So Much Left to Know, and I'm on the Road to Find Out
Harold and Maude / Stacey Nosek
Film Reviews | June 23, 2008 | Comments ()
I never realized the extent to which I could deeply and unabashedly fall in love with a movie until I found Harold and Maude. Some films touch you, but Harold and Maude reached in, grabbed a piece of me, and held it in front of my face like my still-beating heart for me to observe in an entirely new light. I only just became acquainted with the film in recent years, back in the early days of my Netflix account. I must have watched that disc a half dozen times, and refused to send it back until I had my own copy of the film safely in my hands for fear of not having it for even a moment should I “need” to see it. And in the years that have since passed, I’ve viewed it countless times, feeling better just knowing it’s there, like an old friend to cheer me up after a bad day or when I’m feeling down. At any rate, let’s not let my clearly obsessive emotional attachment trivialize this review of what is essentially a brilliant and, in my opinion, perfect film.
Not to overlook the underrated Being There (another of my favorites), Harold and Maude stands out as the most notable film on the late director Hal Ashby’s resume. It tells the story of the titular Harold (Bud Cort), a well-to-do young man from a wealthy family who, left emotionally devoid by his sterile upbringing and gregariously shallow mother, becomes obsessed with death. Cort, who is flawless in the role, possesses a quality my colleague Nathaniel recently referred to as jolie laide — a term I’m not smart enough to have known myself — which means “features not attractive in conventional terms, but nevertheless have a distinctive harmony or charm.” I can’t really think of a better way to describe Bud Cort. While he’s without a doubt got a uniquely gawky look about him, at the same time the character comes off as so heartbreakingly fragile and endearing that the gawkiness adds to the aesthetic of Harold/Cort. And frankly, it kind of makes me want to grab him and make out with him, which then makes me feel dirty, as the character appears to be all of 18 or 19 — until I remember that the film is about his love affair with a septuagenarian, which helps, if only but a little.
Now I’m getting ahead of myself. Moving back to the plot, the death obsessed Harold torments his superficial mother (played hilariously by the wonderful Vivian Pickles) by carrying out a number of suicides, none of which seem to actually do him harm due to the fanciful nature of the film. In the memorable opening sequence, Harold carries out a painstakingly ritualistic hanging, which is met with only mild annoyance by his mother. Later, in a scene with his psychiatrist, Harold explains his suicides in one of my favorite exchanges of the film, punctuated by Cort’s mischievous grin and raised eyebrow:
Psychiatrist: Tell me, Harold, how many of these, eh, suicides have you performed?
Harold: An accurate number would be difficult to gauge.
Psychiatrist: Well, just give me a rough estimate.
Harold: A rough estimate? I’d say fifteen.
Harold: That’s a rough estimate.
Psychiatrist: Were they all done for your mother’s benefit?
Harold: No. No, I would not say “benefit.”
In addition to stabbing, shooting, hanging and drowning himself, Harold also passes the time by attending the funerals of strangers, where he meets fellow habitual funeral-goer, the 79-year-old Maude, (the darling Ruth Gordon). At first Harold seems put off by Maude’s unreserved friendliness and eccentricity — not to mention her penchant for grand theft auto — but finally comes around when he is more or less forced to hitch a ride with Maude after she steals his hearse. Oh yeah: Harold drives a hearse. He was goth before goth was even invented and ruined. A fast friendship blossoms between the unlikely pair, and for the first time possibly ever, Harold connects with another human being. He quickly becomes enamored of Maude’s carefree, idiosyncratic lifestyle and existential philosophy, and gradually comes to terms with the fact that life is maybe worth living after all.
Maude: I should like to change into a sunflower most of all. They’re so tall and simple. What flower would you like to be?
Harold: I don’t know. One of these, maybe.
Maude: Why do you say that?
Harold: Because they’re all alike.
Maude: Oooh, but they’re not. Look. See, some are smaller, some are fatter, some grow to the left, some to the right, some even have lost some petals. All kinds of observable differences. You see, Harold, I feel that much of the world’s sorrow comes from people who are this …
[she points to a daisy]
… yet allow themselves be treated as that.
[she gestures to a field of daisies]
Only glimpses into Maude’s past are revealed, such as the brief flash of a Holocaust tattoo on her arm — and as such it is strongly alluded that her philosophy is the result of enduring severe hardships earlier in life. Despite Harold’s mother’s best attempts to set him up with women via “computer dates” (said attempts predictably end in suicide, with hilarious results), his relationship with Maude eventually becomes romantic. Considering the logistics, it kind of catches you off guard how sweet and tender the love story between an early twenty-something and a 79-year-old woman can be. However, it’s only after the bittersweet ending that one is able to fully grasp the profound effect that Maude had on Harold’s life.
Trumpeting Harold and Maude’s intrinsic individuality and theme of living life to the fullest, as well as providing an integral part of the film, is the fantastic soundtrack. The musical accompaniment is provided entirely by Cat Stevens, two songs of which, “Don’t Be Shy” and the anthem, “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out,” were written especially for the film. As far as film soundtracks go, I can’t think of any other instance where music so perfectly manages to wholly encompass the mood, theme and general diegesis to supplement a film. The Cat Stevens soundtrack resonates so powerfully that, to simply listen to the soundtrack on its own gives one the wistful sensation of having watched the movie. Until early this year, no official soundtrack for Harold and Maude had ever been released, and even then it was only available on collector’s edition vinyl — and while it was a fantastic bit of memorabilia, the release was limited to only 2,500 copies and has long since sold out. Luckily, for those who don’t care so much about the awesome, awesome goodies that came with the vinyl release, you can head on over to your friendly neighborhood iTunes, where you can purchase iMixes of the soundtrack which users have helpfully put together.
In spite of the abundance of dark humor, Harold and Maude may be a bit twee and hippie-dippy for some to handle. Of course, the quirky balance of sarcasm and sentimentalism is part of the reason why I love it so. Inarguably, few other films have had such an intense impact on viewers. It’s not uncommon for fans of the film to feel as though their lives were irrevocably changed after experiencing it, myself included. Watching Harold and Maude for the first time was probably the closest damn thing I’ve ever had to a religious experience, and the thought that so many others have been touched and continue to be touched by the same thing is kind of awe-inspiring. Have I mentioned how much I love this movie?
Stacey Nosek is the world’s most articulate idiot, and a television columnist for Pajiba. You can also find her ripping on celebrities at Webster’s Is My Bitch.