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Wellspring presents
Surviving Desire (1991)

"Listen pal, you can't waltz in here, use my toaster, and start spouting universal truths without qualification!"
- Henry (Matt Malloy)

Review By: Robert Edwards  
Published: June 12, 2003

Stars: Martin Donovan, Mary Ward
Other Stars: Matt Malloy, Rebecca Nelson
Director: Hal Hartley

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 00h:54m:53s
Release Date: April 09, 2002
UPC: 720917532127
Genre: offbeat


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A A-B-B- B

DVD Review

Hal Hartley's films are like those of no other director, and no other directors' are even remotely like his. In this, his third feature (and barely that, at under an hour in length), he examines the would-be relationship between a college professor and one of his students.

Jude (Martin Donovan), the professor, is tormented by his inability to teach his students in a manner that they see fit. He has spent the last month and a half examining a single paragraph from The Brothers Karamazov, and all of his students are rebelling, except one, Sophie (Mary Ward), who remains attentive to her teacher's incessant questions and self examination. Sophie is fascinated by Jude, and is torn between her desire to start a relationship with him, and her own fears that she will be seen as sleeping with him to improve her grade. Jude uses his pal Henry (Matt Malloy), an amateur philosopher who can't hold down a job, as a sounding board, expressing his concerns and desires, but Henry is more often discouraging than not. Despite their self-doubt, Jude and Sophie move ever-closer to a relationship....

The film is intensely literary, beginning with the characters (literature professor and student) and locations (Sophie and Henry both work in a book store). There are numerous shots of people reading books, or reading quotes from books, and Sophie keeps a journal in which she writes down not only her observations, but also her analysis of Jude. Literary and biblical quotes make up much of the dialogue—not surprisingly, there are references to Hardy's Jude the Obscure, and amusingly, when Henry bumps into Sophie as she leaves Jude's apartment, she denies—three times—that she is his girlfriend.

Hartley's style is unique, and its most salient feature is his nontraditional usage of dialog. Characters are forever speaking in aphorisms, quoting literature, and repeating themselves and others. Often, conversations are at cross-purposes, each character wrapped up in his or her own analysis, and paying little or no attention to the words of their interlocutor—which description might be taken as a description of a film that is heavy-handed and bombastic—but in fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. The seriousness of what is being said is often leavened by giving one character the role of "the pretentious one," whose highfalutin dialog is contrasted with that of the "the base one," who is more concerned with things like beer and toast. In addition, the conversations are usually spoken in a rapid-fire, staccato style, almost monotonically, which mocks the pretentiousness of what is being said. This reviewer finds the whole combination funny and occasionally hilarious, but your mileage may vary.

Visually, Hartley is, in this film at least, more of a traditionalist. Camera placement and movement are dictated more by the characters and their near-incessant conversations, than by any superfluous stylistic tics. This is not to say that film is visually boring—Hartley's framing and compositions are varied and interesting, but those elements are generally in service of the dialogue, and do not call attention to themselves.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: The 4:3 transfer, while colorful, is nothing to write home about. The image is frequently soft, and there is shadow detail lacking. Images generally have a flat and lifeless appearance. The production was originally filmed for TV, so the original image may not have been "movie quality," but the transfer should look better.

Image Transfer Grade: B-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes


Audio Transfer Review: The Dolby 2.0 track is serviceable, but somewhat harsh, with little or no bass. However, the dialogue is always clear. The Dolby 5.1 remix track is actually worse, with voices spread almost equally across the front three channels, making them sound unnatural. Use of the surrounds is very limited, and there is no detectable subwoofer activity at all.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-

 

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 10 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Hal Hartley short Theory of Achievement
  2. Hal Hartley short Ambition
  3. Static promo screen for DVD of The Book of Life
  4. DVD Production Credits
Extras Review: There are two significant extras, both of them short films by Hartley from the same time period as Surviving Desire. The first, Theory of Achievement (1991, 18 mins), in similar in style to Surviving Desire, with a minimal plot involving would-be yuppie Brooklynites as they try to sort out where to live, and whether to abandon the 9-to-5 routine and become artists (one of the characters says "I wanna write songs. Love songs, really beautiful, timeless love songs.... but I can't sing, and I don't know music!"). Hartley's device of having his characters speak in aphorisms is very much in evidence here, as is the endless analysis and quotation. The "action" is punctuated by several amusing accordion songs.

Ambition (1991, 9 mins) has a completely inexplicable plot. The nameless protagonist beats up everyone he meets on his way to work, only to be alternately congratulated and excoriated by those around him when he arrives. Hartley's real concern here is some would-be theory of work—why we do it, what are the obstacles, and how do we become upwardly mobile? Stylistically, the director uses such devices as slow-motion, actors mouthing their dialogue silently, and exaggeratedly artificial fight scenes to add interest to the film.

Unfortunately, the image quality on both shorts is even worse than the main feature. Ambition, especially, exhibits numerous MPEG encoding errors, including backgrounds that should be static, but shift repeatedly in relation to the foreground. It is a shame that Wellspring didn't recognize the importance and rarity of these works, and provide better transfers.

Extras Grade: B

 

Final Comments

Like all of Hartley's films, Surviving Desire is more than a little bit odd. But it is also thought-provoking and often extremely amusing.

 


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