Two weeks ago, the Top Ten By Year: 1978 zine became available to purchase on my etsy page. It is a variety of collage, illustration, and celebration of the films of 1978. I’d written about my ten favorites in 2015 (the year of my 1978 deep dive), and my plan was to rewatch and revise everything to improve what was there. What I quickly found was that none of it was nearly good enough to include. There are a handful of thoughts that remain, but everything I wrote for the zine is entirely new.
I want to give people a peek at what I wrote, and hopefully, if you like it and would like to see more, you’ll consider picking up a copy. I’ll post three write-ups each from the 1943 (which was similarly revised almost from scratch) and 1978 zines. I will also be doing this for the 1943 zine.
So, here is my write-up on Hal Ashby and company’s Coming Home. It is my #2 of 1978.
Coming Home delivers its message by way of human texture and deference. 1978 marks the year Hollywood began to grapple with the atrocities of the Vietnam War (this and the harrowing collapse-of-camaraderie film The Deer Hunter were both nominated for Best Picture). But Hollywood didn’t decide to make Coming Home; Jane Fonda did. And she brought in collaborators (director Hal Ashby, stars Jon Voight and Bruce Dern, cinematographer Haskell Wexler, producer Jerome Hellman, etc) that, like her, were coming from a place of long-time activism and grievance. Together they came up with one of the most empathetic films ever made (Coming Home is full of one-of-the-mosts of mine), a film about the basic need for human connection in times of uncertainty and ruin. Their research on the stories and struggles of those who returned home held significant sway, and they shot at an active veterans hospital, incorporating the patients and their conversations into the film (Jon Voight and Robert Carradine are the only actors among the hundred plus credited). It is by some miracle (that miracle being the people involved) that they never feel like exploited window dressing. The film opens with patients playing pool and speaking unscripted about the war. Originally, Jon Voight was meant to chime in, but as they shot the only thing that felt right was to stay silent. Instead, he is seen listening intently with his head down, his real-life respect becomes Luke’s pain. This is what I mean by deference.
Hal Ashby’s camera was always one of sensitive objectivity: simply put, he can see. He’s often far away (because of the lenses he favors, even when he’s close he’s far), taking in the whole before finding the details. This sense of discovery with a documentarian’s eye – seen in, for example, every shot from the Fourth of July picnic – contains a decree that we also see, and become one with the camera’s discoveries. It is through this that the film finds its uncommon compassion, allowing the actors to seamlessly integrate themselves with the environment and each other.
Ashby’s hang-back approach (he and Altman really are kindred spirits) facilitates another crucial rarity about Coming Home: it’s one of the sexiest films ever made. I challenge you to show me anything as erotic as the way Jon Voight looks at Jane Fonda in this movie (Voight’s work here is critical to my love of Coming Home; a hugely important performance to me, one of rare lived-in emotional access). The two dance around that most charged of scenarios; the anticipatory zone before anything happen, when the tiniest touch, gaze, or exchange is liable to occupy your daydreams (“You know, I spend 95% of the time at the hospital thinking of making love with you”). The realm of unconsummated desire. Their desire functions as a kind of healing, as a way for the broken and abandoned to put themselves together again. The reason it’s so sexy, besides the chemistry between Voight and Fonda, is that nobody is in communication with the camera. Every touch, gaze, and exchange is caught or glimpsed. The camera is not a participant or a voyeur, but an observer, freeing up the actors to share space and immerse themselves with their characters and each other (for instance, the scene at the beach between Luke and Sally regarding Bob’s return was shot with an 800mm lens, placing the camera over 400 yards away from the actors). Their romance never feels constructed for us. Between the performances, and the camera’s unobtrusive and intimate observations, the intimacy we see and feel is amplified.
Hal Ashby is well-known for integrating music into his films, and in Coming Home it’s a throughline — a blank check catalog of the era (it may understandably read as Cliche City to some — there are 5 Rolling Stones songs. 5!), but it stitches together the frequent cross-cutting and provides structural cohesion for the observational filmmaking. Whether unassuming or front-and-center, the music always plays over the scenes. It never punctuates or syncs up with any individual moment or action (in general, this is how music used to be employed – it was much less in conversation with the onscreen moment-to-moment than recent decades). It is used as a blanket of meaning and subsiding impact. Through the music, Sally, Luke, and Bob are unified by the pain of their era and entwined fates. It is thus that “Out of Time” plays over the opening credits, as Bruce Dern’s straight able-bodied jog is cross-cut with an influx of clashing steel and wheels within hospital hallways. And it is thus that we close with divergent ends paralleled, as Tim Buckley’s “Once I Was” shelters the hopeful and the hopeless as they co-exist with overwhelming totality.