SURVIVING DESIRE (1991, 53 min) is a comedy about obsessive love from the director Time Magazine called “the smartest new outlaw in the movies.” SURVIVING DESIRE is a bold and playful little tale about a handsome young college professor smitten with a beautiful young female student. It is a swift dissection of male infatuation that is as fierce as it is compassionate.
THEORY OF ACHIEVEMENT (1991, 17 min) and AMBITION (1991, 9 min) are short story-essays about the everyday perils of finding one's place in the world; made - for the most part - with the filmmaker's actual friends as he himself negotiated the bewildering pathways of success and recognition.
UPON REFLECTION: SURVIVING DESIRE (2005, 11 min) is part of a collection of interview films with Hartley and his collaborators. It includes candid talks with Hartley, producer Ted Hope, and actor Martin Donovan.
Diabolically inventive and hilariously non-naturalistic, these films led THE NEW YORK TIMES to admit Hartley is “one of the most industrious and least compromising young artists in America.”
Catalog Number: MC-1086
Length: 53 minutes
DVD Region: 0 (All)
TV System: NTSC
Label: Possible Films
This is a Microcinema Exclusive title.
Program MC-1086 is available for wholesale from Microcinema DVD. Contact info[at]microcinema.com or call at +1-415-447-9750
Program MC-1086 may be licensed for Exhibition.
Films In Compilation
Surviving Desire directed by
Digitally re-mastered for the first time, this early Hartley favorite stars Martin Donovan, Mary Ward, Matt Malloy, and Rebecca Nelson.
2010-05-21Blog Critics By Dusty Somers
Despite how in vogue independent American cinema has become in the past decade, the work of Hal Hartley (Fay Grim) has remained truly under the radar. Perhaps itâ€™s because he actually possesses independent thought and makes films that donâ€™t depend on a vaguely hipster-ish soundtrack or carefully designed character quirks that have become the hallmark of the â€œindieâ€ movement, now all but completely subsidized by major corporations everywhere.
Hartleyâ€™s intense anti-naturalism can be seen in one of his earliest films, Surviving Desire, an hour-long work recently released in a remastered edition by Microcinema International. The filmâ€™s talkiness and exploration of male desire recalls the films of French New Wave master Eric Rohmer, but Hartley is clearly blazing his own trail here.
Despite being shot on 16mm, the film eschews any ragged New Wave-esque visual style, and has a very measured look that could appear cursorily mainstream. But Hartley is working with characters and dialogue that are anything but, achieving an almost hyper-theatricality that transforms nearly every line into a soliloquy â€” in word if not in tone. Hartley turns his characters inside out, using uninhibited honesty to reveal their motivations and to create an off-balance world that thrives on unnatural turns of phrase.
Baring his longing soul at the heart of the film is a college professor named Jude (frequent Hartley collaborator Martin Donovan), whoâ€™s been reviewing a single passage of The Brothers Karamazov with his class for several months. The only student not bursting at the seams with frustration because of it is Sofie (Mary Ward), a dark-haired pixie who Jude admits he is in love with to his friend Henry (Matt Malloy).
Soon, Jude and Sofie begin a whirlwind love affair that quickly reveals his elations and insecurities, and Hartley snappily dissects the characterâ€™s psyche both in dialogue and deadpan surprises, like an impromptu dance number in an alleyway that recalls Godardâ€™s Band of Outsiders.
At a mere 53 minutes long, Surviving Desire doesnâ€™t have much time for pretense, so Hartley strips away the preliminaries and achieves insights that are warmer and more honest because of it. Itâ€™s not a film thatâ€™s lacking for ideas, and yet its running time seems to suit the film perfectly.
The new DVD replaces an old Wellspring release that has since gone out of print. Like that DVD, this one includes two short films Hartley also made in 1991, "Theory of Achievement" (17 minutes) and "Ambition" (9 minutes). New to this release is a 10-minute collection of interviews with Hartley, Donovan, and producer Ted Hope. The remastered image still has a few digital artifacts here and there, but looks to be a fairly accurate translation of the source materials.
2010-05-12Emma Simmonds By Pop Matters
Surviving Desire is, on paper, an underwhelming prospect; a mere 53-minutes long, it began life as a made-for-TV special. However, don’t let its brevity and inauspicious origins put you off. Whether you view it as a televisual gem, a substantial short or masterful mini feature it is worth your time and money – being as it is a key work of the formidably talented Hal Hartley.
Surviving Desire opens brilliantly on an under siege professor, Jude (Hartley regular Martin Donovan), as he reads to his class from The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, “I believe you are sincere and good at heart. If you do not attain happiness, always remember that you are on the right road, and try not to leave it…” A rebellious, swaggering electric guitar score accompanies his lecture. A book flies at Jude, thrown by an unseen hand.
Quick as a flash, he turns on his heel and hurls his chalk back, the soundtrack has the unlikely missile whipping through the air with audibly improbable ferocity; nailing the perpetrator with an almighty thwack. It comically transpires that his braying, seditious class have been infuriatingly stuck on this same paragraph for over a month – they implore him to teach them something, anything. The classroom scene climaxes with Jude flinging a disruptive student aside before being assaulted from the wings—violence which is explicitly played for laughs. So far, so bizarre. Welcome to the Hartleyville USA.
Before 1991, the year in which Surviving Desire appeared, Hal Hartley had directed several shorts and two excellent idiosyncratic features, The Unbelievable Truth (1989) and Trust (1990). Right from the off, Hartley presented a signature style and themes which would then reoccur throughout his work. Surviving Desire, as with the features that came before, is a star-crossed lovers’ drama with an overt absurdist streak. In it Jude attempts to woo his only committed student Sophia (Mary Ward), whilst, as is again characteristic for Hartley heroes, grappling with career dissatisfaction and a larger existential crisis. At one point he frustratingly comments, “shouldn’t knowledge provide solace?”
Those familiar with Hartley’s oeuvre will recognise the familiar traits: the impossibly smart-arse characters, both central and peripheral. Be they academics, those in the service industry or tramps they are, to a man or woman, prone to gnomic philosophising and self- and peer analysis; almost as if speaking with one subversive voice. A coolly existential brand of wisdom pervades every scene and springs from the mouth of every character. In Surviving Desire, after hearing about Jude’s infatuation with Sophia, a barman proffers, “that’s the trouble with us Americans, we always want a tragedy with a happy ending.”
Characters talk about menial tasks with the same dreamy intensity that characterises their discussions of love, literature and philosophy. The mundane and the highbrow are hilariously intertwined within strands of dialogue, as when Jude tells his friend Henry, “You can’t walk in, use my toaster, and start spouting universal truths without qualification.” When Jude (no coincidence of course that his name in itself carries considerable dramatic weight) lies down in the gutter in abject despair, he is interrupted by a man asking for directions. The result is both dryly comic and gives Hartley’s films an intensely soulful, totally unique character.
This shtick means his work exudes both a swaggering air of hipster cool whilst proudly displaying, like a peacock, his considerable smarts. Characters are self-aware enough to mock themselves as they pontificate and there is a deadpan melodrama to the romance. When told that he’ll never survive the liaison with his student Jude answers, “I don’t know I want to.”
Hartley has an almost theatrical rejection of naturalism both in terms of dialogue and narrative. As mentioned above, violence is played for humour and events often take a surreal turn—as when Jude wanders past a band (The Great Outdoors) who have ‘set up shop’ in the street and are playing to a woman, stands giggling while looking at a window above the band. Also, inspired by the first flushes of romantic excitement, Jude performs a West Side Story-esque dance with two random men joining him in absurdly perfect synchronicity.
With regards to his actors and the laconic, too-cool-for-school performances he coaxes from them, Hartley traditionally reminds them less is more. Martin Donovan is perhaps the ultimate Hal Hartley hero—and he is superb here—but Mary Ward, as impish and charming as she is, lacks the edge of some of his other female collaborators. Although Sophia is a typical early Hartley heroine—young, rebellious, beautiful and on a quest to prove herself intellectually – his first major heroine, the late Adrienne Shelly (the radiant star of The Unbelievable Truth and Trust) left a long shadow over all his subsequent collaborations with actresses.
Welcome additions to the package are two short films and a short making-of documentary – ‘Upon Reflection: Surviving Desire’. The short films are ‘Ambition’ (duration nine-minutes) and ‘Theory of Achievement’ (17-minutes). ‘Ambition’ is pretty abstract, whereas ‘Theory of Achievement’ has a reasonably coherent narrative, both deal with issues surrounding the unfulfilling nature of employment.
‘Ambition’ opens with a man who, on impulse, pushes all the dishes off his kitchen table. A friend sidles up behind him as he comments, “No matter what I achieve I always have this irritating sensation of emptiness and futility.” His companion responds comedically, “Oh yeah, I hate that.” On his way to work he has to defend himself against of series of seemingly random attacks, which he does with considerable panache but from then on, although it’s a reasonably entertaining melange of eccentricity, it’s almost impenetrably oddball. The key performers too, for my money, fail to make an adequate impression.
‘Theory of Achievement’ is set in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where a “low rent estate agent” has sublet his girlfriend’s apartment to a feuding couple, much to her chagrin. Various diverse characters descend upon the property and humor and theorizing abounds, particularly with regards to the question of whether what we do for a living defines us. One woman for instance declares, “I’m only a waitress on the outside.” It’s a witty, well-performed glimpse into Hartley’s world.
‘Upon Reflection: Surviving Desire’ is a typically askew documentary, with interviews conducted by Hartley collaborator DJ Mendel. I must say I was a little disappointed with the contributions from Hartley and Martin Donovan as these are very brief and I’ve seen both describe their collaborations more eloquently elsewhere. The best value is producer Ted Hope who gives a sense of the atmosphere on set, with all the cast and crew staying in dorm rooms and cheerfully embracing the budget nature of the production. To ensure everyone stayed on board despite the lack of perks, Hope recounts how he became something of a party planner and even ‘pimp’ for the group.
Hal Hartley specializes in an inspired marriage of the ordinary and the extraordinary; the sublime falling from the mouths of slackers. His films may be an acquired taste but it’s one I’d urge you to indulge because ultimately you’ll find yourself, like his hopelessly romantic characters, tumbling
2010-04-09DVD Talk By Brian Orndorf
In the early 1990s, I happened upon Hal Hartley's "Trust" on the shelf of my local video store. An impulse rental due to a fraudulent synopsis provided by the box-art design folks at Republic Pictures, finding "Trust" was pure serendipity, nudging me to investigate the curious, colorful world of independent film, back when the label meant bed sheet exhibition and a few bloodstains on the print. It brought about the Hal Hartley phase of my movie appreciation quest, which was stoked further by the offbeat short film, "Surviving Desire."
An American Playhouse production, "Surviving Desire" furthered Hartley's fascination with the cold mechanics of love, dreaming up a relationship between a caustic, questioning college professor named Jude (Martin Donovan) and his student Sophia (Mary Ward), an inquisitive, forward bookstore clerk who craves a romantic connection. Together they banter, trade philosophies, and work out their insecurities on the perilous path toward what they believe is love.
Experimental in structure, but operating from a pure Hartley blueprint, "Surviving Desire" represents the filmmaker massaging his droll twitches between his triumphant work on "Trust" and the equally intoxicating pull of 1992's "Simple Men." Running only 50 minutes in length, the picture sprints through this game of askew courtship at top speed, skillfully interpreting Hartley's metronome-tight dialogue as a verbal dance between two intellectuals attempting to suppress their magnetic attraction.
To Hartley, love is impossibly physical, soulfully demanding, and often embarrassingly mechanical (Rebecca Nelson appears as a homeless woman asking strangers to marry her), and the emotion provides the proper jolt of agitation as Jude and Sophia tango briefly with their paralyzing uncertainties. The film also erects a sturdy literary foundation, with an opening and closing centered on discussions of Dostoevsky, while the rest of the picture roots itself in written confessions and verbal jousting, communicated expertly by the porcelain Ward and Hartley stalwart Donovan.
The full frame presentation is perhaps the best the film has looked to date, with a strong celluloid feel to the image, providing strong grain appearance and pronounced colors. It's a no-budget film made for public television, so the restoration effort here is solid for a product time typically washes away, with only a few instances of print damage.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 track is a terrific mono effort, preserving the delicate frontal movement of the picture, while keeping specialized sounds alive to attain the appropriate feel of Hartley's vision. Music cues have a wonderful clarity, with a mid-movie outdoor performance sequence sustaining the streetwise ambiance.
"Upon Reflection: 'Surviving Desire'" (11:08) corrals interviews from 2005 with Hal Hartley, Martin Donovan, and producer Ted Hope, who discuss artistic intent, creative inspirations, and the pain of keeping a crew together with zero money to spread around. It's amusing to see this group pulled back together, thought the absence of Mary Ward is felt.
Also included are two Hartley short films, "Ambition" (8:31) and "Theory of Achievement" (17:06), both from 1991.
Love heals, but it also harms. "Surviving Desire" handles the spectrum of troubling feelings with a deadpan delivery, but it remains insightful in an academic manner, reflecting Hartley's passion for the tense interplay of characters unable to crack the puzzle of human interaction. A near-silent dance sequence, cameo by the Hub Moore and The Great Outdoors, and a closer scored to the spare yearn of "Rue Des Jours" only help to process the developing greatness of Hal Hartley and his inspired cinematic voice.
2010-03-11The Spinning Image By Daniel Auty
Of all the American indie directors who flourished during the 1980s – Jim Jarmusch, Wayne Wang, Whit Stillman – Hal Hartley is the only one not to have quite made it to the premiere league in terms of either breaking into the mainstream completely (Wang) or attracting A-list stars to appear at B-list prices (Jarmusch). Hartley has continued to work with a revolving ensemble of actors, and if the elliptical, overtly theatrical tone of his relationship comedies has kept audiences at bay, the best of his work remains as funny and wise as any of his peers.
Such is the case with Surviving Desire, a perfectly formed 60-minute film detailing the relationship between misanthropic college professor Jude (Martin Donovan, Hartley’s favourite leading man) and Sofie (Mary B. Ward), a beautiful student in one of his English literature classes. Sofie is the only member of his class not to be driven mad by Jude’s insistence on spending hour after hour on a single passage from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov; she finds Jude somehow ‘tragic’ and is inspired to write stories about him. And yet, as their friendship becomes something more, she refuses to publicly acknowledge it, believing that others will interpret it as an attempt on her part to boost her grades.
Nothing outward is remotely realistic in Surviving Desire; the characters wear their hearts on their melodramatic sleeves (“If you never see me again will you be sad?” Sofie asks Jude, “Will you be tortured by the memory of having been with me? Will you become obsessed? Will you be maudlin? And anti-social? Will you get into fights?”), Donovan performs a wonderful silent dance routine in the street with two passers-by after receiving his first kiss from Sofie, while Jude’s best friend Henry (Matt Malloy) ends up engaged to an attractive homeless woman (Merritt Nelson) after a particularly drunken night out. And yet there is something quite moving about Jude’s determination to overcome the obstacles thrown his way in his pursuit of Sofie. She is far more attracted to the concept of a relationship and how it will shape her as a person than the relationship itself, while the sudden discovery of love in his life finally gives Jude something to actually care about.
The literary theme is carried throughout, Jude coming to the realisation he is in love by breaking down the constituent parts of his feelings like he would a novel in his class. He spends much of the day when not teaching reading in the bookshop Sofie works in, but the fact that none of the solutions he seeks can be found inside a book is what causes a suppressed rage to finally bubble to the surface.
If this all sounds heavy going, it’s really not, because although the themes are serious, it is also one of Hartley’s warmest and funniest films, especially when compared to latter efforts like the overtly-arch Amateur and Henry Fool. The performances are pitched perfectly, it’s crisply shot in primary colours by Hartley’s regular DP Michael Spiller, and Hartley himself provides a shimmering guitar/synth score. Best line: “Listen pal, you can’t waltz in here, use my toaster, and start spouting universal truths without qualification!”
2010-03-11Filmbug By Bret Fetzer
Surviving Desire is actually three short films, two of which--"Theory of Achievement" and "Ambition"--demonstrate writer-director Hal Hartley at his most quirky and abstract. They consist mostly of a series of dialogues, presented out of context, about things like Brooklyn real estate, nonlinear art, and contrasting male and female approaches to suicide. Fans of Hartley will enjoy them; newcomers will probably find them baffling. The third film, however--"Surviving Desire," from which the collection takes its title--is one of the most charming pieces Hartley has made. This hour-long story follows Jude (Martin Donovan), a college teacher obsessed with a single paragraph from The Brothers Karamazov, who's fallen in love with Sofie (Mary Ward), one of his students who's writing a short story about him. As the romance plays itself out, philosophical conversations turn into metaphysical Abbott and Costello routines, Jude breaks into spontaneous dance, a rock band in the street serenades a woman in her apartment window--and gradually a rueful and whimsical sense of life and love rises out of Hartley's erratic rhythms. Hartley is an idiosyncratic filmmaker who's not to everyone's taste; this short film is probably an ideal introduction to his work. Some of his movies seem to be working too hard for a sense of poetry and end up feeling stilted, but in "Surviving Desire" all of Hartley's devices take flight.
From the quiet and thoughtful to the loud and ridiculous, this arresting collection of short work by Hal Hartley reveals the tireless experimentation, curiosity, and playfulness that lies behind his many feature films, like The Unbelievable Truth,... more >
An ambitious young actress comes to Berlin to convince an American ex-pat filmmaker she must be his next muse ... Hartley's conscientious assistant in Berlin receives weekly letters from her boss and sends him the books he needs as he struggles in... more >