There are directors whose reputations are built primarily on the not always reliable renewal of interest from dedicatedly obsessive cinema enthusiasts both of the cultish and academic persuasion; the latter faction, of late, seeming to be less discriminate in the designation of newly unearthed, attention worthy artistic legacy than even their more idiosyncratic brethren, mainly for the sake of publishing further empty volumes of increasingly obscure analysis of often completely imagined aesthetic minutiae from the swelling ranks of university and small press; Hal Ashby being one of the current recipients of such dubiously sensible reevaluation with an equally questionable elevation of artistic standing not quite merited by actual filmic achievement as much as personal wishful thinking by the critical minds desperate to convey an original thread in the cinema firmament. Fathomless cult attention to the incomprehensibly resilient trash that is “Harold and Maude” notwithstanding, Ashby’s output is characterized by a particularly flavorless mise-en-scene, and an inattention to all but the most obvious and cheaply wrought dramatic effects. A promising project such as “Bound for Glory” is distinguished solely by the breathtaking photography of the gifted Haskell Wexler, and a sly , knowing lead performance by the underused David Carradine; but for all of its picturesque quality was dramatically disconnected and ultimately leaden. “Shampoo”, Ashby’s 1975 critical favorite du jour, was lauded for qualities, more liberal minded wish fulfillment than anything actually in the film; a crashing bore whose timid but self-satisfied smirking humor- passing for profundity -was dated before the ink dried on the script. Similarly, his 1978 Vietnam film “Coming Home” managed the unenviable task of finally approaching the subject of the controversial war with a pair of tongs manipulated by arthritic hands clothed with insulated oven mitts; the consequences of a national trauma reduced to a soap opera of an unfulfilled wife experiencing her first orgasm. Which brings us to “The Last Detail”, Ashby’s 1973 film of Darryl Ponicsan’s slim novel, indifferently directed, unattractively photographed by Michael Chapman and adapted by Robert Towne with an increased reliance on easy obscenity heavy dialogue which marked but wasn’t allowed to similarly define the substance of the language of Ponicsan’s source work.
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