for our inspection.
He has the big-mouthed dreams of the bohemian. Silent Simon watches as noisy Henry unpacks his things, which consist mostly of stacks of composition books. In a narrow voice that sounds like flint, Simon asks, "What's that?" "That," answers Henry sonorously, "is my opus.... It's a philosophy. A poetics. A politics, if you will. A literature of protest. A novel of ideas. A pornographic magazine of truly comic-book proportions. It's my confession." Simon stutters to respond, and Henry generously hands him an empty composition book, telling him that any time he's at a loss for words, he should try writing down his thoughts. And so, alone, late at night at the kitchen table, Simon gives birth to his work of dark, garbageman genius. He, and not Henry, turns out to be the real writer.
The film possesses a dozen strengths—strong first-time performances from the two leads, finely drawn characters, a sure visual sense typical of Hartley's earlier work, here combined with an unprecedented narrative sweep. (It turns out that Hartley's last film, the slight and formal Flirt, was an acidic sorbet—here we finally have the main course.) It's also a mystery story, inexorably uncovering the details of Henry Fool's sordid past—a past he mythologizes, in fine Bukowski form, to anyone who'll listen.
But what's lovable about the film is the way it's drunk on language. Hartley has always had a good time with words, but here he's made them both medium and message. This is a film in which language is as carefully considered as in any short story. Henry's first words to Simon are "Get up off your knees," nicely setting the tone for the slightly hostile mentorship Henry proceeds to offer him.
But the movie goes further: It dizzily celebrates the power of words, becoming a kind of fairy tale about the way reading can made us feel. Simon's poem is accidentally left in Mr. Deng's deli, the local hangout. Mr. Deng's daughter picks up the poem, reads, and spontaneously begins to sing. Mr. Deng confronts Simon: "Your poem made my daughter sing!" When Fay reads the poem, she wheels on Simon furiously. "Your poem brought on my period a week and a half early. So everybody just shut up!"
This fantastically powerful poem spawns that least likely modern phenomenon: a poetry renaissance. The kids in the neighborhood take up poetry writing. The school board is up in arms. The publishing world takes notice. Even Camille Paglia, in a cameo as herself, weighs in on Simon Grimm's importance as "an authentically trashy voice." Simon emerges as that mythical thing, the new voice we've all been waiting for, the singer of the song of the regular guy.