Movie Review: Harold and Maude

An unconventional lesson in joyful life ___ 10/10

Harold and MaudeHarold: What were you fighting for?
Maude: Oh, big issues. Liberty. Rights. Justice. Kings died, kingdoms fell. I don’t regret the kingdoms – what sense in borders and nations and patriotism? But I miss the kings.

This one-of-a-kind creation was one I did see back in the day, back when movies like Harold and Maude were mostly only seen at “art” theaters—in the burbs around Kansas City and, later, Detroit, where I was hanging out in my late teens, early 20s. The film was an interesting juxtaposition for my early Objectivism[1], because it did represent a side channel of the hippie experience, where love is the answer… in all its varieties.

Written by Colin Higgins
Directed by Hal Ashby

Ruth Gordon … Maude
Bud Cort … Harold
Vivian Pickles … Mrs. Chasen
Cyril Cusack … Glaucus
Charles Tyner … Uncle Victor
Tom Skerritt … Motorcycle Cop

Harold (Bud Cort) is a young man, an only child born into immense wealth willed to him and his mother by his father. He and his affected, superficial mom live in a mansion in an affluent West Coast community, I’m guessing north of San Francisco. His life lies ahead of him, but all he can think of, for some reason, is death. He has a fetish for staging dramatic sequences of his final minutes—from hangings to shootings to hari-kari—and it’s driving Mom nuts. Not really having the depth of feeling to understand or empathize with her son’s problems, she turns to external “solutions.”

First, there’s Uncle Victor, a military commander who has lost an arm, and who extols the soldier’s story: “… It’s a great life, there’s action, adventure, advising, and you’ll get a chance to see the war first hand! And there are plenty of slant-eyed girls. It’ll make a man out of you, Harold…” The actor Charles Tyner does a perfect job conveying the satirical extreme of martial lunacy, but not so extreme that you doubt for a minute such individuals truly do exist and even offer up the same inciting verbiage to confused boys. (What boy of 17-20 is not confused? It’s a prime age for cannon fodder recruitment.)

Needless to say, the scenes with Uncle Victor express an antiwar sentiment, and fit well into the latter Vietnam era when the dying and the protests were prime time. [Note the Kent State Massacre—more or less the pinnacle of the war’s tragic effect on the homeland—occurred on May 4, 1970. Those were the years I recall being on the campus of Kansas State College in Pittsburg, Kansas, then Wayne State University in Detroit… initially exercising my 2S deferment—until the lottery system ensued 12/31/69.] Many resisted, many joined up, many moved to Canada. But Harold, not being draftable, holds back from volunteering, at least enough to continue coasting with his morbid dalliances.

So Mom decides it’s time for Harold to get married!

While she goes about exploring the vagaries of the early systems of computer dating, Harold has other ideas. For some time now, he’s been a funeral crasher, meaning he attends funerals for people he doesn’t’ know. Why? Well, perhaps it gives him a sense of importance. Funerals, especially when accompanied by ceremonial rites in a church, often have an aura of somber majesty. They tend to elevate sadness to a category of “the meaningful,” so he feels at home there.

So does 79-year-old Maude (Ruth Gordon). The scene where she is introduced with dialog sparkles with humor and vivacity. While Harold goes to funerals to feel sadness, just so he can feel something, Maude goes to funerals to enjoy the music, take in the wonderful flowers and costumes, to celebrate everything the deceased has meant to the grand procession of life on Earth. For her, funerals are about life… a heady reminder to live our lives to the fullest while we’re here. As she makes her initial approaches to the solitary boy, Harold, we grasp her character in a heartbeat:

“Psst.” She moves up several pews and taps him on the shoulder. “You want some licorice?”

In this particular funeral, she attaches herself to Harold, chitchatting at full throttle about this and that, such as the black flowers, “Who sends black flowers to a funeral?! How bad is that.” Then as the casket is placed inside the hearst, as if to provide support for Maude’s unique perspective, a high school marching band comes down the street playing an upbeat piece, maybe a Souza march. She asks Harold’s name, then introduces herself, saying warmly, “I think we’re going to be great friends, don’t you.” While he’s at a loss for words, she takes her leave via a Volkswagen parked in front of the church. “Do you sing and dance?” she wonders, cracking the window. “No,” he says. She tells him with a chortle that she didn’t think he did. But no matter.

Then she’s off like a ruptured duck, making a U-turn, running over a curb, blowing a stop sign. The minister from the funeral service rushes to the sidewalk, exclaiming, “Hey, that’s my car!” And a character statement. Right away we learn she’s mastered the art of not suffering through attachment to “things:”

Harold: You hop in any car you want and just drive off?
Maude: Well, not any car – I like to keep a variety. I’m always looking for the new experience.
Harold: [smiling] Maybe.
Harold: [more seriously] Nevertheless, I think you’re upsetting people. I don’t know if that’s right.
Maude: Well, if some people get upset because they feel they have a hold on some things, I’m merely acting as a gentle reminder: here today, gone tomorrow, so don’t get attached to things.

In their second funeral together, Maude actually decides to take Harold’s car (unknowingly)—a customized hearst he has purchased to the horror of his mother—but she drives around to pick him up for her getaway. Finding out it’s his car, she gets him to take her home to her trailer. It’s full of all manner of collectibles, esp. plants, flowers, and looking out over a small yard; she has attached a skeet cartridge launcher to her window sill to serve as a bird feeder. Then another gem:

Maude: You know, at one time, I used to break into pet shops to liberate the canaries. But I decided that was an idea way before its time. Zoos are full, prisons are overflowing… oh my, how the world still dearly loves a cage.

The manner in which she utters her words of wisdom is practically as important as the meaning themselves. I could cite the many phrases that serve as life lessons, but please be extra nice to yourself and check out the movie for the direct experience. It’s funny, it’s true, and it’s moving. All at once. So many great acts, so little time.

I’m going to indulge one more favorite with you: Again, she’s constantly driving at an impractical pace—this time with Harold—and in the downtown area of a small community, suddenly she heaves the wheel to the right, runs over the curb, drawing attention of the local constabulary. On the sidewalk are laid out a series of large pots containing plants of varying health. She notices one particularly distressed plant, which she simply must save. So with Harold’s help she determines to rescue the plant and transplant it to the forest. The imagination of the writer, the skill of the director, and the passion of the actor make perhaps two dozen of such scenes into little movies of their own. Inspiring, tender, and gay… in the historic and proper meaning of the term.

Another feature of the movie that many will not remember is a soundtrack full of Cat Stevens‘ songs, some of his best, such as “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out,” which in its own way becomes a character in the movie:

If you wanna sing out, sing out
If you wanna be free, be free
There’s a million things to be
You know that there are

If you wanna live high, live high
If you wanna live low, live low
Theresa a million ways to go
You know that there are

You can do what you want
The opportunities are
and if you find a new way
you can do it today…

And if you want to be me, be me
And if you want to be you, be you
‘Cause there’s a million things to do
You know that there are …

We easily forget that Mr. Stevens—before converting to Islam and taking the name Yusuf Islam at the height of his fame in 1977—had a simple, emotional instrumental and vocal style that captured the innocence of the flower-child era. Peace, love, dope. Very simple, very natural, very antithetical to the authoritarian mode… and, yes, on the other side, risking denial of the need to become adult.

Finally, there is a depth to Maude suggested in such songs, but also in some of the facts of her past, which may have actually been quite awful. The movie does not dwell there, only faintly paints a real context. It’s certainly Maude’s film, she’s the focal point… but she cannot reach her purpose without the boy, without helping reclaim the innocence of youth in Harold, who is a wounded soul in his own right. Talk about nuance and range. Initially, I was going to give it an 8 rating, but I started to watch it a second time and it completely blew me away. A great Thanksgiving movie for children of all ages, for multiple watchings.

[1] Objectivism is the philosophy of Ayn Rand, and advocates reason above all. The effect on many younger votaries of her philosophy was to make them stiff and unemotional in so many important areas of life… especially sex and art.

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