Opening last weekend in New York and Friday in Los Angeles, the documentary profile Hal is “a most welcome reassessment of one of the most important figures in 1970s Hollywood” (Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter), namely the undersung director/actor Hal Ashby, a favorite cinematic laureate on this home video label. Like Ashby, a former film editor, Hal moviemaker Amy Scott celebrates the unique talent of this man of contradictions, a gentle firebrand who endowed a succession of singular films of various milieus with a humanistic worldview that energized the material in deeply affecting ways even, as he himself often ran afoul of the studio suits with a steadfast commitment to his personal vision. The film contains moving reminiscences by actors (Jeff Bridges, Jane Fonda, Louis Gossett Jr., Lee Grant, Jon Voight) and behind-the-camera colleagues (Pablo Ferro, Norman Jewison, Robert Towne, Haskell Wexler), as well as appreciations by contemporary creatives (Judd Apatow, Lisa Cholodenko, Alexander Payne, David O. Russell) who have been influenced by Ashby’s work. To see where and when the film will play in various U.S. cities this month and next, consult the film’s website: http://hal.oscilloscope.net.
As this blog reminisced two years ago on the occasion of Ashby’s birthday: Seven films from the ’70s – The Landlord (1970), Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Bound for Glory (1976), Coming Home (1978), Being There (1979) – comprise one remarkable run for a bristly, brilliant director: Hal Ashby (1929-1988). Before manning the director’s chair, he worked on “six from the ’60s,” as editor/co-editor of emblematic movies of that decade for directors Tony Richardson (The Loved One) and his longtime mentor Norman Jewison (The Cincinnati Kid; The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming; In the Heat of the Night (winning an Oscar® for that one); The Thomas Crown Affair; and (uncredited) Gaily, Gaily). Representing collaborations with gifted acting, writing and producing partners, Ashby’s own “Seventies Seven” cover sociopolitical themes through vividly drawn characters, frequent dry or caustic humor unexpectedly juxtaposed with breath-catching spikes of dramatic intimacy, and a remarkable sense of establishment and counterculture mise-en-scène. In less highbrow parlance, the guy’s output was an American chronicle that defined the decade, perhaps more than any other moviemaker. Twilight Time lays proud claim to two of them, both road movies of a high order, one a contemporary jag and the other a vividly recreated period piece. Adapted from a Daryl Ponicsan novel by award-winning screenwriter Robert Towne, The Last Detail chronicles, with all the attendant rowdiness, sadness and salty language in equal measure, the journey of a Navy Military Police escort (veteran badass signalman Jack Nicholson and by-the-book gunner’s mate Otis Young) delivering hapless seaman Randy Quaid, convicted of petty theft, from Norfolk, Virginia, to the naval prison in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The tone and the geography are wintry in feeling but the character arcs are unforgettable in the hands of its three perfectly cast leads. In the view of Time Out’s Keith Uhlich: “Michael Chapman’s gritty cinematography…grounds the digressive revelry in harsh winter surroundings that seem haunted by the dual specters of Vietnam and a trickster President on the verge of disgrace. Yet it’s the stellar central ensemble that commands the most attention: Nicholson’s cigar-chomping, profanity-spouting grunt is one of the greatest incarnations of stunted machismo onscreen, and he’s brilliantly complemented by Quaid’s picture-perfect awkwardness and Young’s bracing cynicism.” Transforming activist folksinger Woody Guthrie’s 1943 autobiography to the screen via an adaptation by Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore scribe Robert Getchell, Bound for Glory is an ambitious ramble through the dirt-poor/forgotten-man yet pictorially beautiful and invitingly open Depression-era heartland, wherein, critic Pauline Kael writes, lead player “David Carradine has an ornery intransigence that gives this…film a core, and the recreation of the late ’30s is superbly lighted and shot by Haskell Wexler,” an Academy Award® winner for his work that included Garrett Brown’s innovative Steadicam cinematography. There is the attention to period and emotional detail found in the best Hollywood biographies, and what’s more, Kael found, “There’s real love in Ashby’s staging of the incidents, and a unifying romanticism. Though the story doesn’t build dramatically – it straggles just when you want it to soar and it bogs down in backward and forward movement and it’s filled in with woozy generalities – this is an absorbing and impressive piece of work.” Ronny Cox, Melinda Dillon, Gail Strickland, Mary Kay Place and The Last Detail’s Quaid play characters that populate Guthrie’s odyssey from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl to the orchards of California. Although Ashby would continue into the ’80s with more American stories (Second-Hand Hearts, Lookin’ to Get Out, the Rolling Stones documentary Let’s Spend the Night Together, 8 Million Ways to Die), each in its way scrappy, hard-edged and vital, his work didn’t have the critical and audience impact of his “Seventies Seven.” That particular septet – including TT’s gorgeous hi-def Blu-rays of The Last Detail (available for a limited-time 50% discount off list price as part of the label's Sony Promotion through October 3 here: https://www.screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/30729/THE-LAST-DETAIL-1973-SPECIAL-PROMOTION/) and Bound for Glory – alone would make for a glorious movie lovers weekend marathon.
For a deeper dive into Ashbyana, try Sean Fennessey’s marvelously inclusive essay for The Ringer, accessible here: