Cult cinema, desperate film hipsters, moral hypocrites and the joys of death – Hal Ashby’s oddball movie explores and exposes more than you might think.
One of my bad habits is to look with immediate suspicion upon people who claim to ‘love’ certain films – namely, those well-established go-to cult films that seem to have become a shorthand reference point for people who want to show how edgy and original their tastes are, even though you know that they are depressingly vanilla in reality. By having ‘quirky’ and highly-quotable films – so quotable in fact that you don’t have to have even seen them to bluff your way through – gift-wrapped for them, any bland hipster can pretend to a genuine cineaste even though they would run a mile from anything genuinely ‘out there’. Whenever they trot out the usual suspects as their ‘favourite’ film, I just want to shout “is it? Is it really?” because these quirky choices seem too lazy and obvious, a bit like film critics who say that Citizen Kane is the best film ever made almost as Pavlovian response. Show some fucking originality, why don’t you?
It’s a bad habit because, in the grand scheme of things, these fakers are not hurting anyone, and also because it has the unfortunate side effect of making me equally suspicious of the films they profess to love, be it Withnail and I, The Big Lebowski or Harold and Maude. This is clearly unfair (though to be fair, I maintain I’m right about The Big Lebowski – it is wildly overrated twaddle) and every so often, it’s necessary to sit down and rewatch the film free from the gushing hype of social network film listers and remind myself that yes, this is actually a pretty great movie.
Hal Ashby’s follow-up to the magnificent The Landlord (a lesser-known but probably superior movie that probably needs a touch of the attention heaped on this movie), Harold and Maude is a genuinely quirky, oddball movie with a witty streak of dark humour running throughout. Harold (Bud Cort) is a twenty-year-old – he looks much younger – rich kid who lives with his socially-conscious mother and amuses himself by staging elaborate fake suicides and attending the funerals of strangers. It’s during the latter excursions that he comes into contact with Maude (Ruth Gordon), a 79-year-old fellow funeral enthusiast, and the pair strike up an unlikely friendship. She’s devil-may-care, living for the moment (she steals cars on a whim and leads what you might call a bohemian lifestyle) while he is pale, withdrawn and morbid, yet they somehow connect, and Maude starts to bring Harold back into the world of the living even as she prepares to leave it. While Harold’s frustrated mother attempts to marry him off through ‘computer dating’, replaces the hearse he drives with a new Jaguar (which Harold immediately pimps out into another hearse) and even arranges for him to be drafted into the army, it is Maude, with her stories of a lively and mysterious European past and her little pearls of wisdom – folksy but never too cloying – who begins to make Harold realise that there is more to life than death.
Sharply written by Colin Higgins, Harold and Maude is very much of its time – a post hippy, anti-war, quietly rebellious movie that gleefully flaunts its disregard for good taste and social taboos. When you watch the film for the first time, you are aware that this is essentially a ‘romance’ between a younger man and a much older woman, but you instinctively expect that it will remain platonic because there are just some places that movies don’t go. But this was made in the 1970s when taboos were there to be broken, so of course, it does go there, and while the actual love-making scene was eventually removed before release (hints of it remain in the trailer, which unfortunately isn’t included here) we still get to see the pair in post-coital bliss – it’s pretty clear what has taken place. I suspect that, if anything, audiences are even more shocked by generation-gap relationships now than they were in 1971 when it wasn’t all that odd to see fifty-year-old leading men paired with twenty-year-old starlets – and of course, the fact that it is an older woman makes it all the more shocking for hypocritical audiences who claim to be open-minded and celebrating of difference but still look at any unconventional but consensual relationship outside their approved lifestyles with horror.
Ashby directs this with a mix of oddball eccentricity and wild fantasy – there are knowing looks to camera and moments of such absurdity that you realise that this is a cinematic construct rather than a movie that tries for documentary realism. You might think that is a cop-out – that the filmmakers thought that the only way this story could work was as absurdist comedy – but it’s hard to fault that choice. You could make a story like this as a grim study of ‘forbidden’ love, but it wouldn’t be very interesting. Instead, Ashby keeps the tone light, even at its most tasteless (some of Harold’s ‘suicides’ are pretty gruesome), but he knows when to pull the comedy back and allow the characters to become real. He manages to make this unlikely relationship see entirely natural.
The mix of comedy (sometimes bordering on slapstick), bad taste, pathos and boundary-pushing is heightened by the Cat Stevens soundtrack, which works extremely well here and feels very integral to the movie, even if the songs are not actually commenting on the action. The score does, of course, place the film in time more than anything else, but that’s not such a bad thing.
Of course, you could get everything else right and the film still wouldn’t work unless the two leads convinced. Cort’s Harold is a hard sell – he’s pretty monosyllabic for much of the early part of the film and comes across as someone that it will be hard to like, but the character develops and is humanised as the story progresses. Gordon was already a master at playing eccentric little old ladies by this time – just look at her in Rosemary’s Baby – and she’s funny, eccentric and believable as Maude. You can see how this odd pairing would connect with each other.
I’m still not entirely sure that Harold and Maude quite lives up to the hype that it has – I rather suspect it is a cult film for people who want their cult films handed to them on a plate, everything in place and nothing that will really frighten the horses. But the fact that it appeals to lazy, unadventurous supposed film fans shouldn’t distract from the fact that this is an excellent, very eccentric and very unique film from one of the great directors of the 1970s.
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