The Best of All Possible Worlds, Or: The Importance of Just Being There 

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Movies by Hal Ashby
May 6-24 at BAM

There's something very appealing about reading Hal Ashby's best films as modern-day, all-American variations on Candide. Like Voltaire's eponymous hero, Ashby's protagonists often learn to eschew the false promise of optimism and accept life as a series of disconnected experiences. The fear of death weighs heavily on many of his characters' minds, because everything around them is on the way out.

And so Ashby's comedies, which are all showcased in BAMcinématek's comprehensive retro of his filmography as both director and editor, linger on moment-to-moment revelations. His skill as an editor—he won an Oscar for cutting In the Heat of the Night— allowed him to translate his stories' quasi-Buddhist theories of intransience into uniquely cinematic narratives. Time is a force at play in the chase scenes of Lookin'to Get Out, or in the long takes of Harold and Maude. So, while Ashby's films are most definitely not set in the best of all possible worlds, his disillusioned protagonists are almost always inadvertently enlightened—or at the very least get their kicks after getting their teeth kicked in.

Ashby's favorite protagonists, like Lookin' to Get Out's Alex (co-writer Jon Voight), want more from it than they know they can get. Or, as Alex exclaims: "Think positively! Don't look at the ground, look at the sky! Look at the birds! Enjoy life!"

It's a courageous but also doomed philosophy to have, when you think about it (which is probably why his characters usually don't think about it). Think of Voight and Burt Young pulling a Las Vegas con in Lookin' to Get Out, or Jack Nicholson and Otis Young treating a young and soon-to-be-imprisoned Randy Quaid to a week of drinking and sending food back to the chef in The Last Detail. To see the world and to do outlandish things is amazing—even the self-absorbed ringleaders played by Voight and Nicholson have only ever dreamed of practicing what they preach. Ashby's comedies are, in other words, stories of wish fulfillment.

But only to a point. The death of Ruth Gordon in Harold and Maude, the loss of the big score at the end of Lookin' to Get Out, the prison cell awaiting Quaid in The Last Detail and Beau Bridges' rejection from his ghetto apartment complex in The Landlord: these are all deeply wounding but inevitable tragic events. They cast a pall over Ashby's narratives but they have to happen at some point, because, well, Gordon is old, gambling is risky and you can't fight authority when you yourselves are representatives of authority.

In Ashby's films, then, being impulsive is a form of resignation. In both Lookin' to Get Out and The Last Detail, older characters reflexively decide to live by the seat of their pants when confronted with their comparatively advanced age. They don't have a philosophy to back them up, only an instinctual imperative to get away with as much as they can while they still can.

In that sense, Being There might be the echt-Ashby film. Adapted by Jerzy Kosinski from his own novel, the film forces viewers to root for a simpleton. The sheltered life that Peter Sellers's middle-aged but mentally child-like gardener has led makes him ill-equipped to deal with the perils of the outside world. When he's threatened at knifepoint by a young thug, he pitifully reaches for his remote control. The look on Sellers's face in this scene is gutting and very funny.

The fact that Chance, Sellers' character, gets as far as he does not only implicitly proves The Landlord's skeptical but sketched-out racial politics, it also proves the prevailing philosophy of Ashby's films: "Life is a state of mind," as Melvyn Douglas's stolid and soon-to-be-dead kingmaker laments. Experiences are all that matter; reflection only comes after-the-fact and even then it's not nearly as important as the primary impulse to respond in the first place. Chance's embodiment of Voight's ideal makes Being There, which also happens to be a parable about a complacent culture that finally gets the messiah it deserves, Ashby's most complex and satisfying film.

Chance, like Voltaire's happy-go-lucky naïf, is still cultivating himself—it's no coincidence that both are deeply interested in botany and gardening . Chance, though, remains uncorrupted by film's end. He's not even able to recognize himself in the Cheech and Chong cartoon music video for "Basketball Jones" when he sees it on TV. He just knows that he's in a good place when he's waching it and that's good enough for him.

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