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‘Hal’ (review)

Produced by Christine Beebe, Lisa Janssen,
Jonathan Lynch, Brian Morrow
Directed By Amy Scott
Featuring Hal Ashby, Jon Voight, Beau Bridges, Alexander Payne, David O. Russell, Lee Grant,
Norman Jewison, Haskell Wexler, Pablo Ferro,
Chuck Mulvehill, , Nick Dawson, Judd Apatow,
Buddy Joe Hooker, Cat Stevens, Robert Towne, Robert C. Jones, Diana Schroeder, Griff Griffis,
Caleb Deschanel, Tony Bill, Allison Anders,
Leigh Macmanus, Bruce Gilbert, Ron Kovic,
Louis Gossett Jr., Lisa Cholodenko, Jane Fonda,
Jeff Wexler, Adam McKay, Rick Padilla,
Al Schwartz, Jeff Bridges, Rosanna Arquette

 

In the pantheon of the great directors of the 70s and 80s, Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, DePalma, etc. are expected.

Many film buffs, however, feel that one name is usually (unjustifiably) omitted: Hal Ashby.

Ashby started out as an editor and very quickly ascended up the ranks of his profession. He worked with Norman Jewison with whom he became great friends and it was Jewison who recommended he turn to directing.

When you look at his work in the 70s, it is unsurprising that many of his admirers are agitated that Ashby is all but forgotten compared to his peers. Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home and Being There. Whatever you think of the individual films, that’s an impressive list.

Amy Scott’s engrossing new documentary about Ashby should hopefully rectify his relative obscurity. Scott, also an editor turned director, obviously has a great soft spot for Ashby. The documentary is a loving tribute to the artist as well as the man, for all his many flaws.

We begin with his extremely loving friendship with Jewison, move on through his determination to make films touting peace and love and, most intriguingly, his constant battles with the powers-that-be in Hollywood.

There are some tantalizing tidbits in this film that I did not know about. I had no idea that Ashby was slated to direct Tootsie! It’s actually not hard to imagine Ashby’s take on the material, but I think Pollock nailed it so it’s not exactly up there with Jodorowsky’s Dune in terms of movies that could have been.

Full disclosure. I’m not the biggest Hal Ashby fan. I think there are individual scenes among his work that are just incredible. As well as individual performances, in fact I think his performance in Coming Home may be Bruce Dern’s best. And that’s saying a lot.

I’ve always felt Harold and Maude was incredibly overrated, though Ruth Gordon is superb. I like The Last Detail quite a lot, but while I was blown away by Being There as a kid, after rewatching it recently, I think it’s an admirable misfire.

Scott enlists a great many talking heads to prove me wrong. And it proves to be very enlightening and entertaining, though truth be told my mind hasn’t really changed about most of his work. Still I have great admiration for Ashby and so do many of his contemporaries and subsequent generations of filmmakers, such as David O. Russell, Adam McKay, Lisa Cholodenko, and others interviewed here.

As mentioned by more than one person in the film, Hal actually serves as a cautionary tale to an extent. Because of his constant battling with the studios, his output after Being There was mostly negligible. But there’s no arguing the incredible body of work he produced in the 70s. It was an amazing run, and Hal is a fitting tribute to the man.

Highly recommended whatever your feelings of Ashby and his work.

 

Hal arrives in limited release today
For more details, visit Hal.Oscilloscope.net

 

 

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