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CINEMA – looking back at Hal Ashby

BAMcinematek is currently in the midst of a whirlwind screening series of films by Hal Ashby – and I couldn’t be happier. As a diehard Ashby fan I get a lot of flack, mostly for still liking HAROLD AND MAUDE (1971) as much today as I did when my friend’s Maude-esque mother first showed it to me when I was in high school, back when Cat Stevens’ music and the film’s love-is-all-there-is credo hadn’t yet been spoiled by the years of eye-rolling that followed. I like to think my tastes have matured somewhat since I was fifteen, but I still can’t help loving HAROLD AND MAUDE. What other people see as cloying hippie drivel I see as funny, smart, even satirical. When Maude, dressed from head-to-toe in black Victorian mourning lace, protests war all by herself on the side of the road, at the edge of a cliff, is to me a really astute comment on the all too prominent and largely ineffectual picketing culture of the 60s and 70s. Then, of course, there’s the love story, which is one of my all-time favorites (right alongside Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett). In Ashby’s director’s cut, we actually see Harold and Maude kiss, but it was deemed too controversial and cut out for the theatrical release (though you can still catch it in the original trailers).

Ashby followed HAROLD AND MAUDE with a streak of hits, most notably THE LAST DETAIL (1973), SHAMPOO (1975), COMING HOME (1978) and BEING THERE (1979), in which a superbly toned-down, almost mute Peter Sellers plays Chance, an illiterate gardner and TV-addict whose simplistic commentary on flora and fauna gets mistaken for sage wisdom, and before long he’s being courted by the heads of state and a millionairess, played by Shirley MacLaine, who experiences a sexual reawakening while Chance innocently watches TV beside her.

What’s great about BAM’s screening is that it’s truly comprehensive, paying tribute to Ashby’s roots as an editor with films like IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967), THE CINCINNATI KIDS (1965) and THE LOVED ONE (1965), an adaptation of a satirical novel by Evelyn Waugh, co-written by Terry Southern, who had just finished writing DR. STRANGELOVE. BAM’s series is already half over but there’s still a ton more to see, like BEING THERE, which plays Sunday after an introduction by the US Representative of the Peter Seller’s Appreciation Society.