Saturday, January 11, 2014

Trying to Believe the Unbelievable Truth

No one made me believe in the power of the nuclear disarmament movement more than Audry Hugo, the lead character of director Hal Hartley's 1989 movie The Unbelievable Truth. For Ms. Hugo was not just content to echo the latest propaganda about the threat of a nuclear war. She was obsessed with it the way fundamentalist Christians are obsessed with the Rapture. Indeed, given the way she was always hearing bombs that no one else seemed to hear and reciting nightmarish scenarios of post-nuclear destruction the way some girls recite nursery rhymes, she made the average Christian who was obsessed with the End Times seem like a mere slacker.

And yet Audry was believable in a way that most characters in anti-bomb movies were not. For example, I do not remember being particularly moved by the Ally Sheedy character in WarGames or nor by any of the characters in The Day After. I did not wish them ill but I do not remember feeling especially concerned about their fate, especially since they were so obviously walking propaganda devices.

However, I do remember being moved by the character of Audry Hugo -- perhaps, because, unlike most such characters, Ms. Hugo was not just mechanically reciting lines from a Hollywood script designed to make us fear the latest right-wing evil. She was actually living her emotions from the moment she got up to the moment she went to bed. And because Ms. Hugo believed what she was saying so passionately, so did I.

Of course, there was much more to The Unbelievable Truth than just Ms. Hugo. There were also a mysterious Man in Black, an obnoxious photographer, a small town mechanic (Audry's father, natch) who was obsessed with money, and a waitress named Pearl who knew far more than she let on. Nor was the movie just about nuclear war. Indeed, Hartley aimed at a number of subjects including small town life and the fashion industry. At times Hartley seemed to be deliberately defying his audience to stick with the movie by including such cinematic gimmicks as having his lead actress Adrienne Shelly (the woman who played Ms. Hugo) deliver her lines in a potentially annoying deadpan style. And yet despite such gimmicks, I found the movie to be very watchable and at times, visually interesting.

For example, one of the more pleasant scenes in this movie happened after Audry and Pearl left a local birthday party to take a night time ride on Audry's bike. The two women chatted with each other but no sounds were heard. Instead we just saw Audry and Pearl smiling and the whole scene was shot in a way that indicated something special was happening. Yet by the standards of most movies, that bike ride was just an ordinary event. Of course, by the next day, Audry and Pearl were still hanging out together until the inevitable happened and Audry started thinking about bombs again. But nothing more dramatic than conversation actually happened within the scene itself and any melodrama to be found would occur within later scenes. Anyway, I rarely see scenes like that bike ride in movies nowadays and it is especially rare to see them in a self-proclaimed social satire like The Unbelievable Truth, where characters like Audry and Pearl are more often treated like objects of ridicule than actual people.

Then again, it seemed obvious to me that director Hal Hartley was not interested in making fun of Pearl and Audry but in helping us in the audience to understand and appreciate them. I also saw a lot of religious symbolism in The Unbelievable Truth starting from the above-mentioned man in black to a backyard swimming pool that could easily have doubled as an outdoor baptismal font. There was even a brief speech on the nature of truth that could have been pretentious but was not.

If The Unbelievable Truth had one flaw, it was that its conclusion was not quite as imaginative as its beginning, and you could be forgiven if you wished that Hartley had found a more original way to wrap things up. Indeed, if you are looking for an especially suspenseful climax, you might want to watch another movie.

Then again The Unbelievable Truth has lingered on in my memory long after more popular films had passed out of it, so I would like to think that there is something good to say about it. Besides, I always thought that it said something good about Hartley that he was not content to end the movie with the traditional happy ending, but rather a more ambiguous finale that hinted that Ms. Hugo was always going to be hearing bombs, no matter how many problems got resolved in her personal life. And indeed, if Ms. Hugo existed in real life, she might be still hearing bombs today.

But let's not think about that right now. Let's just lie here -- and not think about that.

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