Artists’ Others: Hal Ashby

When (not if, be real) time travel is perfected and made suitable for the masses, my first stop will be the 1970s. I’d do it for the hard livin’/hard lovin’ vibe, the post-flower power/pre-greed-is-good period of cultural transition where, on national and personal levels, souls were searched and identities were continually evolving.

Most substantially, cinema of the ‘70s appeals to me like that of no other era. The essence is hyper-masculine and gritty (consider the rise of Nicholson, Coppola, Scorsese/DeNiro, and a pre-Looney Toons Pacino), but combined with artful subtlety and minutiae. The stories speak to the individual and universal experiences (consider Annie Hall and Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon and Network). And the entertainments are intense, bold, and affecting (consider the pinnacle of the horror genre: religious—The Exorcist; sci-fi—Alien; holiday—Halloween; parody—Young Frankenstein; real estate, even—The Amityville Horror).

In that era of big, loud, gruff and bearded directors, Hal Ashby was (quietly) one of the best. Two years ago, I watched what many Ashby fans would classify as his best: Harold & Maude. Immediately, the film shot near the top of my perpetually shifting list of all-time favorites, but for some damned reason, I never bothered to seek out Ashby’s other work. Why, especially when Harold & Maude affected me so profoundly? It’s tricky, I think, when one’s initial exposure to an artist’s work is so excellent. A part of me feared the other works wouldn’t live up to that film. I mean, how could it? And even more frighteningly, I thought that seeing those other films would somehow diminish my favorite work. (And it’s happened before, to varying degrees—consider the most recent work of Shyamalan, Mann, Reiner, Gilliam, De Palma, and even the aforementioned Coppola.) But for this experiment, I swallowed my fears and journeyed on.

Harold & Maude (1971): My First

My ex-girlfriend at the time was a huge fan of Harold & Maude and because it was early in our relationship—the time when we were sharing our favorite things and crossing our fingers that the other person would respond favorably to each; my favorite phase of the relationship by a mile—she mentioned a few times how much she adored the film. So, as I did with three seasons of Mad Men before we started officially dating, I watched it on my own so that I would be able to talk about some of the things she loved. (And, thankfully on both counts, she had great taste.) The relationship, very sadly, did not last, but my adoration for Harold & Maude has. And perhaps it is the unrequitedness of our love that keeps the film so firmly grafted onto my heartstrings. For better or worse, I cannot watch Harold & Maude without thinking of her, and I can’t even hear Cat Stevens’s “Trouble”* without the heaviest of hearts.

During this most recent viewing, I decided to take notes to record my reactions to lines and moments that jumped out at me (again) as particularly moving. I reached for a notebook, one that must have sat on my shelf for the better part of a year. It was a medium-sized spiral-bound journal with a cartoonish robot screen printed on the cover below a simple command—NEVER GROW UP. I admit, it wasn’t the most ideal time for me to watch the film: I was suffering a prolonged malaise thanks in large part to my birthday the month before and the deluge of messages regarding my upcoming 10-year high school reunion. I wasn’t much in the mood to watch an emotional film like Harold & Maude, but I thought that at the very least that mood might be worth noting. And at most, the movie would yank me out of my funk.

I opened the notebook as the streaming video began to buffer, and on the very first page I saw a list that I had made for that ex-girlfriend. I pressed pause and took a moment to process this.

The list was of the bucket variety. I remember her being similarly down, similarly bummed out by the passing of time—the vaguest and perhaps most terrifying of existential crises. A metaphorical lost child in a metaphorical shopping mall who wonders, Who am I, where am I supposed to go, and how in the hell do I get there? So I prodded her to put some grand life goals into a list to reduce the overwhelming concept of a life well lived into a more easily digestible to-do list. (The hopeless romantic in me hoped that I would eventually be able to help her cross out a few items.) She filled the page with bullet points like heli-skiing in Alaska and living in a writers’ colony. She came up with things that I had never considered before—things that I then wanted to add to my own bucket list—and her creativity and pure desire to try new things made me fall even deeper in love with her. That was more than a year ago. And to my continued dismay, the girl moved on before I could ever check an item off of her list (not even “ride a segway,” which I had planned to do the spring of our split). An intense love affair, an end that arrived too quickly, me and her, Harold and Maude, life imitating art, vice versa. With her bucket list in my hands, serendipity abounded, my heart palpitated, and I pressed play.

Darkness falls: The film opens with a suicide. Harold, played by Bud Cort, patiently moves through the living room, puts on a Cat Stevens vinyl, climbs onto a chair, and with a rock side to side he hangs himself. His mother enters and says to the swaying Harold, “I suppose you think that’s very funny.” The next scene, another staged suicide. This time a blood-sprayed bathroom with a limp Harold in the tub.

It’s not until several minutes into the film that we hear Harold speak. When his therapist asks what makes him feel alive, Harold responds, “I go to funerals,” reminiscent of how the Narrator in Fight Club attends support groups so that he can sleep. It’s obvious right away that Harold is dark. Macabre with a capital M. He drives a converted hearse, is preoccupied with death and gruesome imagery. But these are examples of acting out—hissy fits taken to the sickest extreme. Harold is a frustrated teen, suffocated by a privileged upbringing and a mother who barely acknowledges that he’s alive to begin with. (In one early scene, Harold floats facedown in the pool, his skin as pale as milk, his three-piece suit like a mortician’s. After a beat, his mother enters the pool and paddles by in a darling swim cap, completely undisturbed.)

As with Fight Club’s Narrator and Marla, Harold meets Maude at the place he is most at peace: a funeral service. The two are opposites. She is talkative whereas he is nearly mute. She violates social norms (stealing a priest’s car moments after we are first introduced to her) whereas he fades into the wallpaper—when he isn’t staging suicides. And their meeting comes at the perfect time: Earlier that day, Harold’s mother insisted that he get married, going as far as entering his name into a national dating registry and filling out his profile for him. In response, Harold pretends to shoot himself in this face (real gun, fake bullets). I assume that the last thing that would have gone through his mind was the strange woman he met.

The age differences between them is substantial, too; May-December seems too close. He is still in his teens and she is turning 80 the following week. Her appeal is that she is a woman of action. In addition to the grand theft auto, she brags that she used to break into pet shops to liberate the canaries. And here the metaphor reveals itself: Harold is the canary—young, frail, caged—and she is free and has so much knowledge to offer. Her biggest lesson? Time is finite and precious.

Their relationship forms quickly, equal parts mentorship and companionship between misunderstood, kindred spirits. Likely for the first time, Harold belongs somewhere.

Harold & Maude

At one point, Harold admits, “I haven’t lived. I died a few times.” It’s a sentiment I’m sure most can relate to. He lives when he’s with Maude, though, and after their relationship is consummated he asks her to marry him. The macabre young man transforms into a doting lovebug. On her 80th birthday, we see Harold at his most invested and Maude at her most silent. The celebration, presumably Harold’s happiest moment, turns to panic when Maude reveals that she had swallowed all of the pills in her medicine cabinet and would be gone by midnight. Despite his efforts to rush her to the hospital, Harold cannot save her; she planned this exit long before she met him. “Go and love some more,” she says to him in the ambulance. Her harshest lesson. My heart crumbles.

The film is a story about the people who come in and out of our lives and how we rarely have a say in how or when they leave us.

*Stevens’s soundtrack was to Harold & Maude as Simon & Garfunkel’s was to The Graduate. The film and the soundtrack are two equal parts of the terrific whole. The film’s final sequence is, to me, the finest marriage of visuals and music in the history of cinema. (All due respect to Wes Anderson, Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and Paul Thomas Anderson, of course.)

The Landlord (1970): His First

The opening moments of The Landlord are snippets of white suburban privilege: an earthen, bohemian marriage; a well-behaved grade school class where every student raises his or her hand when the teacher asks, “Now, children, how do we live?”; a man (Beau Bridges) laying out in the sun as his African-American servant brings him a drink. The sunbathing man is Elgar, who sits up from his lawn chair and breaks the fourth wall to explain to us his personal philosophy:

“It’s just that I get the feeling that we’re all—I mean, uh, everybody, you know, black, white, yellow, Democrat, Communist, Republicans, old people, young people, whatever—we’re all like a bunch of ants, see? See, the strongest drive we have as a true life force is to gain territory.”

He is a rich kid with too much money to spend and too much time to spend it. “Money’s never been a problem,” he explains. The unfulfilled part of his life is that he never had a place of his own. But really, it’s that he wants to buy an ant farm. So he purchases a tenement in the hopes of starting a trend in “urban renewal” by renovating the building and evicting the current tenants. Gentrification on the back of a bored socialite. “This neighborhood’s going to be very chic, very chic,” his new neighbor says as he fawns over his newly delivered sconces. “Let’s hope this influx of the beautiful people is the beginning of an inclination.”

Despite the shocking rhetoric, this is still a comedy and not a racial pressure cooker like Do the Right Thing. The conflict comes from the landlord’s lack of cultural awareness and his oscillating sense of allegiance. He enters this community in a blinding white suit and convertible—visual metaphor intended, I’m sure—and armed with a notepad listing all of the tenants’ names and their records of unpaid rent. The residents come armed with shotguns and bows with arrows “dipped in Fanny’s barbeque sauce so as to make death slow and more agonizing to its unfortunate victim.”

But even that reception is more welcoming than the one by his family, with their Caucasian superiority and general disgust of Elgar’s real estate venture in a “colored neighborhood.” He calls them octoroons to get under their skin and escapes the insular compound to enjoy a more diverse nightlife, eventually spending the late hours of the evening with a stunning mixed-race go-go dancer named Lanie. She embodies the difficulties and beauty of the race integration that Elgar himself is trying to grapple with.

The Landlord

Back at the tenement, Elgar serves as the building’s super, replacing toilets, repairing buzzers, making improvements without hiding his plans to kicks out the current residents. They’re not worried, you see. They outlived (and from the mountain of back rent, outsmarted, it seems) the previous landlord and this one looks as green as they get.

Elgar learns some hard lessons as the landlord, without much pushback from the tenants. The pushing comes from his disapproving family and he is drawn toward the people of the slum. Despite their commonalities, though, their differences are ultimately too significant to allow for a peaceful co-existence in the ant farm. When Elgar sits in on a class taught by one of his residents, the students each stand and proclaim, “I am black and I am beautiful.” The teacher calls on Elgar, who looks back, eyes searching, unable to respond. The teacher turns to the class and says, “See, ladies and gentlemen? Some people can’t learn what we learn.”

The Last Detail (1973): His Trip on the Nicholson Rocket

The Last Detail comes near the beginning of Nicholson’s epic run in the 1970s, which included Five Easy Pieces, Chinatown, and, my personal favorite, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Here, Buddusky a.k.a. Badass (Nicholson) and Mulhall a.k.a. Mule (Otis Young) are assigned to transport a young sailor, Meadows (Randy Quaid), to the brig. The 18-year-old seaman has been sentenced to eight years imprisonment and a dishonorable discharge for attempting to steal $40 from a Polio charity donation box. The administration, it would seem, are looking to make an example of the boy. Badass and Mule are given a week to make the trip and the two want to milk the time and per diem for all they can.

At the beginning point of their trip, I’m already uncertain about the tone of the film. The trumpet flourishes make it feel like a campy military entertainment in the spirit of Hogan’s Heroes. Pair that with the cartoonish levels of profanity from the commanding officer and Meadows’s nervous snacking—“I had it with me,” he says as the other two look on curiously—and I would assume the film would be light, juvenile comedy faire, but Quaid plays Meadows as such a wounded, bashful young man, and considering Ashby’s other work, I can’t shake the feeling that I might be thrown for an emotional loop down the road.

Okay, not just wounded and bashful, Meadows is a hurt little kid. Badass describes him as “a fucking mess.” He’s a kleptomaniac who can’t control his urge to steal, anxiously nabbing candy bars and salty snacks—things that appeal to children—when they pass through train stations.

Badass spots how child-like the man seems. In DC, he decides to take a break from their assignment to loosen up. He suggests they get a beer. Meadows reminds him that he isn’t old enough to drink. “Everybody’s old enough for a beer,” Badass says. But when they get to the bar, they’re met with a difficult bartender. When the man asks to see Meadows’s identification, Badass becomes unhinged—he yells and threatens the bartender, pulls out and gun and bounces around like a raving lunatic. All to get Meadows a beer. But the charade doesn’t work, so the three men leave and instead buy a case of brew and drink in a dark corner of a parking garage. Proving the old saying, they drink like sailors, too much and so long that they miss the final train out of town. So they decided to get a hotel room with their per diem and make a night of it. The testosterone festers: sailors in skivvies, nightstands peppered with pop-top cans of Schlitz and PBR, bursts of unprompted rage bringing them to the verge of fistfighting, and then eventually sobering up and sharing small parts of their personal lives like they were bunkmates at a summer camp for grown-ups.

The three had bonded at an accelerated rate, as if in an incubation tank of manhood. “Right now, we’re a navy of three,” Badass says.

The Last Detail

Nicholson plays his part the way he has played so many of his characters—short-tempered and hyper-aggressive, with a slightly skewed but unwavering sense of right and wrong. An archetype that I adore and respect. There is something appealing to me about being a man of firm conviction, with a rock-solid and just (if a bit unique) worldview. He takes it upon himself to stand up for Meadows, like with the bartender or when a waiter brings Meadows a burger without melting the cheese like he asked or when Meadows is unsure about taking a detour to say goodbye to his mother. He makes these decisions without consulting Meadows because he believes that he knows what’s best for the boy, and he shifts his focus almost immediately from taking advantage of a trip away from the base to a mission to show the kid a good time before the last remaining moments of his youth are taken from him. So the trip evolves into Meadows’s crash course in being a man: They drink beer, get into a scuffle with Marines, peruse girly magazines, smoke marijuana, and, near the end, Meadows gets intimate with a woman.

Young, on the other hand, plays Mule more cautiously, more concerned that the kid is disturbed and likely to get them into trouble. The two—Mule and Badass—bicker about Meadows, right in front of him, like a mother and father. It’s fascinating to see the competing ideologies between the them: Badass wants to send him off in style, to help him live a little in those few short days, and maybe even to toughen the boy up to prepare him for prison; Mule insists all of that will make it harder for him to serve the eight years. They both essentially want what’s best for Meadows but they disagree about what that is.

Even more than the performances, I enjoy the spirit of the film, the idea of being in transit, uncertain and maybe even pessimistic about the future, and especially the effort to try to cram as much living as possible into those rare moments when desire and opportunity meet. Like with my ex’s bucket list, The Last Detail encourages me to take stock of my life—where I’ve been, where I’m going, and all the moments that fill the space between point A and point B. Ashby has a wonderful sense of introspection and is able to capture universal truths about life, both high points and low, that ever-revolving door of satisfaction and disappointment.

Being There (1979): His Last Great

It’s almost impossible to be a fan of ‘60s and ‘70s cinema without appreciating the genius of Peter Sellers. For my money, no one was able to handle Kubrick’s odd comedic sensibilities better than Sellers. And, for all intents and purposes, Being There was his last film. (It is best if we not remember the great actor for his actual final film, The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu.) Being There also features Shirley MacLaine, whom I fell in love with after watching The Apartment, one of those movies I watch when I need an immediate reaffirmation of my faith in love and life. And then there’s Ashby. The individual ingredients suggest a delicious cocktail.

Sellers plays Chance, a quiet gardener for an elderly millionaire. He is a man whose only exposure to the outside world comes from television. (More fodder for coddling parents, he is, essentially, what you get when you raise a child on it entirely.) He flips through channels, his face almost completely devoid of expression save for the slightest smirk when he stops the dial on a cartoon. He’s not a zombie, though, but rather a classic half wit—slow to react, blissfully ignorant, always unaffected. Chance lacks a range of emotion that most people possess. For example, when Louise, a fellow housekeeper, tells him early on that the man of the house has died, Chance reacts with a non sequitur about snow, having just flipped past the local weather station. The film’s title feels appropriate right away, as the character is simply there, an empty vessel, an arid sponge yet to soak up the juices of the world.

Sellers explores the movements of Chance through mimicry of actions on the TV: He tips his hat as a character on screen does, shakes his own hand to practice the gesture. His laugh, also mimicked, sounds robotic and unnatural, like that of Johnny 5 when he attempts to imitate human behavior. The performance is alienating and even off-putting, and I assume that choice was intentional. Sellers plays Chance without any sense of personality. (If internet trivia is to be believed, Sellers, in preparation for the film, recorded his voice over and over again with varying inflections and finally settled on the one that sounded most lifeless.)

Compared to similar mentally challenged protagonists, like Forrest Gump or Arnie Grape, we aren’t necessarily supposed to connect with Chance, or even root for him. He’s an invader in our world, unrelatable, not impeded by a mental deficiency per se but by a lifelong isolation, and that’s what makes his Gump-like assent so absurdly funny.

“I’ve never been allowed outside the house,” Chance tells the lawyers who handle the estate. They inform him that he must leave the mansion, the place he had lived his entire life, and throughout their exchange it seems as though Chance is completely unaware of how his situation has changed, or at least of the implications of getting tossed into the world. He exits the mansion, unconcerned about where to go or what to do. He passes a black woman on the street, approaches her, and asks if she can get him some lunch because he is very hungry. Louise, the housekeeper, who was also black, served his meals to him every day, so he latched on to the first familiar thing that he encountered. The faux pas goes right over his head.

Still walking, Chance sees a group of urban teens, one of which pulls a knife on him. His reaction is to take the television remote from his jacket pocket (which he brought with him—an extension of his arm and his tether between the real world and the world on screen) and tries to change the channel. The line between reality and fiction had already been blurred from the opening moments of the film. This literal confusion of the two felt too cheeky, too heavy-handed. Thankfully, those moments are few and far between.

Day turns to night, and Chance is still walking. He passes an electronics store and becomes enthralled when he sees himself projected onto the televisions in the storefront. Like an actor playing a part, he tries to frame himself on the screen, walking backwards, left and right, eventually stepping into the street where he gets bumped by a limo moving in reverse. The passenger (MacLaine) asks him to come with her to get his leg checked out. After some convincing, he agrees, and enters her limo. But even here he becomes distracted by the moving lights. “It’s just like television, only you can see much further,” he says while gazing out the window. The woman, Eve, tries to capture his attention and asks his name. He attempts to muster “Chance, the gardener,” but he coughs, stumbles over his words, and Eve hears “Chauncey Gardner.”

And so begins the happenstantial adventure of Chance, the gardener.

Watching Chance try to navigate social situations, I am terrified for him. It reminded me of movies where an undeterred baby would crawl out of the house and narrowly avoid perilous obstacles along the way. Or like Mr. Magoo unknowingly walking through a poorly secured construction site only to come out on the other end utterly unscathed. (Oh god, I’m like Chance, making sense of the world by way of fictional entertainment.) And why not? Chance was raised on television, so why shouldn’t his journey be as fantastical as the ones he watches on screen? In gatherings, he avoids exposing his ignorance (and completely illiteracy, we find) through interpreted profundity. Because he is unable to answer anything beyond very basic questions, he falls back on the things he knows about gardening, which people confuse for brilliant analogies. When the President asks him to comment on his new economic policy, Chance replies, “As long as the roots are not severed, all will be well… There will be growth in the spring.” And when the President quotes Chance to a televised gathering of financial bigwigs, the buzz about Chauncey Gardner explodes.

Being There

But he is unfazed by his newfound celebrity. His attention is directed to the lovely Eve and her dying husband Ben, whose wealth, status, and health make him a surrogate for the old man who Chance used to work for. The man says to Eve, “Since he’s been around, the thought of dying has been much easier for me.” Chance’s sheer presence elevates those around him. Women are attracted to him, mistaking his stoicism for confidence; men respect him, mistaking his platitudes for wisdom. But for the old man, he finds comfort in the idea that Chance could take care of Eve and have a happy life with her. Even the Tin Man needs a heart.

True, the adventure is uncomfortable for the audience. Because Sellers takes on such larger-than-life roles and is such a brilliant physical comedian, it feels awkward to take in this blank performance, such an un-Sellers part. But he is able to convey a strange beauty in the minutiae, a lovely innocence in the tabula rasa.

As I make my way through a fair amount of Ashby’s filmography, I find that my initial fears were unfounded. Though I can’t yet say that any of these three films have touched me more than Harold & Maude has—my personal connection to that movie is unbreakable—I can say without any reservation that Hal Ashby was a director of incredible talent and vision whose works, plural, should be gnawed on and savored by all lovers of cinema.

[The Criterion Collection will release Harold & Maude on Blu Ray and DVD on June 12th.]

Joshua Covell is a New Hampshire transplant who loves the big city lights and a state that completely sidesteps the national political spotlight but pines for good seafood and a proper time zone. He is a writer, editor, and co-founder of STFU, Internet.

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6 Comments on “Artists’ Others: Hal Ashby”

  1. Mark Thoresen
    May 30 2012 at 10:08 pm #

    You really should do this for a living. Your knowledge of and passion for film coupled with your somewhat aloof but jaded attitude on reality are definitely an entertaining and informative read. Thanks for letting me read.

  2. Melisse Heinemann
    May 30 2012 at 11:38 pm #

    Agree with above comment. You have a career ahead of you in this genre.

  3. Jessica Accardi
    June 1 2012 at 5:53 pm #

    The above strikes me as a bit of a back handed compliment, but no matter…Harold and Maude and Being There are two of my all time favorite films. Wonderful review.

    • Mark Thoresen
      June 12 2012 at 11:48 am #

      Not a back handed compliment at all, but I am sure he knows this.

    • joshcovell
      June 12 2012 at 11:49 am #

      Ha, I do know. Thanks for the kind words, all. Hope you enjoyed the read.

  4. Andrew
    June 8 2012 at 1:33 pm #

    Excellent piece. I love how the beginning sets the tone with talking about the 70s being “the post-flower power/pre-greed-is-good period of cultural transition.” The simple fact that the 70’s are hard to define with quick phrases makes it a confusing and often overlooked part of the 20th century. “The 60s were this and the 80s were that, but the 70s? Who the fuck knows.”

    But that’s what makes the 70s interesting, and it’s why the art of that era is even more important. Everyone is constantly trying to make sense of the world, and artists provide some of the best insights into that timeless conundrum. Hence why the art of the 70s is so valuable.

    Thanks for writing about an artist from the 70s that I knew very little about.

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