By Elias Savada.
Hal (no relation to the sentient computer in Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey), is a reflective meditation on the (high) life and (best) films of Hal Ashby, a director of note during the 1970s, when he churned out award-worthy films that now shape this debut documentary from Los Angeles-based editor Amy Stone. As one of the American New Wave members of what has been called that decade’s “New Hollywood” – a collective including such luminaries as Spielberg, Scorsese, De Palma, and Coppola, among others – the left-leaning Ashby, born on the eve of The Great Depression, is fondly remembered by those of us who were politically concerned, especially about the Vietnam War, when his filmmaking career began. For the generations of filmgoers born since his movies won a slew of awards, his contentious work ethic yet popular product is but a footnote today, but one students of film should embrace. More than anything, Hal, a by-the-numbers look at Ashby’s successes, should prod viewers unfamiliar with his work to seek them out on DVD. Streaming availability seems to be limited. Sad!
All but one of the seven films that he directed between 1970 and 1980 – that exception being the unorthodox love story Harold and Maude (1971) featuring Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort – had at least one Oscar nod. Of a combined 24 nominations the decade afforded his work, his films carried home seven statuettes. Stone’s film spends ample time with all the good stuff that Ashby touched, including those films on which he was an editor for Norman Jewison in the mid- to late-1960s (The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming and In the Heat of the Night), and thereafter, when he started directing with The Landlord (1970, taking the project from Jewison), a social comedy about a privileged, young white man thrust into a lower-income tenement community in Brooklyn. Lou Gossett provides a nice anecdote about filming there.
This video biography follows a mostly chronological account of the Utah-born William Hal Ashby, referencing such life-altering events as his parents splitting up when he was six and a father who committed suicide a half-dozen years later. A divorced parent himself by the age of 19, he fled to Hollywood, where his career began at a mimeograph machine before his long, neatly manicured fingers (at least according to the stand-in for him in several reconstructed scenes) allowed him to gain a foothold as a film editor. He worked as an assistant editor for William Wyler on Friendly Persuasion (1956) and The Big Country (1958, those these films aren’t mentioned), and the documentary doesn’t start the editor-turned-director story until Ashby’s second decade in showbiz, as an editor on Tony Richardson’s The Loved One (1965), which fostered an artistic relationship with socially-conscious cinematographer Haskell Wexler, another of the documentary’s talking heads.
I kept thinking this light, breezy, but never very revelatory work was a video equivalent of one of those The Films of… (enter name of actor/director/writer) books that I used to devour 40 years ago, or maybe it’s a PowerPoint version – sprinkling in a few transitional graphics, sound files, clips, photos, interviews, etc. – for a profile of the pot-smoking, non-conformist Ashby. Conversations with former cast members (Beau Bridges, Jeff Bridges, Jane Fonda, Lee Grant, Rosanna Arquette, etc.) are interspersed with archival discussions featuring Ashby’s collaborators and recordings by the man himself. Comments from current-day luminaries (Judd Apatow, Adam McKay, Alexander Payne, David O. Russell) provide influences of Ashby’s work on theirs. All are frank and honest tributes to the genius that Ashby was. More than anything, the cumulative effect energizes the documentary’s audience to (re)discover the features he directed and those he edited for his like-minded mentor, director Norman Jewison, who provides on-camera testimony ranging from their meet-and-greet moment to his friend’s all-too-young-and-quick demise (at age 59 from pancreatic cancer) at the end of 1988.
Scott likens some of the sequences in Ashby’s films to reflect the director’s own family life, particularly when she showcases a scene from Bound for Glory (1976) featuring a neglectful Woody Guthrie (David Carradine) being castigated by his wife (Melinda Dillon), with an interview from Ashby’s grown daughter who was left behind in Utah.
In the 1980s (five features, loosely covered), the penny-pinching studio executives did not like Ashby’s excesses and when he overshot scenes and overspent his budget, the proverbial rug was pulled from under films, particularly his last, 8 Million Ways to Die. Jewison comments on the nadir of Ashby’s career that, “I just wish his life had a better third act, a better last reel.” In the three-act circus that is Hal, even if the middle was Ashby’s best, Scott keeps them all interesting.
So, film enthusiasts, have you watched all of these?
The Landlord (1970)
Harold and Maude (1971)
The Last Detail (1973)
Bound for Glory (1976)
Coming Home (1978)
Being There (1979)
Don’t consider yourself a cineaste until you have.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2018 by Centipede Press).