BY BRIAN COMFORT
I don’t believe in cosmic coincidences. There must be a reason why two directors I dig are both named Hal. And I am not even going to get started on Hal Holbrook or some computer in some movie. Even though I have no idea what the cosmic significance of “Hal” might be, and am even less interested in expending any energy to ferret it out, I am still going to kick off this column by talking about movies by guys named Hal, Ashby and Hartley chronologically.
Hal Ashby made a remarkable string of movies in the 1970s but remains one of the lesser-discussed directors of the so-called American film renaissance of the 1970s. Nobody fails to mention Coppola, Altman, Scorsese, Lucas and Spielberg—even though many credit him with also ruining this era of personal, thoughtful moviemaking with the remarkable success of Jaws and its straight-up thriller formula. And rightly so. But Hal Ashby?
Ashby edited films for Norman Jewison, including winning an Oscar in 1967 for In the Heat of the Night, before he turned to directing with The Landlord in 1970. The next year he made the classic Harold and Maude. Any movie with Ruth Gordon is already a step ahead of a movie without Ruth Gordon, and in this one she is perfect as Maude, the septuagenarian love interest of teenaged Harold, played by Bud Cort. Harold is an alienated kid bent on trying to kill himself until he meets Maude, a woman in her twilight years who lives life with relish.
The plot is absurd in a lot of ways, but its zaniness is always connected to a deeper reserve of emotion. Harold, a rich kid forsaken by a self-absorbed mother, stages lavish suicide attempts as a hilarious and poignant demand to be noticed. With Maude he is able to find more productive ways to challenge the traditional authority around him and critique the alienation that his mother’s indifference has engendered. Though the relationship between the two seems farcical on many levels, at its core it is based on true and mutual respect and sets us up for a powerful ending that begs us to embrace life rather than give in to alienation.
If you like any of Wes Anderson’s movies (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums), as I do, you should really watch Harold and Maude. Anderson clearly owes some debts to Ashby, from thematic elements down to choice of music.
Ashby went on to direct Jack Nicholson in The Last Detail; Warren Beatty Julie Christie and Goldie Hawn in Shampoo; David Carradine as Woody Guthrie in the biopic Bound for Glory; and Jon Voight, Jane Fonda and Bruce Dern in Coming Home, one of the first movies to deal with the Vietnam War realistically. Oscar nominations abounded.
Then came my favorite Ashby film, Being There, in 1979. Peter Sellers plays a simple-minded middle-aged gardener who has spent his entire life working for the Old Man and his knowledge of the outside world comes only from the television that is his constant companion. When the Old Man dies, Chance the gardener is set loose on the streets of Washington D.C.
Chance’s interactions with the larger world show the disjuncture between reality and reality as portrayed on television. The movie foregrounds the absurdities of racial and gender stereotyping on TV and offers instead a more inclusive and hopeful way of understanding the world.
Chance eventually arrives at the mansion of a rich businessman who has the ear of the President of the US. He is misunderstood to be Chauncey Gardner rather than Chance the gardener and the movie really hits its pace. Chance becomes what people want him to be: an urbane, brilliant political strategist for the rich old man and the president, and a strong, silent type for the lonely soon-to-be widow of the rich old man. Ashby gently pokes fun at the way that people misunderstand Chance and use him as basically a portal for their own wants and needs, but the film never crosses the line into mockery, though at times it easily could have (especially in the hilarious bedroom scene with Shirley MacLaine as the rich man’s wife). The desires people project onto Chance are deep and meaningful rather than shallow and glib. Thus, by gently drawing them out through satire we can identify more closely with them rather than distance ourselves as we might with mockery. Ashby’s touch here is perfect.
If Ashby worked well within the mainstream of Hollywood, the second Hal, Hartley, is a decidedly more independent filmmaker (though this says more about the times in which they worked than about the content and style of their films). Hartley’s films often explore the suburban anomie of the late 20th century with a dry, subtle wit and slow pacing. Since his first feature, The Unbelievable Truth in 1989, Hartley has made 11 movies. I’ll just talk about two that I’ve seen recently.
No Such Thing (2001) follows a young, naïve journalist played by Sarah Polley to Iceland, where she encounters a real-life monster who drinks too much and has a decidedly misanthropic take on life. The hard-drinking monster explains his existence as a necessary check on the insincerity and banality of humankind, and there is nothing it wants more than to kill itself. But it can’t, because, well, it’s a mythical monster.
Polley’s Beatrice will have none of it though, and her innocence is wonderfully played against the monster’s pessimism. It is a strange movie, at once seeming realistic and completely far-fetched. But in the end, it made me feel good without being beat over the head with it. There were no overt paeans to any essential kind of human goodness, but rather an acknowledgement of our flaws and shortcomings and how these can, if we accept them, draw us closer instead of driving us apart.
I first saw Trust (1990), Hartley’s second feature film, in the mid-1990s sometime in the wee hours of an insomnia-beset night. It was like three in the morning and I was flipping through the cable movie channels hoping to find some mindless thing that might put me to sleep. Instead, I was up until daylight.
Adrienne Shelly plays Maria, a high school dropout who announces nonchalantly one evening that she is pregnant. Upon hearing the news, her father slaps her and then dies of a heart attack. Martin Donovan is Matthew, an electronics whiz with a violent temper and a suspicious past. Despite the set-up and quick development of the opening scenes, the movie then settles in to move at a measured pace, giving us plenty of time to get to know the details of Maria’s and Matthew’s personalities much as they are getting to know one another. The characters are exceptionally well drawn and well acted, and though the plot and many scenes hinge on unlikely circumstances, it resonates.
Trust exploits rather than falls back on clichés. For instance, all the people who get off a commuter train are dressed exactly the same—at once poking fun at the “Organization Man” conformity of suburban life and at the same time offering an explicit foil with which we can measure the nonconformist desires of Maria and Matthew. But Hartley goes even further in making the man Maria and Matthew were looking for among those doubled projections into an individual with his own unconventional needs and desires. Thus the cliché is used in two ways: to help define the nonconformity of the protagonists but also to question the conformity of the conformists.
It’s a moving film, a love story with two very unconventional characters who are not simply quirky but decidedly different and committed to that difference. They are set apart from a world seems to conspire to alienate them, but in their alienation they find common ground and hope.
All these movies are comedies that look at lives on the margins, not for quick and cheap laughs but to really explore how the margins can offer comforts and opportunities that the center cannot hold. Go ahead and give them a try, stick them in your queue!