Let It Loose
Hal Ashby's Commingling Seventies,
Northwest Film Forum, July 1-August 20, 2008
Directorially if not personally, Hal Ashby spent the ’70s fighting to extend oppositional spirit of the’60s, and the ’80s suffering the consequences—including death, artistic and otherwise. Maybe, in whatever garden the late maker of Being There is tending now, he’ll spend our era of digital communalism being...cultivated?
Ashby’s odds of posthumous inclusion in the New Hollywood pantheon won’t be hurt by the familiarly oppressive mood of our current crisis decade nor by the Northwest Film Forum’s essential retrospective, though the latter’s promotional claim that he’s the “quintessential ’70s director,” albeit shrewd, seems wrong. Ashby, to his credit, was rarely if ever of his time. Of the seven films he directed in the ’70s, none except The Landlord (1970) feels contemporary, while three—Bound for Glory, Shampoo (1975), and Coming Home (1978)—are period films that observe American cultures in transition.
The least critically respected of these, Coming Home, is the one that speaks most strongly to today, although in ’78, this first Hollywood movie to deal directly with the Vietnam War appeared deeply, even poignantly unfashionable. The opening-credits sequence salutes not Bruce Dern’s Marine, who jogs his way through it, but formerly blacklisted co-screenwriter Waldo Salt as well as four “friends who did everything”(!), the Stones’ “Out of Time” seeming to reverberate in the chasm between then and now. You’re out of touch, my baby... Ashby, relatively secure in the drawing power of his star Jane Fonda, was in freak-flag-waving mode here, but he must’ve known that, with Star Wars and Close Encounters topping the charts, he and his domestic agenda were running out of time.
Soon enough, reviewing film or filmmaker or both, Pauline Kael would write that Ashby’s last movie—8 Million Ways to Die—is “permeated with druggy dissociation and you can’t always distinguish between what’s intentional and what’s unintentional.” That apparently isn’t good for a movie—or at least it wasn’t in 1986. In 1970, The Landlord—Ashby’s debut feature, a spacey ode to a rich white kid’s radicalization by his black Park Slope tenants, a movie permeated with all sorts of intoxicants—impressed Paramount’s Peter Bart enough to give the director Harold and Maude (1971), and with it the chance to establish a running theme that would survive a decade increasingly inhospitable to the message: Straight man gets bent.
Harold and Maude, wherein the one doing the bending is a raucous octogenarian played by Ruth Gordon, remains legendary in Minneapolis for a neighborhood theater’s three-year run, which finally ended after picketers—probably not hippies—took to the street to demand change on the marquee. If the transformations of military men and Warren Beatty’s philandering beautician appeared less profound in The Last Detail (1973) and Shampoo, respectively, that was part of Ashby’s critique as the times were a-changin’ back. Nevertheless, even admirers find it hard or impossible to attribute Shampoo’s style to its legendarily shaggy director; by ’75 the hairdressers were calling the shots.
Alternately easy rider and raging bull in interpersonal terms, Ashby was primarily mellow on-screen, at times almost absurdly so. The climactic scene of Coming Home literally brings the war into the living room: Dern’s uniformed Capt. Bob Hyde defends his side of the love triangle with a fixed bayonet, but his wife (Fonda) and her lover (Jon Voight) know it’s just for show. One of the many courageous things about Coming Home—this at the serious risk of its seeming implausibly hippie-dippy—is its calm insistence that most any conflict can be talked through and maybe even resolved, particularly if suicide can be considered a solution.
Within Ashby’s oeuvre of personal and political metamorphosis, Coming Home looks most obviously like a movie about its woman’s liberation—Fonda’s Sally Hyde having it all, orgasm in particular (and, in the last shot, a shopping trip too). Fonda, halfway between Hanoi Jane and the first workout tape, earned her Coming Home Oscar by essentially reversing the trajectory of her own politics: Here, her uptight military wife learns to let it all hang out. More power to her. But Ashby’s generosity extends even or especially to the so-called babykiller. Voight’s initially pissy, paraplegic Luke skywalks by the end, morally speaking, standing up for veterans against the war (and looking in long hair, beard, and rosy shades like a younger Ashby). Capt. Hyde, meanwhile, not only ditches the costume but gets naked, goes back to nature—a Pyrrhic victory, but a victory nonetheless. For a few minutes at least, the Marine is a hippie.
Beatty nailed it at Ashby’s memorial service in 1988. “When you see Hal’s pictures,” he said, “you see his modesty, his honesty, his irreverence, his impatience, his love of people.” Yes, and you also see, in part through the way such contradictory qualities are strung together, that the director was and remained an editor. The Landlord, seemingly written at the Movieola, begins with an exhilarating rush of incomprehensibly connected locations—from a mansion’s lawn and a racquetball court with pointedly white walls to funky Brooklyn, which the title character will inhabit before it comes to inhabit him. Voight aside, Coming Home’s first, pre-credits scene, with actual vets nonprofessionally acting out their own immobility, could be an assembly of color outtakes from the Vietnam doc Winter Soldier, and thus hits hard against the rapid movement of both Dern’s running Marine and Haskell Wexler’s trailing camera. In just two scenes, we’re made to see that one’s range of motion is a privilege.
Ashby lived for such juxtapositions, but perhaps near the end he had lost his ability to pull off evocatively elliptical cutting. Or maybe 8 Million Ways to Die ventures to explore the almost unlimited number of choices available to an editor even in ill health, and Kael’s observation that “the spaces in the narrative contribute to the coked-out feeling” of the film—that “Ashby might be waiting around for something in his brain to crystallize,” that he “directs like a gonzo flower child”—is a judgment more political than personal. As one who lived what he thought, for better and worse, Ashby would hold up a strip each of personal and political celluloid and wonder, What’s the difference?
RELATED CALENDAR ENTRYJuly 1-August 20, 2008 Hal Ashby's Commingling Seventies
FURTHER READINGWes Anderson, Judd Apatow, Alexander Payne, David O. Russell, Jason Schwartzman, and Jennifer Wachtell on Hal Ashby (Good Magazine)
Darren Hughes on Hal Ashby (Senses of Cinema)
Rob Nelson is a member of the National Society of Film Critics and an adjunct instructor of film studies at Minneapolis College of Art and Design.More articles by Rob Nelson