I Haven't Lived. I've Died A Few Times: Harold and Maude (1971)

Harold and Maude has been one of the many films I was ashamed to admit to having not seen,  I intended to watch it some time ago, but then Criterion eventually announced that they would be releasing the film which caused me to wait even longer to view the work, not to mention actually purchasing the bluray which meant even longer of a wait.  Thankfully, and much to my elation, I have finally viewed what is perhaps the greatest dark comedy ever realized.  Harold and Maude is a harbinger of everything we as collective viewers have come to love about indie romantic comedies.  The influence on directors like Wes Anderson and The Duplass Brothers is not just likely, it is pretty damn obvious.  Within the narrative world of Harold and Maude we have two characters who simply cannot exist in a normal society for their actions and ideals are far to absurd and in some cases to dysfunctional to prove malleable with a strictly conservative social outlook, one that is brilliantly referenced throughout the film with various images of Nixon, Nathan Hale and a variety of pious religious figures.  Fortunately, for the films main characters, nobody else existing in Hal Ashby's world seems particularly normal either, even those who claim to the the torchbearers for respectable values.  Quirky is not the right word to describe this film, nor is off-beat quite right either, for the film is realized and is certainly aware of its rhythm and nature, all be it one that is not particularly traditional, however, I would argue that to be more of its historical place in American cinema than anything else.  Perhaps the Criterion put it best in the movie description by calling the film idiosyncratic, because it is essentially about two definitively idiosyncratic individuals coming together and learning not only to deal with their competing idiosyncrasies, but inherently different world philosophies, as well.  All heightened by some exceptional cinematography and a great, then Cat Stevens, soundtrack, Harold and Maude is a film that transcends its movie space into a greater vision.

Harold and Maude begins with title character Harold (Bud Cort), aimlessly wandering about his house, only to engage in what appears to be a hanging, an act that receives very little acknowledgement from his mother Mrs. Chasen (Vivian Pickles).  It is revealed that this is by no means Harold's first faux-suicide and much to the dismay of his psychiatrist and uncle the young man is quite obsessed death, going so far as to attend funerals in his free time and spending his inheritance money on what is perhaps the hippest hearst every filmed.  Realizing that her son is a social outcast, Mrs. Chasen attempts to set her son up with various blind dates, all of which fail miserably when Harold engages in various fake suicides while in their presence.  Finding no other alternative then to send Harold into the Army.  Along the way Harold meets a woman who also seems to have a penchant for crashing funerals, one who continually approaches him while at the various services.  The older woman, Harold comes to learn is an eccentric woman named Maude (Ruth Gordon).  Maude's carefree attitude and love for life instantly rubs off on Harold, who takes more than a liking to the old bohemian and begins spending a considerable amount of time with her, engaging in everything from the stealing of plants and cars to having picnics at wreckage sites.  As Harold begins to fall for Maude harder, he informs his mother of his feelings, leading her to completely reprimand Harold for his desires, sending him to various male figureheads to receive chastising remarks, the most unusual ones coming from a priest.  Fortunately, the two are able to spend a considerable amount of time together and on Maude's eightieth birthday, Harold throws a big celebration and opens up about the intensity of his feelings towards Maude, who informs Harold that she has taken poison and never intended to live past eighty.  Frantically, Harold attempts to save Maude by taking her to the hospital, only to get bogged down in paperwork.  Eventually, Maude dies and Harold is distraught.  The film juxtaposes him driving his hearst towards a cliff, only to exit right before the car flies over the edge.  Harold then plays a banjo he received from Maude as he walks back towards the road dancing.

The conservative oppressive commentaries are all to clear within Harold and Maude.  As noted the ever present images of Richard Nixon, Pope John Paul the Second and various other historically conservative figures inundate the mis-en-scene, often reflecting the issues facing Harold throughout the film, we see this quite uproariously in his initial conversation with his uncle about joining the armed forces.  It causes clear identity issues within the young man, particularly considering that he has some sort of detachment from his father, who we as viewers are to assume passed away prior to the point in which we are introduced to Harold.  However, another larger issue of maternal longing problematizes the narrative, something that is reinforced by a picture of Freud present in his psychiatrists office, as well as a unusual scene involving a wooden sculpture in Maude's train car residence.  Not only does Harold lack a father figure, his connection with his mother is so fractured, as well that he find himself constantly reflecting on death as a means to be buried and arguably return to the womb.  However, this is not to suggest that his relationship with Maude is a mother son one, because it does have a very sexual component to it that would make their relationship incestual and far less romantic.  It is by no means such a thing, if anything Harold is very much asexual and void of desires, the encounter between himself and Maude was a means of loving intimacy arguably transcendent of the act of sex.  Harold, and the same argument could be made for Maude, are seeking some sort answer to the longing in their lives, for Harold it is accepting life, while for Maude, despite seeing death while in the Holocaust, nonetheless, must accept that she cannot escape its inevitability.

Key Scene:  The moment where Harold and Maude share in a song at the piano might be one of the best filmed occurrences of two people falling in love ever .

Buy the bluray to this masterpiece, it is one of the best releases by Criterion in quite awhile and well worth owning to watch and revisit multiple times.

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