Filmmaking maverick Hal Ashby was an elder statesman of the New Wave, more akin to the literary largesse-and-trepidation cocktails of Robert Altman than the fiery brimstone of the younger hooligans of the era weened on Godard and his fellow travelers. Martin Scorsese he was not, but he did stake out his own claim as a chronicler of the decade that quietly fell in love with him, at least for a film here or there. Although none of his features would meet the vociferous acclaim of his debut work Harold and Maude, Ashby would evolve as a journeyman filmmaker whose comic visions of life belied their exploration of the just-past-due, still lingering, now haunted fantasia that was the death spasm of the 1960s.
Indeed, Ashby’s films were among the first to grapple explicitly with the faded fallout of an era that a few years before hand whispered its own eternal existence to the believers of its mantra. In 1971, Harold and Maude winsomely lamented the passing of an era while wishfully ensnaring midnight audiences in a vision of angelic, optimistic psychedelia fighting against the dying of the light. Flawed and overly programmatic, Ashby’s debut nonetheless escapes its own awkwardness by the jejune skin of its romantic teeth.
The far less esteemed Shampoo, despite mostly having faded – like the late ’60s itself – into the half-deluded memories of a better time, this time a cinematic one called the New Hollywood, is easily the superior film, more learned about the formal principles and less Jekyll and Hyde about its tonal shifts. Rather than embodying the late ’60s and the early ’70s in diametric characters conjoined in a holy/unholy matrimony, Shampoo sublimates the confusion and mania of the time period into the ambidexterity of a place cast adrift in its own sexual and politics hedonistic juices without a safe space to turn. The awakening arrives late in the film like a cold glass of water, alerting us to the fact that, for the preceding 100 minutes, we’ve been watching Ashby’s vision of the death dream of late ’60s.
A dream that adopts a tempo more akin to the films of a different era, with a love and zest indicative of Ashby’s vintage-but-not-backwards vision of his own youth in a Great Depression America. Back then, the nation was coping with its own national bedlam and subsisting underneath the tempestuous but genial vision of inveterate screwball comedy that had helped the askew and the distraught survive long beforehand in the days of the ’30s. Ashby’s mettle as a filmmaker isn’t up to snuff with a Hawks or a Capra, the progenitors of works like Shampoo, but his ingenue days as an editor are served extraordinarily well in Shampoo’s kindred atmosphere to those earlier works of spitfire dialogue buttressed by the vertiginous hyperbole of kinetic editing rhythms. Lithe and fleet-of-foot, Ashby’s quick-handed cutting skills achieve the insouciant texture that the carefree, live-for-the-moment ’60s set as its endgoal in its most embellished, endearing dreams of its own future.
Betwixt the whirlpool of decadent, hedonistic color splotches and broadly intoned dreams saunters George (Warren Beatty), a hair dresser (the heads come to him) and beauty school graduate intertwined with a drifter ensnared in a sex addict. Bedding both his live-in girlfriend Jill (Goldie Hawn) and one of his customers, Jackie (Julie Christie, working up the mix of uneasy camaraderie and doubt she gave Beatty in McCabe & Mrs. Miller), he simultaneously dreams of one day owning his own beauty shop. A goal for which he is courting Jackie’s wealthy boyfriend Lester (Jack Warden), all while both Lester and George hide their other loves from Lester’s wife Felicia (Lee Grant), another of George’s many lovers.
The logorrhea of the New Jersey Turnpike plot description is indicator enough that Shampoo’s heart lies in recapturing that peculiar mixture of embodied madness, contorted amor, and bewildering, flexible compulsion that defined the golden era of classical American comedy. Although it revels in a portrait of an entombed time period failing to realize its present was now past, Shampoo’s filmmaking is animated, vigorous, and sprightly in its treatment of the momentary love affairs of psychedelia and the lingering post-coital nothingness awaiting everyone on the other side. As with most screwball comedies, the central theme of Shampoo, is the human species’ unmitigated ability to speak to one another without ever listening. Luxuriantly, defiantly visualized in Ashby’s commandingly fluid expression of tone and physical location, the camera cavorts between rooms to externalize how humans maintain internal separation even amidst suffocatingly compact physical space. In Ashby’s camera, we traipse around each other without ever locating the same plane of existence as anyone around.
Not the most defiant film from the era, for Ashby wasn’t a defiant filmmaker. He was nimble, though, and a deviously kaleidoscopic burnout party late-on is among the most sustained displays of warped-world antics the decade committed to celluloid. Near the end, just before the finale of George’s fever dream, the flashing rotary of the camera envisions the sulfurous burnout of the late ’60s in a seizure of human conflagration, with hippie wishes serving as kindling finally erupted into fire by the friction of their unerring carnal gesticulations. The day-glo colors and artificial mise en scene suggest Shampoo as an unconscious dream about the ’60s, a screwball tragedy as a vision of what we want to remember the decade as. The final shot, in this light, is among the rudest awakenings in cinema.