Tuesday, December 20, 2011
The World Dearly Loves a Cage
Directed by Hal Ashby, one of the real wild men of Hollywood, Harold and Maude is a puzzler of a film. Perhaps that’s not quite right, because Ashby is well in control of it, and it appears to be exactly what it’s meant to be. What’s puzzling is the wide reaction by audiences not only at its release but also over time. On the occasion of its 40th anniversary, Harold and Maude is still, depending on who you ask, an uproarious comedy, a dark comedy, too twisted to be entertaining, emotionally frozen or bursting with life.
Harold (Bud Cort) is a baby-faced, knobby-kneed, 20-year-old man living a ridiculously luxurious life with his mother. Although she has big hopes for his future, he spends his time staging elaborate suicides for his mother (Vivian Pickles) to discover. She’s seen it all and refuses to react to him. Rather, she decides Harold needs to get married, so she brings over a number of computer dates for him to choose from. He pulls them into his morbid pranks to great effect. He also likes to attend strangers’ funerals where he continues to run into the same older lady. This older lady is Maude, who represents life for Harold’s representation of death. She’s an artist, she models nude, rescues potted trees from the city and replants them in the forest, (“They’re public property.” “Exactly!”) and she dresses up in costumes, depending on her mood. Played by Ruth Gordon, she’s one of Nathan Rubin’s “manic pixie dream girls” even if she’s one week away from her 80th birthday. Harold and Maude develop a deep friendship, and later a sexual relationship. Maude guides Harold through the process of opening up to life and experiencing it fully. Harold decides that he will get married after all — to Maude. However, she already has decided that 80 years is just about right for a life, and opts out from the rest of it. Harold is devastated, but stages his final tableaux — driving his car off a cliff. The final shot, however, is Harold on top of the ridge, playing his banjo, clicking his heels, demonstrating he’s learned Maude’s lessons well.
The funniest subplot is Harold’s mother’s attempt to give him some purpose in life by encouraging him to join the Army. His uncle (Charles Tyner) is a gung ho lifer who has rigged a saluting empty sleeve in place of his lost arm. Harold and Maude stage a counterargument to his uncle’s continued warmongering. Out in a public place, Harold takes his uncle’s blustery statements to their morbid conclusion, wondering how wonderful it would be to squeeze out a man’s life with one’s bare hands, when Maude appears in an old time “Salvation Army” costume carrying a “Peace” sign. To his uncle’s horror, Harold attacks her, screaming, “Parasite!” and appears to kill her. It’s over the top, but that’s exactly how the film plays. How Harold stages his suicides is never explained; it certainly looks like he’s hanging from that rope, but he’s alive. We don’t know how Maude manages to steal cars so easily, but she does. There is one explanation for Maude’s outlook on life in a brief shot of numbers tattooed on her arm. It pulls the viewer back from whimsy in an instant, but is not out of place from other serious aspects of the film.
Morbid fairy tale or buddy film, romantic comedy or creepy cautionary tale, Harold and Maude touches a very specific sensibility. To me, it shows the development of a deep and profound connection between two widely divergent people. Hal Ashby would go on to more consistently acclaimed greatness with 1979's Being There in which he more fully realizes both films' theses — “Life is a state of mind.”