Friday, June 27, 2008

Hal Ashby lives!

The rediscovery of Hal Ashby continues apace, with the Northwest Film Forum offering a retrospective that celebrates the late, great filmmaker's "incredible streak from 1970 to 1979", and Jennifer Watchell rounding up some admiring and eloquent commentaries from directors who revere Ashby's oeuvre. (I meant to post a link to the latter days ago -- thanks to David Hudson of Green Cine for the reminder.) I was especially amused by Judd Apatow's idiosyncratic ode to Being There. Money quote:

I prefer to watch shitty movies so I can feel good about myself. There is nothing better than sitting in bed and enjoying a shitty comedy. I laugh at the bad jokes and I smile as I convince myself, as I often need to, that my work doesn’t suck as bad as what I am watching. It gives me the confidence to make movies. I call them movies to have the flu by—movies that are great if you need to kill time while sitting in bed with the flu.

Being There is not one of those movies. It is completely original. The screenplay, by Jerzy Kosinski, based on his novel, is stunning. It is by turns hilarious, insightful, mysterious. I wish it inspired me to want to write that well, but it just inspires me to consider another career. It’s as if you were a member of Soft Cell and someone played you U2 for the first time. You would have to give up.

Not surprisingly, Apatow and other auteurs in Watchell's roundup politely avert their eyes from Asbhy's films of the '80s, which are widely viewed as disappointments of varying degrees. But while it's true that most are undeniably dismissible -- Let's Spend the Night Together has the rare distinction of being the most boring Rolling Stones rockumentary ever made -- it should be noted that 8 Million Ways to Die, Ashby's final completed feature, is not without its admirers. Indeed, I remember once speaking with an Oscar-winning director (not one you'd expect) who only half-jokingly told me that he'd love to swipe one of the movie's more offbeat conceits -- a warehouse shootout that had the shooters screaming profanities as well as firing bullets at each other -- and use it in one of his own films. He was reasonably sure he could get away with the petty larceny (or, depending on your POV, grand theft) because few people saw, and no one remembered, Ashby's critically mauled flick. PS: So far, that other director hasn't aped Ashby's effort. At least, not yet.

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