Jun 2, 2018

The 44th Seattle International Film Festival: Hal (2018) and Being There (1980)

Last night at SIFF Cinema Uptown, I enjoyed the first SIFF screening of Amy Scott’s documentary about filmmaker Hal Ashby, Hal (2018). Brilliantly edited, compassionate, and full of insightful interviews, I learned a lot about this director who I have always admired, but I realize now not fully understood. 

I've always found Ashby to be a rabble-rousing rebel, but he is only that if striving for peace, love, and human connection is rebellious. Perhaps that is true; I hope not. Where the studios he worked with are concerned, the rebel label fit. He always had to fight to fulfill his artistic vision.

Ashby found his first Hollywood success as an editor, winning his only Academy Award for his work cutting In The Heat of the Night (1967). That film was one of several he made with his mentor and friend, director Norman Jewison. While Ashby was married five times and fathered a daughter, it is clear that his most significant bond was with Jewison, who understood this workaholic, peace-loving rebel and gave him his first opportunity to direct: The Landlord (1970).

The film starred a baby-faced Beau Bridges as a trust fund kid who buys a building in the black ghetto with gentrification on his mind, but finds himself increasingly involved with his tenants. A work of great idealism and anger at the status quo, it would possess all the elements of Ashby’s best work: empathy, eccentricity, and a core built on vibrant relationships.

Scott follows Ashby through these great works (and the less satisfying productions to follow), which form one of the most remarkable runs of artistic and commercial success in the film industry. After The Landlord there was Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Bound for Glory (1976), Coming Home (1978), and Being There (1979). They are all iconic works, created with frequent resistance from the studio, which Ashby and his savvy associates fought off with determined fidelity to their work.

Scott weaves together a wild brew of letters, interviews and vintage footage, pacing it all as if she is seducing a viewer with waning interest. It really pops, confidently drawing you into Ashby’s passions. In a Q&A following the screening, producer Brian Morrow mentioned how many more recordings of Ashby they had and other fascinating stories that couldn’t be included in the film. Her fidelity to flow over the lure of all those other elements pays off.

Ashby’s complexities are slowly revealed as the focus shifts occasionally from the work that consumed him to his less successful personal life. A teenage father, he abandoned his daughter, and after those five tries, he abandoned the idea of marriage in favor of taking up with a series of girlfriends who could accept that his true love was film. Childhood trauma also colored his life, as he was all peace and love in expressing his art, but less placid when it came to confronting his own demons.

Unfortunately, Ashby could not maintain his all-consuming passion for film and work in an industry focused on profits. It was painful, but moving to see people he worked with like Jewison and Rosanna Arquette tear up with regret that he was not able to launch a third act and fulfill his ambition. Perhaps Ashby is not in the upper pantheon of directors as he deserves, but here you see many who have worked with, admired, and understood this uniquely gifted filmmaker.

During the post-film Q&A I asked the film's producer Brian Morrow if anything he learned about Ashby during the production had surprised him. He talked about the overwhelming amount of audio content the director left behind and how impressed by the extent that he was a “wildly committed artist,” who would refuse to compromise his vision. He talked about remarkable clips where the director said he understood white privilege and the challenges of racial identity. It sounds like he was ahead of his time.

In addition to Morrow, Ashby’s friend, former LA Weekly critic Michael Dare, shared some memories about the director; one of the best to be revealed later in this review. 

I was also amused that the projectionist leaned out to ask a question. That’s the first time I’ve seen that!

One of Ashby’s best films, Being There (1979) screened at SIFF Cinema Uptown the next afternoon. Starring Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, and Melvyn Douglas, the D.C. set drama might be more relevant today that it was upon release.

Sellers is Chance, a gardener who has spent his entire life in the home of a wealthy man. Chance appears to be on the spectrum, emotionally disconnected and possessing the intellectual development of a child. Obsessed with television, his understanding of the world is almost entirely drawn from the shows he watches, flipping constantly through channels. When the old man dies, he is abruptly thrust into a world he has never seen up close.

Instead of struggling, the empty slate Chance presents to the world is like a blank check for this dignified, well dressed white man. He finds himself in the home of a dying millionaire (Douglas) with a loving, but lonely wife (MacLaine) who falls hard for him. His benefactor is well-connected, granting him an audience with the president (Jack Warden), who like everyone else sees his simple talk about gardening as profound musings about life.

Chance becomes a celebrity: invited on talk shows and circulating with the international elite. Everyone sees what they want to see in his pleasant talk. Only Douglas’ doctor, played with intelligent compassion by Richard Dysart, understands the truth about this simple man. His is an important character that can be found in the best of Ashby’s films: the one who truly sees into people. It is Ruth Gordon in Harold and Maude and Beau Bridges in The Landlord. Dysart knows that Chance is not a towering intellectual, but he also understands the people in his orbit and how the truth is something they construct to create their own safety. It’s all chillingly familiar.

During the Q&A for Hal, Dare mentioned that the famous ending was not in the script and made up by Ashby on the set. Making that unusual scene happen depended on winning over the on-set spy Lorimar had put on the director. He told an amusing anecdote about how the director convinced the young man that he didn’t want to be responsible for blocking this remarkable shot. I hope that he realizes how important his cooperation was for film history.

Hal screens again at The 44th Seattle International Film Festival on Sunday, 6/3, 12:30pm at the SIFF Cinema Uptown.

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