This essay on Hal Ashby's Coming Home was written by Ashton Leach, graduate student at UW Madison's Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Coming Home will screen on Saturday, February 19 at 7:15 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. Admission for this screening is free.
The screening is presented in conjunction with University Theatre’s production of Shirley Lauro’s A Piece of My Heart directed by Baron Kelly. Performances run March 3-11.
By Ashton Leach
The 1970s saw the rise of the auteur director—someone who seems to craft every element of the film as if they were authoring a book themselves. Because of this intense dedication and control, Hal Ashby’s eccentric films of the 1970s have gained a cult following that pushed his once-controversial pieces into the canon of the decade. He directed back-to-back hits starting in 1970 with a debut that is politically charged and funny throughout, The Landlord. In 1971 he shocked audiences with his romantically taboo-yet-lust-for-life-inducing film Harold and Maude, followed by the humorously profane sailor film The Last Detail in 1973. Next, the sexual, comedic, and politically puissant Shampoo was released in 1975, followed by the insightful 1976 biopic of musical folk hero Woody Guthrie, Bound for Glory. In 1978, Ashby released his anti-war manifesto in the romance, Coming Home. He concluded his string of superb films with Being There in 1979.
Before becoming a director, Ashby was known for being a meticulous editor, working on films such as The Cincinnati Kid and In the Heat of the Night. Ashby would spend hours re-watching clips until he could craft the perfect transition, and it has been said that he would not leave the editing room for months at a time as he clipped and dissolved film reels to his level of perfection. Ashby stated, “Make your film so goddamned good that you see something in it all the time. Every sonofabitching time you sit down and thread up a goddamn reel and you punch a button and you start to look at it, you get a different idea. And whether you pursue it or not doesn’t matter. The film will tell you what to do.” Ashby moved from editing to direction in 1970 when his filmmaking partner, Norman Jewison, passed along a project Jewison was set to direct on race relations and the comedically ignorant white aristocrats in New York, The Landlord. The film took on the political ideologies that Ashby and Jewison had been wanting to delve into. Ashby’s manner of directing led to an indescribable intimacy between the audience and the characters. His films take on the feel of a documentary, utilizing raw but subtle emotion to complicate the personalities of his characters. He continued to use the wit, the poignant political themes, and the personable approach that he utilized in The Landlord throughout his filmography, and it is seen unobscured in Coming Home.
Coming Home, a staunchly anti-war film, came out after America had left Vietnam, but the war’s effects were still ravaging the world. The title of the film itself references the hardship faced by many of the soldiers who returned after their tour was complete. Most people would associate coming home with the feeling of comfort, knowing everything around us, and a sense of freedom, but Coming Home pushes back against that narrative of open arms and joyous reunions. Ashby’s film gives face to those who have returned from war but no do not experience that comfort. They are physically back, but their home is not the same, or rather they have changed in a way that makes “home” feel foreign.
The film opens with cigarette smoking and pool being played—balls ricocheting while we hear talking about “going back.” As the camera moves away, it is clear that the nameless men playing this game of billiards are physically disabled—sitting in wheelchairs or laying on beds while maneuvering around the table. “Going back” is going back to Vietnam or running away to Canada—these men are vets who served in Vietnam and have come home. The year is 1968, the war in Vietnam is at its height. Sally Hyde (Jane Fonda) is the perfect, friendly, doting wife to Bob (Bruce Dern), a Marine who is preparing to ship off for duty in Vietnam. Once he is gone, Sally’s time is free in a way she has not known. There are no more watchful eyes at country clubs and Bob is not around to tell her what to think. In dedication to her husband and to do her part for the war effort, Sally volunteers at the local veterans’ hospital. She gets a beach house and spends her time increasingly away, not only from Bob, but from the way of life they led before his departure. A meet-cute if there ever was one, Sally is run into by a patient who is lying face down on a bed, using a cane to move throughout the hospital. When they collide, his urine bag falls to the floor, and a familiar face from the opening scene reappears. His angry outburst defines a great deal of Luke Martin’s (played by Jon Voight) personality for the rest of the film, foiling Sally’s gentle demeanor. Upon further discussion, outside of the frequent anger-filled outbursts, Sally and Luke realize they went to high school together. Though they were never friends, it gives them the tiny connection to start something more than a caregiver and patient relationship.
The manner in which Ashby captures the relationship of Sally and Luke is astonishing, building chemistry between them in a sort of opposites attract theme while keeping them raw and real, but what Ashby does best in this film is the visual perspective he crafts for Luke. Luke has been paralyzed from the waist down after an injury in the war and when a shot is taking Luke’s perspective, Ashby keeps the camera at Luke’s eye level. There will be shots with disembodied people walking on the screen. It is jarring at first watching torsos move without the faces leading, but this method of capturing just one way in which Luke sees the world since coming home from Vietnam is substantial and poignant. Luke is seen both in a wheelchair and in a mobile bed, each of which takes on different heights and visual cues.
Ashby does not craft characters that are simply good or bad—Luke is hot-headed and violent at times, while Sally was naïve and did not tend to think critically about the world around her beyond what was told to her by her husband. This relationship changes them in ways that, depending on the character in the film, might be for the better or worse. Nothing feels clean cut or easy in this film, and that is how Ashby creates fathomable narratives that teach a lesson and push audiences to think about their perception of the world.