Sunday, December 09, 2007

Ethan Hawke’s Confessional: The Hottest State
“Love consists of this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.
The future enters into us, in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens.”

Written and directed by Ethan Hawke, and based on Hawke’s (I presume) autobiographical novel of the same name, The Hottest State is an intensely personal movie. Yet unlike, say, Woody Allen’s autobiographical films (Annie Hall, Stardust Memories, Husbands and Wives), Hawke’s personality doesn’t flood his material. Hawke is quite casual about baring his soul to us, and audiences may not be aware how deeply he takes them into his psyche. But he holds nothing back. The film recounts a brief, magical love affair between 20-year-old William (Mark Webber), a Texan living in New York, and Sara (Catalina Sandino Moreno), a beautiful Mexican who has moved to the city to pursue her singing career. Working closely with his actors and crew, Hawke uses simple, unassuming brush strokes to communicate the joy and misery—and the complexities—of romantic love. The film unfolds with an easy spontaneity that is both engaging and faintly ominous (we know where it’s heading because William informs us in voice-over). William’s trouble is that he has fallen in love—as my own attempt at autobiographical romance had it—with “a force of evil,” with unfathomable femininity.
In fact, The Hottest State is everything I wanted Beauty Fool to be but wasn’t. It shows the futility of romantic desire without ever opting for self-pity or easy cynicism. Hawke imbues the film with the wisdom and acceptance of a broken heart made stronger and freer by the breakage.
The film has weaknesses. The way Sara makes explicit the lessons she hopes William will learn—as a result of her breaking up with him—makes her seems shallow, callous, but also slightly unbelievable as a character. Sara is beautiful and elusive; she is destructive and cruel to William without even trying, simply by being herself. Unattainable, unpredictable, utterly unknowable, she is everything a woman is obliged by her nature to be. But we are never given any real clue as to why she turns cold on William, and when she tells him that their time together was the best of her life, it’s hard to believe it, because the remark flies so utterly in the face of her decision to cruelly dump him. Yet clearly Hawke means for us to believe her, and we have seen how blissfully happy William and Sara were together in Mexico. But why it all went wrong is never made clear, and because of this, Sara seems less than fully realized as a character. We get a one-sided view of her, created perhaps by someone who never really understood why she had to leave. To his credit, Hawke couldn’t or didn’t want to invent a reason, so he leaves it open, vague, and to this extent the film may almost be too honest, too painful, for viewers.
For my part, the film opened wounds I didn’t especially want opened. Maybe that was because Hawke’s experience of heartbreak is unusually similar to my own, but I think it’s more because the film is so faithful to his own experience that it gets at something universal, it cuts all the way to the bone. As a result, it may stir feelings we’d rather not have to deal with, ones we’d hoped we’d put to rest. I can’t think of another romantic film that manages to be this painful, this heartfelt, without being sentimental. Partly this is because Hawke focuses less on the sadness of watching a great love die than on the horror and incomprehensibility of it.
The film is a little soft around the edges. Some of the dialogue (particularly between William and his mother, played by Laura Linney, and in the crucial scene with William’s father, played by Hawke) may be a little too pat. We’re aware of Hawke’s limitations as a writer here, of his putting words into the characters’ mouths instead of letting them speak for themselves (which is the problem with Sara’s last few scenes). But considering what Hawke is attempting here—adapting his own novel, directing it, and playing a key role—it’s an astonishingly assured work. Although it’s raw and almost nakedly personal, there’s nothing amateurish about it. Hawke’s handling of his actors is superb, and just about every scene resonates, rings bells of recognition. In scene after scene, Hawke seems to get precisely what he is after. His use of the soundtrack (with songs written by Jesse Harris), the free-form editing, overlapping scenes, voice-over, the rich, sensuous colors and his knack for placing the camera just where it needs to be, is all remarkably assured, making this probably the most auspicious debut from a writer-director since Sean Penn’s Indian Runner. The Hottest State is a wonderful film and I felt richer for having seen it; it deserves a wider audience, because so far as I know it did little business and got luke-warm notices—it looks unlikely to find a distributor, in fact, meaning besides film festivals, the only place you’ll see it is at your local DVD store. Another precious gem slips under the radar. With all the dreck we get inflicted upon us as “entertainment,” it’s doubly tragic—and infuriating—when we are denied the real quality stuff out there. It’s enough for a filmmaker to want to find another line of business.
Like Penn, Hawke possesses an authentic artistic sensibility, and with any luck he could become a major filmmaker. He’s so confident of getting to the truth of a scene that he evokes emotions without even trying. The film has a raw honesty to it, and yet it never seems self-indulgent or narcissistic. It’s confessional in the best sense, as if getting these experiences down (in the novel, which I haven’t read, and by making the film) was essential to Hawke, for his own peace of mind. It comes from the place that all works of art come from: by sharing his pain and confusion with us, Hawke appears to be coming to terms with his past, reducing its hold over him. The film has urgency and poignancy, it feels essential, torn from the heart. I can’t think of another film that conveys the agony of heartbreak and the rite of passage it entails as completely and as powerfully as this. It has its very own ache. Hawke’s not just a gifted filmmaker, he’s a natural-born poet.

Jake Horsley, © 2007

1 comment:

Hurlyburly said...


I haven't seen this but this is really of no surprise to me what-so-ever. Before Sunrise & Before sunset in which Hawke was directly involved with Richard Linklater are probably two of the most amazingly romantic and beautiful films ever made.

After reading your other verbal assault on Woody Allen and Match Point (which I thought was pretty justified actually) you are correct to point out Ethan's more subtle ability to convey his art.

Hawke was actually performing HurlyBurly in New York when I was living out there and I never got around to seeing it, such a big regret of mine! Did get to see Chaz Pallminterri do his one man show of Bronx Tale though a few years later though...