Before Wes Anderson, the Duplass Brothers and Spike Jonze ushered independent American cinema into mainstream consciousness, there was Hal Hartley. Arguably responsible for terraforming the cinematic landscape that allowed these directors to bloom, Hartley's work throughout the 1990s has since informed a subsequent generation of independent artists and allowed them to court large studio deals with ideas that don't typically conform to mainstream sensibilities.

But let's be real for a second. There's probably a large portion of you that have never heard the name before, and for this I won't blame you. Unlike the figures he influenced, Hartley's films rarely attracted commercial success. Instead, they drew in a sparse collection of viewers that appreciated their fiercely independent and unique nature, with Hartley often self-producing through his outfit Possible Films, whilst also undertaking writing, directing and scoring duties - most notably on the impressive run of Trust (1990) Simple Men (1992) Henry Fool (1994) and Amateur (1997).

So where Anderson and Jonze now regularly work some of the biggest names, studios and budgets in the industry, Hartley remains in a limbo of sorts, floating between the glowing recognition from those he influenced, and the relative obscurity he resides in now, the scene he informed having now evolved beyond him.

With this in mind, it is best to realise that the face of American Independent cinema has since transitioned away from the work of Hartley, and the generation before him, and now caters for a generation of viewers more interested by aesthetics and tone, as opposed to craft and skill. However, the influence still remains, and the spirit of independence lives on, regardless of the audience.

I've no intention of slating this new crop of independent directors for their absolutely necessary move away from Hartley's influence (As all good things must come to and end) because their work is today an important presence in contemporary cinema for us, just as his work was for them. Instead, this piece aims to deconstruct the legacy of Hartley, and of his key films, and to examine their vitality in the context of both the era that produced them and the ideas that subsequently emerged. The Amateur guide, if you will.

Trust (1990) Dir: Hal Hartley

Hartley's style is one best described as realism drawn occasionally towards elements of the absurd. The protagonist of Trust, for example, is a repairman who specifically refuses to repair television sets, which he believes to the "The opium of the masses." Henry Fool concerns a reclusive bin-man with a knack for obscene prose, and who goes on to become a controversial literary sensation. Amateur sees an amnesiac criminal forget he's a criminal, and in Simple Men two brothers reunite in a strange town after the escape of their anarchist father from a hospital.

Filmed by Hartley in his signature deadpan stare, these characters and films are grounded firmly in our own intensely familiar universe but shot through with excursions into oddity. And so like golden-era Jarmusch, these films make sure to reference a healthy dose of the remarkable, so as to offset the banality of everyday scenarios.

Hartley's miraculous run throughout the 90's signalled a turning point in American Independent cinema, where the harsh actuality seen in the pioneering Killer of Sheep (1978) and A Woman Under the Influence (1974) began to give way to the playful, ironic and offbeat elements that currently dominate the scene. To put it simply, Hartley was able to take the best elements of that which came before him, and combine them with then distant ideas that currently define the style. Think of his work as the static prism on the cover of Dark Side of the Moon, taking in the brilliant white light, and spitting out a multi-coloured spectrum.

The aforementioned Trust, in particular, is often considered a defining example of his style - a dialogue driven love triangle between a pregnant high-school drop-out, her jaded divorced sister, and a misanthropic late-twenty-something repairman (who carries a live grenade in his pocket, "just in case.") Present are the elements of 'the past' (Themes of romance, the love triangle narrative, familial conflict), and elements of 'the new' (the ambiguous grenade, the gen-X cynicism and the prominence of technology) creating a reference catalogue that acknowledges the historical aspects of the medium, whilst simultaneously progressing into the unknown.

Also present in Trust are the blueprints for a typical Hartley cast. These characters are all justifiably cynical, battling with circumstances often beyond their control, and simply trying to hold on as the world spins furiously on its axis. There are rarely any outright 'heroes' within his films, just as there are very rarely true heroes in the world beyond the camera, and so when an act of notable courage or bravery or love reveals itself, it carries a special weight, just as those we remember in our own lives do.

Henry Fool (1994)

And so those humanist ideologies espoused by Cassavettes, Bogdanovich and Ashby during the 'New Hollywood' period before him found a vessel to carry them through to the next generation, and along with Linklater, Soderbergh and, to an extent, Tarantino, Hartley found a way to channel these universal messages into a style adapted to suit the increasingly alternative youth of the 1990's.

Henry Fool, a tale of friendship between a drunk, failed writer harbouring paedophilic tendencies and a reclusive but brilliant bin-collector, further primed the soil for the approaching era of commercial oddity. Though significantly darker in tone than the other films mentioned here, it is difficult to imagine World's Greatest Dad (2009) or Secretary (2002) existing as they do without the subtle immorality of Henry Fool in the minds of their respective directors.

Henry Fool, and its synergy of the deviant with the unbearable normality of suburban life, predicted the artistic crossover potential of these ideas and again packaged them for a new generation of viewers. Concerning itself with disillusionment, lust and selfishness, the film became very much a product of its time, appealing to a generation told by the establishment that their main priorities were meaningless sex, misguided anger, and themselves.

Generation X quickly became a focal point for Hartley's work, as well as its primary consumer. Though this may not always be as explicit as it is in Henry Fool or Trust, and the ages of his characters may sometimes differ, the presence of an isolated generation finding solitude through their differences is often at the heart of his films. By giving this generation a voice that accepted difference to the norm as a vital element of their identity, Hartley was able to cultivate a cinema that allowed emerging directors (his viewers) to embrace their deviant ideas and their unlikely interests, and to embrace The Unbelievable Truth (1989) that their opposition to authority and the establishment was in fact a trait that could be appreciated by a wider audience.

So what we see now, a group of commercially viable independent filmmakers unafraid to experiment with ambitious, aggressively stylised aesthetics (Anderson), follow narrative threads that seem oblique and indigestible (Shane Carruth) and explore overtly bizarre characters (Harmony Korine), can all, in a sense, be traced back to that integral period of Hartley's career.

Simple Men (1992)

On rewatching, Simple Men commands a certain amount of nostalgic yearning, what with its Sonic Youth soundtrack, Bande à Part (1964) references and savage fringes. However, this nostalgia is never cheap, and even on release it felt like an encapsulation of a specific time and place, a record or a document so that generations to come may better understand this era, its attitudes towards the medium, the long history condensed into its identity, and its hopes for the future.

Though the generation of directors that consumed, informed and became the thematic focus of his films grew to be more commercially successful than he ever did, his body of work allowed and inspired them to traverse the chasm that separated independence and the system, taking the ideas about their own identities that Hartley revealed along for the ride.

Hartley is still active, in television and film, and in painting and literature, working in a sense to reflexively deconstruct his own impact. Ned Rifle (2015) follows the son of Henry Fool's Henry Fool, perhaps a direct reference to the idea of generational influence that has permeated throughout his career, exploring how the actions of those who influence us affect our own lives, work and relationships. It seems that Hartley is as acutely aware of his legacy as his fans are, and wishes to include this in his work, just as he did with the legacy of those who influenced him.

I reference Hartley here, and not the more obvious choices of Soderbergh or Linklater, predominantly because of his admirable and consistent opposition to working within the confines of the industry. Where his peers gradually began to appear at Academy Award ceremonies, and break into the wider public knowledge, Hartley stayed behind, perhaps rejecting this acceptance, or perhaps just plain unlucky. 'The Quiet American' of the title refers not to the man's personality or the volume of his work, but his positioning on the outskirts of a movement he arguably brought forwards for wider consideration.

The Quiet American, stood outside looking in, still gently pulling the strings from afar through his longstanding influence, and the unwavering admiration he receives from the names we all know.