In the early 1970s, a group of filmmakers led by, among others, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese rerouted American cinema. Within a few years a different group, led by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, re-rerouted, or perhaps un-rerouted, it.
That first group — the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls generation, the leaders of the American answer to the French New Wave of personal, authenticity-revering films launched a decade earlier — remains idolized by many of today’s leading filmmakers. Some of the easy riders, such as Dennis Hopper, now seem like they were full of bull, while others, such as Peter Bogdanovich, seem much less important, or even borderline irrelevant. Then there’s Hal Ashby, the maker of, according to Sideways director Alexander Payne, seven consecutive masterpieces in a single decade. Will Ashby endure, and should he?
The new documentary Hal, directed by Amy Scott, makes a vigorous but somewhat unconvincing case for Ashby’s importance on the basis of that ten-year run: The Landlord (1970), Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Bound for Glory (1976), Coming Home (1978), and Being There (1979). “We all look to those movies as the best movies ever made,” says Judd Apatow in an interview for Hal. Pieced together, those works form a detailed tableau of the countercultural mentality, encompassing disgust for the bourgeoisie, opposition to the Vietnam War, protest music, angry anti-racism, and sexual libertinism and the women’s liberation that supposedly accompanied it. Tellingly, at the end of the run, there was no celebration of the utopia produced by the decade-long destruction of one repressive social institution after another, but rather a bitter turn — on the eve of Reagan — to the notion that Americans as a group are given to falling under the sway of charismatic morons.
Ashby, who accepted his only Oscar (for editing 1967’s In the Heat of the Night) with a plea for “peace and love,” and in his 40s affected a castaway’s beard and shoulder-length hair while indulging heavily in first marijuana and then cocaine, was the dean of hippie filmmakers, and his is an archetypal hippie story. Almost from the moment the calendar flipped over to reveal the frightening digits “1980” — his last significant film, Being There, was released in the final two weeks of the Seventies — Ashby started to seem like a relic. His 1980s output consists of five celluloid disasters, a Rolling Stones concert film, a TV movie, and an episode of the sitcom Beverly Hills Buntz. He did not survive the Reagan era, succumbing to cancer three weeks before it ended.
Ashby’s most accomplished work is Harold and Maude, a flop upon its release but later the quintessential cult film, which at the time meant picking up fans via the samizdat route of campus film societies and the then-robust midnight circuit; in the pre-home-video era, offbeat films such as Eraserhead and Monty Python and the Holy Grail would play in theaters around the country late on weekend nights to boisterous young crowds. Harold and Maude’s stone-faced irony, concealing a fragile childlike yearning for honest feeling, would prove to be perhaps the principal influence on the career of Wes Anderson (who isn’t interviewed in Hal, to the film’s detriment), and Ashby’s decision to fill the soundtrack with thoughtful compositions by a single composer, Cat Stevens (six months after Altman had done the same thing with Leonard Cohen tunes in McCabe & Mrs. Miller), gave the movie a fresh, honest, poignant feel. (Stevens, we learn in Hal, considered these recordings to be mere demos, not ready for the public, but Ashby rightly considered their rawness part of their charm.) The director, whose parents broke up when he was six and whose father committed suicide when he was twelve, proved the perfect choice to shepherd an ingeniously macabre script by Colin Higgins, in which an affectless young preppie (Bud Cort) stages increasingly elaborate fake suicides to troll his upper-class mother, then learns to savor life and love with a free-spirited old lady (Ruth Gordon). The film is an artifact, but it’s alive. Despite being a period piece, it has a dry humor that still seems contemporary, as is the case with The Graduate.
None of Ashby’s other films hold up as well, and his corpus seems on the brink of obscurity. One of the two films he made that were actually hits, Coming Home, was considered a landmark in 1978, given the then-startling frankness with which it depicted wounded Vietnam veterans. (It was inspired by the life story of Ron Kovic, who would later go on to be the subject of Oliver Stone’s Tom Cruise vehicle Born on the Fourth of July.) Today, though, despite the Oscar-winning lead performances by Jon Voight and Jane Fonda, and its naturalistic feel, it is undone by its didactic anti-war tone (Fonda, who produced it, is seen in interviews explaining that it was conceived as such a statement) and its melodramatic love-triangle story, which culminates in a walk-into-the-sea suicide. Ashby’s other big hit, Shampoo, in which Beatty’s horny hairdresser beds an assortment of beautiful women as the 1968 election of Richard Nixon looms, seemed like gonzo comedy at the time but today seems quaint, even slow-footed, and it hardly contains anything worth a laugh, belonging rather to the bulging file of films about disillusioned rebels.
The Last Detail, which inspired a fond sort-of sequel last year in Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying, is a pungently written character study that won an Oscar for Robert Towne, but yesterday’s shock-the-bourgeoisie trick is today’s cliché. The Wikipedia entry that tracks such things informs us that the film set a record for most uses of the F word at the time: 65. Ten years later, Scarface logged 207. The following decade, Casino racked up 422. Wolf of Wall Street? 569. Profanity has become to the culture like water to a fish, the environment we all inhabit. The Last Detail’s indictment of how authorities repress our romantic souls with their capricious rules became similarly trite, albeit well-developed in the film’s interplay between Jack Nicholson as old salt Billy Buddusky and Randy Quaid as the young sailor he is taking to the brig.
Ashby today may be best known for something he didn’t even do — devise the one endlessly repeated joke that drives Being There (1979), Jerzy Kosinski’s satiric parable (rewritten without credit by Robert C. Jones, according to Hal) about a simpleton named Chance the Gardener whose vapid utterances are mistaken for deep metaphors at the highest levels of the U.S. government. Once the film gets going, watching any five minutes of its laborious comedy will suffice for the whole, but Chance has endured as a useful comparison figure cited by columnists who wish to cast their ideological opponents as vacuous.
Yesterday’s bohemianism tends to age like yesterday’s produce. Less concerned with being of-the-moment, the 1970s works of Scorsese and Coppola today can’t easily be charged with being dated, as Ashby’s can. It sounds very contemporary to hear Ashby say, in the documentary, “I had three things that put me about 180 steps ahead of everybody. I was born in this country, I was born white, and I was born male,” but the sentiment highlights an unfortunate feature of his films, which is to present the Establishment as stiff, gasping, pearl-clutching country-club caricatures. “Not as a generalization, but basically the upper class is full of sh**, man,” Ashby once said. Let today’s makers of films that are even more transparently homiletic than Ashby’s ponder his fate as they contemplate whether anyone will still be watching their work a generation from now.