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Review: Hal

Amy Scott pries beneath the calm surface of her bearded and bespectacled subject to reveal the silent rage that fueled his work.

2.5
Hal
Photo: Oscilloscope Laboratories

An obsession with film editing permeates Hal, Amy Scott’s documentary about the life and work of pioneering New Hollywood filmmaker Hal Ashby. In an early scene, Ashby remembers a piece of advice given to him at the start of his career: “The best school for a director is in the cutting room.” It’s fitting, then, that Hal begins and ends inside the dark confines of an edit suite, a familiar environment to Ashby, who established himself as an editor before he made the move to the director’s chair. “When he really got into problems in editing, he’d smoke some pot and work all night,” notes Norman Jewison, a close friend, mentor, and frequent collaborator of the deceased filmmaker, and as such the documentary’s most enlightening interviewee.

Hal follows in the footsteps of De Palma, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s documentary about another essential New Hollywood filmmaker, Brian De Palma. That film is simultaneously insightful and exhausting, playing like a semester’s worth of information stuffed into a single two-hour lesson. Scott, a longtime editor herself, elects for a different approach with Hal, which reflects her appreciation for Ashby and his undervalued masterpieces in all of its frames. The documentary is a kaleidoscopic burst of photographs, archival recordings, film clips, interviews, and excerpts from personal letters. It adheres to a fairly linear narrative, briefly touching on Ashby’s childhood in Ogden, Utah (“Never a Mormon,” he declares in one of his letters), before settling into the cultivation of Ashby’s hippie lifestyle in California and his surprising Hollywood success with films like Shampoo and Being There.

For much of its running time, Hal depicts its subject as a hippie folk hero. Ashby’s films were major studio releases that spoke directly to the injustices of racism, poverty, and the Vietnam War. Their subject matter is often grim and unconventional for such releases (the death-obsessed Harold from Harold and Maude stages elaborate fake suicides and falls in love with the septuagenarian Maude), but Ashby grounded his work in playful, observational humor. And that humor, like his wide-eyed sense of wonder, influenced a generation of filmmakers, including Alexander Payne, Judd Apatow, and Adam McKay, each of whom appears here as a talking head.

Just before the film slips into hero worship, Scott pries beneath the calm surface of her bearded and bespectacled subject to reveal the silent rage that fueled his work. We learn that Ashby’s father committed suicide when he was 12 years old and that Ashby had married and divorced before reaching 20; he left his first wife and child behind in Utah when he moved to Los Angeles to look for work. This information, when juxtaposed with the fake suicide scenes in Harold and Maude, offers a new perspective on Ashby’s dark humor and emotionally honest approach to the subject matter of his films.

In fact, it was honesty—or rather, the lack of it—that dismantled Ashby’s career. The documentary’s coda details the man’s struggles to make personal movies into the ‘80s and his acrimonious battles with duplicitous studio executives. Scott is sympathetic to Ashby’s demise, allowing her interviewees to lament how the suits used their power to publicly disgrace Ashby and label him as an erratic and unemployable junkie. “I’ve never understood the idea that I would ever destroy…my work,” Ashby states with a disbelieving laugh at one point. Like most real-life Hollywood stories, Hal eventually reveals itself as a cautionary tale. As the film ends on the shimmering light of a cutting room’s projector, we’re left to ponder the personal cost of obsession and the sacrifices one makes to achieve a public platform.

Director: Amy Scott Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2018 Buy: Video

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