The 1970s was an extremely rich decade for American independent cinema. The contribution to this epoch of titanic directors like Coppola, Scorsese and Spielberg is naturally well-known. Yet the period was notably fertile in secondary talent, and few directors turned out to be more in touch with the zeitgeist than the ex-editor Hal Ashby whose seven movies made over a nine-year period – The Landlord (1970), Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1976), Bound for Glory (1976), Coming Home (1978) and Being There (1979) – constitute a veritable portrait of this turbulent time.
Amy Scott’s documentary traces Ashby’s career starting from its unpromising origins in Mormon Utah, where his father committed suicide when the child was just 12. Moving to California after two failed early marriages, Ashby found his career break when the Canadian Norman Jewison took him on as an editor. An Oscar followed almost immediately for his work on In the Heat of the Night (1967). Right from the beginning of his collaboration with Jewison, Ashby’s immense skill and diligence (he would spend whole days and night in the editing suite) was combined with an extreme anti-authoritarian streak that – when he started to make films himself – expressed itself equally in the zany surrealism of black-comic fables such as Harold and Maude and Being There, as it did in the more naturalistic psychological landscape of anti-war, anti-racist movies like The Last Detail, Bound for Glory and Coming Home.
The director by all accounts was a warm-hearted human being, blessed with many friends. The testimony of colleagues like Jane Fonda, Bruce Dern, Jon Voight and Jewison himself is an engaging aspect of this documentary: each of them speaks highly of Ashby’s commitment and professionalism. Yet his very idealism may have made him vulnerable to other slowly emerging forces at work in society. At any event, the commercially-minded 1980s – the “Reagan years” – didn’t treat him well. Ashby’s projects from that decade are largely forgotten now. The director died of pancreatic cancer aged 59, in 1988. Amy Scott covers his declining years with the sympathy and intelligence that is evident throughout the whole of this deeply-felt and hugely satisfying documentary.
Amy E. Scott
Amy E. Scott is a director/ editor/ producer based in Los Angeles. Amy has been making films, commercials, music videos and shorts for over 15 years. She studied Film and Video Studies at the University of Oklahoma before moving to Chicago to work as a media producer for the Univer-sity of Chicago, a documentary film instructor at Chicago Filmmakers, head digital archivist to Studs Terkel at the Chicago History Museum and editor/music supervisor for The Kindling Group. Her work has premiered at Sundance, SXSW, TIFF, HotDocs, and Frameline and has been exhi-bited on the Sundance Channel, IFC, PBS, HBO and Logo. Most recently, her directorial debut Hal premiered at Sundance 2018.