While watching 1973’s The Last Detail in preparation for Richard Linklater’s impending sequel Last Flag Flying, I realized that no one really makes FILMS like Hal Ashby anymore, which is surprising given our current age of relentless derivativeness (at best, “homage”). It’s undeniably a testament to the distinctness of Ashby’s work on multiple fronts:
First off, my choice of “film” in the lede isn’t just an interchangeable word for “movies”; the color palette allowed by shooting on film is integral to Ashby’s signature style. Almost all moviemakers today use digital (thus preventing them from being “filmmakers”), which cannot perfectly recreate the tactility of film. Proponents of digital would probably claim otherwise, and they’d be correct for a vast majority of audiences with untrained eyes. Even so, I can’t stress enough the importance of seeing — if possible — these films as they were intended to be seen: on film. Some of Ashby’s nuances simply do not translate to the realm of 0s and 1s, which might be why his reputation has waned in the streaming era.
Or maybe Ashby’s legacy amongst modern cinephiles was diminished by his premature death at the age of 59 in 1988, especially since his output in the 80s couldn’t match his 70s streak. From his debut with The Landlord in 1970 through Harold and Maude (his second movie?!), The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home, and — to round out this ridiculous 10-year stretch — Being There in 1979, he helped define what’s commonly considered the best ever decade for film, forwarding the medium in the process.
Ashby’s cinematic sensibilities are just so quintessentially not only his own but also of his time that perhaps contemporary directors can’t figure out how to update them in 21st century odes. For instance, he — and the screenplays he chose to direct — treat plots like perfunctory journeys from A to B, a rarity nowadays. Though conventionally thrilling narratives usually act as the predominant means by which audiences connect with a movie, Ashby strove to engage them by creating complex characters with whom people want to spend hours (thus the reason Linklater revisited their lives all these years later?). Yet instead of focusing on tried-and-true beats that couldn’t be mistaken for anything besides “character development moments,” he lets their natures come across breezily and organically.
His stories unfold in a similarly airy manner. Though they have straightforward beginnings and endings in a narrative sense, Ashby’s uninterested in clear resolutions. His endings refuse to wrap up the proceedings in convenient bows, instead preferring to let the audience grapple with the many ideas touched upon. His conclusions often hit a “life goes on” note, forcing the audience to reckon with the long-lasting impact — if any — of the story they just witnessed. Since plots don’t matter a great deal to Ashby, it makes sense that he’d view a destination more as an opportunity to reflect on the journey rather than the juncture to put it all in perspective, which would forsake the artistic integrity of the piece.
Every component of his meticulously casual mise-en-scène contributes to the deepening of the stories he’s trying to tell, without succumbing to pedantic stuffiness that alienates audiences through confusion. By balancing realism with truth — not synonymous in any way — Ashby’s brand could be labeled as staged naturalism. For an example, look no further than his noticeably-artistic sound design, which is a far-cry from how and what his characters (and thus the audience) would actually hear in the real-world. Ashby meaningfully emphasizes certain noises to further layer the intellectual and emotional resonance.
Yet this is just one amongst many ways that his films’ layers stem from elements that strike the precise balance between being detectable by watchful viewers while not overwhelming casual moviegoers who’d rather just watch and not think. Most impressively, his sociopolitical commentary actually feels intrinsic to the point of being more akin to undercurrents, largely due to how he avoids polemical preachiness. Ashby once again achieves this by grounding his subtle commentary in the arcs of the characters. By rooting such potentially distracting fare in the very fabric of his tales, he manages not to detract from the enjoyment of any type of audience member. Similarly, the rich symbolism of his compositions does not disrupt the viewing experience, countering the tendency of thoughtful filmmaking to often stand out as randomly confounding for people not interested in exploring past a story’s surface.
Additionally, and much like with the sound design, his choice of music serves as a sort of guide to tap into the subtext. Instead of just matching the events depicted on screen, his song selections operate as a separate form of communication by either juxtaposing, or enhancing, or emphasizing, or even contrasting the imagery. The old-fashioned, jolly Navy ditty that accompanies the travel montages harkens back to traditional stories of simplistically noble soldiers proudly serving their country, heightening awareness of The Last Detail‘s unconventional perspective on the mundanely significant lives of America’s servicemen. Audiences are free to just sit back and listen to the pleasant scores, while others can plumb their depths for these sorts of interpretations.
I’m by no means asking for more movies to mooch his style, which would be an unfair request (example: his masterful crossfades not only between scenes but also sometimes within them that he deployed for maximum effect would today probably feel hokey in any non-period piece). But is it too much to ask for contemporary filmmakers to channel more of Ashby in their work?
For now, I can just be content with the notion that Richard Linklater deciding to mount a sequel all these years later will guide at least some people like me to discover an unheralded gem in Ashby’s oeuvre.
But why stop with The Last Detail? Instead of just franchising action movies, what if contemporary creators continued stories started in classic films somehow not included in the canon, thereby drawing more attention to them?
May I humbly suggest that they start with another inimitable and all-too-forgotten auteur from Ashby’s era: Robert Altman.