In 2009, Elizabeth Gilbert, author of “Eat Pray Love”, gave a TED talk about the relationship between artist and artistry. She made reference to a non-corporeal entity that disappears as quickly as it reappears, inspiring creativity and then holding it captive, only to release it later at sporadic intervals. It is a provocateur, a savior, a muse; it is elusive and creative and it is genius. In the life of Simon Grim, Henry Fool is that genius.
In observing the entirety of Hal Hartley’s filmography, one immediately notices that his work is steeped in depravity. More specifically, his characters wallow in it. Protagonist Simon Grim, played by James Urbaniak, is a garbageman. The film begins with him drinking a Coke-a-Cola while watching strangers have sex. He is a man who projectile-vomits on a woman at the mere mention of her anatomy, a man who gets a pot of boiling water thrown on his back by his sister in his own home. Simon is pathetic, but he is an artistic genius. Or so says Henry Fool (theater veteran Thomas Jay Ryan), who one day appears out of thin air and enters Simon’s life. He encourages Simon to write and publish his poetry, and although the audience is never fed a word of it, we hear that it is great. Henry Fool is not in every frame of the film, but his presence is always felt—even when he’s not around. He says exactly what’s on his mind and has contemplative thoughts about everything—even on issues that don’t concern him at all. He has no filter, and he has done terrible things. He has a conscious, but it is difficult to navigate. Some hate him, some love him, but everyone has an opinion about him. He is a living, breathing piece of art, yet he’s blissfully unaware of it.
What likens Henry Fool, the character, to Gilbert’s lecture on creative genius is his lack of responsibility. Gilbert theorizes the stereotype of the starving, disillusioned artist is indeed surmountable. By removing a sense of responsibility from the act of creating art, we become less bound to the world’s reception of it and more open to expressing our thoughts freely, which is, to be fair, the artist’s only job.
Thankfully, Hartley does not throw around metaphors passively, untethered to structure or story. Just as Henry Fool becomes the catalyst of Simon’s life, he alters the worlds of everyone else in the film. Simon’s sister Fay, played riotously and effortlessly by Parker Posey, begins a romantic relationship with Henry that leads to a literal blending of the Fools and the Grims. Additionally, Simon and Fay’s mentally ill mother weaves in and out of the story, always omnipresent much like Henry. What complicates the relationship between Simon and Henry is that Henry is not just the force behind Simon’s creative endeavors. He has a life as well and his own missions to complete that occasionally don’t line up with Simon’s. This extended characterization is what makes Hartley’s world so compelling to observe, of course, but it also poses an important question about the artist and his art: what happens when our creations feel unfamiliar to us? We know when we have created something, but does that always mean we own it? Or are we a vessel through which something so important and so beyond us can use to articulate itself? This brings the topic of art into a metaphysical plane that Hartley may or may not even be alluding to, yet seems so entrenched in his work.
Hartley doesn’t just put this explicit metaphor out into the world and let it roam free. He gives it a history, a life, a purpose beyond inspiring the creativity of an (otherwise forgettable) man. Rather than setting up Henry as merely a foil to Simon Grim, a much more dangerous relationship develops. Who does the audience want to succeed—the everyday man, or his genius? What is of more value in this world—humanity or art? HENRY FOOL doesn’t represent just that side of one’s self that can produce great art; it also represents the mounds of the population who criticize it. Perhaps the reason Simon’s poetry is never glimpsed on screen is because the content is irrelevant—Hartley instead seems to want to make a statement on critics and their merits; to let art be art without judgment. The juxtaposition of private genius versus public opinion, of expectation versus reality, is a pivotal aspect of Hartley’s film and filmography, and one that makes HENRY FOOL so fascinating to contemplate.