Hal Ashby and the Rise of the Auteur

Paper by Torrey Nicholson.

One notable development in the world of filmmaking in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s was the rise of the “auteur” director. As defined by the Oxford Dictionary, the term “auteur” describes “a filmmaker whose personal influence and artistic control over a movie are so great that the filmmaker is regarded as the author of the movie” (Auteur). The rise of this younger generation of auteur filmmakers marked a significant shift in the world of film. Prior, the primary guiding authority throughout the production of a film had been the studio, but the new wave of auteurs ignited the Hollywood Renaissance (otherwise known as New Hollywood, or American New Wave), which saw the majority of authority move into the hands of the director. One director who perhaps exemplifies this renaissance the best, is Hal Ashby.

Unsurprisingly, the most prominent thematic styles featured in the Hollywood Renaissance era closely mirrored the values and views of the greater American youth culture of the time, who made up the films’ target audience. American youth culture in the 1960’s and 70’s is largely characterized by anti-establishment and counter-culture values, moral ambiguity, and an affinity for social deviance. While these ideals can manifest in many different forms, the work of Hal Ashby reflects them all in a manner that is artistically significant, without losing poignancy in the commentary.

That being said, Ashby’s exemplification of the American New Wave Cinema extends beyond his films. Ashby himself was a walking snapshot of the era. Ashby was a “​vegetarian with crooked teeth, (who) couldn’t be bothered with vagaries or politesse,” (Fennessey). For every bit as much as the youth culture favored individualism, they despised authority. Ashby, while perhaps not considered among the “youth,” certainly was no exception to the subscription of this ideology. He was a “committed rebel and inveterate pot smoker, the beat of his drum was in sympathy with a spiritual drift through life, and he scorned authority, systems and indeed earthbound materialism in general” (Mantgani). In his earlier days as a young editor, he would purportedly “spend all day watching film, then sleep four hours a night, and then smoke a little pot, run a reel, ruminate over sequencing, and begin cutting and dissolving frames” (Fennessey). Perhaps it was his early days working as an editor on such films such as ​ ​The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming​ (​ 1966), and ​In The Heat of the Night​ (1967), both directed by Norman Jewison, that sparked his disdain for, and ultimate rejection of the studio system.

“‘The studio is not your friend; the studio is the enemy of the artist,’ director Norman Jewison told Ashby during their collaboration, which is advice he took to heart” (Mantgani). It is no surprise that Ashby took the advice to heart, as according to Bud Cort (the titular Harold), after filming ​Harold and Maude,​ Paramount took control of the edit, which devastated Ashby. Cort, who had become close with Ashby during production, threatened to withhold promotion of the film. Ultimately Ashby was given control, but it would result in his good friend Cort being blackballed for decades to come (Godfrey). Not only did Ashby clearly share many of the aforementioned values of the era, it was his willingness and desire to find his own method of creating, deviating quite starkly from the traditional and “accepted” methods of filmmaking brought about in the Classical Hollywood Era, that ultimately set him apart and led to his success.

In order for one to best understand the multitude of changes that occured with the New Hollywood era, and how Ashby most clearly exemplifies them, one must first have an understanding of the typical characteristics of the preceding Classical Hollywood era. “The Classical Hollywood Style follows a set of norms, paradigms, and standards that match and gratify viewer’s expectations. In other words by the end of a classical Hollywood film, answers for all questions have been provided and one doesn’t leave the cinema perplexed and startled” (​Tiwtarriela).

When one begins to examine popular films of the Classical era, those norms and paradigms become all the more apparent. To see this more clearly, we will briefly examine the work of Robert Wise, a renowned Classical era director, known for films such as ​The Sound of Music​, and ​West Side Story​. The narrative structure in Wise’s films, and ​West Side Story​ in particular, closely follow the unwritten rules of the Classical era. The film is built around the typical three act structure, with an exponentially escalating and overarching conflict (in this case it is the “forbidden” relationship between Tony and Maria, who belong to rival gangs) that eventually results in an all out brawl (between the two gangs) near the end of the third act, before the conflict is ultimately resolved (as the Gangs are able to make amends after their feud results in Tony’s death). Wise’s ​West Side Story,​ similar to the vast majority of its Classical era contemporaries, is a film whose story is a sort of chain reaction of events that fit neatly inside of its runtime.

Beyond this, the Classical era cinematography sought to make the camera seem invisible to the audience, almost as if to create the illusion that one was there, in the story–forgetting they were watching a film. Not to mention, the subject matter was restricted to only a very few number of categories, namely “​Westerns, screwball comedies, musicals, animated cartoons, biopics, melodramas (weepies), monster movies and war pictures” (​Classical Hollywood Cinema), with few exceptions.

As the younger generation of auteur directors began to gain more control over the creation of their films, the New Hollywood era films began to look much different than their predecessors, with clear inspiration from the French New Wave Cinema movement of the decade previous. Similar to the French New Wave, the American New Wave films began to become more artistic and experimental. The subject matter began to expand, creating dozens of new genres and sub-genres, the cinematography began to become more surreal (at least in the sense that it were more clear to the audience that the story was, in fact a movie–in contrast to the Classical era’s “invisible camera” tendencies), and the narrative structure became more free-form, often much less reliant on an overarching conflict, but rather exploring the world and emotions of specific characters or groups of characters.

While these changes are on display in each of Ashby’s films (as well as those which he received credits other than “director” on), the film that perhaps most clearly exemplifies them is Ashby’s breakout hit ​Harold and Maude​ (1971). Ashby’s cult classic tells the story of the unconventional romance between 20 year-old Harold, ​a death-obsessed loner who acts out against his oblivious mother by repeatedly faking his own death in a series of increasingly egregious fake suicides, and Maude, a mischievous 79-year-old car-jacker, nude model, amateur painter, and aroma collector. One major characteristic of the American New Wave was pushing the limits of storytelling beyond what was once acceptable, and needless to say, the portrayal of a romantic relationship with a nearly 60 year age gap was quite shocking in 1971 (and perhaps remains shocking to this day). That being said, the film is not so much a romance story, but rather a comedic and off-beat examination, and ultimate confirmation, of a social outsider. The film expresses a great deal of anti-establishmentarianism, such as with the satirization of Harold’s classical conservative mother, and (presumably) her brother, Harold’s uncle, the hard-nosed, one-armed, stern military commander purported to have been General MacArthur’s right hand man. Furthermore, the film has an underlying core devotion to individualism. The most clear example of this comes just over a third of the way into the film, when Harold tells Maude which type of flower he would most like to be. Harold settles on a white dandelion, and gestures toward a sea of them. “‘Why’s that?’ Maude asks. ‘I don’t know,’ he replies thoughtfully. ‘Because they’re all alike?’ Maude reassures Harold that that’s not true, that every flower is different in some way. Ashby caps this scene by ambiguously juxtaposing those white flowers with a panoramic shot of identical white headstones neatly arranged in a cemetery.’’

This scene seems to hint at the idea that we all wish to fit in, especially since we typically perceive others as fitting in, but that in reality everyone is an individual, and that ought to be embraced. As one author put it, “here lies the individual; Ashby knew him well” (Abrams).

Perhaps even a step further than this (although a bit on the nose) is the scene where Harold explains to her why he ritualistically fakes his death. Harold recounts his first fake suicide, and begins to laugh uncontrollably, which quickly turns to sobbing. Maude then delivers what could potentially be seen as the film’s underlying theme (or one of them) in soliloquy form. “‘A lot of people enjoy being dead. But they’re not really dead. They’re just backing away from life. Take a jump. Get hurt, even. Play as well as you can.’ She continues by insisting that the only real answer to Harold’s problems is to, ‘L-I-V-E: live,’ emphasizing, ‘live’ with brio. Then she playfully scrunches her nose up and jokes, ‘Otherwise, you’ve got nothing to talk about in the locker room”’ (Abrams). Similar to Ashby’s own ideology, this scene expresses the importance of indulging in one’s interests, and marching down your own path.

According to the Criterion Collection, ​Harold and Maude​ “took values that had been expressed by youthful rebels and dropouts in the late 1960s—peace, love, understanding, distrust of authority, a determination to march to the beat of a different drummer—and put them in the mouth of an old woman embroiled in one of the oddest and most original love stories ever filmed” (Seitz). ​Harold and Maude,​ similar to much of the New Wave Cinema, does not fit squarely into any category, follows a completely unconventional storyline that was not only unprecedented, but socially reprimandable, and has a deep philosophical regard, which, at the very least, prompts the viewer to question their understanding of life in some regard. For all those reasons, it is perfectly exemplary of the greater Hollywood Renaissance era.

What makes Ashby himself, however, most exemplary of the era, is that those same values and characteristics are presented quite differently in a number of his films. That is to say, while there are certainly a number of other directors that embody the spirit of the American Renaissance, Ashby seems to be the best overall representation of the era, given that he created a number of quite different films that each present the qualities of the era in a different manner. While directing ​Harold and Maude​ alone may have made him a decent candidate, Ashby went on to direct a few other films, such as ​Coming Home​ (1978), which can just as easily be seen as representative of the American New Wave. As the British Film Institue put it, ​“F​ rom the cold open featuring a discussion on the war cast with improvising real-life veterans, to the film’s rock-n-roll mini-climaxes as the players crack up about or fight back against the system, to its lyrical moments of intimacy, ​Coming Home​ is an accessible, unsentimental spectacle of characterisation that’s an overpoweringly moving and nimbly crafted example of Ashby’s compassion and his rage” (Mantgani).
Hal Ashby himself was a man who would have not been out of place as a character in his own films. He was individualistic in nature, paid close attention to detail in creating his films, but was not so authoritative as to create them entirely himself. Instead, Ashby would opt to let his actors develop the characters. This allowed his films to develop naturally, as well as expand in depth, as certainly each actor has something unique to provide that Ashby himself could not. This is perhaps the most important characteristic of the auteur. “‘Don’t ever stop searching it,’ Ashby once said. ‘Make your film so goddamned good that you see something in it all the time. Every sonofabitching time you sit down and thread up a god damn reel and you punch a button and you start to look at it, you get a different idea. And whether you pursue it or not doesn’t matter. The film will tell you what to do’” (Fennessey).

While it is certainly possible to better understand the Hollywood Renaissance with a deep examination of a number of different directors and films from the era, an examination of Ashby himself, and a few of his films is certain to yield strong results.

Works Cited
Abrams, Simon. “’Harold and Maude’: A Comedy That Happens When Absolutely Everything Goes Right.” ​Politico PRO,​ 4 Mar. 2012, www.politico.com/states/new-york/city-hall/story/2012/03/harold-and-maude-a-comedy-t hat-happens-when-absolutely-everything-goes-right-067223.
“Auteur: Definition of Auteur by Lexico.” ​Lexico Dictionaries | English​, Lexico Dictionaries, www.lexico.com/en/definition/auteur
“Classical Hollywood Cinema.” ​Classic Art Films Classical Hollywood Cinema Category,​ www.classicartfilms.com/film-movements/classical-hollywood-cinema.
Fennessey, Sean. “The Realistic Magic of Hal Ashby, the Greatest Director of the 1970s.” ​The Ringer,​ The Ringer, 6 Sept. 2018, www.theringer.com/movies/2018/9/6/17826818/hal-ashby-documentary-harold-maude-la st-detail-hollywood-shampoo-being-there-coming-home
Godfrey, Alex. “Bud Cort: ‘Harold and Maude Was a Blessing and a Curse’.” ​The Guardian​, Guardian News and Media, 10 July 2014, www.theguardian.com/film/2014/jul/10/burt-cort-harold-and-maude-blessing-and-curse.
Mantgani, Ian. “Where to Begin with Hal Ashby.” ​British Film Institute,​ 2019, www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/features/where-begin-hal-ashby.
Seitz, Matt Zoller. “Harold and Maude: Life and How to Live It.” ​The Criterion Collection,​ www.criterion.com/current/posts/2337-harold-and-maude-life-and-how-to-live-it.
Tiwtarriela. “Classical Hollywood Style.” ​Never Stop Wondering,​ 31 Aug. 2013, rjctarrielacinema.wordpress.com/2013/06/26/classical-hollywood-style/.

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