Speaking of directors with unbroken strings of great movies, does anyone top Hal Ashby in the ’70s? In order, he made Harold & Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound For Glory, Coming Home, and Being There. Owing to drug abuse, a difficult attitude, and the general disaster that eventually became the lives of many of the ’70s’ greatest filmmakers, Ashby didn’t carry his streak into the ’80s. He died too young after a few misfires, and when people talk of the greats from that era, it seems as though his name isn’t mentioned often enough beside Coppola, Scorsese, Allen, Bogdanovich, Spielberg, and so on.
Here at Stand By For Mind Control we love Hal Ashby. His movies have a kind of low-key, easy-going humanity to them. His characters always end up feeling both very real and in one way or another very extreme too. They’re always pushing at boundaries, trying to escape whichever box they’ve been put in, just like Ashby himself. Some of these characters come out on top, like Chance the gardener in Being There, others can’t escape themselves, like George Roundy in Shampoo.
Bound For Glory (’76) is the long, slow, meandering story of Woody Guthrie’s early years, when he traveled from the dust bowl to California, and found himself drawn to the struggles of migrant farm workers. I watched it the other night for the first time since I was about 10. All I remembered from that viewing was the long and slow part. I was surprised watching it now at how little that matters. The movie’s relaxed pace is one of its strengths. It ambles along just like Guthrie himself. It reflects his character and adds to it.
I’ve been so conditioned by VH1 and modern day musical biopics to expect the same story with the same beats in every doc anyone makes or has ever made about a musician–the struggling nobody, the sudden success, the rise to fame, the drug abuse, the fall from grace, and finally, the redemption, either personal or musical or both–that once Bound For Glory had been grooving along for awhile I realized I didn’t know where it was going. The story travels its own path. In fact there’s almost no guitar playing at all for the first hour. Instead the movie charts Guthrie’s travels and his encounters with the down and out in a way that suggests how his music, little of which is ever heard in the movie, will eventually be formed. When he does play his songs, they’re powerful and moving.
David Carradine brings the perfect kind of confidence and laid-back, screw y’all attitude to the role. And he sings nice, too. The whole movie is filled with great actors, including three very young ones who stuck out to me, M. Emmet Walsh, Brion James, and James Hong (all three of whom, apropos of nothing other than my movie obsessed brain, would later appear in Blade Runner). Randy Quaid also appears, following his great work for Ashby in The Last Detail.
I love the cinematography. Haskell Wexler (who won the Oscar for this movie) gives it a dusty brown and orange look that practically glows in the California section. Everything is washed out by the sun, warm and hazy. It’s also notable as the first movie to ever feature the use of the Steadicam. Check out this shot, about which Steadicam operator Garrett Brown has this to say:
I got two rehearsals, and we broke for lunch, during which I had a beer and Don calmed me down a bit. Then we made just three four-minute takes, (We had to run back to the darkroom for ten minutes in between each to reload the magazine). As the crane boomed down beside David Caradine, I got off and “walked” with him across the huge camp and most of the way back, dodging kids and crowds and tent ropes and vehicles. In the end, I was numb with fatigue and nerves, and the whole crew flowed away to resume the regular work without a backward glance.
That’s about all the deep thoughts I’ve got on this one at present. I’d say it’s a surprisingly good movie, only coming from Ashby, it’s not surprising at all. I should have re-watched it years ago.