Sunday, October 14, 2018

Hal - a documentary about Hal Ashby

Hal, directed by Amy Scott, is a small film with a mighty heart. Its subject, Hal Ashby, helmed some of the great films of the 1970s, a difficult period in American history with war, racism, corporate greed, and the counterculture in head-on collision. Ashby's genius was to tell stories with one-to-one human connections that cut through those battle lines, improbable match-ups entertaining us while tickling our sensibilities: see? see? we can be decent to each other. There is someone in every face, in every encounter - it is our loss not to look for that, not to notice.

He made The Landlord, Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home, and Being There in the decade, most of which were dismissed by critics as too this, too that, but each of which attracted its own cult following, particularly Harold and Maude. The documentary gives us a marvelous look at the studio's struggle with Ashby over the promotional materials. They could not accept a love affair between a twenty-year-old youth and an eighty-year old woman, so they didn't want both of them on the poster. But given the title, it made no sense: Harold without Maude? or maybe no pictures, only text? Each effort was more absurd. The studio didn't know what to do with this hippie director, who believed strongly enough in peace and love to make movies that pushed audiences to favor those ideals.

Ashby slams out missives on his typewriter: to his friend and mentor Norman Jewison, who recognized his eye and passion and helped him transition from editor to director; to the studio heads who tried to control him: they liked success but not if that meant trusting a creative team. He stood up for what he did, what his characters said and the words they used, along the way working alongside some of filmdom's great talents: screenwriter Robert Towne, cinematographer Haskell Wexler, editor Robert Jones. His casts were a Hollywood who's-who: Jane Fonda, Jack Nicholson, Beau Bridges, Louis Gossett, Jr., Peter Sellers, Jon Voigt, Bruce Dern, Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Jack Warden, David Carradine, Lee Grant, and from them he elicited heartfelt performances. He understood that the way to woo us was to tell individual stories, to show us the moments in which humans disregard our differences, propelling us to try that ourselves.

Ashby got his start in film as an editor, and that sense of piecing together scenes to create a fluid story is evident in how he directed. And so it is with Hal, in which the filmmakers found themselves with a wealth of footage - film clips, interviews, memorabilia - and realized the only way to manage this overabundance was to find a focus, use that material in service to a tale. Whether they intended to emulate their subject we don't know, but we're fortunate they did - Amy Scott and her team have given us a story arc with a beginning, middle, and end, from obscurity, through fame, to a decline fueled by studio meddling and greed. Ashby's death at 59 from pancreatic cancer seems less a health collapse than a manifestation of the toll their demands and impatience took on his creative spirit.

Hearing how those who worked with him felt, and seeing snippets of his films, wakes a desire to watch - for the first time, or again with fresh eyes - these compelling movies. While the hot-button subjects he tackled are as raw now as they were 40 years ago, the movie industry's consolidation has made the challenge of funding for person-to-person stories harder than ever. When box office is all, studios rely on sequels, remakes, and special effects to separate us from our cash. You have to ply the indie circuit to find storytellers with more on their minds than a couple hours' entertainment. Hal is one such film - go see it!