From the List of Shame Files: Harold & Maude

While we at Cinedelphia are all avid film buffs, there are many films that are held in high regard that we haven’t seen. As we cross them off our collective List of Shame, we’ll share our thoughts here!

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Trying to explain Harold and Maude initially feels like an easy task. Roger Ebert infamously described the film as ” a movie of attitudes. Harold is death, Maude life, and they manage to make the two seem so similar that life’s hardly worth the extra bother.” This is at least one instance where I will disagree with one of my lifelong role models. As someone with a soft spot for heartfelt indie films like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Frances Ha, the filmography of Wes Anderson, Tiny Furniture, and scores of mumblecore films, I can’t help but feel that Harold and Maude is the antecedent of all those films. With a small cast and threadbare plot, Harold and Maude follows the emotional arcs of its lead characters rather than some external force moving the story forward.

Unlike female characters in films that owe Harold and Maude a debt, Maude (Ruth Gordon) has a story all her own, even if we only get hints (she is a Holocaust survivor, for example), we know there is much more to this septuagenarian car thief than meets the eye. Given her birth before the turn of the century, and seeing both the wonders and the horrors of the 20th century first hand, including flight, world wars, genocide, and the nuclear threat, it would be easy to begrudger her a negative or jaded outlook on life. Rather she is vibrant, and her experiences inform her anarchist bent. Having seen regimes and morals rise and fall, she only takes from the social norms for which she has personal use.

And though Maude is a strange person to embody the free spirit movement of the Sixties, the way that the film treats authority figures themselves is fascinating. Rather than portraying policemen (most notably Tom Skerrit) or even military generals (Charles Tyner) as milquetoast conformists, they are seen as just as odd as our protagonists. Chief among these is Harold’s mother (Vivian Pickles). She is delightfully eccentric, and is an interesting role model for Harold, not admonishing him for his behavior so much as it seems she wants to instill in him how to be eccentric in the proper way of the wealthy.

Of course, the film wouldn’t work if Harold (Bud Cort) wasn’t likable. While Harold fits the mold of the idle rich teenager a bit too comfortably, his sense of nihilism and obsession with death seems to stem mostly from his resignation to the life his mother has chosen for him. Harold barely protests his mother’s proclamations directly, much preferring the passive aggressive means of staging elaborate suicides (which have become so routine his mother calmly takes her laps while he floats facedown in the pool) and avenging the loss of his hearse by converting his new Jaguar to look like one.

Another aspect of the film that stands out is the music by Cat Stevens. While counterculture films have used pop musicians before, most notably, Simon & Garfunkel in Mike Nichols’ The Graduate, Harold and Maude takes another step forward in integrating pop music and film score. Both films use folk rock at least in part to establish counterculture credentials, and the tone of both is at least partially defined by the soundtrack. However, none of the music in The Graduate advances the story as much as the “Trouble” sequence from the end of Harold and Maude (spoilers):

Director Hal Ashby imbues the film with a particular sense of unreality. There is a lot of artificiality in the film, most notably in the portrayal of the Bay Area of California as a rainy, dreary, English-like countryside (Ashby spent a lot of his life in Malibu, so it may be how he experienced San Francisco). There are a lot of deep colors, and often a certain dreariness that only make the brighter colors, as in the graveyard and flower sequences, pop even more. This extends to other locations in the film like the homes of the title characters, which have an abundance of visuals, overflowing with detail that is never focused on. Is it any surprise that Wes Anderson included two Cat Stevens songs in Rushmore and casted Bud Cort in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou?

Harold and Maude is highly recommended, as long as one takes the time to not dismiss it as a pale echo of its descendants.

And if you want to experience Harold and Maude on the big screen, it will be shown at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute as a screening and seminar on July 29.

Author: Ryan Silberstein

Ryan has been writing thoughtful film reviews and pop culture commentary on and off for over a decade. He spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area. His other interests include comic books, coffee, experimental beer, discovering new music, and books.

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