Film

Review: Hal is Filmmaker Hal Ashby’s Work and Life From Those Who Knew Him

Cinematic blindspots, those gaps in our film viewing history that mean we have to sheepishly admit to having not seen a certain classic or a hot new release, are a reality. Especially with the mountains of content to sift through these days, there’s no way to see everything. For me, one big blindspot is…well, pretty much anything made in the 1970s. It’s an era in filmmaking that, for whatever reason, I’ve not dug into too deeply. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The original Halloween. Blazing Saddles. Jaws. Jaws!

Hal

Image courtesy of Siskel Film Center

So a documentary focused on the life and work (and all-too-early passing) of Hal Ashby, whose career packed a lifetime of filmmaking achievements into a little over a decade, was a bit of a welcome discovery. Sure, I’ve seen Harold and Maude, and I even managed to check out Being There last year. But that’s just scratching the surface of Ashby’s body of work, one that continues to influenced filmmakers when the films were new decades ago and continue to do so today. Amy Scott, in her directorial debut, presents the people who knew and worked with him best alongside deep dives into a healthy swath of his filmography.

Norman Jewison, himself an acclaimed filmmaker with titles like Moonstruck and Fiddler on the Roof to his name, begins the film with such fondness for his dear, departed friend that it’s clear we’re in for a celebration of life and art. Sure enough, as the film unfolds, the likes of Jane Fonda, John Voight, Beau Bridges, Rosanna Arquette and more chime in to talk about what it was like to work with a filmmaker with such a vision and his unique approach to realizing it. From filming in unconventional sequences to setting his actors off on scenes without a script, Ashby was never afraid to break the rules in order to get what he was looking for.

As documentaries go, telling the story of a single person offers a fairly approachable narrative arc, as a life naturally has a beginning, a middle and an end. Of course, no one would want to watch a film so predictable, so the trick comes in imbuing that narrative arc with a bit of style and structure. Here, it’s in Ashby’s films, as each serves as a sort of chapter to the film’s 90-minute runtime. Exploring the music in Harold and Maude, the politics of Coming Home, or the social commentary of Being There becomes a bit of a masterclass in storytelling, directly from those who lived it.

All things considered, Hal is a fittingly well-built tribute to a man who’s best known for his masterful films; anything less would be a disservice to Ashby’s legacy. And as a primer for a decade’s worth of must-see films, particularly for those among us who profess to know a thing or two about the art form, it’s essential.

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