Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Being Here

"I like to watch."

My first job in the movie business was as an usher at the Alpha 3 Cinema in Louisville, Kentucky. I was a senior in high school and Alpha 3 was the local "arthouse" theater. Or at least it tried to be. The summer after I graduated, Alpha 3 underwent a procedure we euphemistically referred to as "twinning". That meant that what had once been a fairly cool theater with a full-sized screen that showed intelligent films for a small but discerning audience was butchered by the forces of capitalism and ignorance into two smaller theaters, one of which continued (for a while) to show decent movies and another that showed commercial crap.

I didn't know it at the time, but it was the beginning of the end of a golden era. Someone once said, you never know you're in a golden era until it's too late. I had grown up during a renaissance of Hollywood filmmaking. Movies like Bonnie and Clyde, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Patton, The French Connection, The Godfather and Jaws had turned the old studio system on its head and breathed fresh life into worn-out genres. And in 1977, a movie called Star Wars completely rewrote the book. These same movies that had ushered in the era of maverick directors had also ushered in the era of huge weekend grosses, cookie-cutter sequels and massive marketing campaigns. Hollywood knows a good thing when it sees it.

But for a time, we lived in a world where passionate young directors threw convention out the window, breaking every rule in Hollywood to put their personal visions onto the screen. And the result was some of the best movies ever made.

Some of these movies wound up at the Alpha 3 and provided my early education as a filmmaker. Even before I started working at 'Alpha' I was frequent patron. My older sister Cindy worked there for a while and so did my younger sister Susan. I saw a lot of great movies there before and after the "twinning". I remember seeing a midnight showing of Fantasia on the big screen. That was also the night I learned that there were quite a lot of potheads in Louisville.

It was at Alpha that I saw Robert Altman's brilliant Nashville and the dreamlike 3 Women. I saw Bob Rafelson's Stay Hungry with the then unknown Arnold Schwarzenegger. I saw Annie Hall at Alpha with my girlfriend Christy who worked the box office. I saw films by Francois Truffaut, Clint Eastwood, Milos Forman and Martin Scorcese and many others. But there was one movie I saw at Alpha that really knocked me out, and made me think a lot about someday making my own movies. That movie was called Harold and Maude and it was made by a guy named Hal Ashby.

Recently I read a very interesting book called Easy Riders, Raging Bulls that tells the story of how a group of young directors infiltrated Hollywood in the early 70's and radically changed the landscape of movie making. Guys like Altman, Coppola, Bogdanovich, Scorcese, Spielberg, Hopper, Friedkin, Rafelson, Lucas and DePalma. And Hal Ashby. I never realized how much Ashby influenced me until I read this book and looked at the list of movies he made. Between 1971 and 1979 Ashby made six of the coolest movies ever to come out of Hollywood. And each of them made a strong impression on me.

Harold and Maude (1971) was Ashby's second movie as a director. He had worked as an editor for several years and earned an Oscar for his work on In the Heat of the Night. What really got me about this movie, besides the hilariously dark tone and the bizarre relationship between a young man and a sweetly crazy elderly woman, was the way Ashby used music and imagery to create moods and evoke the inner life of the characters. He used the songs of Cat Stevens for the all of the music in the movie. This was back when Cat Stevens was huge.

The Last Detail (1973) was one of Ashby's movies I didn't see until I was in college and had the benefit of the Wesleyan Film Series. With a gritty script by Robert Towne (that drew fire from the studio for its liberal use of the "F" word) and a signature performance by Jack Nicholson, the movie is classic early 70's: anti-genre, anti-heroic, anti-Hollywood.

Shampoo (1975) teamed Ashby and Towne with the poster boy for "new" Hollywood, Warren Beatty. The story, set on the eve of Richard Nixon's first election as president, captures the shifting values and vague morality of a new generation as the old generation tightens its grip on the political power structure. The movie could just as easily be about the new generation of filmmakers trying to break away from the old studio system. But Ashby provides no easy answers or uncompromised characters. All are flawed yet still sympathetic.

Bound For Glory (1976) played at Alpha 3 and I must have watched it half a dozen times. It was my introduction to the Woody Guthrie legend and the imagery of the film is as indelible as the imagery in Woody's songs. But even in this mythic portrayal, Ashby gives us a complex and difficult hero. Not all of Woody's choices are easy to accept. In the end it is a bittersweet tribute to an American icon.

Coming Home (1978) is one of those rare movies that can transcend mere entertainment and serve as a catalyst for social change, and in this case even healing. The story focuses on two Vietnam vets, played by John Voight and Bruce Dern, and their struggle to cope with returning to "the world." Jane Fonda plays a woman who is married to Dern's character, a gung-ho career officer, but falls in love with Voight's character, a paraplegic. Once again Ashby manages to show both sides of a complex issue with humanity and balance. In the climactic sequence, Voight delivers a heartfelt speech to a group of high-schoolers, imploring them to consider that they have a choice to go to war or not. Meanwhile, Dern's character tragically loses his battle with his post-war demons and ends his life.

Being There (1979) is Ashby's last great movie. Peter Sellers plays 'Chance', a dimwitted gardener whose simplistic observations and accidental friendship with a rich and powerful man set him on the path to becoming the next president, without having a clue as to what is happening. The idea that a complete simpleton could be elected president seemed far-fetched at the time, but of course that was before Reagan and "W". Sellers' low-key performance combines masterful comic timing with honesty, sweetness and innocence. Shirley MacLaine is hilarious as the wife of Chance's wealthy pal. I also loved Ashby's use of music in this movie, including the song "Basketball Jones" by Cheech and Chong and Eumir Deodato's jazzed-up version of Also Sprach Zarathustra (also known as the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey.)

Unfortunately, Hal Ashby didn't fare too well in the 80's. The golden age had ended and the era of the studio executives and producers had begun. Movies were being made based on marketable formulas featuring likable, one-dimensional heros. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas recycled Han Solo into Indiana Jones and spun off two sequels. Scorcese and Coppola both struggled to find audiences. Bogdanovich crashed and burned. Hopper went underground.

But Ashby's fate was the cruelest. His legendary drug-use and paranoia drove him further and further from the mainstream while his obsessive editing style managed to piss-off the last few studio execs willing to work with him. Realizing he needed to turn his life around, Ashby quit doing drugs and tried to adopt a more business-friendly persona. But nobody was buying it. Ashby was treated as an outcast in Hollywood. Adding injury to insult, Ashby developed pancreatic cancer and died in 1988.

It almost seems like the change in Hollywood's business climate killed Ashby as much as the cancer. Ashby flourished in a time when even studio execs were willing to take risks, bend rules and push the envelope. But when the big corporations gobbled up the studios, there was little breathing room for creative spirits like Ashby. What's ironic is that without the creative spirit and the risks, there would be no Hollywood in the first place. Oh sure, you can always make a dozen sequels to Pirates of the Caribbean or rip off another comic book or put Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller in a locked room and watch them endlessly improvise "clever" lines. But if you really want to make great movies then you have to take bold risks. You have to give the Ashbys of the world a chance.

Fortunately, there are still a few creative spirits left in Hollywood. The rise of the independent film movement has provided a home for some of them. Of course, many of the so-called independent companies are actually owned by the studios and are still being governed by bottom-liners as opposed to visionaries. But it's better than nothing.

I wonder what kinds of movies Ashby might be making if he were still around today. Those are the kinds of movies I'd like to make.