Hal Ashby's status in film-critic circles as an underrated genius has become, by now, somewhat overstated. If he was overlooked as film historians began the process of lionizing the great auteurs of the 1970s, books like Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Mark Harris's Pictures at a Revolution have gone a long way toward affirming him as one of the essential, unique, and tragic filmmakers of that essential, unique, and tragic decade. Still, it's about time. Now, Northwest Film Forum is joining the hallelujah chorus with its forthcoming series of the late director's incredible streak from 1970 to 1979—The Landlord (1970), Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Bound for Glory (1976), Coming Home (1978), and Being There (1979). This series includes two interesting novice works, two acknowledged minor classics that are actually major classics, two shatteringly great films that somehow no one seems to talk about, and one perfect diamond that everyone adores.
It's easy enough to see why Ashby got lost in the sea of Scorseses, Kubricks, Coppolas, De Palmas, Friedkins, and even Altmans: Where the '70s darlings developed ostentatious visual and structural styles, his work has no obvious hook. If there is a visual signature, it's the preference of wide and long shots over close-ups—not exactly the cinema of the jugular. The movement of the camera doesn't call attention to itself or the director. The films are not about reinventing the cinema or establishing the thumbprint of the auteur—they're resolutely pre-postmodern. They're also beautiful, morally complex, emotionally involving, and straight-up entertaining. Some of them were big hits. But Ashby, who directed his first film when he was 40 and died before he was 60, seems to have had no impulse to interpose himself between the stories and the audience. In a period that wasn't called the "me decade" for nothing, he preferred to stay out of the way (aside from the odd Hitchcock cameo), allowing a tone, not a style, to emerge as the grand unifying element of his body of work.
The plot summaries can all be delivered in a line—alienated young weirdo makes friends with a zany old lady who teaches him about love; two crusty navy sailors escort a third to military prison and decide to show him a good time on the way; uncompromising singer from the Dust Bowl travels Depression-era America in search of an uncompromised life; and so forth. The people are the interesting part: Woody Guthrie refusing to stop singing his political songs even when it means losing his shot at a major career in Bound for Glory, George Roundy failing to secure a bank loan in Shampoo, Buddusky and Mule storming away from Portsmouth cursing an emasculating asshole marine (without noticing they're marching in lockstep) in The Last Detail. Every one of Ashby's '70s classics depicts the conflict between meaningful individuality and familial, social, economic, military, industrial, or governmental institutions that have no room for individuals. Though inarticulate in some essential way, the protagonists, even the antagonists, yearn to express themselves, and sometimes succeed. (The exception, of course, is Chance in Being There, who has absolutely nothing to say, but manages to communicate nonetheless.) Often, they find they are united by their common, though opposing, struggle against the same institutions. In Coming Home, Jane Fonda transforms from Aqua Netted military wife who won't let her friend switch off a TV blaring "The Star-Spangled Banner" to frizzy-haired free spirit having an affair with a paralyzed veteran while her husband goes crazy in Vietnam. It might have been a simple story. The film might've simply assigned heroes and villains in its love triangle—Jon Voight's heroic-but-crippled crusader, Bruce Dern's square patriot. But Ashby knows it's a better film if the housewife is already ill at ease and even slightly relieved when her husband ships out (though she'd never admit it); it's a better film if when the husband comes home to discover she's been having an affair with a crippled but righteous vet, he understands why and withdraws, even as it tears him apart.
Another great thing about Ashby in the context of the '70s renaissance: He wasn't a cynic. There are sad endings (especially in Shampoo), and ambiguous endings (The Last Detail, Coming Home), but not hopeless ones. The system may win, but it never truly prevails. Or maybe it does, but the struggle goes on anyway. Ashby was—on film, if not in life—an optimist despite being a realist. He celebrated the humanity of his underdog characters even as he mined the drama of individualism colliding with a cold world. His optimism was so powerful and palpable as to constitute not just a worldview, but an aesthetic philosophy: optimism-ism. The camera moves may be conventional. The ideas are anything but.
It may simply be a narrative conceit torn from the pages of Biskind to say that such an artistic stance had no place in Reagan-era Hollywood/America, but it doesn't feel like a coincidence that Ashby's incredible streak stopped cold in 1979. Though he made films that were more personal, the image that strikes me as the most revealing of Ashby's relationship to the world of art and commerce is from Being There, when Chance exits the house into the dirty D.C. streets. Dressed like a 1930s dandy—topcoat, homburg, gloves, umbrella, and alligator bag in tow—he strides tentatively through streets grimy with debris and walls marked with unrecognizable graffiti ("America ain't shit 'cause the white man's got a god complex"), each step an uncertain gamble for a vulnerable stranger meeting the real world for the first time. The music is a disorientingly alien Brazilian disco-funk arrangement of Strauss's "Also Sprach Zarathustra."
He clearly doesn't belong in this environment. But he's bound for glory.