Sunday, August 4, 2019

Formative Film 17: 'Harold and Maude'

If you are lucky, you see a film that speaks to you, and if you are really lucky, you find one that knocks you out and rules your life for a time -- in a good way. It’s usually something you see when you’re a kid or a teen, and it stays with you for a long time. You see it years later, and even if it no longer strikes you as it did, it still pulls at you.

Harold and Maude
Dir: Hal Ashby
Prod: Colin Higgins, Mildred Lewis (uncred), Charles Mulvehill (as C.V. Mulvehill)
Scr: Colin Higgins
Phot: John A. Alonzo
91 min.

That’s what Harold and Maude is for me. When I first saw it, I was a 16-year-old going crazy in the suburbs, tired of deadly normalcy and longing to get out into the hopefully much more interesting real world. Harold and Maude gave our circle of friends a rebellious and catchy gospel to live by for a time, a dark optimism that floated us through the steaming wad of disillusion the looming adult world had to offer. It questions everything but the sheer anarchic rush of being alive.

This is a film you will either adore or despise, and I have enraged my share of unwary recomendees with exposure to its fuzzy, feel-good platitudes. The movie bombed when it premiered in 1971. It took repeat showings at repertory film houses such as the Ogden in Denver, where I first saw it, to give the movie cult status and earn it a little critical reappraisal.

If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s a parable about a wealthy, morose, mother-dominated young man, Harold (Bud Cort at his pale, staring best), who attends funerals for fun and stages fake suicide attempts for attention. At one burial he runs into the blithe, sassy, rebellious 79-year-old Maude (Ruth Gordon in a defining role) who charms him and opens him up to the possibilities of a carefree, affirming existence. It’s a modern screwball comedy, and Maude is the manic pixie girl who also happens to be a septuagenarian. 

Colin Higgins’ divine script is perfectly paced, with each honed scene following the next like pearls on a string. Director Hal Ashby deadpans the film’s gags, trusting the blackly humorous material and never straining for effect. The result is clownshow anarchism, a nose-thumbing that just skirts pretentiousness. It’s quite a feat. The scenes of Harold and Maude’s fast-blossoming relationship (the move plays out over the course of a week) are punctuated by interludes of Harold’s unhappy interactions with blind, computer-selected dates and authority figures. The doctor, the priest, the military man -- all the normative examples of mature male identity in this film are mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Harold must reject the fatuous, pale patriarchy in order to step out from under the sway of death.

Harold and Maude documents a psychic pivot point in the history of American culture. Maude, a long-time political activist and protester, has seen the worst of the 20th century (a beautifully subtle, fleeting reveal shows us that she is a Holocaust survivor) and is now a hedonist. The political engagement of the ‘60s is turning into the self-obsession of the Me Decade, and Maude is its pioneer figure. “If you want to sing out, sing out,” sings Cat Stevens -- the perfect enlightenment-oriented pop composer of his time --  on his soundtrack to the film; “Ah ah ah, it’s easy.” “Don’t be shy, just let your feelings roll on by . . .” These were magic words for us, and they swept us up. They cheered us up, they freed us up.

At the time I screened it was the midst of the ‘70s, wall-to-wall cynicism and faded denim. The hippies were defeated, and Nixon was gone. Vietnam was over. We were exhausted. The search for meaning turned even further inward. Harold and Maude was a cultural signpost.

We had already exposed ourselves to dark, deliberately shocking countercultural comedies such as Philippe de Broca’s King of Hearts (1966), Joseph McGrath’s The Magic Christian (1969), Carl Reiner’s Where’s Poppa? (1970), and Alan Arkin’s Little Murders (1971), but Harold and Maude had a sense of affirmation about it that made it special. In rewatching it today, I harbor as much suspicion of Maude’s narcissism as I do her foes’ obtuseness. Still, after I watch I am a little light-hearted (and –headed) again.

Formative Film is an autobiography in movies. Next up: I rationalize being a Woody Allen fan while reviewing Love and Death (1975).

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