Sunday, September 6, 2009

Harold and Maude (1971)

Harold and Maude
Director: Hal Ashby
USA 1971
91 min

Possibly the most disarming film introduction ever.

Harold is a young, rich 19 year old obsessed with death. His mother has started to get bored with his constant fake-suicides and thinks he ought to get married or join the military. Instead, Harold enjoys himself with visiting funerals, and it is at such an occasion his life changes when he meets Maude, a lively and spontaneous woman sixty years his major. Harold and Maude show to be the opposites that are drawn to each other.

Maude is an eccentric woman, who lives her life as a free soul who refuses to give in to society's ideas of an organized life (like getting a drivers license, don't steal people's cars etc etc). Harold and Maude take picnics at junk yards, visit graveyards and philosophize about life in general. They grow more and more fond of each other, until their relationship take a turn to romance.

Add to this sweet music by Cat Stevens (à la Simon and Garfunkel to The Graduate, 1967).

I must admit that I totally love Bud Cort's Harold. Anyone who has been an attention seeking, confused and depressed teenager with a death fascination can see themselves as Harold. The teenage problems are of course depicted in the most weird and extreme way possible, but that is after all just what it feels like.
There's one scene in particular that explains Harold's actions. (See below.) He sits on the floor with Maude, smoking a hookah and small talking. Suddenly Harold tells Maude about the first time he "died", and the attention he got from his mother that time. I'm fascinated by Maude's speech in this scene. "They aren't really dead, they are just pulling back from life."

Scene: A great piece of dialog between Harold and Maude.

Scene: I was surprised to hear Tchaikovsky's Piano Concert #1, it makes my heart go in pieces. It's so beautiful (and rather bizarre in the context). I hope I'm not the only one to think about Mary Astor in The Great Lie (1941)!

Harold and Maude became enormously popular among young audiences, who easily could identify with the character of Harold and liked the do-what-thou-wilt-attitude of Maude. The main focus of the film is as 1970's as it can become - don't care about what others think, do what you want. It sounds really corny when spelling it out like this, but the message is not overdramatised in the film - it rather just pushes you in the direction to draw that conclusion yourself.
The film played or a total of 1,957 showings at the Westgate Theatre in Edina, Minnesota, from mid- 1972 until June 1974. Ruth Gordon showed up for the first anniversary, and for the second one both she and Bud Cort appeared.

In short, Harold and Maude is an unusual film about life. It manages to combine different elements like charm, morbidity, love, humor and drama. I even found the film frightening in parts in its frankness.

I read a review someplace about this movie, and that person said that he almost was more amazed of what the film didn't include, than what it did. That's an opinion I am willing to share - take for instance the brief moment we see a number tattooed on Maude's wrist. It is never mentioned again, but you don't forget it. Instead of the film giving us a story about the number's origin (from prison? a concentration camp?), we have to guess ourselves why Maude became the person she is today, and what possibly could lie in her past that shaped her that way.
And that's brilliant, in my opinion. The film isn't about Maude's past, it isn't about anyone's past. It rather tells us to carpe diem - and if we want to dig in the past, that's something we have to do on our own and by our own initiative.

There's just one thing I still wonder about. In the original novel it is supposed to be very clear that Harold's "suicides" are faked by himself - but I can't really feel certain that it's supposed to be like that in the film version. How can he hang in the rope without suffocating? How can he lie that long, upside down, in the water without drowning for real?
I don't have a better explanation, I'm sad to say. But I can't get away from the feeling that he fantasizes those episodes, rather drifting away in his fantasy at how his mother would react is he "died again". (See the hookah clip above.)
I don't know, but the "faking it" theory seems too convenient for me...

British movie poster.

Enough about Harold and Maude - I bet we all want to know how Ruth Gordon looked when she was young! She was cool as heck.
By the way: Did you know that she and her husband Garson Kanin together wrote film scripts, among them Adam's Rib (1949)?

I also want to look like the Monopoly guy!

Here she looks just like a princess.


Mykal said...

Lolita: "I also want to look like the Monopoly guy." Oh, Saucer of Milk for Ms. Lolita! ;o)

I loved this film when I saw it years ago and thought it a work of genius. Still do. Hal Ashby made a couple of great movies before giving in to his demons, most notably The Last Detail, which I like even better than this film; and 8 Million Ways to Die which I loved (but I seem to be the only one).

On the other hand, my own son, aged 19 years old, saw Harold and Maude recently and was rather creeped out. You can't tell these damn kids anything! -- Mykal

Lolita said...

Hey, I thought she looks cool! ;)
Oh, thanks for the film tips! Need to look them up. What did you think went wrong afterwards with his films, in your opinion?
Hmm, sounds like your boy needs to learn that his father is always right! No respect from those youngsters nowadays...

Mykal said...

Lolita: Regarding Ashby, the short answer is drugs got the better of him sometime in the early 1980s. He really became very, very eccentric as his drug use increased, and it seemed to completely ruin his talent and his judgment. He was on such a winning streak of great films until Being There (1979)with Peter Sellers. Then after that came the fall. He became known as completely unrealiable because of his pronounced strange behavior and drug use; making one clinker after another with regard to box office success (although, as I say, I really like 8 Million Ways to Die -1986, even though it is generally regarded as a failure).

He was an unrelenting perfectionist as well, taking sometimes months and months to edit a single scene, which the studios put up with as long as he turned out winners, but after a loser or two, they often simply pulled the plug on him (fired him forcefully).

I'll always wonder if perhaps he had a second act in him, but unfortunately he died of Cancer in 1988 at the age of 59. I choose to believe that he could have pulled his life together and had a great comeback in this later years. -- Mykal

Sarah said...

Harold and Maude is probably one of my favorite movies ever! :D And I always did wonder how Harold never really "died" when he "died"....that made no sense. LOL but I always thought that the beginning was weird, because he really is dangling there but he didn't really die?

My favorite computer date of his is the first one, I can't remember her name! I think it was Candy, but omg she is so hilarious.

Christopher said...

Saw this when it came out..It was an instant hit with the kiddies(teens)

Lolita said...

Oh, that's just sad. I watched a YouTube clip from 8 million ways to die, when Andy Garcia and Jeff Bridges eat ice cream and duel - I think it looks very promising! I will keep my eyes open for that one. Jeff Bridges looks just like my father did when I was little, haha.

Interesting that you have the same thoughts as I have! Haha, yes, the computer dates are hilarious! I like the last one, the crazy drama student!

Must be cool to have such an experience!

Avalon76 said...

There was a fantastic picture made about Ruth Gordon's life called "The Actress". I watched it recently on TCM and loved it! Here's the IMDb info:

What a superb cast!

Jen ^_^

Lolita said...

I did not know about that! It looks really interesting! I'll have too keep my eyes open for it :)

Juliette. said...

Love this film-- you said it perfectly, about what it revelas and what it does not.

Those pictures of Ruth Gordon are fabulous. What a classy lady.

Lolita said...

Thank you, J! Oh yeah, cool woman indeed.

Anonymous said...

About Maude's tattoo...She had mentioned dating an officer, the film hinted that he was a Nazi-things changed after the war. Auschwitz, was *I believe* the only Concentration camp that gave tattoos to prisoners. I think the film told enough, and gave hints enough without digressing. The overall idea is that she had been through alot (good and bad alike), and lived life to the fullest. It persuades you to not take things for granted and LIVE! I think it could have done without the Cat Stevens in a few areas. Natural sounds seemed more fitting in my opinion, like in the beginning. But I suppose it might have seemed too serious and overwelming at the time it came out, the light music might have broken that up a bit. Hm, not I'm babbling.

Amos-Rich said...

In 'Harpo Speaks' there is a story about his traveling with Ruth Gordon for several weeks throughout Southern France. Ponder that a moment ...

Harpo and Maude: wine tasting.