' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Unbelievable Truth (1989)

Friday, November 10, 2023

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Unbelievable Truth (1989)

“The Unbelievable Truth” of Hal Hartley’s indie debut, released in 1989, at the forefront of the Great Indie Boom of the 90s, concerns black-clad auto mechanic Josh’s (Robert Burke) stint in prison prior to returning to his sleepy Long Island hometown as the movie opens. That reason is eventually elucidated, though it is figuratively not quite what it seems as much as literally, more evocative of how Hartley has fun with the nature of such character confessions, even essentially diffusing its ostensible impact by movie’s end. No, the plot here, in which Josh falls in love with Audry (Adrienne Shelly), daughter of the owner of the auto body shop where he gets a job, might as well be a chalk outline as Hartley proves more interested in coloring between those lines, deploying form to convey his unbelievable truth. Though the overall air can feel reminiscent of David Lynch, “The Unbelievable Truth” is less like a dream state, as its Long Island locations suggest, often just homes of Hartley’s own friends and family, cultivating in an unexpectedly lived-in feel juxtaposed against fairytale elements and surreal sort of comedy. Shelly effortlessly embodies these dual tones in her performance, seeming to hold anhedonia in one hand and apathy in the other, taking that comic introductory scene of “Annie Hall” in which young Alvy becomes morose upon learning that the end of everything is inevitable but inflating it to the level of grand romantic tragicomedy, living out the Bard of Bloomington’s observation that sometimes life is just too ridiculous to live.

Nothing, though, encapsulates Hartley’s unique tone like his dialogue. Perhaps that’s because the writer/director has said he started by writing only words, no directions, no action, as if everything on screen, then, was rendered in the image of its patter. This dialogue, how do I describe it, is arch and intelligent and highly stylized, like screwball patter, but because of the archness like screwball patter that’s flat, without the fizz. More than that, though, while the dialogue does not sound like real life, per se, it reflects real life, or presents a heightened version of it, in both the transactional nature of human, nay, American life and the way people tend to talk past one another, at cross purposes, both of which might sound familiar in our current world, and is why despite the Cold War setting, “The Unbelievable Truth” all these years later still feels unbelievably alive, and urgent. 

Audry: “I told my parents I quit my job at Burger World.” 
Gary: “You know, things are really looking up for me, Audry.” 
Audry: “The school psychologist says I’m apathetic.” 
Gary: “The whole world out there in front of me and I’m ready for it.” 
Audry: “I told him about the holes in the ozone layer and he said he didn’t believe me.” 
Gary: “A guy like me can go far and that's exactly what I plan to do.” 
Audry: “Thousands of people across eastern Europe still experiencing lung complications because of Chernobyl and he's telling me how these should be the happiest years of my life.”

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