What's in a Name?

Hal Hartley has a fine name, a bright exhalation of a name, prancingly rhythmic, mildly heroic, suggestive of things boyish, airy, lyrical. A better name, perhaps, for an athlete -- a high jumper or a thrower of javelins -- than a filmmaker, but there we are: The world is full of mismatches.

Also full of mismatches is Hartley's new film, No Such Thing, in which monster fable and social satire are mingled to mutual confusion and distress. On a sea-sucked rock in Iceland lives the Monster (Robert John Burke), immortally bored and alcoholically foul-mouthed. Metaphysically he's finished, his once-vital function reduced to swipes of tired carnage -- a pile of bones, a blurt of flame, the occasional flattened Icelander -- and worn-out monologues: "I'm not the monster I used to be...," "The time it takes to kill these idiots is depressing...," and so on. There he sits with his whiskey bottle, a neutered Grendel, drably bitchy, no horror left except the horror of being alive forever.

Blearily he wastes a visiting U.S. camera crew, thus provoking a visit from Beatrice (Sarah Polley), cub reporter, ingenue, and bride-to-be of one of the victims. En route to the Monster's crag, Beatrice survives a plane crash at sea, a million-to-one anaesthetic-free spinal operation, some scenes with Julie Christie, and the treachery of local peasants. She is a child of miracles and she surmounts these things, we are given to believe, because of her sweet nature; it is grace -- grace! -- that lifts her through calamity, a skirt-inflating gust of saintliness. Finally she confronts the beast, the killer of her beloved but -- in her innocence -- sees only his pain, his indestructible anguish outliving the world. She vows to help him find the rogue scientist Dr. Artaud, the one man who can put him out of his misery. (Another mismatched name, this one clanging with botched echoes. Antonin Artaud? R2-D2?) Beatrice and the Monster travel to New York, where amid scenes of decadence and imperial entropy -- Beatrice inexplicably turns into a rubber-trussed slut, toting a dildoesque lover called Rocco or Geraldo -- it is discovered that the Monster is (sigh) "allergic to information." Beastly New Yorkers urinate on him, the savior Artaud appears, waffling and goggling through inch-thick lenses, and -- none too soon -- the film gropes to its conclusion.

No Such Thing is perfectly watchable. The Monster himself -- when he keeps his mouth shut -- is a nice piece of work, broken-horned and homeless looking, one greased hank of hair coming down over his face in proper homage to horror-rockers The Misfits. And the scenes filmed in Iceland have an appealing saltiness: The landscape is genuinely epic, a sharp lit elemental war, and the throaty, untranslated utterances of the natives are easier on the ear than some of the lines in English.

With No Such Thing Hartley is posing some heavy questions about the media, about science, about the place of the monstrous and the mysterious in our culture. He's not actually asking these questions, but he is posing them, daintily indicating their general shape and whereabouts with a speculative forefinger. What's missing is keenness, insight, some kind of edge. The figure, for example, of Beatrice's boss is a bleached and chain-smoking newsroom harridan (played by Helen Mirren) who says things such as "People! We live in a world of bad news!" in a fake American accent. In the year 2002 this isn't reality-piercing satire, it's weak burlesque. It's twee. "The city of New York has just been bought by a Hollywood studio!" Death by coziness is the true horror, death by soft comedy.

Continuing with our theme of names, it would be hard to find a more art house-ponderous, glumly literary title for a film than The Safety Of Objects. No, I'm wrong: In 1997 Bart Freundlich made a film called The Myth Of Fingerprints. Titles like this, taken on their own, are literally meaningless (unlike, say, Rollerball or Dude, Where's My Car?): All they express is the demand of their film to be sensitively watched. And sensitivity is promised in return. Not excitement, not entertainment, but two quality hours to leave you tingling with middlebrow empathy. So The Safety Of Objects, like The Myth Of Fingerprints before it, is accordingly well-intentioned, well-performed, dramatically unified, loaded with dark truth, and tastefully free of thrills. You can blame A.M. Homes for the title (the movie is based on her book of short stories) but there her responsibility pretty much ends. That's because writer-cum-director Rose Troche has made very free with the original material, telescoping five or six of Homes' stories into one complicated narrative, eliding ideas and images, bouncing characters across their plotlines and forcing them to say hello to one another. Homes's story "Esther in the Night" is the centerpiece: a teenage son in a coma, a mother whose grief holds her alongside him in suspended animation. Esther is played by Glenn Close -- fierce, stately, somewhat hypnotized -- and her movement toward painful resolution is the film's weightiest dynamic. The comatose Paul, bleeping in his bedroom and poignantly visible from the windows of other bedrooms, is the bad conscience of Homes's (or Troche's) characters, all of whom are wrestling with numbness, spirit cramp, and arrested feeling. A couple of houses away a boy is in love with his sister's Barbie doll -- one of those dramatic ideas that is either mordantly now or too trivial to consider, depending on your age, gender, class, and what you had for lunch.

A good deal of screenwriterly carpentry -- some serious lathing and bashing -- is necessary to make all the episodes cohere, but Troche pulls it off. And she has her precedents. Jesus' Son was a similar project, a druggy impasto of several stories by Denis Johnson. Before that, of course, there was Short Cuts, from the stories of Raymond Carver. It seems to be some part of the filmmaking impulse, this desire to swirl up the fragments into a symphonic whole. At the end of The Safety Of Objects, Troche gathers her exhausted characters round a picnic table and subjects them to an emotive post-grunge ballad while the camera ascends, pregnant and forgiving, to a God's-eye view of the homes and gardens, suburbia, America, life itself. And if your inclination is to be sensitive, you'll feel it all.

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