Rebecca Nelson, left, Adrienne Shelly and Martin Donovan in the 1990 movie… (Olive Films )
Once and briefly the brightest prospect in American independent cinema, writer-director Hal Hartley now seems more a forgotten man. Or perhaps a missing link between the indelible eccentricities of Jim Jarmusch's pioneering films and today's more crowded (and more homogeneous) landscape.
Hartley's second film, and perhaps his most emblematic one, 1990's "Trust," is just out on DVD and Blu-ray from Olive Films, 22 years after it won Hartley the screenwriting prize at his old stamping grounds, the Sundance Film Festival.
His first feature, "The Unbelievable Truth," had made a splash — and sparked a minor bidding war — at the previous year's Sundance. A coming-of-age quasi-romance notable for its stylized performances and offbeat rhythms, it instantly established Hartley as a filmmaker with a distinctive voice.
PHOTOS: Hollywood backlot moments
Also shot in the Long Island suburbs, "Trust" refined the template of "The Unbelievable Truth" and paired its lead actress, the late Adrienne Shelly, with Martin Donovan, who would become an axiomatic presence and a kind of alter ego for Hartley.
The opening sequence of "Trust" deftly illustrates Hartley's default mode of off-kilter, absurdist tragicomedy. In a suburban kitchen, a teenage girl (Shelly) applies lipstick and argues with her parents, the camera isolating one of the three, keeping the other two out of frame or in the background. The father reacts to the casually dropped news of the girl's pregnancy by dropping dead of a heart attack.
Hartley's signature is his deadpan dialogue, which often lapses into vaguely philosophical asides, but thanks in part to his cinematographer, Michael Spiller, his early films also share a visual poise and a gift for locating romance and mystery in mundane situations and settings.
Through the early '90s, Hartley worked quickly and with what now seems to be the unguarded confidence of youth. Each new film returned viewers to a familiar cosmos while expanding its horizons ever so slightly. "Simple Men" (1992), a road movie of sorts that added genre-film complications, brought Hartley to the Cannes competition.
The amnesiac thriller "Amateur" (1994) moved into urban settings and, capitalizing on Hartley's popularity in Europe, gave the French star Isabelle Huppert one of her most memorable English-speaking roles as a nun turned pornographer.
Put simply, Hartley's great contribution to independent cinema was his bold use of artifice, a tool that still unnerves most American filmmakers. His movies were an intervention into an indie film scene that often found itself mired in dreary, worthy naturalism. In stripping his neo-screwball comedies of all affect, he somehow made them both graver and funnier.
PHOTOS: Celebrity photos by The Times
It's not hard even now to see why Hartley's first few films, borrowing playfully from the American comic tradition (Sturgess, Keaton) as well as from French masters (Godard, Bresson), inspired a devoted cult. But it was a relatively brief heyday. Quentin Tarantino soon showed up on the scene, inspiring a legion of imitators.
Hartley's films have their descendants, but the oddball rom-coms that followed in his footsteps were rarely more than self-infatuated quirkfests and utterly lacked the purposeful strangeness of a film like "Trust." (As a point of comparison, the next Long Island-set Sundance smash of the '90s was Edward Burns' tepid, thoroughly conventional "The Brothers McMullen.")
Meanwhile, Hartley seemed to be searching for a logical next step. The formalist experiment "Flirt" (1995), which repeats the same story in three languages and three settings (New York, Tokyo, Berlin), made explicit his fondness for repetition. "Henry Fool" (1997) inaugurated a new phase of his career by doing away with one of his defining traits — concision — and striving instead for mock-epic grandiosity.
As Hartley's attention drifted, so did his audience. The films became at once more varied in their ambitions and less persuasive. The Jesus parable "The Book of Life" (1998), the monster movie "No Such Thing" (2001) and "Fay Grim" (2006), a loose sequel to "Henry Fool," have their sporadic charms. But for the most part they suggested that the gestures and devices he once deployed so artfully — flat dialogue, arch slapstick — had hardened into mannerism.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: Lance Armstrong, Oprah and recent TV apologies and confessions
A polymath who often composes his own scores, Hartley has nonetheless worked steadily on his films and on a wide array of projects, dabbling in theater and opera. He spent several years in Berlin researching a Simone Weil biopic and making short films.
Shot upon his return to New York, Hartley's most recent film, the hourlong "Meanwhile," available on iTunes and through Hartley's company Possible Films (possiblefilms.com), represents something of a return to basics.
The story of a multi-tasking renaissance man who traverses the length of Manhattan on an errand, meeting people in need along the way, it's a film about the value of soldiering on — and perhaps a kind of disguised autobiography for its still tireless and restless director.
PHOTOS AND MORE
VIDEO: The making of 'Argo,' 'Les Miz' and more
ENVELOPE: The latest awards buzz
PHOTOS: NC-17 movies: Ratings explained