One thing that arrogant film critics like myself hate to do is admit our blind spots, those places in film where we are less than educated. One of my significant blind spots is the work of director Hal Ashby. It’s not that I am not aware of him or his reputation as a genius and I have even seen two of his films, Shampoo, which I greatly disliked, and Being There, which I adored. I’ve seen portions of his final movie, 8 Million Ways to Die but as the new documentary, Hal, indicates, I don’t have much need to return to that troubled project as any kind of indication of Hal Ashby’s talent.
Hal tells the life story of Hal Ashby as he went to Hollywood in the mid-1960’s and began life as an iconoclast and stayed that way. Ashby came to prominence as an editor and found fame when he worked with his closest friend, Norman Jewison on the Oscar winning In the Heat of the Night. Ashby’s editing of that AFI Top 100 movie won an Oscar and from there Ashby and Jewison’s friendship blossomed into a partnership that finally allowed Ashby the chance to be a director.
His first feature film was a daring note on racial attitudes of the 1960’s and the burgeoning 1970’s, called The Landlord. The film stars Beau Bridges and Louis Gossett Jr and it featured a story about race and politics that many other filmmakers would not have had the nerve and boldness to approach. As attested to by Jewison, who produced the film, and Beau Bridges and Louis Gossett Jr, who starred in The Landlord and are interviewed in Hal, the film was in line with the left wing politics of the time and yet had a freshness that came specifically from Hal Ashby.
The documentary moves chronologically through Ashby’s career picking up next with his indelible cult film Harold & Maude, a film I have found to be a particular challenge to my sensibilities. I suppose that is the point of that movie, to be challenging to preconceived notions but I have thus far found myself unable to watch the movie which has the premise of a depressed young man, played by Bud Cort, who falls in love with an 80 year old woman played by Ruth Gordon.
Everyone I know who has seen Harold & Maude and I can’t intellectualize my issue with the movie beyond simplistic prejudice that I am sure the film confronts. I can tell you that from the documentary, the film appear to be as daring and fascinating as any of Ashby’s work I have seen. Sadly, Bud Cort is not interviewed for the documentary but footage of him speaking at an event in Ashby’s honor following his death in 1986 gives insight into the strange relationship between the two that helps to shape the unending uniqueness of Harold & Maude.
The Last Detail is next and again, the film lacks the big interview with Jack Nicholson, though an interview he conducted at the time he was filming is featured. What Nicholson’s relationship was to Hal Ashby is not mentioned but he was known for being beloved by his actors for his loose, improv style that used scripts mainly as an outline and not the gospel for how a film was to be crafted. Ashby shot reams and reams of footage for his films and culled from there a take that suited his sensibilities which in many cases conflicted with the original intent of the writers.
Ashby himself appears in the film via recordings he made in the midst of making his movies. Especially near the end of his career when wars with studio executives became a significant part of his life. Ashby was labelled as difficult and his copious use of marijuana was portrayed by Hollywood power players as an addiction that affected his filmmaking. I don’t buy that but we can never tell by Ashby’s 1980’s output which consists mostly of films he made and then were taken from him by studio executives.
Hal is a fascinating and immersive documentary with a film historians eye for detail. I loved the use of scenes from Ashby’s movies and scraps of interviews at the time the films were being made and I was particularly struck by the repeated use of an old school editing machine and a very old film camera as interstitial devices. These capture the time of Hal Ashby and recall his love of the editing room and the hours he would spending pulling together his vision from reams of film that he’s portrayed as knowing backwards and forwards.
Hal was directed by Amy Scott who is in a strong position to make a movie about Hal Ashby. Scott also began her career as an editor and makes her feature directing debut here. She also edited the documentary and it's a tremendous piece of work. Especially insightful are interviews with directors who were deeply influenced by Hal Ashby including Judd Apatow, David O. Russell and Alexander Payne whose works carry in them the kind of warmth and insight and oddity that Ashby was well known for.
Hal is streaming now on Amazon for rent and if you love movies, I urge you to check it out. Perhaps I can get past my prejudices and watch Harold & Maude in 2019.