TRUST: UNDER THE LIGHT OF THE TV SCREEN
Never was there an invention that was so publicly and paradoxically both loved and
reviled as the television set. Especially in the world of intellectualist culture, the mass
amount of information and entertainment available through the advent of TV - a concrete threat to traditional forms of media and expression - sparked waves of fearful retaliation in the literary, cinematic, and even musical spheres. Nevertheless, television sets soon found their way into almost every household capable of purchasing one, often infiltrating the homes of the very ‘intellectuals’ who have been decrying them. That’s the simple, short version of the story, at least. Move now to Hal Hartley’s Trust (1990), a film often marked for its off-beat, absurdist writing style and forthright almost-romance. It really is superb: atmospheric and just the right amount of odd, with some incredibly compelling drama and moving performances
from the wonderful Adrienne Shelly and Martin Donovan alike. Plus, it contains one of the coolest fucking movie lines ever: “Family’s like a gun.
You point it in the wrong direction,
you’re gonna kill somebody.” Trust me (a-ha), it’s a thousand times better in context.What intrigued me most about the work, however, was its bold treatment of (surprise) television, which from the first few minutes is made the subject of deep hatred from one of the film’s main leads, Matthew. Your classic brooding intellectual, Matthew is all trench coats and cigarettes and nondescript books on Western philosophy, a walking cliché of the modern era. And yes, he despises TVs with his entire being: despite his unmatched genius when it comes to electronics repair, he absolutely refuses to fix the mass-produced, cheaply-made television sets his boss keeps bringing to him, preferring more analog technologies instead.At first sight, it’s a classic modernist read of this new technology.
Nonetheless, it’s important to note how unpleasant of a character Matthew truly is; he may have his charm and an arguable redemption, but he is still an anti-hero in the strongest sense of the term.
That is to say that the coarse modernist viewpoint he embodies isn’t presented as objective fact, contained instead within the context of an extremely fallible character. Even more interesting, however, is the television’s function within the film’s setting, with the ever-present invention existing just off-screen for a majority of the film’s scenes. Characters caught in dead-end domesticity are constantly watching TV, gazing blankly off-
screen throughout monotonous conversations that reveal the prescribed nature of their housewifery or, just occasionally, husbandry/fatherhood. Even when a television set isn’t explicitly present, Hartley borrows from the Theater of the Absurd to turn remaining scenes into dead-eyed monologues reminiscent of Waiting for Godot, with characters stubbornly staring off camera as they contemplate their troubles; in fact, rarely do characters make eye-
contact at all in the film, preferring to look anywhere else instead. Though not explicitly
indicated in the context of every single scene, these thematic and visual ties imply that the influence of the television set is never far, offering characters somewhere else to direct their gaze and attention.
You’ll notice the brief mention(s) of domesticity throughout here, and I wanted to draw special attention to them. With a narrative already dedicated to spearing the ‘80s construct of the latent Reaganite household, the distracting powers of this film’s ever-present TV gain a new edge in soothing (and thus reaffirming) the pains of unhappy
domestic existence. One-by-one, nearly every single side character drowns their sorrows in
the blue light of the TV screen: troubled relationship with your son? Watch some TV.
Childless marriage has you feeling empty? Check the news. Loveless divorce left you ravaged? Switch the channel; maybe something good will be on. Is the TV directly to fault for any of these things? Of course not; it’s a hunk of (cheap, mass-produced) metal and plastic. But is it still related? Yeah. Fucking hell, yeah. This union between post-WW2 absurdism and the rise of escapist TV-watching is, perhaps, Hartley’s greatest element of genius present in the film. Not only is this an uncommon, surprising union, it’s one that provides us with some resounding thematic conclusions: the modernist viewpoint offered by Matthew may be flawed, but its also nestled within the absurdist disaffection of post-war America and the complacency offered by mass-produced media, both of which resound in our notions of domesticity.
The argument is so much more complex than simply “TV bad,” which, sure, may not seem like that radical of a statement to make, but too many artworks refuse to make it anyways. Too many artworks, especially in the modern and post-modern eras, walked around like un-ironic Matthews, simply decrying TV in some fit of jealousy and shock and only a grain of actual criticism. Trust acknowledges that (Obviously so. Exhibit A: Matthew), but it goes beyond
that surface-level assessment to give us some more complex reasoning. And boy, is it rare,
really, that this complex relationship is actually so delicately articulated by a work of art that
takes itself seriously. Not only articulated, but felt: how wonderful to feel, in Hartley’s ice- cold, TV-lit, sullenly absurdist world, how lonely and dulling it all really is.
As always, however, there’s a bit of a catch, a small bit where the viewer feels just the tiniest bit cheated. It is, after all, quite difficult to assault the distracting nature of the TV screen when your own artwork is, ahem, probably being shown on a TV screen; modern film may not be TV, but it’s awful close. And though Trust is far from conventional in every sense of the word, it still requires its audience to sit in rapt, distracted attention for a duration of just over 100 minutes, a perfect mimicry of the film’s lonely, TV-dead characters themselves. The screen goes black, and there you are, escaping your own domesticity through the soothing light of the television screen.
For many, that may seem clever enough. But I just wish that there was some acknowledgement given, some second self-aware nod - especially since this is technically from the ‘90s, an era so famous for its self-aware nods - that this work is made of the same
stuff as the medium its critiquing. Wouldn’t it be killer if, just once, one of those staring-off-
the-screen protagonists looked dead into the camera, and in that moment we knew, we just
knew, that we were looking back at ourselves?
BY A. DZH