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Hal Ashby (#110 of 5)

Venice Film Festival 2013 Gerontophilia, Tracks, & Why Don’t You Play in Hell?

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Venice Film Festival 2013: Gerontophilia, Tracks, & Why Don’t You Play in Hell?
Venice Film Festival 2013: Gerontophilia, Tracks, & Why Don’t You Play in Hell?

Mahatma Gandhi is—and always has been—many things to many people, but a sex symbol? In Canadian provocateur Bruce LaBruce’s bluntly titled Gerontophilia, a hugely enlarged rendering of the Indian politician’s visage looms, wall-mounted, over the bed of young protagonist Lake (Pier-Gabriel Lajoie). It’s a sly sight gag, pointing both to the ostensibly straight Lake’s burgeoning desire for aging male flesh, and functioning as a subversive re-contextualization of the familiar. This goes for the subject matter, which has been addressed in films like Hal Ashby’s evergreen Harold and Maude, but still remains a taboo—as does LaBruce’s work. Anyone familiar with the director’s thematically transgressive, sexually explicit canon (No Skin Off My Ass, Skin Flick) might be expecting a result even more startling than usual given the premise, but Gerontophilia may be his most formally conservative film to date.

Summer of ‘86: 8 Million Ways to Die

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Summer of ‘86: <em>8 Million Ways to Die</em>
Summer of ‘86: <em>8 Million Ways to Die</em>

Released (dumped) in the early part of the summer of 1986, 8 Million Ways to Die turned out to be the final film of one of the most endearing filmmakers from the New Hollywood era. While guys like Altman, Scorsese, Lucas, Spielberg and DePalma may have made more immediate and galvanizing films during the 1970s, Hal Ashby’s unbroken streak of human-scale masterpieces is pretty much unprecedented. Beginning with 1970’s The Landlord and ending with 1979’s Being There (with Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory and Coming Home in-between), Ashby represented all that was good about socially conscious studio filmmaking. Then, almost overnight, he was out of fashion with Hollywood. In the 1980s, movies started to be packaged, and Ashby’s modest humanism in films like Second-Hand Hearts and The Slugger’s Wife failed to connect with audiences. His Iconoclast stature got him labeled as “trouble” in the ’80s. By the time Ashby got the job directing 8 Million Ways to Die it was almost seen as a last-ditch effort to make a hit—a fallen master’s attempt at redemption.

The Landlord: Whose Dream Is It, Anyway?

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<em>The Landlord</em>: Whose Dream Is It, Anyway?
<em>The Landlord</em>: Whose Dream Is It, Anyway?

How desperate was Hollywood in 1970? It let Hal Ashby make The Landlord, a crazed, profane racial satire written by negroes. It was the dawn of the New Hollywood. Studios that had failed to pull Americans away from their televisions with colossal epics like Cleopatra targeted the youth market with relatively cheap flicks by new filmmakers. Ashby, the Oscar-nominated editor of In the Heat of the Night, must have seemed like a safe bet, even after he grew a long, shaggy beard and expressed hippie sympathies. The support of Ashby’s commercially successful mentor, Night director Norman Jewison—who signed on as the film’s producer—surely helped.

5 for the day: Jack Nicholson

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5 for the day: Jack Nicholson
5 for the day: Jack Nicholson

More than any actor of his generation, except maybe his buddy Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson has become not just an actor but a brand. Whether sitting courtside at Lakers games, literally talking out of his ass during a Golden Globe acceptance speech, or smirking at us from the silver screen, Jack is always Jack. While some may consider this an acting weakness, I disagree. Jack may always be “playing Jack,” but he scores a multitude of symphonies with that particular note. Here are five performance pieces from one of Noo Joisey’s favorite sons.

1. The Last Detail (1973). The story goes that Columbia Pictures passed on M*A*S*H because “people don’t say ’fuck’ in movies from Columbia Pictures.” The Last Detail is a Columbia Picture, and as befitting the naval occupation of its main characters, every other word is some variation of For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. “I am the motherfucking shore patrol, motherfucker!” screams “Bad Ass” Buddusky. “I am the motherfucking shore patrol!” Clearly, a lot had changed in the three years since Altman’s masterpiece. Scored, like “M*A*S*H, by Johnny Mandel, The Last Detail is an antiestablishment piece that uses the military as its object of rebellion. But Detail—written by Robert Towne and directed by Hal Ashby—is a smaller movie, and its ending is unrepentantly angry and bitter.

Like his fellow sailor Mule (Otis Young), Buddusky is a Navy lifer; both are dissatisfied with the Navy, but only Buddusky speaks his mind about how ass-backwards he finds his superior officer’s commands. Both are thrown together on the titular assignment: bringing 18-year old kleptomaniac Meadows (Randy Quaid) back to the brig so he can serve an eight year sentence for robbery. Bad Ass and Mule think the sentence, for robbing the favorite charity of a high ranking official’s wife, is overly harsh, and decide to show the young man a good time before he sacrifices his youth to the prison system. The journey is filled with prostitutes, drinking, swearing, fighting, betrayal of trust and more honesty than most contemporary movies could muster in a single frame.

Steadi’s Daddy: An Interview with Steadicam Inventor Garrett Brown

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Steadi’s Daddy: An Interview with Steadicam Inventor Garrett Brown
Steadi’s Daddy: An Interview with Steadicam Inventor Garrett Brown

Author’s Note: Since the Steadicam discussion seems to be flowering into something more than an argument about a piece of equipment, rather than change the subject with a totally different post, I’ll stay the course. What follows is reprint of an article I wrote about the history and aesthetics of the Steadicam, built around an interview with the device’s creator, Garrett Brown. It was originally published in the Winter 2005 issue of Film Festival Reporter magazine, which is edited by my friend Scott Bayer, a journalist and filmmaker.

Garrett Brown might be the most influential filmmaker that the moviegoing public hasn’t heard of. Throughout his long career, the 62-year old Philadelphian has been a mostly behind-the-scenes presence in the industry, working as cinematographer, cameraman, inventor and teacher. Yet his impact has been as profound as that of any auteur, star or studio executive, thanks to his greatest invention: the Steadicam, a combination camera and body harness that merged the improvisational freedom of the handheld shot with the elegance of the dolly, and expanded the frontiers of cinema.

In the 30 years since the camera made its debut in director Hal Ashby’s Woody Guthrie biography Bound for Glory—in a still-dazzling shot that began atop a high crane, drifted to earth and then wove through a camp full of migrant workers—the Steadicam has become a star player in some of the most visually and dramatically memorable sequences of the past three decades, sequences that advance the narrative while subtly commenting on the meaning and uses of movie language.