Day 67: Harold and Maude

"Tell me about yourself, what do you do when you aren't visiting funerals?"

Hal Ashby made precious few films in his life, and a great many of them are masterpieces. I'll be looking at three of them in the next few days, starting with his second film, 1971's Harold and Maude. It's interesting to me the number of critics these days that begrudge films, mostly independents, for featuring quirky characters. There is a definite formula that exists, but it has existed as long as films about outsiders have been made. I wonder how many critics condemn films like Garden State & Little Miss Sunshine, yet worship at the altar of Harold and Maude. If this film were made today, it would be dismissed and derided by snooty, know-it-alls for featuring two main characters with quirk to spare.

I also wonder if, in its own day, Harold and Maude were written off for being another clone of The Graduate, as the parallels are many. Critics in general take the critical part of their job description to unbelievable heights of self-aggrandizement, dismissing films for featuring something they've seen before. I've got news, there are no more wholly original plots. The best we can hope for is filmmakers, writers and actors who can bring something new to the table and take a chance on a new spin on old ideas. 

Bud Cort plays Harold Chasen, a young man who lives at home with his affluent mother (Vivian Pickles) and, in an almost constant attempt to get some sort of attention from his mother, frequently attempts suicide.   He drives a hearse, attends funerals for people he doesn't know, watches buildings being demolished, and has all the eccentricities that, I mentioned earlier, would no doubt be derided by the modern film critic. While frequenting funerals, he catches the attention of another habitual funeral-goer, 79 year-old Maude (Ruth Gordon, perhaps best known for her Oscar winning role in Rosemary's Baby). The two strike up an unusual kinship, based ostensibly on their obsession with death. 

In Maude, Harold finds someone who isn't necessarily obsessed with death, but more upsetting the established order of things. She's an anarchist, at least, as much as a woman pushing eighty can be. She also, in stark contrast to Harold, likes to watch things grow. She enjoys walks in the woods and greenhouses, and enjoys observing the life cycle of things. Maude is a woman near the end of her life who has come to understand what life is really about, and more than anything else, she doesn't want Harold to have such a morbid worldview. 

There are a ton of great scenes in the film, my favorite being the extended sequence of the two of them transporting a stolen tree to replant it. Maude steals no fewer than three vehicles to accomplish the task, including the motorcycle of a highway patrolman, played by a young(-ish) Tom Skerritt. It culminates in the two companions slow dancing in Maude's house, a beautifully staged scene, shot from another room, through the prism of a glass vase. It's a fantastically orchestrated sequence of events, the kind of thing a master editor like Ashby himself pulls off with ease.

When Harold proposes to Maude on her 80th birthday, it's a truly heart-shattering scene, but one that is befitting these beautiful outsiders, looking for something more in this world than its offered them so far. The ending of the film is fantastic too, pulling a classic bait and switch, and will hopefully leave you with a smile on your face.

The soundtrack is pretty damn incredible, consisting of songs written and performed by Cat Stevens, now going by the name Yusuf Islam. Of course it brings The Graduate immediately to mind, but Stevens' music has a carefree jauntiness to it that Simon & Garfunkle's doesn't, but the comparison is there in my mind nonetheless. Ruth Gordon is a fantastic actress, and she shines here as someone determined to enjoy life and not let anyone or anything get in her way. It's a lovely performance, complimented in its joviality by Bud Cort's melancholy Harold. Cort was a talented young man, cutting his teeth on two of Robert Altman's best films, M*A*S*H & Brewster McCloud, and while he never achieved stardom so to speak, he belongs firmly in the camp of the pair I mentioned in my Phantom of the Paradise review, Paul Williams & Jessica Harper, great, talented people who did incredible work in the seventies and never really broke out. 

The script, written by Colin Higgins (who would go on to write and direct no fewer than two Dolly Parton vehicles in the eighties) is really great. It's a tad on the overdone side, some of the characters, particularly Harold's mother, don't sound like characters so much as they sound like caricatures, but the love and care put into fleshing out the protagonists is evident and outshines the weaker aspects of the script. Director Hal Ashby got his big break working as an editor on Norman Jewison's first three films, one of which, In the Heat of the Night (reviewed here back in December), brought him an Oscar for editing. He truly lives up to DaVinci's old adage that "poor is the pupil who does not surpass his master." He has a keen eye for composition, and frames everything in a dynamic way without ever calling attention to the direction. He makes you aware that you've been almost wholly unaware of how good the direction is. 

I'm an unabashed admirer of the seventies, I think it was the best decade for film in its history. The work that was done in that decade continues to be relevant today, and the auteurs of the seventies have yet to be matched in the numbers they were in that decade. Hal Ashby is most assuredly one of those filmmakers, and his work lives after him as a testament to the power of some great scripts & incredible performances. The Criterion Collection is releasing a remastered version of this film in April, and I cannot wait to see it for the first time in high definition. The dvd transfer is fine, but it really loses detail in the darkly lit scenes, particularly the opening. Hopefully its inclusion in that collection will allow a new generation to discover Hal Ashby and his incredible filmography.

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