Movie Review – Hal

by Paul Preston
The Movie Guys

Every now and then, I get on genre-specific movie kicks. Right now I’m on a documentaries-about-artists kick, thanks to two great ones I’ve seen recently – Every Act of Life, a strong doc about the life of writer Terrence McNally and Hal, a career once-over of filmmaker Hal Ashby. Watch either (although both are recommended) of these movies and you’ll be charged-up with the desire to talk about art, go see some art, or even more so, MAKE some art.


Hal Ashby is one of those filmmakers like Bob Fosse who didn’t make enough movies. Ashby and Fosse both died too soon, certainly a reason for the stunted output, but although Ashby made a decades-worth of films more than Fosse, his films of the ‘80s were mired in studio notes and meddling that marginalized his genius.

For those of you not in the know, Hal Ashby was a dynamic filmmaker who helmed some of the most iconic cinema of the 1970s – Shampoo, Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Coming Home and Being There were some of his films that show his flair for not being bogged down by a single genre. One thing I learned from the doc is that he was already an Oscar winner when he first started directing. Hal also covers Ashby’s early career as an editor, working many times with the great Norman Jewison. Ashby won his golden statue for editing the Best Picture winner In the Heat of the Night. The two kept a correspondence up until Ashby’s death at 59, although it was mainly Ashby writing to Jewison, pouring his heart out about his ups and downs in the movie industry.


Which brings me to what this doc mostly covers – how to maintain artistic integrity in the face of non-artistic pushback. That’s Ashby’s directing career, unfortunately. Most of his legendary films were beloved in SPITE of the studios that gave him a job. From project to project, Ashby would have to fight for his vision, argue with studio heads and rail against re-cuts.

There aren’t a lot of video clips of Ashby. Sure, there’s a clip of him winning his Oscar, but many of his thoughts are provided via several audio recording interviews where Hal spoke his peace. Director Amy Scott and editors Sean Jarrett and Brian Morrow (and Scott herself) do a fine job of never allowing the doc itself to become flat, delivering the audio with on-screen text and clever visuals. I think Hal would be happily endorsed by Ashby himself, as it shares his film’s whimsical and full-of-life qualities. Jewison also appears and shares many of the letters he shared with Ashby. Both the letters and Jewison are full of equal parts charm and spirit.


Equal parts charm and spirit can successfully sum up Ashby’s films as well. Hal serves as both a quality trip down memory lane for the die-hard Ashby fan, but is certainly a solid primer for the uninitiated (save for a few spoilers that pop up when discussing the films, like the ending of Coming Home!). Scott brings in noteworthy subjects for testimonials, too, including popular filmmakers like Judd Apatow and Alexander Payne (who’s best work I think amply mimics Ashby). Also, there are great discoveries, too, like getting to know editor Robert Jones as he relays stories about Ashby’s work protocol.

Ashby claimed the studios killed him and Hal backs that case for him. They were certainly no friend. This film is a reminder to stick to your guns, artists. Hal did, and the result is in his extraordinary work. But the fight to make your art, is worth a watch, and Hal lays it out with a punch.
Directed by: Amy Scott
Release Date: September 7, 2018
Run Time: 90 Minutes
Country: USA
Distributor: Oscilloscope


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