John Cassavetes once said, "In this country, people die at 21. They die emotionally at 21. My responsibility as an artist is to help people get past 21. The films are a roadmap through emotional and intellectual tertian that provides a solution on how to save pain." I’m 22 and my greatest fear is emotional decay. I’ve never been afraid of emotions, embracing them to a degree which I used to find hindering but now realize is what fuels me creatively and intellectually. When it comes to art of any kind, I process everything from a very visceral and fervent standpoint. My intellectual perspective is always informed by the former. Experiencing things so strongly, I fall madly in love with these works and the people who are able to create that which slays me. But my biggest fear is that one day my senses will dull, the reactors will fade,and I simply won’t care anymore. There’s nothing worse than the emotional kiss of death that is ambivalence.
And when it comes to film history, there have always been eras and periods of time more impassioned than others, but it’s the 1970s that will always stand alone as a moment with the most fire. Filled with years marked by creative courage and the pluck to echo the Cassavetes sentiment,I don’t give a fuck what anybody says. If you don’t have time to see it, don’t. If you don’t like it, don’t. If it doesn’t give you an answer, fuck you. I didn’t make it for you anyway, it was a rebellious attitude, surely, but never one without artistic merit and conviction or the talent to house a foundation. There was the courage to fail and to take risks all set against a time when the meaning of one’s own existence was constantly called into question while a meaningless war waged on. And one of the greatest directors of that period, someone who never feared aversion, was the countercultural icon and legend, Hal Ashby.
Speaking to Hollywood in American during the "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" generation, Peter Bart said, "Hal Ashby was the most American of those directors and the most unique talent. He was a victim of Hollywood, the great Hollywood tragic story." And he was right. Ashby was born with a lethal sense of rebellion in his blood. His life was never simple. In the early 1940s, his father lost his dairy farm after vehemently refusing to have his milk pasteurized. One day, Ashby walked into his family’s barn and discovered his father had shot himself. He was only twelve. For the remainder of his adolescence he was independent, dropping out of high school and working odd jobs for years until moving out to California to "life off the fruit of the land." By chance, he landed a job operating the Multilith at Universal Studios. The following year, he became an apprentice editor, contributing to such classic films as The Big Picture, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Greatest Story Ever Told. What made Ashby such a good editor was his keen eye for detail and his photographic memory—able to recall every take and trim of a piece of film. But throughout working his way up the Hollywood ladder, he never strayed from his devious antics— disappearing for chunks of time and drinking heavily.
His directorial debut came in 1970 with the brilliant story of a naive and hapless young white man with a trust-fund who, on a whim, decides to buy an apartment building in the almost all black neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn. The Landlord, which starred an adorable Beau Bridges, is a wonderful and, at times, hilarious social commentary on Otherness and the fascination of truly discovering how we live. The film showcased not only Ashby’s affinity for telling sincere humanist stories of outsiders, but featured his incredible ability to use editing to reveal his character’s interiors and juxtapose two worlds, allowing us to view the story from a broad point of view. However, it’s his sophomore effort, Harold and Maude, which debuted in 1971, that has remained a seminal cult classic and quintessential monument of a moment in cinematic history.
The dark-humored existentialist drama tells the story of a Harold (played by Bud Cort), a young man harboring a morbid obsession with death. He’s the only son of a very wealthy woman who insists on Harold assimilating to the normalcy of other boys his age—attempting to marry him off to conventional "PolySci with a minor in Home Ec" type young women, or if that doesn’t work, shipping him off to the military under the tutelage of his one-armed uncle. Harold, however, takes pleasure in the grand gestures of acting out his own suicide with the theatricality of a magician. He attends funerals for pleasure—a characteristic that has trickled down in film and literature since (i.e. Fight Club’s characters attending cancer support groups to better their own psyche and Marla claiming, "I used to work in a funeral home to feel good about myself, just the fact I was breathing"). But it’s attending one of these funerals that Harold first meets Maude (played by Ruth Gordon), an elderly widow with a Summer of Love mentality. At first, she seems to be the antithesis of Harold, a vibrant and colorful person, bursting at the seams with life—a stark constant to his pale and skeletal physicality and outlook on life. Maude doesn’t adhere to society’s regimented and often ridiculous rules but has her own affinity for the afterlife. She finds a loving companion in Harold, someone she can not only enjoy the darker things with, but an adoring person she can teach about the beauty lying just beneath it. In turn, Harold begins to change. He’s finally met his other and as their simpatico only grows, the cold and despondent soul of earlier warms and develops an interest in the textures and tastes of the living. He’s in love—a condition that bursts open the doors to the great room of existence. But unbeknown to him, Maude is on her way out.
In true cult classic form, Harold and Maude was not received well at the box office. Speaking again to the audacity of the time, the stories being told in the 1970s were so diverse and original because of the broad scope of people writing them. Harold and Maude was written by a pool cleaner—a pool cleaner with an MFA that is, who attended UCLA with the likes of Paul Schrader and would go on to create an iconic career of his own. Opening on Christmas, Ashby was devastated by the reception of the film. Audiences and critics were not pleased, one even writing that the film was, "as funny as a burning orphanage." People were disgusted with the topic, and like the adults in Harold’s life, found the idea of "a boy who wants to fuck his grandmother" absolutely nauseating. But looking back, perhaps that was the point of it all. The film alienated people just as Harold felt alienated in the world—those loving the picture understanding what is like to feel completely alone and then one day happening upon another soul who finally speaks your language.
People have cited Maude as a classic example of the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl." First of all, she was a woman, not a girl. Secondly, I really do not even like to acknowledge that archetype as a thing of validity. But Maude wasn’t just some outline of a person in a smock dress with bangs and a ukelele that swooped in to to bring poor Harold to life and then disappear leaving a trail of Smiths lyrics and Etsy projects. The importance of Maude in Harold’s life was that she was the first person he ever met that his soul recognized. Growing up in this wealthy world covered in artifice, everyone adhered to the societal conventions, never stepping out of turn for fear of differentiating themselves.
For the first time, he met someone who had lived an actual life, who had struggled and had experiences and didn’t give a flying fuck about impressing anyone. His life is completely trite compared to hers, his sadness entirely unwarranted, and in her he sees what it truly means to be free. His nihilistic outlook on life is all of a sudden in complete juxtapostion to someone who has experienced actual horrors in her life yet has the ability to see the wonder in it all. She gave him a purpose to care and inspired him to be more and do more while never losing sight of himself. With other people Harold could never just be, but with Maude he could simply exist and that was enough. The story is compelling in the way that no matter how bizarre their situation may be, it still feels familiar. It speaks to the most human emotions inside all of us and if you’ve ever met a person that truly awakened your soul, there is simply no turning back.
In speaking with director Zal Batmanglij a few months ago, we got on the topic of storytelling and the nature of the way a film like Harold and Maude unfolds in bursts that store themselves inside the chambers of your heart. "It’s leaving all sorts of crazy fireworks behind and someone’s just lighting a fuse and they’re running away," said Batmanglij, "It’s like years later, the fireworks are exploding inside your heart, and you think of that story of just these outsiders that fall in love." There’s something entirely unqiue about all of Ashby’s work that speaks distinctly of a time and place in history that fails to exist in modern Hollywood. In Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls he writes of Ashby’s odd behavior at length, but when I think of the amazing director who died all too early, I imagine he’s still holed up in the darkened editing room in his home amongst the trees in Laurel Canyon, chainsmoking endlessly while eating nothing but nuts and sugarless gum.