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Hal (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 7, 2020


HAL (2018)

Featuring Jane Fonda, Jeff Bridges, Jon Voight, Rosanna Arquette, Beau Bridges, Robert Towne, Dustin Hoffman, Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens), Norman Jewison, Haskell Wexler, Louis Gossett Jr., Judd Apatow, Alexander Payne, David O. Russell, Allison Anders, Pablo Ferro, Chuck Mulvehill, Lee Grant, Nick Dawson, Judd Apatow, Buddy Joe Hooker, Robert C. Jones, Diana Schroeder, Griff Griffis, Caleb Deschanel, Tony Bill, Leigh Macmanus, Bruce Gilbert, Lisa Cholodenko, Ron Kovic, Jeff Wexler, Adam McKay, Rick Padilla, Al Schwartz, the voice of Ben Foster and archival footage of Hal Ashby.

Directed by Amy Scott.

Distributed by Oscilloscope Laboratories. 90 minutes. Not Rated.

During the 1970s, movie director Hal Ashby had one of the hottest streaks of very good to classic movies in film history. Just look at this body of work in the decade: The Landlord (1970). Harold and Maude (1971). The Last Detail (1973). Shampoo (1975). Bound for Glory (1976). Coming Home (1978). Being There (1979).

Those movies racked up 24 Academy Award nominations and seven wins in the space of ten years. That’s not even counting the two noms and one win Ashby had as an editor in the 1960s for The Russians Are Coming The Russians Are Coming and In the Heat of the Night.

Yet, when discussing the great filmmakers of all time, Ashby’s name rarely comes up.

Perhaps it has to do with the way his career came crashing down in the 1980s, releasing one critically savaged dud after another. (The only hit films he was involved with in the 80s were the Rolling Stones concert film Let’s Spend the Night Together, and he was fired as director of Tootsie early on in production and replaced by Sydney Pollack.) Perhaps it has to do with Ashby’s wild lifestyle and all-too-young death at 59 in 1988.

Whatever the reason, the man is overdue for a revival. With Hal, documentarian Amy Scott tries to reintroduce Ashby – his work, his life and his mass of fascinating contradictions – to a new generation. (It wasn’t totally forgotten – Ashby’s story did play a big part in Peter Biskind’s great 1998 book Easy Riders Raging Bulls and the 2003 documentary of the same name.)

So, what is it about Hal Ashby that makes him one of the outstanding filmmakers in what many people consider the finest decade in the history of cinema?

Hal tries valiantly to explain that, but the fact of the matter is the subject of the film was a rather inscrutable, private man. We learn some of the basics – his hippyish look and demeanor, his love affair with drugs and difficulty in relating with other people, his artistic temperament, his perfectionism and his absolute refusal to play studio games.

Friends, fans and collaborators rhapsodize about his artistic integrity and his all-abiding interest the inner lives of quirky outsiders. We hear about his battles with the film studios – who were often perplexed by his ideas but were willing to give a bit more leeway in that artistically fertile era. However, even in the free-wheeling 70s, the studios tried to impose their will on the films, and Ashby always pushed back, occasionally even refusing the studios access to his works in progress.

And yet you come out of Hal knowing a lot about his work, but not as much about the man. Which perhaps is all for the best. Hal Ashby always wanted his art to speak for him. If Hal can make people re-explore his classic films – all of which are discussed here in detail by people involved with the production – then Hal has done its job.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2018 All rights reserved. Posted: September 28, 2018.

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