We recently got the movie Henry Fool by Hal Hartley from Netflix and both loved it. The premise is pretty standard for a movie about poetry: the title character, who is seemingly a brilliant, experimental poetic exile, discovers a geeky schmoe garbage man, Simon, and gets him to start writing. It shouldn't surprise anyone who knows the form to discover whether the "real poet" turns out to be Henry, who wears a rumpled three-piece suit, talks in a bold dissociative stream of consciousness and knows Wordsworth backwards and forwards, or the shy, reserved Simon. If you have any doubt, the movie clues you in with inspirational music when Simon attacks a marble-front comp book with a stubby pencil, then wakes up the next morning passed out over a book filled from start to finish.
Nevertheless, the movie has plenty of surprises. The scene where Henry accidentally proposes to Simon's slutty sister (played brilliantly as usual by Parker Posey), using the washer to an old refrigerator for a ring and while having an attack of diarrhea, damn near made me pee. But the humor in the movie is mixed with equal parts tragedy, including suicide, spousal abuse, alcoholism and child molestation.
What I really liked about the movie was the way it addresses the desire to be "great." In several places Henry, a drunken ex-con incapable of any kind of responsibility, says that all his failings will seem insignificant once the world sees his long-hidden Confessions. Again, it's no surprise how that turns out. But his statement brings up the feelings that so many people have in striving for artistic greatness.
All of us may love to read about Charlie Parker's heroin- and booze-soaked lecherous exploits. And however much we say otherwise, there is a part of us that tends to believe that his talent wipes all his truly reprehensible misbehavior away. But think about how many junkie lush lechers there have been who, however they might have believed otherwise, didn't turn out to be great artists, or even very good ones? And how many of them thought that it was okay they shot shit like Bird if only they could play like Bird, to reverse the old saying? And what about the rest of us whose lives are much more excusable, but inside believe our true selves can only be justified if it's in an introduction to our part of a Norton anthology?
I wonder, is it true that all of us who strive, successfully or not, for artistic success of some sort, are trying at least in part to excuse our failings and weaknesses? It can't be just me and Henry. But maybe other artists don't have that need.