The Halphabet: 26 Vital Parts of Hal Ashby

A documentary about the life and work of quietly rebellious Hollywood outsider Hal Ashby premiered at Sundance last year – its friendly, monosyllabic title, Hal, already gives the potential viewer some kind of idea of the film’s warm retrospective eye. Here, we break down some of that documentary’s most intimate revelations, as well as hand-picking some of the most iconically Ashbyian moments – all from A to Z, a fittingly ‘Sesame Street’-esque structure for a filmography that prizes an open mind and heart over spectacle.

A is for AMY SCOTT, the director and editor of Hal.

B is for BEING THERE (1979), the movie Forrest Gump (1994) wishes it was. Like Elia Kazan’s A Face In The Crowd (1957), the film is a depressingly prophetic satire of a society so desperate for a relatable, comforting leader that it elevates a platitude-spouting nobody to the status of messiah.

C is for CAT STEVENS, the next best composer after Elton John said no to creating the soundtrack for Harold and Maude (1972). There’s no way Sir Elton would’ve been able to bring his twinkling, trans-Atlantic swagger down to match the film’s folksy timbre. Stevens could, and did. Without his mellifluous vocals and melodies that struggle upwards like weeds, Harold and Maude might’ve been too stiff, or self-consciously quirky. Now, it’s impossible to listen to ‘If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out’ without seeing the indelible final image of Harold plucking the song out on a banjo, strolling away from the edge of a cliff.

D is for DEATH. Hal Ashby died in the late 80s before getting any chance at a comeback. At least his funeral proceedings were perfectly, tragicomically fitting – biographer Nick Dawson recalls that a group of Ashby’s closest friends “took his ashes out on a boat off Malibu to scatter them on the ocean as he had requested. It was a calm day, but as they scattered the ashes, suddenly a wind came and blew Ashby’s remains back toward them, covering the friends who had gathered to say their final farewell.”

E is for EDITING. Editing bays can be lonely, claustrophobic places. To prevent the machinery from overheating, they’re also often freezing cold, and dark, so you can properly focus on the tiny light of the projector running through the thousands of feet of celluloid you’ve been assigned to butcher up into something comprehensible.

It’s rough, finicky work that seems totally antithetical to Ashby’s laid-back approach, as he made the switch from editing to directing. But this move may in fact be responsible for why none of Ashby’s ouvre feels as auteurist as other directors of his time – by trusting in his collaborators while shooting and creating, he could orchestrate everything into a finished, cohesive product later. He’s more like his films’ janitor than its omnipotent director.

F is for FREQUENCY. Beyond celebrating its subject’s boomer-era brand of shaggy humanism, Hal is also a love letter to an analog era, and all its technological trappings. Ashby’s angry memos to studio executives are narrated aloud by Ben Foster, with the words typed out before us on a rusting typewriter, and the throaty clunking of the keys almost drowns out the voiceover.

Footage from the sets of Ashby’s beloved first features is appropriately fuzzed out, and drenched in blocks of orange overexposure. Scott chooses imperfect images to get us closer to Ashby’s ethos of championing losers, loners, and drop-outs.

Early collaborator Norman Jewison says that Ashby had an instinct to find those in the fringes and engage with them on their level – when Bud Cort seemed out of place on the set of Harold and Maude, his director was the only one able to strip away any performative professionalism and talk to Cort like a fellow human. “Hal dialled into Bud’s frequency”, Jewison glows.

G is for GOLDEN ERA. Ashby’s laid-back, shoot-now-think-later approach wouldn’t survive the producer-driven filmmaking of the 1980s, but during the 1970s, he made seven remarkable films in ten years. It’s hard to imagine Ashby thriving in any other era than the auteur driven, restless decade following the breakdown of the studio system.

H is for HAROLD AND MAUDE, the only romantic comedy with a non-creepy age difference between its leads – Harold is a misanthropic teen obsessed with pantomiming his own suicide; Maude is an octogenarian Holocaust survivor. Ashby is only briefly interested in pointing out what weirdos his characters are, and we fall in love with them shortly before they fall in love with each other.

I is for IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967), Jewison’s Best Picture-winning civil rights detective mystery, edited by Ashby. Along with his first feature as a director, anti-gentrification dramedy The Landlord (1970), Ashby was unafraid to question privilege and white class anxiety through an anachronistically thoughtful lens. The Brooklyn ‘ghetto’ tenement where The Landlord was filmed now sells apartments for around $2 million – a grotesque actualization of the very tensions at play in the movie.

J is for JEFF BRIDGES, with whom Ashby only worked once, in the Oliver Stone-scripted misfire 8 Million Ways To Die (1986). Bridges is one of the most memorable celebrity talking heads in the documentary because his appearance forces one to wonder how much of an impact Ashby had upon Bridges’s, and even The Dude’s, noble slacker persona.

Bridges summarises the righteous vibe in saying of Ashby’s ouvre: “You gotta respect the pudding that’s comin’ out of this guy’s oven, man.”

K is for KIDS. For all his love on set and compassion for the fictional families he created, Ashby was an absent father to his daughter, Leigh, who he named after mid-century starlet Janet Leigh. According to Dawson’s biography, “when she introduced herself to fellow mourners after [Ashby’s funeral], they were shocked to learn that he had a daughter.”

L is for THE LAST DETAIL (1973), Ashby’s third feature. A quickly-forgotten, unofficial sequel Last Flag Flying was made in 2018 by Richard Linklater, swapping Jack Nicholson for Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne for Otis Young, and Steve Carell for Randy Quaid. It’s not worth watching.

M is for MARIJUANA. An adopted but full-blooded Californian, Ashby was blamed for introducing everyone on any set he worked on to weed. DOP Haskell Wexler says, “I would walk into his room and get a contact high”.

N is for NEW HOLLYWOOD. When we think of the American New Wave, Ashby isn’t normally included amongst names like Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola, and De Palma. And why not? In his own words, Ashby had every possible privilege an auteur dude in post-vertically integrated, creatively starved Hollywood could have; “I had 3 things about me that put me about 180 steps ahead of everybody. I was born in this country. I was born white. And I was born male.”

Maybe it’s because his films were too gentle, too low-stakes in comparison to the vicious urbanity of movies like Taxi Driver (1976) and Scarface (1983). Or because he couldn’t follow through on the staggering promise of his 1970s work where those juggernauts listed above enjoyed continuing success into the 1980s. But either way, Ashby is remembered as a lonely satellite to the boom of New Hollywood.

O is for OSCARS – Ashby’s films have won seven of the things, but his only personal win was for his editing work on In The Heat Of The Night. He showed up at the ceremony at the last minute in a borrowed jacket and he won, not appearing especially tickled when he did.

P is for PEOPLE. The 60s were a weak, uncertain period for Hollywood film, but Ashby seems to have learnt all the right lessons from the era’s counterculture movement. His films are proudly people-centric, both narratively and behind the scenes, with an ability to tune into what makes each individual so individual, and to express it with humour and empathy. It could be his background in editing, but something gave Ashby the ability to channel a hippie’s open-minded sensibility into something more precise and timeless than many other free-loving efforts coming out of that decade.

Q is for QUOTES – iconic ones, like “I AM the motherFUCKing shore patrol, motherfucker!” – courtesy of Ashby’s work with screenwriting legend Robert Towne for The Last Detail and Shampoo (1975).

R is for RICHARD NIXON. Shampoo was set on Election Day, 1968, though it was released in 1975, shortly after Watergate. We get to watch Warren Beatty and Goldie Hawn flit around the hyper-sexualised, swinging Beverly Hills of the previous decade, full of questions and optimism about their new president elect – the irony is delicious.

S is for STUDIOS. Ashby was a rabidly anti-authority, and couldn’t handle the executive meddling that soured the second half of his filmmaking career. He died at age 59 from pancreatic cancer, but Rosanna Arquette is explicit about how studio small-mindedness impacted Ashby on a deeper level than creative castration – “they disrespected him, and it killed him.”

T is for TECH. Before The Shining (1980), Ashby’s Woody Guthrie biopic Bound For Glory (1976) was the first film to feature use of the Steadicam. Ashby’s camera has none of the malevolence Kubrick gave it, and instead used the inhuman weightlessness of the Steadicam’s motion to make it some kind of holy spirit, walking between and above his unromantic dust-bowl characters without them noticing.

U is for UTAH, Ashby’s birth state. Born into a Mormon family, Ashby’s early life was cinematically tumultuous, characterised by his parent’s divorce and his father’s suicide. By the time he was 19, he wasn’t just a high school dropout – he had already been married and divorced. Like almost all American filmmaking, he had to move west, even if it was only to drive one state over to California.

V is for VIETNAM. In Coming Home (1978), one of Hollywood’s first attempts to understand the consequences of the Vietnam war through narrative, Ashby cast wounded war vets as themselves in lengthy scenes of improvised conversation about their trauma – all while celebrity lead Jon Voight sits in the centre, silently listening. It’s a simple and early example of a filmmaker knowing when to step back and hand the storytelling to his marginalised cast, in deference to their lived experience. Weirdly, a lot of contemporary films still haven’t learnt this lesson. Including some recent Oscar winners.

W is for WALKING ON WATER.

X is for EX WIVES – five of them, in Ashby’s case.

Y is for NEIL YOUNG. During his commercial decline in the 1980s, some of Ashby’s only outright successes were the concert films he directed for The Rolling Stones and Neil Young. Music and drugs had always fuelled Ashby’s imagination, but as he entered his 50s and grew more creatively frustrated, the trip turned bad; rumours began to swirl that his recreational use of psilocybin and weed had turned into something harder while on tour.

I sing the song because I love the man/I know that some of you don’t understand/Milk-blood to keep from running out

‘The Needle and the Damage Done’, Neil Young

Z is for GENERATION Z. It’s improbable that he would’ve cared about how he’s remembered today, but today’s generation of filmmakers seems to have forgotten all but Ashby’s best films, and the romantic spirit intrinsic to all of them. Talking heads in the documentary include Alexander Payne, Judd Apatow, and Lisa Chodolenko, all of whom are indebted to Ashby’s Sensitive Anti-Authority Dude act, and to his instinctive approach to character and story. Each of Ashby’s films achieve something that many more sophisticated and acclaimed filmmakers strive towards and never achieve – like the director himself, they are all, for better or worse, deeply human.

Hal is showing exclusively to Golden Age Cinema and Cinema Nova.

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Eliza Janssen is a Melbourne writer of criticism and screenplays who wants you to know that there are pterodactyls in the background of the breakfast table montage in Citizen Kane. For more information visit elizajanssen.com / @eliza_janssen


Eliza Janssen