Simon Grim is taciturn garbage man supporting and living with his depressive mother and slutty sister, largely as the subject of their contempt, in a run-down neighbourhood of Queens, New York. He is constantly exposed to the lower qualities of human existence, even contributing to them in his own small way, seemingly destined to add nothing to the world but another meaningless, vaguely squalid life story – until he encounters Henry Fool, a learned scoundrel and unpublished author of his own, too scandalous to be read, life story… his “Confession”.
Moving into the Grim family’s basement, Henry is expansive, indulgent, immoral and lyrical, like nothing else in Simon’s life. Henry overtly seeks to inspire Simon, to mould him in his own image; he encourages his new tight-lipped friend to express himself, on paper if nothing else, holding his own self up as the example to aspire to. When Simon does begin to write, Henry quickly recognises the remarkable potential his impressionable student has, unskilled and rough though his work may be. He needs a guiding hand, that of someone who truly knows what it is to suffer for an art too potent for the ordinary man and short-sighted publishers to accept.
Henry is a man of wide and wild appetites, Simon far less so; but when one of Simon’s past indiscretions sees him beaten up by a local thug Henry immediately comes to his aid, abandoning several sheets of Simon’s poetry half edited; they are found by the daughter of the local coffee shop owner and she is immediately and profoundly moved by what she reads, pinning them up for others to see. Some people are horrified, others powerfully touched; but Simon continues to write, oblivious, while Henry – ever the explosive catalyst – continues to flaunt his challenging and often selfish perspectives on life in the face of all and sundry, usually for the worse but sometimes, as with Simon, doing a little good as well.
Then there comes a turning point. When Simon’s poetry really breaks into the public consciousness the cries of scandal quickly move from local to national to international level, and while no-one at the top knows what to make of his work one thing quickly becomes clear – whatever its artistic merits, or lack thereof, it has monetary value. Simon’s life has changed radically in little more than the blink of an eye and now it is on the verge of changing still more. Now he has a chance to repay his mentor, to use his growing influence to expose Henry’s masterpiece to the world at last… if Henry will let him read it…
I first saw Henry Fool in 2000, sometime after beginning my studies as a screenwriter (but not for that reason), and as a film student the first thing I noticed and found particularly interesting was that Hal Hartley only credited himself as the producer, even though so far as I know he wrote and directed it as well. Well, considerably before I finished my studies I had come to the healthy realisation that being a director wasn’t the big deal it is cracked up to be, that writing and/or producing were probably where it was all really at; but I was more immediately struck by how much I enjoyed this oddity.
Henry Fool is a strange film, but in my opinion it works. It is filled with abrasively authentic characters; one in particular makes an art of dispensing both nuggets of clichéd wisdom and self aggrandising indecency without balking himself or the audience. The soundtrack is chirpy and portentous by turns, while the visual style is functional and yet occasionally has a stylised, even ritual quality – it seems Hartley has a signature move, used at least three times here and I understand in other films of his.
There is a weird ambition in this story; it gradually breaks out of what should be simple and limited boundaries to present something almost unbelievably unlikely, but it does it in a rather believable way. There is a pleasing circularity to the fates of all involved, even if they don’t necessarily get what they deserve. It also has maybe my favourite ending of any film. The first time I saw it I thought, perfect, and having just recently watched it again I still think so. I can’t say that Henry Fool will be to everyone’s taste, much like Simon Grim’s poetry, but it remains inspiring to me even if it only pisses you off.