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"Movies by Hal Ashby" @ BAM

Updated through 5/6.

"A long-time editor, first for William Wyler and then for Norman Jewison, Hal Ashby was nearly forty when Jewison produced his directorial debut, The Landlord (1970)," writes Dan Callahan for Alt Screen, "and while the visual tact of Wyler and the social consciousness of Jewison never left him, Ashby brought to his own productions a distinctive flavor that was his alone. He was such a dedicated pot smoker that his friends sometimes called him 'Hashby,' and he would direct his films with a kind of advanced on-set stoner passivity, his touch so light that it often seemed like benign neglect. But it was Hashby's ability to recede into the background that enabled some very talented performers to unleash their wildest instincts, and it was Hashby's ever-ready and undemanding affection — the fuzzy-soft, bleary-eyed bemusement with which he regarded people — that gave his films their distinctive vibe, that imbued his characters with something like a state of grace."

"A vocal proponent of collaborative filmmaking, Ashby benefited from strong, authorial contributors," writes Nick Pinkerton in the Voice. "Screenwriter Bill Gunn, later a director himself, stamped his name onto The Landlord's confrontational satire, with Beau Bridges's honky gentrifier busting into a Park Slope row house, while The Last Detail (1973) and Shampoo (1975) are both anchored by their leading men — respectively, Nicholson and taskmaster producer/co-writer/star Warren Beatty. Behind both of those superficially anecdotal films is a tight Robert Towne script, spun by Ashby in the most unaffected manner."

"Being There might be the echt-Ashby film," suggests Simon Abrams in the L. "Adapted by Jerzy Kosinski from his own novel, the film forces viewers to root for a simpleton. The sheltered life that Peter Sellers's middle-aged but mentally child-like gardener has led makes him ill-equipped to deal with the perils of the outside world. When he's threatened at knifepoint by a young thug, he pitifully reaches for his remote control. The look on Sellers's face in this scene is gutting and very funny. The fact that Chance, Sellers' character, gets as far as he does not only implicitly proves The Landlord's skeptical but sketched-out racial politics, it also proves the prevailing philosophy of Ashby's films: 'Life is a state of mind,' as Melvyn Douglas's stolid and soon-to-be-dead kingmaker laments…. Being There, which also happens to be a parable about a complacent culture that finally gets the messiah it deserves, Ashby's most complex and satisfying film."

Movies by Hal Ashby opens tomorrow at BAM and runs through May 24. Back in the summer of 2008, I pulled together a roundup for GreenCine Daily, and I'm delighted (and surprised) to find that most of the links are still intact. Along with career overviews from Rob Nelson for Moving Image Source and Sean Nelson in the Stranger, you can still revisit Jennifer Wachtell's piece for Good in which she asks Wes Anderson, Judd Apatow, Alexander Payne, David O Russell and Jason Schwartzman for their takes on Ashby. There's a followup, too, from Joe Leydon.

The following April, by which time Aaron Hillis had taken the reins at GCD, he spoke with Nick Dawson about his book, Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel.

Update, 5/6: The Playlist writes up each and every film in the series.

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