Hal (2018)

Directed by Amy Scott

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Hal is a wonderful little documentary if only because so much of Hal Ashby’s life feels as of yet unearthed.  Or maybe that’s just my perspective.

Hal Ashby (1929-1988) was one of the best directors of the 1970s.  A former editor, mythologized for how he would work nonstop, in a cloud of marijuana spoke, he became a director under the tutelage of Norman Jewison and produced a string of hits or cult classics (seven in nine years) before the 80s and the accompanying studio oversight made his life a little more challenging.

Ashby began with The Landlord (1970), followed by Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Bound for Glory (1976), Coming Home (1978) and Being There (1979).  All well-received, either at the time or in the present, these films reflect Ashby’s views on politics, the Vietnam war, intimacy and rebellion.

The Landlord is about gentrification and learning to see past racial differences, at a time when most movies weren’t ready to touch such a thing (other than the more overt racial dramas like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and In the Heat of the Night, the latter directed by Jewison and edited by Ashby).

Harold and Maude begins with a sad boy (Bud Cort) repeatedly killing himself though unable to die.  He soon falls in love with an eighty year-old woman.

The Last Detail follows two marines (Jack Nicholson, Otis Young) who must escort a third, younger marine (Randy Quaid) to a military prison where he will serve an eight year sentence for stealing forty dollars.  They must reckon with the clear injustice of such an extreme punishment.

Shampoo is a comedy, I suppose, about a modern day Don Juan, a hair stylist (Warren Beatty) as he goes about his day while in the background we hear of the election of Richard Nixon who, only ten days after the film’s release, would resign from office.  In several scenes characters will express a naive optimism in Nixon’s presidency while others seem prescient when they imply he’s already a crook.

Bound for Glory is a period piece about Woody Guthrie traveling through America, and Coming Home is about a Vietnam Veteran returning from the war, I suppose in a way a spiritual sequel to William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives.  In Ashby’s film, the Jon Voight character is wheelchair bound and inspired by Ron Kovic, a veteran and outspoken critic of the war who’s book would be made into Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July.

Finally, Being There is a strange, amusing but frightening comedy with Peter Sellers, about an illiterate, simple-minded man who rises through society and can do no wrong.  He’s a puppet to be used by those in power, and everything he says is turned by the recipient into some kind of poignant prose, no matter how inane his words are.  He’s a sign of how vapid much of our culture had become as well as the blend between entertainment/tv and politics.  In the end he will literally walk on water.

Ashby is a fascinating figure because his career started off with such success but ended with relative failure.  His films of the 80s are all but forgotten, and even after watching the documentary, I’m not sure I could name one of them. (EDIT: Now I can, Lookin’ to Get Out!, boom)

He’s a tragic figure, then, partially because he died so young and partially because his films seemed to have the optimistic voice of a young generation fueled not only by anti-Vietnam fervor but so too a genuine empathy.  With the beard and long hair Ashby looked like a hippie, just to use that term, and though he may have been, he seemed just as concerned for his characters as he was for the messages of his films.  He took an anti-establishment stance, but he also just told human stories, about people connecting and seeing past superficial differences like race, age, etc.

Up Next: The Odd Couple (1968), Cop Car (2015), Crazy Heart (2009)

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