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June 2009
Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel  Online
by Nick Dawson
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Director Hal Ashby does not have the name recognition of some other American directors who emerged in the 1970s, yet in terms of consistent, quality output, he was easily on a par with Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich and others who established their reputations in the era. Starting with his second film as a director, Harold and Maude, in 1971, Ashby created an extraordinary, unbroken string of masterpieces that lasted throughout the decade: The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Bound for Glory (1976), Coming Home (1978) and Being There (1979). To look at this list is to see a series of films that document the American experience with empathy, wit and a sophisticated, adult sensibility that epitomizes what critics mean when they refer to the 1970s as a golden age.
A Year of Hitchcock  Online
by Jim McDevitt and Eric San Juan
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

The premise of Jim McDevitt and Eric San Juan’s A Year of Hitchcock is simple and elegant: the writers break down master filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock’s career into 52 weeks of viewing (a film a week, along with a couple of weeks devoted to television episodes), with the idea the reader can study the director’s evolution over the course of a year. While any film lover can undoubtedly learn a lot from studying a Hitchcock movie a week, unfortunately, A Year of Hitchcock is a disappointing guide that adds little to the vast number of available writings on the director. The authors are clearly huge Hitchcock fans, and their affection for the films is obvious; yet this enthusiasm fails to manifest itself in a substantive examination of Hitchcock’s work. 
The Steadicam Operators Handbook  Online
by Jerry Holway and Laurie Hayball
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Precision is key when it comes to pulling off a successful Steadicam shot, and it is also the best word to describe what makes The Steadicam Operator’s Handbook essential reading. Written by veteran operators Jerry Holway and Laurie Hayball, it is a treasure trove of specific, detailed information regarding the theory and practice of Steadicam operation. Together the authors have decades of experience not only behind the camera, but also in the classroom as leaders of Steadicam workshops, and their expertise and ability to clearly communicate permeate every chapter of this 426-page textbook. It is the definitive guide to one of the most important filmmaking tools to emerge in the last 30 years.

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Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel
by Nick Dawson
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Director Hal Ashby does not have the name recognition of some other American directors who emerged in the 1970s, yet in terms of consistent, quality output, he was easily on a par with Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich and others who established their reputations in the era. Starting with his second film as a director, Harold and Maude, in 1971, Ashby created an extraordinary, unbroken string of masterpieces that lasted throughout the decade: The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Bound for Glory (1976), Coming Home (1978) and Being There (1979). To look at this list is to see a series of films that document the American experience with empathy, wit and a sophisticated, adult sensibility that epitomizes what critics mean when they refer to the 1970s as a golden age.

So why is Ashby so overlooked today? Part of the problem is the last several films he made before his untimely death in 1988 (He was only 59 years old.) were taken out of his hands and recut by others — a disastrous circumstance for a director like Ashby, who began as an editor and whose films were delicately structured in postproduction. The result was late films such as The Slugger’s Wife (1985) and 8 Million Ways to Die (1986), while stronger than their reputations suggest, were not on a par with the director’s best work. Yet Ashby never made an uninteresting movie, and even his weaker efforts had observational moments of great feeling and depth. It is time his body of work was properly recognized and studied, and to that end, Nick Dawson’s new biography, Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel, is a welcome contribution to film scholarship.
     
Dawson’s work on Ashby began as a college paper in 2002, and his years of research on the project — work that has included interviewing Ashby’s friends, relatives and colleagues and poring over his papers at the Academy — have resulted in a vivid portrait of a great American filmmaker. The book is particularly fascinating in its early chapters as it traces the formative experiences of a man who would become one of the most profound chroniclers of 20th-century American mores. 

Born into a Mormon family in Ogden, Utah, Ashby worked a variety of jobs and saw his country from a multitude of perspectives as a young man; he also encountered tragedy in the form of his parents’ divorce and his father’s suicide. Ashby went through his own first marriage and divorce before he was out of his teenage years, and this whirlwind of emotional ups and downs manifested itself in a career that would be marked by a unique recognition of human frailty and helplessness (perhaps best expressed in the futile minor rebellions of the soldiers in The Last Detail).
    
Dawson charts Ashby’s development with a style that is casual and anecdotal yet intellectually rigorous — much like Ashby’s own films. The author moves from Ashby’s youthful wanderings to his successful career as a Hollywood editor, during which time the future director learned his craft cutting films for William Wyler and Norman Jewison. It was in collaboration with Jewison on In the Heat of the Night (1967) that Ashby won an Oscar for his editing, and Jewison was instrumental in landing Ashby his first directing job on The Landlord (1970). That film’s tone of sympathetic satire would establish Ashby’s directorial voice, a voice that would develop and deepen but never fundamentally change over the years.
    
Being Hal Ashby takes the reader through Ashby’s career film by film and provides real insight into his working methods and relationships. Key collaborations, such as Ashby’s productive partnerships with cinematographers Haskell Wexler, ASC, and Caleb Deschanel, ASC, are discussed in detail, as are his legendary battles with interfering producers. Dawson also explores Ashby’s friendships and personal life and, in the process, dispels perhaps the most pervasive myth about the director: the notion drug abuse killed his career. In fact, Ashby was no lazy druggie; he was a driven workaholic who practically lived in the editing room while completing his films. His hippie appearance and a marijuana-related arrest gave him a bad reputation, but Ashby’s drug use was no more significant than that of many directors who went on to sustain lengthy careers in Hollywood.
    
As Dawson points out, Ashby was less a casualty of drugs and alcohol than of a changing climate in Hollywood — a more corporate, market-research-driven environment that flourished in the 1980s and made Ashby’s subtle, organic way of working less and less feasible. Dawson does not romanticize Ashby or gloss over his personal demons, but he does provide a more complex, sympathetic portrait than the director has been granted in the past. The result is a biography that is as moving as good drama and a riveting snapshot of a period — the post-Easy Rider, pre-blockbuster Hollywood of the 1970s — that has all too often been either overly mythologized or defined by its excesses.

Dawson is too serious a scholar to fall back onto the conventional wisdom about either Ashby or his era, and his book is revelatory in its insights. Affectionate, well researched and astute in its assessments of the films themselves, this biography is the kind of testament Ashby has long deserved.     

The University Press of Kentucky
$37.50 hardcover
 
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A Year of Hitchcock
by Jim McDevitt and Eric San Juan
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

The premise of Jim McDevitt and Eric San Juan’s A Year of Hitchcock is simple and elegant: the writers break down master filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock’s career into 52 weeks of viewing (a film a week, along with a couple of weeks devoted to television episodes), with the idea the reader can study the director’s evolution over the course of a year. While any film lover can undoubtedly learn a lot from studying a Hitchcock movie a week, unfortunately, A Year of Hitchcock is a disappointing guide that adds little to the vast number of available writings on the director. The authors are clearly huge Hitchcock fans, and their affection for the films is obvious; yet this enthusiasm fails to manifest itself in a substantive examination of Hitchcock’s work.    
     
The format is straightforward: each of the book’s 52 chapters focuses on either one film or a collection of Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes and begins with vital statistics, including release date, studio, aspect ratio and filming locations. A brief synopsis follows, along with commentary, miscellaneous trivia and a list of applicable Hitchcock themes and motifs. At its best, A Year of Hitchcock challenges antiquated views of the director’s work, such as the conventional wisdom The Skin Game (1931) represents a career low point (an erroneous assessment stated by the director himself and perpetuated by lazy critics). Other standouts include a chapter on Foreign Correspondent (1940), a film often wrongly overshadowed by Rebecca (which was released in the same year and won the Best Picture Oscar), and a section devoted to the overlooked technical virtuosity of Under Capricorn (1949). 
    
Unfortunately, more often than not, the authors regurgitate analyses from other critics (as well as from the interviews with Hitchcock in Hitchcock/Truffaut) without building on the prior scholarship. Chapters on underrated movies like Jamaica Inn (1939) casually dismiss the films without attempting to look at them from a fresh perspective, whereas sections on acknowledged masterpieces like The 39 Steps (1935), Rear Window (1954), and Vertigo (1958) offer no new insights for readers with even a cursory knowledge of the director’s work. To make matters worse, even the summaries cribbed from other writings are occasionally inaccurate; the writers wrongly assert, for example, the audience and the Jimmy Stewart character in Rear Window are always privy to the same information.
 
Even when the information is correct, it is rarely enlightening; the writers’ analyses are shallow and consistently restate the obvious. There is little to be gained from repeated quotations from Roger Ebert that Vertigo is a deeply personal film for Hitchcock, or the writers’ redundant assertions the director was good at suspense and black comedy. The production histories and biographical details are barely more useful, with the writers regurgitating stories about Hitchcock (like his often told tale about being locked in a police station as a boy) that have been documented countless times in other, better books.

Although the book falls short as a piece of critical biography, it has sporadic value as a reference tool, particularly for those Hitchcock fans who have been plagued by the multitude of inferior DVD transfers on the market. At the conclusion of each chapter, McDevitt and San Juan list the different DVD editions of the films under discussion and rate them according to quality and supplements. This is particularly helpful in regard to Hitchcock’s early British work, some of which has fallen into the public domain and thus been released on discs that vary wildly in terms of picture and sound quality. A Year of Hitchcock steers the reader in the direction of the best possible transfers and includes vital statistics for each disc. 
    
Even here, though, the entries are often incomplete and inexplicably fail to mention key supplements, such as commentary tracks that would be of considerable interest to Hitchcock scholars. The comparisons are generally reliable although there are odd gaffes — for example, the writers assign the same star rating to two different pressings of Rear Window in spite of the fact one of them has a far greater abundance of useful extra features (The same is true of ratings for wildly different incarnations of Vertigo and Psycho.). The superficial approach of the book is disappointing given its length — with more than  300 pages, it is nearly as long as more illuminating volumes by Robin Wood and Donald Spoto, but it lacks the depth of those tomes. Hitchcock’s life and work are certainly fascinating enough to continue to yield fresh insights, as Patrick McGilligan proved with his superb recent biography, A Life in Darkness and Light. Yet readers seeking new ideas will not find them here despite McDevitt and San Juan’s considerable love for their subject.      

Scarecrow Press
$49.95 hardcover
 
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The Steadicam Operators Handbook
by Jerry Holway and Laurie Hayball
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Precision is key when it comes to pulling off a successful Steadicam shot, and it is also the best word to describe what makes The Steadicam Operator’s Handbook essential reading. Written by veteran operators Jerry Holway and Laurie Hayball, it is a treasure trove of specific, detailed information regarding the theory and practice of Steadicam operation. Together the authors have decades of experience not only behind the camera, but also in the classroom as leaders of Steadicam workshops, and their expertise and ability to clearly communicate permeate every chapter of this 426-page textbook. It is the definitive guide to one of the most important filmmaking tools to emerge in the last 30 years.
     
The book begins with a foreword by Steadicam inventor and ASC associate member Garrett Brown, who provides a brief history of the rig. More of Brown’s comments and observations can be found throughout the book whenever applicable, and he is one of many expert voices whom Holway and Hayball incorporate into their text. Other masters whose anecdotes and insights complement the authors’ narrative include Larry McConkey, the operator behind legendary Steadicam shots in Goodfellas and Bonfire of the Vanities, and operators Peter Abraham and Chris Fawcett, who discuss the challenges of Steadicam work on documentary and live-television productions. These and other contributors provide an informed view from the trenches and a wide array of perspectives on their craft.
    
Holway and Hayball lay out their information in a dense yet accessible manner; they cover everything one wants to know in any given chapter, and their years as teachers have clearly given them an ability to be thorough without being confusing. The book begins with an introduction to the Steadicam and its parts and goes on to instruct the reader in the proper wearing of the rig, taking into account everything from posture and health issues to composition and point of view. The text is illustrated with more than a thousand full-color photos and diagrams, which make even the most difficult concepts easily relatable; Steadicam novices will quickly grasp the basics, and experienced operators using the book as a reference tool will find it easy to access whatever information they need.

After introducing the reader to Steadicam fundamentals, the authors delve into meticulous detail in chapters devoted to movement, framing, collaboration and business considerations. The sections on practical considerations such as prepping for a shoot and buying a rig are as thorough as the chapters on aesthetic issues, and all are equally interesting to read, thanks to the writers’ clarity and passion for their subject. One of the book’s greatest strengths is its use of examples from popular films to illustrate points: Holway and Hayball provide detailed analyses of shots from Carlito’s Way, The Shining and dozens of other Steadicam landmarks to fully convey the expressive possibilities of the technology. These descriptions are beautifully written and illustrated with vivid storyboards, and readers who want to view the actual shots under discussion can find them easily on DVD since the writers have helpfully provided the exact time when each example appears in each film.               
    
The book also contains a wealth of information on various accessories and modifications, as well as links to resources on the Web and suggestions for working in unusual weather conditions and restricted locations. The writers’ knowledge of their craft is encyclopedic, and the sidebars by other contributors are consistently entertaining and enlightening.  There is, quite simply, no question left unanswered in this definitive guide.  This comprehensiveness makes The Steadicam Operator’s Handbook a vital read for not only operators, but also cinematographers, directors and even actors, all of whom will gain a better understanding of how to adjust their craft to make the most of the Steadicam’s potential. Intelligent but not dryly academic, and complete but never overwhelming, The Steadicam Operator’s Handbook is a must.   

Focal Press
$49.95 paperback
 
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