Perhaps the best thing Hal Ashby ever did was the closing cross-cutting sequence in Coming Home. As we watch Luke (Jon Voight) lecturing teenagers about the perils of Vietnam, as we watch Bruce Dern (Bob) going into the sea and to a likely death, and as we see Sally (Jane Fonda) coming out of the supermarket with her frizzy, assertive perm, so Ashby captures beautifully that horribly impossible problem of the forking path – of the life lead and not lead. Here we have three characters rearranging their lives in the context of Vietnam, with Luke the gung-ho soldier who’s come back a paraplegic; Sally the conservative yet adulterous wife of an army captain, and Bob, the captain returning from ’Nam not quite knowing what it was nor who he is, and finds his wife in love with Luke.
We mention this scene also because it touches upon elements that make Ashby so interesting filmmaker. This is the disjunctive cross-cut (the parallel montage that shows unparallel lives), the melancholic and the absurd that deepens his satiric edge, and the fascination with the passing of time. This disjunctiveness is evident in Ashby’s first film as director, The Landlord, and shows his heritage as an editor, working on films including The Cincinnati Kid and In the Heat of the Night. Born in 1929 in Utah, Ashby looked like he was aware of some forking paths of his own. Married and divorced twice by the age of twenty-one, and from a broken family, his father committed suicide when Ashby was twelve. Ashby later dropped out of high school, eventually attending Utah State University; afterwards doing various odd jobs before finding work as an editor’s assistant in LA.
The Landlord opens with a shot of a hippie wedding, followed by a teacher asking children in a classroom how to live, before giving us a direct to camera address in medium long shot as central character Elgar (Beau Bridges), from a wealthy family, sits and talks in the family garden on a sun-lounger, while the film then cuts to a shot of a black man crossing the street. The disjunctive cross-cutting incorporates the nature of a question – what sort of choices can we make, what choices we’re expected to make and what choices we are on occasion forced to make? The beginning of The Landlord and the end of Coming Home capture well this problem, and it allows Ashby’s work to possess a melancholy that is much greater than the fish out of water theme of The Landlord, the mismatched romance of Coming Home, the womanizing indecision of Shampoo, the absurd love affair between the youthful Harold and the pensioner Maude in Harold and Maude, the journey north in The Last Detail as two naval veterans deliver a young recruit to prison for a misdemeanour, the gardener perceived to have great wisdom by the media and government in Being There.
In most of Ashby’s films of the period there is a sense of satiric complacency offset by the melancholic or the absurd. In The Landlord, for example, Elgar and his family are having dinner whilst being attended to by black servants. There is simple irony to be had in this situation where the family discusses Elgar’s business adventure – that he has bought a building in a black neighbourhood he wants to convert into a luxury house. The family is shocked to hear it is a black ghetto, and all the while they’re being served by the black employees. Elgar says that several members of the family are octoroons (that they are one eighth black themselves) and are distant relations to the servants, Heywood and Edith. As his father accuses him of being a “lazy no good liberal”, so moments later Edith lectures the dad on not finishing his soup. The father apologetically says he is too upset to finish it, and shortly after that Elgar pours the remains of the cold soup over Heywood’s head. There is a shifting ironical stance here where the absurd is stronger than the satiric, and any social statement harder to extract than the criss-crossing character contradictions. The conservative father is humbled by one servant; Elgar the apparent liberal humiliates another. There is humour here, but not quite a point as Ashby offers the disjunctive not in editing but in perspective. It might be true that Elgar sees Heywood as the family lackey after witnessing socio-politicised blacks in the neighbourhood he has bought into, but this would contain its own problems. If this is Elgar making a socio-political statement of his own, it is a weightless statement as he has barely been in the neighbourhood at all, and could hardly yet claim to have been politically transformed by it. It is a halfway house gesture between petulance and politics, and shows above all else Elgar’s basic fragility – he doesn’t yet know who he is or what he wants, and so any gesture is provocative rather than rooted, and likewise the audience’s reaction.
At this stage of the film he is a cousin to Randy Quaid’s character Meadows in The Last Detail: one of Ashby’s unformed figures, and others would include Warren Beatty’s hairdresser George in Shampoo, the gardener in Being There and young Harold in Harold and Maude. These are characters that, no matter if Meadows and Harold are more or less youths, Elgar around thirty, George in his late thirties, and the gardener about fifty, all share a naïve fragility as opposed to the mature fragility of Maude, Jack Nicholson’s Buddusky in The Last Detail, Julie Christie in Shampoo, Bob and Luke in Coming Home. Thus if it is the naïve characters who give many of Ashby’s films their absurdity, it is the fragility of the mature that frequently gives his films their melancholy. Throughout The Last Detail, Buddusky wants the boy to have all the opportunities he believes he may never have if they take him straight to prison. Meadows is a weak-willed character about to do eight years in a military penal centre, and might not survive it. The least Buddusky and his colleague can do is give the boy a good time before he goes inside. But much of the texture of the film comes from the sense that Buddusky hasn’t quite lived the life he would have wished either. There is one moment where they go off and visit Meadows’ home town, and as Meadows describes his school years in the foreground, we see Buddusky’s face in the background: hard and pensive and presumably wondering about his own past. At various stages both Buddusky and his colleague talk about being lifers: that they’ll be in the Navy all their lives, as if their own ‘sentence’ might be no better than Meadows’ and that they can’t turn-back on their forking path.
In Coming Home, when we see Bob going into the sea at the end of the film to what we must assume will be his death, this is mature fragility, the sense that his life is over and that he has taken the road from which he cannot turn back. While it is fair up to a point that, as Peter Lev reckons in his book American Films of the Seventies, Bob is a ‘weakling’, better to see him as a man whose world has become fragile as he has walked so far along a particular path that he cannot turn back and still remain who he is, and cannot go forward on a path that has become absurd. Lev may believe the ending is the film’s political message coming through (“the presenting of the politically incorrect weakling”), but it is even more a deeply melancholic moment of a character caught by the series of decisions he has made that has allowed him to become the man he is, and who must now take his own life. There is nothing triumphal in this moment for the viewer; nothing to indicate that Bob is the character who can die because he lacks the reconstructive capacities of the severely disabled Luke. Instead we’re left musing over the inability of a character with a mild war wound to recover his pride; while another is paraplegic, but possesses the capacity for mental recovery. This isn’t trivial irony either; for Ashby there is a perhaps more weight to the suicide than there is elevation in Luke’s speech, for Bob’s may be the tragedy of a politically misguided man, but the tragedy outweighs the stupidity as he speaks for many who cannot readjust to changing times, changing circumstances.
If Ashby had simply positioned Bob as the weakling Lev proposes, then the film wouldn’t have contained that melancholic dimension we believe is as vital to his work as the satiric. Bob is a hopelessly straight figure in a world increasingly furrowed by transformative events, aware that he can’t transform himself because he has invested too much into the life he has lead up until going to Vietnam. Critic Stanley Kauffmann claimed in Before My Eyes he had “…rarely seen a Big Scene handled more ineptly than the one in which the maddened husband, bayoneted rifle in hand, faces wife and lover.” Here Kauffmann sees that nothing is linked, but we might argue the scene works from the point of view of forking paths – with Ashby wanting not so much tension as the inexplicable realisations that where Sally still loves Bob, Bob barely seems to know who he is in this new emotional landscape. All three characters here are stranded; with Luke and Sally capable of change and Bob obviously not. Anything Luke and Sally say will be fatuous not because it is bad dramaturgy, as Kauffmann insists, but more that they occupy a world of relative change, while Bob is caught in the crisis of being unable to adjust to this new social order. All the while Sally is caught between the woman she was and the woman she has become, the touch she is used to (from Luke), and the look she has spent years receiving (from Bob). “Nothing was linked,” Kauffmann says, “the three people seemed to be hanging in space individually, especially Fonda”. He is right, but this needn’t be a criticism. It is consistent with Ashby’s interest in people hanging in space more generally as they wonder in which direction they will move, or whether they can move at all.
Ashby could loosely be seen as a political filmmaker. Both Coming Home and Shampoo are set in 1968, with the first focusing of course on Vietnam and the second on the ’68 elections. Being There can be read as a political satire, where the simple statements of a gardener are taken more seriously than the grandstanding rhetoric of politicians. Even Bound for Glory focused on the politically oriented Depression era musician Woody Guthrie, while The Landlord muses over black self-determination however peripherally. Yet politics seems a by-product of Ashby’s interest in the possibilities and impossibilities of transformation. In Shampoo George is the central character but it is his former lover Jackie (Christie) who sees clearly that they are at the end of a particular path and that she must choose another one. Shampoo is a political satire, as we observe various characters in LA more concerned with their own selfishness than the wider political changes, but again the film’s power lies in its melancholy. At the end of the film George has lost Jackie for good as she goes off with her older lover, and while Jackie seems to have found a path she can take however cynically, George may find himself stranded on the path he has taken for so long: the likeable womanizer who can always get laid but can never get focused. The film elaborates on this cinematically at the very end, where we’re given a visual equivalent of forking paths. George looks down from the hill and sees Jackie driving off with her wealthy lover. The conclusion combines well the feeling of Jackie’s resolute realism and George’s naivety: the film gives us the satiric edge of a character left stranded in his own limited LA sexual playground, and the melancholy of Jackie and George clearly loving each other but incapable of making things work.
If the film too heavily demanded satire, if we were to believe that George is simply a hopeless case and Jackie a gold-digger, the film would be well done and achieve ‘high satire’; it would have intimately explored the inability for a certain type of man to change his life in an environment of many pleasures. However, the film is also an exploration of time passing through the characters: Jackie and George are not so young, and the film’s achievement is not to explore this sense of time passing as a social issue of settling down, but a broader temporal problematic of the passage of time. Like Coming Home, Shampoo is of course an ‘historical’ film, made seven years after the events it depicts, and this is partly what gives melancholy to the satire. Ashby wants to frame a moment in time so that it won’t only be about the relationships between the characters, but also a broader sense of helplessness that allows the viewer insight into a problem bigger than the characters’ lives.
Now there are at least two ways to do this: one is to move in the direction of the knowing; the other towards that melancholy we have been isisting upon. The knowing puts us in a position beyond the characters as we are beyond them in time and thus aware of events of which they are ignorant. A classically incompetent example comes in The Passion of the Christ. Here we have Jesus making a table and his mother insisting it will never catch on. Apart from the fact she was right – in that part of the world – it is an ineptly smug attempt to make the viewers feel smarter than the situation. This is, if you like, knowing historicism, and there many variations of this, either playing up the comic, or the horrific. Think of all those retro films utilising cool items that now seem absurd, or numerous films about Nazi Germany before the camps where Jews convince themselves that the Germans aren’t all that bad. Ashby however has the capacity for melancholic historicism; a mode consistent with the absurdist satirical dimension where the viewer is left without a clear position, but in this instance still left with a decidedly strong feeling. If in The Landlord Ashby escapes the smugly socio-political, in both Shampoo and Coming Home Ashby avoids the historically knowing. Instead of using the retro dimension for ironic distance, he utilises it for capturing time in its passing. When George lets Jackie go, when Bob goes into the sea and Sally comes out of the supermarket, Ashby manages to indicate both time passing and love lost, and so any ironic dimension in George’s indecisiveness and in Bob’s hawkishness gets caught in Ashby’s feeling for the temporally textured.
It would be easy to mock George’s endless shagging that leaves him lost and lonely at the conclusion; just as it would be equally so to say that basically those who live for war-mongering, and find it’s not what they assumed it to be, can die without much tragedy or feeling from the viewer’s perspective. But that is not how Ashby presents it. This isn’t so much because everybody has their reasons, though they do, but that everybody is caught in the flux of time. As we’ve proposed this can so often in film lead to the knowing, but in Ashby’s best work, even when set in the present, it can lead events to be surrounded by the perishibility of all things.
This is evident in The Last Detail, and brings together two elements we have already addressed without them manifesting themselves in the same way. One is the disjunctive editing, the other the temporal. Strictly speaking neither is relevant to The Last Detail. There is no cross-cutting like in The Landlord and Coming Home; no historicizing as in Coming Home and Shampoo. Yet The Last Detail possesses the feelings of the retro and cross-cutting but works by other means. In the film Ashby doesn’t cross-cut to give us a sense of different lives; he contains the differing perspectives within the one temporal and spatial plane, leaving it chiefly as emotional subtext. By the same token he doesn’t set the film in the past; Buddusky’s past is sub-textual also. So just as the two lifers have already served ‘time’, so Meadows is about to serve his, and just as Meadows searches out his past as they take him to his home town, so we may assume in some ways Buddusky is searching out his past too. We might think of Buddusky’s temper, where he overreacts in a bar and gets into a fight in the station toilets. These scenes are not of the moment, but seem to hint at inner conflicts and past tensions. Neither cross-cutting nor historicizing, Ashby nevertheless captures the feelings relevant to the other films, and helps explain why stylistic analysis can usually only take us so far. The forking path in his work is seen in many forms; as though in each film he is trying to find a way of balancing the satiric and the melancholic so that we can feel the absurdity of paths taken, but also the depth of feeling attached to these paths.
Albert Camus proposes in The Myth of Sisyphus that, talking of actors specifically “the same and yet so various, so many souls summed up in a single body. Yet it is the absurd contradiction itself, that individual who wants to achieve everything and live everything, that useless attempt…” Ashby often captures this ‘useless attempt”, this feeling of other lives that could have been led, even if it would be a stretch to claim his films are existential outings. They are instead works of existence, being captured in its complexity. There is a nice anecdote about Ashby offered by producer Gerald Ayres. “He was distrustful of people from the studios he considered bombastic or authoritarian. But if somebody came to the door and said ‘I’ve been driving a bus, and I’ve got a great idea for a scene”, he’d say ‘Okay, do it.” There is a strong sense in Ashby’s work of people not pursuing their goals, but caught in the flux of existence. To acknowledge this may lead a character to almost inevitable suicide, to wondering about their entire life, or to feel their flirtatious existence has reached its end. But all seems contained by a feeling greater than narrative event and character realisation, as if Ashby never quite trusts goals and ambitions but, much more, melancholy feelings and lost opportunities.