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Harold and Maude

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The psychiatrist, feigning prescience, asks “What activity gives you a different sense of enjoyment from the others…what gives you that special satisfaction?” His patient, gazing fixedly into space, replies, “I go to funerals.

Harold and MaudeHarold (Bud Cort, then a rising star and recent alumnus of MASH) is a laconic, morbid nineteen-year-old with no friends, an endless array of fine coats, his own hearse and several overbearing authority figures to corral him. He receives therapy at the behest of his mother, the glib Mrs. Chasen (Vivian Pickles, the English actress best known then for the poetic physicality of her performance in Ken Russell’s Isadora Duncan), following a particularly graphic example of Harold’s first hobby: performing his suicide. We do not gain any insight into what motivates these macabre theatrics, or his general disposition, through black-and-white psychoanalysis on the therapist’s couch (where Harold lies in state). What it takes for Harold to open up (to smile, to speak) is a series of encounters with a vivacious seventy-nine-year-old who also crashes funerals, though for opposite reasons. Maude (in an sonorous turn by Ruth Gordon) is recklessly insouciant, driven by her love for life and sense of connection to the world.

Before Harold can confess “that I enjoyed being dead”, Maude has already understood (with that acute sensibility of experience) the passive nihilism that ails him, and prescribed the best medicine: “try something new each day, Harold”. And with Maude, he must. Following an extended encounter that springs from Maude’s theft of his car, an affair ensues, over the course of which Harold is saturated with references to the leitmotif of organic growth and of joy at life in all its finitude.  He continues to play dead throughout, whether converting his new Jaguar into a hearse, or demolishing one of several arranged dates by staging self-immolation, but all with renewed joie de vivre. This culminates in a touching miniature melodrama, when Harold feigns seppuku before his final date, only to discover her joining in the performance. To his chagrin, he is not taken for dead, but for what he is: the player turning away from life. It takes nothing less than the tragic experience of the death of love for Harold to turn himself around fully.

The movie is a romance, a tragedy, a coming-of-age parable and a (laugh-out-loud) black comedy all in one. Yet director Hal Ashby and writer Colin Higgins have crafted no ungainly chimera: the film blends its tones and toys with genre expectations so effortlessly that it seems odd, retrospectively, that it was a commercial failure upon release and met with such mixed critical reception. It found its audience, going on to become a ‘cult classic’. Perhaps it is in light of the recent success of this same heady cocktail in the films of Wes Anderson, who acknowledges its heavy influence upon his work, that one can mistake Harold and Maude as coming before its time.

Yet this is a movie so very much of its time and place that it could not have come from another. For today’s viewer, the film’s setting in the San Francisco Bay Area of the early 1970s is far removed. The efficiency of its policing certainly left a lot to be desired, but for this we can be thankful, as Maude repeatedly (though playfully and apparently harmlessly) breaks the law and escapes the cops. Its politics too are particularly contemporary, with a strong undercurrent of discontent with the Vietnam conflict, to which the central message is intricately bound (and yet which transcends it timelessly).

Harold and Maude is concerned with paradoxes, in weaving a tale which observes and tries to resolve the confluence of apparent opposites. Replanting a stolen municipal tree in a forest, Maude exclaims with fists full of soil “the smell! It’s the earth! The earth is my body…all around us, living things.” In one of the original theatrical trailers, this scene cut to another of the most powerful images: Harold and Maude stand in a tremendous field of white stones growing ever-larger as the camera zooms out, revealing the full extent of what must be a war cemetery. Here, in the earth, are the dead. In the film proper, an analogy is drawn between this field of the dead and a field of daisies, which in turn symbolise the suffering that follows from individuals allowing themselves to be treated as a herd. This observation is the key to the most haunting aspect of these images, tracing as it does the connection to the Holocaust. Harold and Maude is a film as much about the existential condition of the Holocaust survivor, a role which it is heavily suggested Maude occupies, as it is concerned with the bathetic apathy of youth followed the unfulfilled promises of the late 1960s. In the collision of these states is the central paradox of the movie; in its solution is its central message.

Harold and Maude 2Nineteen-year-old Harold plays dead while seventy-nine-year-old Maude plays young. One is of the pre-war generation, has lived through the horror of the concentration camp, and therefore came into intimate contact with the greatest crisis of meaning; the other is a baby-boomer in a society which affords no personal significance, and which fights a meaningless war. The two come together in a romantic liaison which denies their real ages (to the self-damning disgust of the establishment) thereby bridging the generational divide and bestowing, by virtue of experience, a sense of meaning (and connection to the world) on the young. This is an unambiguously grand thesis for a romantic comedy, but this is no ordinary rom-com, and it comes off with aplomb.

The film is rich in imagery, yet illustrated with subtlety. Ashby was clearly a masterful editor (he won an Academy award for editing In The Heat Of The Night four years earlier), and this shines through in the exquisite cutting of the movie, making excellent use of montage techniques in particular. The photography of John Alonzo is understated and elegant, employing variations between sober tones and radiant light to match the two halves of the leading couple. Higgins began the screenplay as his thesis for an MFA in screenwriting, and in it his highly trained yet mischievous imagination is manifest in the fantastic visual comedy and fine imagery. His characters are caricatures, but subtly nuanced and quite credible, a fact indebted in no small measure to the exceptional performances by a fine cast of actors (Cort’s controlled, minimalist movements; Gordon’s tics, trots and warbles; Pickles’ majestic poise). The truth in the treatment of these characters plays a significant part in articulating the universality of the theme. The optimism of its message is sustained throughout the movie with the winsome (if sometimes overly sentimental) soundtrack provided by Cat Stevens.  This too has been carefully tied to the thematic content, as the lyrics often strike an ironic note, or work closely with other motifs as in the case of the original composition “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out” (though by God, does it become nauseating after repeated exposure).

For all its thematic grandeur, Harold and Maude is good light entertainment with a sense of rhythm and something to offer a wide range of audiences. It’s full of great ideas and haunting images, and it’s a movie that is charming and affecting in equal measure: a classic, not just for the ‘cult’.


Harold and Maude, Dir. Hal Ashby, Writ. & Prod. Colin Higgins, Paramount, USA, 1971; available on DVD
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Written by James P. Campbell

05/04/2009 at 12:10

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