Hollywood, a decades-old dream factory speckled by the brightest stars, is often nothing more than a dream itself. Beneath that magical commune lies a cold, ruthless machine — one that grinds some of its most brilliant artists into a pulp, consuming their energy and spitting out a used-up lump of white matter. Filmmaker Hal Ashby suffered this fate. An anti-authoritarian flower child at heart, Ashby directed an unprecedented string of masterpieces in the 1970s, only to be forced out of work by a new age of blockbuster-beholden businessmen. Filmmaker Amy Scott’s feature documentary debut “Hal,” which premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, reconstructs Ashby’s life using the tools of cinema, that art form he devoted his life to. It’s a lovingly made tribute with a beating heart that matches its subject’s boundless passion.
Born in the humble town of Ogden, Utah, Ashby arrived in Hollywood as a young adult. He found a passion behind the editing table, where he would smoke pot and work into the early hours of the morning. After Ashby met director Norman Jewison, the two became close friends and confidants. They collaborated on the 1967 Best Picture winner “In the Heat of the Night,” the only film Ashby won an Oscar for as editor. With Jewison’s help, the rebellious Ashby shortly found his place behind the camera, clashing with studio executives over his radical visions of peace, love and social justice. In the 1970s alone, he directed a string of seven films, a potent mixture of cult classics and mainstream successes: “The Landlord,” “Harold and Maude,” “The Last Detail,” “Shampoo,” “Bound for Glory,” “Coming Home” and “Being There.” In the last decade of his life, Ashby struggled to produce a few box office bombs, all of which adhered to his political and creative principles, before his untimely death in 1988.
Similar to this summer’s “Filmworker,” another biographical documentary centered on an iconoclast in the film industry, “Hal” doesn’t — and arguably can’t — do anything particularly bold with its construction, in that Scott must conjure an accessible biography. However, she finds creative ways around her boundaries. “Hal” is a sort-of patchwork quilt — a collage of personal memories and contemporary reflections. Scott places the viewer in Ashby’s point-of-view through his letters, which are read by actor Ben Foster. Foster voices Ashby with the utmost sensitivity, perfectly capturing his love for humanity and righteous anger against the systems that oppress it. The letters are punctuated with energetic footage of hands clacking away at the keys of a typewriter, pounding out Ashby’s trademark memos with gusto. Naturally, these in-the-moment sequences are balanced with interviews, which feature Ashby’s collaborators, loved ones and modern filmmakers who simply seek to voice their appreciation for the man behind the screen.
“Hal” truly stands out from the documentary crowd in its editing. The film takes on a semi-chronological structure, briefly touching on Ashby’s childhood before delving into his entire filmography and tragic death at the hands of pancreatic cancer, which his widow blames on his unspoken blacklisting by the heads of Hollywood studios. Scott’s film opens and closes with an editing table — someone loading strips of cut 35mm film and, eventually, projecting them. Scott edits the film as an overwhelming vortex of sensory details held together by powerful emotions, creating an effortless looseness, reminiscent of Ashby’s style, that feels as cohesive as it does improvisational. A film is created in the editing room, broken down into disparate parts and clenched back together into something new, and Scott is in tune with Ashby’s love of the process. She seamlessly weaves letters, archival footage, interviews and film clips into a tapestry, a portrait of a life as it was lived, a life fighting to break out from the mold that never succeeded in containing it.
Even though Scott discusses Ashby’s whole filmography in detail, with his 1970s films taking center stage in that discussion, one of those films — “Harold and Maude” — frames the entire structure of “Hal.” It’s perhaps Scott’s greatest decision, as the film brilliantly summarizes Ashby’s ethos in full. A love story between the death-obsessed teenager Harold (Bud Cort) and free-spirited octogenarian Maude (Ruth Gordon), “Harold and Maude” wasn’t much of a success when it was released in 1971. As Scott shows, the studio was terrified of the romance’s age difference, releasing a poster with only the title. The film, however, had an underground following early on, eventually bringing it into cult classic status. Both the film’s story of love conquering social taboos and its troubled release are perfect metaphors for Ashby. The film shows that Ashby made what he loved, sticking up for those society left behind, and wasn’t appreciated for his efforts until long after his death. To top it off, Scott sets two pivotal sequences — Ashby’s creative awakening and his death — to parallel scenes in “Harold and Maude,” with Cat Stevens’ “If You Want to Sing Out” and “Trouble,” marrying the two films through song.
Even if it’s still, at its core, your average biodoc, “Hal” takes extraordinary steps to stand out from the crowd, just as the man at its center did. And it uses the full range of cinematic techniques to do so, paying appropriate tribute to Ashby along the way. Ashby was always appreciated in smaller circles, but, as Scott illustrates, his stature has grown considerably in recent years. Modern filmmakers often discuss his films lovingly, along with how they grew to discover the man behind them — a man whose creative voice was used by Hollywood and summarily rejected by the studios. Scott spoke to the troubles of his time, a turbulent era of change, and his ideals fell out of favor when Reaganite conservatism dominated through the beginning of the 21st century. But we live in an era of intense change and anxiety, one with power seized by the privileged business class, and there’s no better filmmaker to guide us through our own time than the one and only Ashby.