×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Hal’

A once-over-lightly documentary about Hal Ashby, fabled '70s director of 'The Last Detail' and 'Shampoo,' offers more clues to his work than his life.

Director:
Amy Scott
With:
Jon Voight, Rosanna Arquette, Beau Bridges, Robert Towne, Jane Fonda, Judd Apatow.
Release Date:
Jan 24, 2018

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5844196/

In the seven landmark movies he made during the ’70s, from his very first feature, 1970’s “The Landlord” (way ahead of the curve in its post-bleeding-heart racial awareness), up through 1979’s “Being There” (way ahead of the curve in its dryly amused satirical image politics), with the New Hollywood classics “The Last Detail” (1973) and “Shampoo” (1975) coming in between, the director Hal Ashby had an entrancingly shaggy, inquiring, no-fuss style that always revealed the most vulnerable and moonstruck qualities of the characters he showed us. By the time an Ashby movie was over, you knew every last facet and hidden beauty wart of the people on-screen. Their daydreams fused with ours.

So it would seem only fitting if “Hal,” a documentary portrait of Ashby, rustled up a certain stubborn intimacy to reveal who this intensely revered and softly mysterious filmmaker really was. Anyone drawn to the subject will probably go into “Hal” knowing certain basic things about Hal Ashby: that he broke into the business by working, for years, as a film editor; that he looked like a furtively angelic hippie biker in his long stringy hair and even longer scraggly white-blond beard; that he had substance-abuse issues; that he died, in 1988, when he was just 59; and that up until he lost his mojo, after “Being There,” he imparted a fresh glancing humanity to everything he touched.

You come out of “Hal” knowing a little more than that, but maybe not as much as you wanted to know. Ashby’s personal life is mostly left off the table, even though he was an aggressive womanizer who was married five times. He routinely went to war with studio executives and relished the battles, yet the place he occupied in the political arena of Hollywood society remains something of a blank. The director, Amy Scott, is a film editor herself, and she’s content, in just 84 minutes, to cobble together an anecdotal, behind-the-scenes film-by-film breakdown of Ashby’s career, narrated by Ashby himself, who is heard on audiotapes and in letters, mostly grousing about them ­— i.e, the meddling suits he considered his earthly nemesis.

“Hal” has a once-over-lightly quality, but at times it offers a telling window into how the New Hollywood worked. We first see Ashby bounding up to the podium at the 1968 Academy Awards, looking surprisingly straight — at least, next to the image he would project only a couple of years later — in coiffed hair, a trimmed goatee, and a square-meets-groovy white turtleneck. Yet in his acceptance speech for best editing (for “In the Heat of the Night,” directed by his friend and mentor Norman Jewison), instead of the usual roster of thank yous Ashby offers a message of love — a sign that even as he approached 40, he’d been baptized in the new youth culture. As an editor, cutting a movie was often literally all he did, closeting himself in the editing room for months at a time, sleeping there, obsessing over the pieces of film he had hanging everywhere. But he always wanted to direct, and when he got the chance it meant letting the sunshine in.

“The Landlord,” as tough and soulful as it was, came and went, but Ashby gave his career a jump-start by making one of his most beloved films, and also his most uncharacteristic: the ghoulishly prankish sentimental black comedy “Harold and Maude” (1971). I always had mixed feelings about its slightly smug romantic absurdism, but there’s no denying that Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon (and Cat Stevens) were a match made in cult-movie heaven. We see footage of Cort at Ashby’s memorial, evoking how special Ashby made him feel on the set. He was the anti-Kubrick, treating each actor as the center of the universe.

If “Harold and Maude” was a burlesque ’70s artifact, it was “The Last Detail” that established Ashby as a major voice. If you watch it now, it’s almost shocking how naturalistically it rolls by. We hear testimony from Robert Towne, the fabled screenwriter who was really a nobody, doing uncredited rewrites, up until he wrote “The Last Detail,” talking about how he and Ashby fought to keep in all the profanity that poured out of Jack Nicholson’s “Badass” Buddusky. In so many ways, that’s how the films of the ’70s came into being — one dogged pushback and maverick whim at a time.

Yet Ashby was modest, the kind of invisible great filmmaker who served the material. That was certainly the case with “Shampoo,” since it was Warren Beatty’s vision to make a confessional comedy about the life of a SoCal Don Juan. It was Ashby, working with Towne again, who deepened a soap-opera caper by coaxing out the Watergate subtext, posing the libidinous wanderings of Beatty’s hairdresser against a spangly backdrop of American hypocrisy.

“Hal” sketches in the creative mechanism behind other triumphs, from the majestic dustbowl image poetry of “Bound for Glory” to the way that Ashby used improvisation to bring out Jon Voight’s most emotionally naked performance in “Coming Home” (the actor’s one last tinge of greatness after “Midnight Cowboy”). The glory of “Being There,” which Judd Apatow hails as his idea of a perfect film, is that Ashby staged a comedy as if it were the stateliest of dramas: You laugh at Peter Sellers’ Zen idiot Chauncey Gardner, but mostly you stare at him with a kind of smiling wonder. That, however, was the last time that Ashby connected with an audience.

There was a reason for that. In the ’80s, Ashby made trivial bad movies — “Second Hand Hearts,” “Lookin’ to Get Out,” “The Slugger’s Wife” — because he was still fighting the studios. He didn’t understand that the battle was over; the suits had won. There was little place left for Ashby’s humanism-on-the-fly, though Jeff Bridges’ portrait of a detective who suffers alcoholic blackouts, in “8 Million Ways to Die” (1986), remains the last thing on film that had an Ashby-esque essence. Ashby died, of pancreatic cancer, in 1988, and here’s a hindsight prediction: Had he lived longer and seen the rise of the American independent film revolution, he would have become part of it. As much as any director who ever lived, he was its stirringly empathetic and plainspoken godfather.

Film Review: 'Hal'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Competition), Jan. 24, 2018. Running time: 88 MIN.

Production: A Saboteur Media, Shark Pig release. Producers: Lisa Janssén. Executive producers: Lenny Beckerman, Fred Beebe, Brian A. Miller.

Crew: Director: Amy Scott. Camera (color, widescreen): Jonathon Narducci, Adam Michael Becker, Alexandre Naufel. Editors: Amy Scott, Sean Jarrett.

With: Jon Voight, Rosanna Arquette, Beau Bridges, Robert Towne, Jane Fonda, Judd Apatow.

More Film

  • Atlantics

    Netflix Snags Worldwide Rights to Cannes Winners 'Atlantics,' 'I Lost My Body'

    Mati Diop’s feature directorial debut “Atlantics” and Jérémy Clapin’s animated favorite “I Lost My Body” have both been acquired by Netflix following wins at Cannes Film Festival. “Atlantics” was awarded the grand prix while “I Lost My Body” was voted the best film at the independent International Critics Week. The deals are for worldwide rights [...]

  • Stan Lee, left, and Keya Morgan

    Stan Lee's Former Business Manager Arrested on Elder Abuse Charges

    Stan Lee’s former business manager, Keya Morgan, was arrested in Arizona Saturday morning on an outstanding warrant from the Los Angeles Police Department. The LAPD’s Mike Lopez confirmed that the arrest warrant was for the following charges: one count of false imprisonment – elder adult; three counts of grand theft from elder or dependent adult, [...]

  • Moby attends the LA premiere of

    Moby Apologizes to Natalie Portman Over Book Controversy

    Moby has issued an apology of sorts after writing in his recently published memoir “Then It Fell Apart” that he dated Natalie Portman when she was 20 — a claim the actress refuted. “As some time has passed I’ve realized that many of the criticisms leveled at me regarding my inclusion of Natalie in Then [...]

  • Bong Joon-ho reacts after winning the

    Bong Joon-ho's 'Parasite' Wins the Palme d'Or at Cannes

    CANNES — The 72nd edition of the Cannes Film Festival wrapped with jury president Alejandro González Iñárritu announcing the group’s unanimous decision to award the Palme d’Or to South Korean director Bong Joon-ho for his sly, politically charged “Parasite.” Following last year’s win for humanistic Japanese drama “Shoplifters,” the well-reviewed Asian thriller represents the yin [...]

  • Invisible Life Brazilian Cinema

    Cannes Film Review: 'The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão'

    A “tropical melodrama” is how the marketing materials bill “The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão.” If that sounds about the most high-camp subgenre ever devised, Karim Aïnouz’s ravishing period saga lives up to the description — high emotion articulated with utmost sincerity and heady stylistic excess, all in the perspiring environs of midcentury Rio de [...]

  • Best Movies of Cannes 2019

    The 10 Best Movies of Cannes 2019

    The Cannes Film Festival is too rich an event to truly have an “off” year, but by the end of the 72nd edition, it was more or less universally acknowledged that the festival had regained a full-on, holy-moutaintop-of-art luster that was a bit lacking the year before. It helps, of course, to have headline-making movies [...]

  • Aladdin

    'Aladdin' Soaring to $100 Million-Plus Memorial Day Weekend Debut

    Disney’s live-action “Aladdin” remake is on its way to a commendable Memorial Day weekend debut with an estimated $109 million over the four-day period. The musical fantasy starring Will Smith and Mena Massoud should uncover about $87 million in its first three days from 4,476 North American theaters after taking in $31 million on Friday. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content