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Episode 138 - Harold and Maude vs. Being There


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Poll: Episode 138 - Harold and Maude vs. Being There (32 member(s) have cast votes)

Which Hal Ashby film should enter The Canon?

  1. Harold and Maude (17 votes [53.12%])

    Percentage of vote: 53.12%

  2. Being There (15 votes [46.88%])

    Percentage of vote: 46.88%

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#1 Dalton Maltz

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Posted 21 January 2018 - 08:47 PM

This week, podcaster Nate DiMeo (The Memory Palace) joins Amy for a Hal Ashby versus: 1971’s “Harold and Maude” against 1979’s “Being There.” First, they discuss “Harold and Maude,” touching on its message of embracing life, what it says about dealing with your problems, and how the titular relationship defies the bounds of normalcy to feel totally natural. Then, Amy and Nate tackle the treatment of simplicity and limited information in “Being There,” with its theme of finding logic in the illogical and what Chance’s unlikely success says about us all.

#2 mveew

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Posted 22 January 2018 - 08:25 AM

Abstaining this week in lieu of a Neither option. Both were movies I watched to check off my cultural literacy list and found to be very unremarkable.

#3 FictionIsntReal

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Posted 22 January 2018 - 08:39 AM

This is something of a tough choice. I don't care for "Harold & Maude", but it arguably set the template for the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" trope and did it better than its imitators, and that counts for canonicity even if I don't like the results. I like Being There more, but most of the immortal parts of it where already in the book. The movie adds a questionable ending and is arguably distorted by Peter Seller's identification with Chance (who was just Jerzy Kosinski's device for mocking a society shallow enough not to notice what's wrong with him). There's no "neither" option, so I'm simply going to refain from voting, leaving it to everyone else.

Amy, I'm just as unreal & alien as you. Maybe you'd prefer "The Arbalest", which is like a Wes Anderson movie where the protagonist is unambiguously evil, even if he realizes (too late) that he doesn't belong in the life story of the female lead. It was still too Wes Anderson-esque for me, but at least it doesn't require the audience to identify with such a person.

#4 sycasey 2.0

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Posted 22 January 2018 - 11:14 AM

Both movies are "flawed," yes, but I don't find that description terribly useful for films like this, where so much of their charm and effectiveness comes from their shagginess.

Harold and Maude is clearly responsible for annoying Manic Pixie Dream Girl tropes, but the MPDG only exists because of people misunderstanding why the Ashby film works: the "MPDG" in question does not exist solely for the lead male character's development, she has a history and inner life entirely her own. This is demonstrated by the fact that she absolutely carries out her intention to die after turning 80, regardless of what Harold wants. This also shows where Harold and Maude can be differentiated from its imitators: the lead male character has to experience actual pain and loss to grow as a person, not the kind that only exists within his own mind. Unlike so many of its rom-com successors, this movie doesn't pull any punches.

(I'd argue that out of the group of filmmakers mentioned as Ashby's successors and H&M fans in particular, Wes Anderson is clearly the best. The tweeness of his movies is largely a surface-level thing. He doesn't get enough credit for being a solid dramatist underneath that.)

I also think Being There works because the premise remains shaggy. Ashby's focus is on the individuals, the characters that populate his movies, not on world-building. Similarly, Being There is about how Chance's presence impacts the individuals he meets, and it's left to the audience to extrapolate about society at large. This personal-focus approach of Ashby's probably felt more of-the-moment in the 70s and now feels like more of an anachronism. But he commits to it, which makes his best work feel personal and, on some level, timeless.

It's been a while, but finally we have an episode where I completely disagree with Amy's take on everything! Both of these movies are great and both are Canon-worthy for their impact on popular culture and future filmmakers.

Which do I choose? I vote for Harold & Maude, largely for personal reasons. This movie has a lot of locations in and around the San Francisco Bay Area, which is where I was born and raised. For Bay Area people, it also serves as an amazing time capsule for what the region used to be like: full of quirky individualists pursuing their own dreams and not the super-wealthy tech paradise it's since become.

On a personal note: the scene where Maude talks about the seagulls takes place in the "junk flats" near Emeryville, which used to be a place where driftwood washed up ashore, and local artists would go and assemble them into sculptures (this isn't something built for the movie, it was already there). You could see these from the freeway as you drove into San Francisco, and I vividly remember looking forward to seeing them from the car window as a kid, to see what new things had been built. Those sculptures aren't there anymore; the whole beach has been cleaned up. But having this juxtaposed with Maude's talk about appreciating simple things (like seagulls) while they last takes on extra power when you consider this context. The specificity of Ashby's work really shines through the more you know about his personal history and his process. It feels honest and lived-in, not like an affectation.



#5 bleary

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Posted 22 January 2018 - 02:27 PM

Well, I think it's clear that Amy is not alone in not being overly charmed by either of these movies. Count me among those who would probably select a "neither" option if one existed (although I also am in favor of keeping such an option nonexistent). That said, I do like one of these movies quite a bit more than the other.

Before I get to that though, these last two comments claiming that Harold and Maude originated the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope are giving me an angry eye twitch. As someone who has written thousands of words on the MPDG, I can tell you without reservations that regardless of the definition you use, this is not the MPDG prototype, which has its cinematic origins in screwball comedies and probably has literary origins going back centuries. I usually point to Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby as the earliest good example that I can think of -- and honestly, Natalie Portman's quirky scatter-brained Sam in Garden State has way more in common with Susan Vance than with Maude.

Enough about MPDGs and Garden State though. However, speaking of a mediocre movie with a great soundtrack, let's talk about Harold and Maude. Amy might be right that it suffers from a syndrome of only connecting with those who saw it before a certain age. I saw it for the first time this week, and its charm was completely lost on me. I found Harold just insufferable, and every closed-minded or cruel thing he did throughout the film made me hate him more. He is actively trying to emotionally hurt his mother by taunting her with his death. He is refusing to take his therapy seriously (even though, big surprise, when he finally opens up to Maude about the reason for his fascination with death, he has a breakthrough, imagine that!) Then even when one of his mother's blind dates ends up calling his fake death bluff in a really great way, he's too much of a sourpuss to even recognize her admirability in meeting him as his level, much less appreciate her or enjoy her in any way. Then finally, as Amy points out, he even refuses to allow Maude to die in the way that she wants! Then there's no evidence that he's changed in any way at the end. It seems unlikely that he has any desire to reconcile with his family, given that he decides to just drive his gift car off a cliff for no particular reason. Harold reminds me a lot of Holden Caulfield, in that I can see how he'd appeal to a 15 year old, but I don't understand how anyone in their 20s or 30s or beyond can see them as anything but immature, privileged assholes. (I say this as someone who loved "Catcher in the Rye" at age 15.)

I will say that Maude is a much better character, and in particular, I love how so much about her character can be gleaned from such small details. I found myself admiring that Ashby just lets the concentration camp tattoo speak for itself and doesn't feel the need to hammer the idea home. However, I really didn't buy the relationship between them, and I sort of got the sense that she didn't really deeply care about him in the same way he cared about her. He was someone to spend some time in her final weeks, but little more than that. In short, I don't understand at all how this lands on a list of romantic movies, what with its utter lack of romance.

Also, even though I love Cat Stevens as much as the next fellow, the discord between the songs and the film was really terrible. It almost seemed like happenstance when a song choice managed to actually make sense with the story on the screen. But again, my ambivalence towards this movie is largely rested on my contempt for Harold as a character.

On the other side, I really like Being There. If there had been a solo episode for it, I quite possibly would have been a soft no, but there's so much in it that I really do enjoy. Off the top of my head right now, I can't think of any film that does a better job of epitomizing white middle-class male privilege than this, the idea that a white dude in a nice suit with proper diction is automatically granted the right to be taken seriously, regardless of the nonsense he spews. I love the scene with Louise calling him out, and I fear that if the movie didn't have this scene, many viewers wouldn't realize that this was being satirized at all (like the satirization of fascism in Starship Troopers). I like that, unlike in Forrest Gump, you're not artificially compelled to view Chance as any type of hero. You can pity or admire his simplicity, but it's just as easy to see him as a bad guy, albeit one who doesn't know any better. I also adore Nate's reading of the ending as turning this satirization back on the audience: what assumptions do you as a viewer make about something regardless of all evidence to the contrary? There's no walkway or pier, why do we assume there is? There's no depth to Chance's gardening aphorisms, why do they assume there is? And lastly, I kind of appreciate that it COULD appeal to someone who completely misses the satire, and I chuckle at the idea that there's some Forrest Gump lover watching this and thinking how neat it is that Chance can give such wise advice to such powerful people despite only knowing about gardening. (I completely understand how someone could look at that as a major negative of the film, but that's a level of stupidity that's somehow charming to me.)

I do agree with Amy that the bits with Chance and Eve are real tough. I'd prefer just cutting much of that out and shortening the film by 8 or 10 minutes. But the rest of the film really works for me. It would be a harder decision if this were a stand-alone episode, but as a versus, this is an easy choice for me. I'm voting for Being There.

#6 sycasey 2.0

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Posted 22 January 2018 - 04:00 PM

View Postbleary, on 22 January 2018 - 02:27 PM, said:

Also, even though I love Cat Stevens as much as the next fellow, the discord between the songs and the film was really terrible. It almost seemed like happenstance when a song choice managed to actually make sense with the story on the screen..


This seemed to be taken as a given by both of the podcast hosts, but I completely disagree. I think the supposed "discord" between the Cat Stevens music and the underlying scene works as invigorating counterpoint. It's a bouncy soundtrack used to counteract a story about depression and suicide, intended to remind the audience of Maude's primary message that you can find beauty if you look for it. I think it absolutely works as intended.

#7 daustin

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Posted 23 January 2018 - 06:30 AM

Ashby has never done much for me. Maybe it's coming to him too late in life, or too far past the era of creation, but I generally find his films interesting but deeply, deeply flawed. I've only seen The Landlord, Harold and Maude and The Last Detail, but I felt the same way about all of them - interesting time capsules but nothing I'd want to revisit. I'll have to abstain from the vote, though, because I still haven't seen Being There (that and Shampoo are on my list, but I haven't been in any great hurry to get to them).
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#8 TheFanon

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Posted 23 January 2018 - 09:20 AM

(Embarrassed Sigh)

Harold and Maude is my favorite movie, but I completely understand Amy's criticisms with it. For me, it is the perfect example of a great New Hollywood film (an era that I know Amy doesn't always care for), while also transforming the cynicism of most post-Vietnam cinema into something more hopeful. It succeeds because of its heart, surrealism, messiness and dark comedy.

That being said, I'll reconsider naming it as a fav movie if I ever have to be on a dating site again.

#9 Johnny Pomatto

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Posted 23 January 2018 - 02:28 PM

The problem with being counter culture is that once the culture begins to evolve, what once seemed radical and daring can become quaint or uninspired when looked back at. Hal Ashby certainly shook things up in his day, and I don't think many people had seen films like the whimsically dark HAROLD AND MAUDE prior to its release. But not only have we seen decades of films influenced by it, but even the original shows a lot more cracks than it might have in 1971. I don't think this alone should ever disqualify a film if time has not been entirely kind to it. It can exist as a time capsule or even a cautionary tale of how not to churn out imitators without addressing changing times and tones. That said, I used to adore HAROLD AND MAUDE when I was younger. The last few times I watched it, I saw a lot less of what initially attracted me to it. It still has the cultural standout moments of the use of Cat Stevens, though that shouldn't gain it access to The Canon alone. There's nothing wrong with the themes that it represents, but it also loses its grip on its own philosophy and meaning. For instance, I don't even know if Ashby and the movie was aware that Harold was betraying Maude by brining her to the hospital after her suicide attempt. I feel like it's playing by a noble gesture of sadness and love. Many things like that might not have occurred to me the first times I watched it. Does that mean that HAROLD AND MAUDE becomes a more interesting or less interesting film with subsequent viewings over time?

My feelings on BEING THERE have changed over the years as well. I saw it at too young an age, because I was a big Peter Sellers fan and I had heard tell that this was his greatest role in a comedy masterpiece. I'll say that's incorrect on both fronts. As a child I really did not appreciate most aspects of the film. The politics went over my head and what little comedic pathos Sellers was going for didn't quite register with me. In recent years I've appreciated things about it a bit more. I do really love Sellers in this film as he silently watches television, absorbing but not necessarily understanding what he sees. I just spent a few weeks with my 2 year old nephew over the holidays and would see the same look on his face when the television glowed with Sesame Street or a Pixar movie. Though just because this is perhaps Sellers most dramatic performance, I don't consider it to be his best. It's a good rule of thumb to not overpraise comedians just when they do something halfway dramatic or speak just above a whisper. He's good in this, but it's no more important than his work in DR. STRANGELOVE, the best of the PINK PANTHER entries, THE PARTY, or a personal favorite of mine, THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT. I do really love Melvin Douglas in this film and always wish there were a bit more of him. I love MacLaine in early scenes, until he embarrassing fawning over Chance turns her into a clown. And the movie's satire just never quite hits home for me. At the very least, it's one note, with the garden metaphors repeating to the point that one expects more people to catch on to his actual demeanor. I'm a big Jack Warden fan but I can't believe that the biggest influence The President ends up having in this supposed political satire is a running gag about being so confounded that his dick stops working. And last night, watching the movie again for the first time in several years, I was aghast to be reminded that after the hauntingly poignant ending we are treated to outtakes over the end credits as if this were a CANNONBALL RUN movie. I don't know if there's truth to the idea that the gag cost Sellers the Academy Award, but it might cost him entry into The Canon.

I think I enjoyed rewatching BEING THERE this week more than I did in revisiting HAROLD AND MAUDE, but it still never quite forms into the movie that I want it to be. I feel like this is the case with most of Hal Ashby's movies. He was an undeniable subversive and necessary presence in Hollywood, but perhaps we had to be there at the time to fully feel the ripples of his waves. I watched SHAMPOO again a few months back and felt similar frustrations, and I've always considered THE LAST DETAIL to be my favorite of his works, but in light of this week I'm a little nervous to revisit it. I can't recall. Did we successfully vote THE CANDIDATE into The Canon? I thought it made it in, and if so, I really feel like we don't have a need for the similarly themed though tonally different BEING THERE. I'm tempted to still vote for HAROLD AND MAUDE, just because of what it once meant to me. I may have grown out of those emotions that I felt at an earlier age, but maybe The Canon needs a film that we acknowledge is seminal in the forming of a young (likely male) mind, but that at some point must be cast aside as said mind begins to grow up. So mine is a tepid vote for HAROLD AND MAUDE. It doesn't mean as much to me as it once did, but at the height of my passion for it, the film meant more to me than BEING THERE does now or ever. Ashby does deserve a place of some kind in The Canon. It's a shame that it has to arrive with a troubling footnote.

#10 Susan*

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Posted 23 January 2018 - 05:39 PM

View Postmveew, on 22 January 2018 - 08:25 AM, said:

Abstaining this week in lieu of a Neither option. Both were movies I watched to check off my cultural literacy list and found to be very unremarkable.

I'm leaning this way. I used to read all kinds of film magazines, back when there were many, and there were many articles about the genius of Hal Ashby. I made a real effort to see his films and felt like none of them lived up to the acclaim.

#11 Susan*

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Posted 23 January 2018 - 05:49 PM

Harold and Maude ran at a theater in the Twin Cities for about two years straight. My mom used to marvel at that--all the parents in my neighborhood went to see it at least once, and there were people who went often. I think the ads in the movie section of the local newspaper kept updating the number of weeks it had been running. The link below says that Ruth Gordon showed up twice for anniversaries.

http://cinematreasur.../theaters/10082

This, plus my high school creative writing teacher's obsession with this movie, might make me throw it a vote.

#12 50 Shades of Chauncey Gardiner

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Posted 24 January 2018 - 11:01 AM

My handle should tell you where my vote goes...

#13 vanveen13

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Posted 24 January 2018 - 04:20 PM

One of the odd assumptions made by our genial hosts this week is that Harold and Maude and Being there somehow specifically appeal to privileged artsy straight guys. I was introduced to both films by females who loved them, passionately. Was told about Harold by a brilliant, sardonic goth girl in high school whom I very much wanted to impress (I did not) and eventually saw it one afternoon when a close female friend of mine sat me and her sorta boyfriend down with the video tape to watch it in the house of a friend who was out of town. While the two of them proceeded to get sloshed and make sloppy love in every room of the house around me, I concentrated my mortified eyes on the screen; every washed out groovy image was thus burned into my mind for all eternity. Being there, thankfully, was chastely brought to my attention by my lovely late aunt one Christmas a few years later, who assured me it was both funny and smart, unlike most movies.

Now onto the hetero issue. To me, the unconventional romance in Harold has always had an obvious gay subtext to it. In Shampoo, my favorite Ashby film and one of my top ten favorite movies of all time, Carrie Fisher meets Warren Beatty's George in a notorious sequence. He tells her he's a hair dresser and she asks him if he's gay. He says he isn't. Fisher asks if he's sleeping with her mother and suggests that having a thing for older women is "kind of faggoty, isn't it?" So perhaps Ashby's mind was right there along with mine. Anyway, the point is I've always associated Harold with gay men. In fact, two of my closest friends, gay of course, are like various aspects of Harold. One actually drove a hearse for several years and is an inveterate, outrageous prankster with a wonderfully unflappable mom. The other guy is boyish and very normal looking, almost preppy, yet debauched and rebellious under all that seeming "niceness." I go into all this so that we don't necessarily essentialize stuff, which I think Amy sometimes has a tendency to do because she's so wary of male rule breakers and counter cultural dudes who thumb there noses at the mainstream, for some reason associated by her with Trump's loutish, Philistine behavior.

But back to the movies: Like Amy, I don't care for either of them that much. The romance in Harold has no spark to it; even as a sixteen year old I wasn't much moved by Maude's bohemian life force or whimsical little rituals--they seemed forced the way certain productions of You can't take it with you do when the cast tries too hard for a sparkling blithe effect. And I felt nothing about Maude's death. The only thing I really enjoyed in the movie was the power struggle between Harold and his mother, which was very funny. Harold's mother's boredom and her refusal to be upset by her son's behavior gives her an odd glamour and dignity that saves her from being a too easy satirical target. Still, I think our hosts are crazy if they truly believe this woman is in any shape or form doing the right thing as a parent. Harold's childish fake suicide pranks seem exactly the right response to a mother who doesn't care what her son's emotional wants and needs are. To her he's simply an animated encumbrance. You get the feeling she just wants to marry him off to an appropriate mate and be done with him, a form of living death. Therefore she doesn't react to these stunt suicides, because at some level she doesn't think of Harold as being a live creature.

When I first saw Being there I loved it, but then when I saw it again I thought it was terribly boring and obvious. Plus there's a kind of contradiction in this material that's annoying. I haven't read the Kosinsky novel but other ones I've picked up by him are incredibly grotesque, perverse and disturbing so I wouldn't be surprised if the film has lightened his themes somewhat: put them through the Capra corn grinder that is. The problem has to do with the way the film pretends, on the one hand, to be a satire of how shallow and stupid our society is when it takes the empty statements of a mentally retarded man as the sage pronouncements of a wise philosopher guru, which isn't believable at all the way it's presented, and so misses its mark almost entirely. But then on the other hand the movie winds up lauding the effects of the main character's vacuous stupidity on those whose life he ultimately graces. I think these people really are meant to seem as if they'd been helped and opened up spiritually by this Candide with a charmed life. The idea ultimately is that the adult world is so sophisticated and corrupt that it can only be saved by an encounter with true innocence, unencumbered by soul rotting intelligence, ideas and hard won life experience. And I don't think you can have it both ways. The bludgeoning image of the character walking on water at the end connects him to the christlike, noble idiots of Dostoyevsky, but without that demented author's neurotic contradictions and ambivalence about what it means to try to embody divine goodness on earth.

Thus in this difficult deliberation, I'm coming down on the side of Harold and Maude because it made me laugh, because it's against the squares, and because to me it's kind of gay. Plus, the movie meant a lot to a number of people I love and admire. Sorry Amy. I get your take on it though. Man, I cannot wait 'til we finally learn where exactly the line between your bohemian and conservative sides lies. We keep getting hints but I don't yet understand what lies beneath, a bad film by the director of Forrest Gump.

#14 rickyssofake

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Posted 25 January 2018 - 02:13 PM

My vote goes to Being There, both because I think it's canon worthy satire (not just of politics, but on the tremendous topic of human perspective itself), and because I will lose it if Harold and Maude gets in the canon.

I dislike it for reasons pretty much entirely covered in posts made before mine, so I'll just add one more comment: STEALING CARS IS NOT TWEE OR CUTE. Yes Maude we all want to live life and chase new experiences, but that doesn't mean we commit felonies!

#15 Nathan Roberson

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Posted 25 January 2018 - 08:54 PM

As a Florida boy turned New Yorker, I've come to really appreciate the value of theaters and the theatrical experience. My Museum of the Moving Image membership has been a treasure the past few years, and proximity to all their wonderful screenings will be highly factored in to my next apartment hunt.

This episode stressed the importance of the theatrical experience even more. Like Amy, I'm a latecomer to Harold and Maude. I watched it on DVD last year. I'm also a latecomer to Being There. I watched a 35mm screening at the MoMI, also last year. I was left thinking of Harold and Maude as a movie not-so-deserving of its reputation. Perfectly enjoyable, but nothing truly spectacular.

Being There however was a religious experience. Sure, the climate last year definitely influenced my perception of the film, but I was aghast when Amy and Nate said the laughs didn't play. The audience was getting such a kick out of Sellers. All the laughs were thunderous. I was in love with the two guys on a date behind me, one trying to laugh even harder to show how funny his favorite film was. It was infectious and electric.

So my vote goes to Being There. See it in a cinema if you can. It holds up well, and it's a riot to boot.

Also, as I told Amy on Twitter: I saw The Last Showman. She is 100% a space alien.

#16 davidpatricklowery

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Posted 26 January 2018 - 12:04 AM

I watched HAROLD AND MAUDE in high school and didn't love it. I watched BEING THERE a few years later and didn't love it either. I watched SHAMPOO somewhere in between and flipped out for it and that's what made me an Ashby fan. I rewatched it the other day and found it to be way more culturally relevant than my memory of BEING THERE. I'm voting for H&M but my heart belongs to all those in-betweeners in Ashby's 70s output.

#17 sycasey 2.0

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Posted 26 January 2018 - 03:45 PM

View Postdavidpatricklowery, on 26 January 2018 - 12:04 AM, said:

I watched HAROLD AND MAUDE in high school and didn't love it. I watched BEING THERE a few years later and didn't love it either. I watched SHAMPOO somewhere in between and flipped out for it and that's what made me an Ashby fan. I rewatched it the other day and found it to be way more culturally relevant than my memory of BEING THERE. I'm voting for H&M but my heart belongs to all those in-betweeners in Ashby's 70s output.


If I'm picking the best Ashby movie, it's probably The Last Detail. But that one lacks the same cultural cache of the two we're voting on.

#18 Lawbster31

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Posted 27 January 2018 - 10:11 PM

Am I the only one who liked both of these a lot? I would have voted a solid Yes on both in standalone episodes but since I have to choose only one, I think I'll go with Harold And Maude? Honestly haven't quite made up my mind yet and could go either way. I actually enjoy Being There more, but it does go over similar ground as Forrest Gump, The Candidate, Face In The Crowd, etc whereas Harold And Maude felt fresh despite the fact that you can clearly see decades of movies pulling directly from it. Maude annoyed me honestly but I thought Harold's relationship with his mother was fantastic. Just like with The Host, Amy mentions the music not fitting with the movie and I completely disagree, I thought every song fit perfectly, whether Harold listened to Cat Stevens or not.

As for Being There, I think they could have easily trimmed 20 minutes and lost nothing. There's a lot of slowness and dead air that admittedly does fit with Chance's disability but likely only serves to bore you on rewatch. The music once again is incredible. Ashby has always been a blind spot for me so I'm really grateful this episode has convinced me to seek out more of his films.

#19 FilmFanMan

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Posted 28 January 2018 - 11:09 AM

 mveew, on 22 January 2018 - 08:25 AM, said:

Abstaining this week in lieu of a Neither option. Both were movies I watched to check off my cultural literacy list and found to be very unremarkable.


Ditto. I never loved either of these movies. If pressed, I like Being There more. I love both The Last Detail and Shampoo would Canon-ize the former.
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#20 sycasey 2.0

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Posted 28 January 2018 - 12:05 PM

 Lawbster31, on 27 January 2018 - 10:11 PM, said:

Am I the only one who liked both of these a lot?


No, so do I. But I am surprised by the "blah" feelings most voters seem to have about Ashby. Perhaps he's more niche than I thought.