Whose Film Is It Anyway?
Note: The purpose of Whose Film Is It Anyway? is to examine the validity of the auteur theory through the lens of individual film-makers, taking a look at their bodies of work and highlighting the technical elements, personal style, and thematic consistency of their films. Ultimately, the goal of this column will be to generate a discussion of the merits of auteur theory through examinations of directors widely considered auteurs, analyses of directors whose status as auteurs is more tenuous, and occasional looks at non-directors who may drive the quality and content of their films with more assuredness than the directors they work with.
"I like to watch."-Chance the Gardener (Peter Sellers), Being There
Often when writing this column, I find myself making arguments for a director's status as an auteur, even when I was prepared initially to disregard him or her as something less when I first approached their work. James Cameron, for example, is someone in whose work I expected to find little consistency, yet by the time I sat down to write the column, it seemed impossible not to at least make an argument for recurring themes and techniques (and many jokes about his insane richness). One of the best things about writing Whose Film Is It Anyway? has been getting the chance to fill in some cinematic blind spots. Whether watching movies by a director whose work I had never seen before or getting the chance to see some of the movies I'd previously missed from a director I already loved, the column has constantly expanded my cinematic horizons and changed my understanding of film.
I am getting ahead of myself with this retrospective, to be sure, and you can look for a lot more like this when this column reaches its (temporary) end in May, yet I bring all of this up by way of introduction for the director we will be examining this week: Hal Ashby. When I was preparing this column, filling my Netflix queue with Ashby's work, I had already seen two of his movies, Harold and Maude and Being There, and the strength of those was enough to have me excited for what was to come. Having now seen over half of his movies, I can say with some confidence that I wasn't missing much. Not only did I not enjoy most of his films all that much, I found very little connective tissue between his works. As I said above, I can usually at least mount an argument for a director's thematic consistency if I look hard enough, yet Ashby offered precious little by way of constancy. The closest I can come to finding a pet theme is his depiction of male sexuality in both its destructive and redemptive forms, but even that seems more like an accident of the times he was working than a dedicated examination by an artist fully in control of his works.
Ashby leaps from theme to theme and from technical style to technical style so fluidly he almost perfectly encapsulates a chameleon behind the camera. From one perspective that can be seen as a talent, and indeed, some might argue that a director putting his personal stamp on his films is just getting in the way of the art. Yet this column is dedicated to the idea that a director is the author of his films, and to date Ashby may be the best argument I've found in a director against the auteur theory. To be fair, the theory does not presuppose that every director is an auteur, nor that they should all be considered as such. Ashby lacks the thematic stability, technical style and personal touch required to deem one an auteur, and whether because of this or in spite of it, he often stumbled on his way to making great films.
After spending years working odd jobs around Hollywood, Ashby gained recognition when he won the Oscar for Best Editing for In the Heat of the Night. Leveraging this success into his debut film as a director, Ashby stuck to what had worked for him on that film, examining race relations in America during the period in The Landlord. Widely heralded as a topical "film of its time," The Landlord follows Elgar Enders (Beau Bridges) as he buys a tenement in Park Slope, Brooklyn with the intent of evicting all of its residents, until he gains affection for the poverty stricken black residents there and rebels against his WASP roots. The film works well enough as an examination of racial attitudes in the late "˜60s, but viewed apart from its political impact, it is poorly paced and often dull. In a recent New York Times article on the movie entitled "Before Gentrification was Cool, It was a Movie," Mike Hale praised the film for tackling the racial tension ensuing after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. and mentioned that the movie "["¦] would disappear after its 1970 release"”rarely shown and just as rarely discussed." At the risk of over-reliance on my critical faculties, I would like to theorize that the film is rarely seen and discussed for no more surprising reason than that it isn't very good.
Ashby followed up The Landlord with a movie that is so much better it's hard to even compare the two. Harold and Maude follows the death obsessed young protagonist (Bud Cort) as he meets and becomes enchanted by the elderly Maude (an excellent Ruth Gordon) who teaches him to appreciate his life. The film operates at a level of whimsy that leaves the rest of Asbhy's work far behind (and always seems to me like a very obvious influence on the work of Wes Anderson) and features an early example of the Manic Pixie Dream girl (and quite possible the oldest incarnation of said character, seeing as Maude is nearing 80 throughout the film), yet it is somehow played with just the right mixture of cloying cuteness and pitch black humor to ensure that it never (ok, rarely) goes over the top. Backed by an excellent soundtrack from Cat Stevens and filled with earned emotions that transcend the "of the times" feel of his previous film, Harold and Maude manages to be a very good film almost in spite of Ashby's lackluster direction. Roger Ebert, in an incredibly negative review, directly criticized Ashby, saying, "The visual style makes everyone look fresh from the wax museum"¦" and while I disagree with many of his points about the film, he isn't wrong here. In a movie that manages to be sweet when by all accounts it should feel saccharine, the direction is easily the film's weakest point.
After trying on the timely film and a flight of fancy, Ashby moved on to The Last Detail, a dramedy about two Navy sailors, Billy "badass" Buddusky (an Oscar nominated Jack Nicholson) and "Mule" Mulhall (Otis Young) who are assigned to escort Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid, nominated for Best Supporting Actor for the role) to Naval Prison, where he will serve a term of eight years for petty larceny. Along the way, the sailors decide to show Meadows a good time to make up for his unjust sentence, and tomfoolery ensues. Also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, The Last Detail can hardly be called a failure, yet again, Ashby's direction is the lowpoint. Where in Harold and Maude he managed to make everything look about three shades more drab than necessary to make his point, here it appears almost as if he has no point: perhaps this is the movie that taught Kevin Smith how to direct, as the camera, more often than not, is just pointed in a direction likely to capture the action and left alone thereafter.
Ashby next directed Shampoo, a sexual farce that remembers it's a satire occasionally, but often forgets to add the humor. The film follows George Roundy (Warren Beatty) a Beverly Hills hairdresser who gets around like Don Draper without the charm of the alcohol problems. Set on the eve of the election of Richard Nixon (and released after Watergate had been revealed, giving the film a sense that its setting should mean something, when it is mostly used to give the proceedings the vaguest hint of irony), the film follows George as he tries to avoid settling down with his girlfriend Jill (Goldie Hawn), uses his mistress Felicia (Lee Grant) for access to her wealthy husband Lester (Jack Warden), and then realizes his true love is his ex-girlfriend and Lester's current mistress Jackie (Julie Christie). It all sounds a great deal more complex and interesting than it appears in execution.
Moving ever forward toward completely different material, Ashby next directed the Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory, notable only for being the first film to utilize Steadicam technology. If you're thinking that this is an indication of Ashby's technical capabilities, think again: the Steadicam was invented by cinematographer Garret Brown, who, in association with Director of Photography Haskell Wexler (who won Best Cinematography for his work) gave the film its occasionally dynamic visual style. Bound for Glory is a movie you should see for one of three reasons: 1. You are enough of a film geek to care about the first use of Steadicam, 2. You really love the music of Woody Guthrie, or 3. You are desperately curious what a young David Carradine (who plays Guthrie) looks like. Spoiler alert: he looks a lot like old David Carradine.
Ashby's greatest film, and the only one for which I can argue his unassuming visual style actually improves the work, is 1979's Being There. The movie is an arch satire of the self-centered obliviousness of people in power, following a mentally handicapped gardener named Chance (Oscar nominated Peter Sellers in perhaps his best performance) who is cast out of the only home he's ever known when his previous employer dies. Chance wanders the city until he is hit by a wealthy socialite Eve Rand (Shirley MacClaine) and brought back to her mansion to recover. There, the obliviousness of those around him leaves him mistaken as a wealthy businessman named Chauncey Gardiner, whose simple statements about gardening are often mistaken for wise and insightful allegories about business and life. Chance becomes close with Eve's wealthy and seriously ill husband Ben (Best Supporting Actor winner Melvyn Douglas), and eventually the President of the United States (Jack Warden) all along the way to accidentally becoming a prominent and well respected member of the American elite. Being There is brilliant, hilarious, and insightful, and Ashby's simple style actually seems to mirror the way that Chance views the world (though, like his protagonist, I am now left wondering if Ashby stumbled into directing an excellent film because his already unassuming style happened to fit it perfectly).
Following Being There, Ashby fell out of favor in Hollywood, making several more films but receiving little critical attention before his death in 1986. Generally it is fairly easy to determine how well-directed a movie is, yet with Ashby behind the camera, I am often left wondering if any of my favorite directorial moments are actually done with purposefully or if Ashby found his best film by accidentally making one that closely mirrored his style. It would be impossible to call Hal Ashby an auteur, and indeed, even calling him a good director often seems like a stretch. Yet Ashby managed to make two movies I love and happened to be in charge when several other people turned in excellent work, whether it be actors, writers, or cinematographers. Perhaps Hal Ashby's greatest contribution to film wasn't Being There. It's possible, in fact, that his greatest accomplishment was just being there.
Read more Whose Film Is It Anyway? here
Coming up on Who's Film Is It Anyway?:
3/27: Michael Bay
4/24: Christopher Nolan
5/8: Notes on the Auteur Theory in 2011
Want to keep tabs on all of our updates? follow us on twitter @reviewtobenamed (follow us here).