Golden Celluloid – 4/30/2012

Harold and Maude (1971)

Directed by Hal Ashby (Paramount Pictures)


I don’t always give 5-star ratings, but when I do, I – ….. come to think of it, I do give a lot of 5-star ratings! Luckily, I know why. At this point in my life, I am now watching a lot of movies that I believe will help develop my cinematic literacy, inspire my techniques as a filmmaker, or simply make me a more enlightened person. So why not share these experiences with you in the most efficient way?

I thereby introduce my new Golden Celluloid section. Many of these films are classics; some I may simply love upon a first viewing. But everything I post here would have ordinarily received a 5-star rating in one of my Movie Journal entries; I would just prefer to write about it in the below format, rather than provide the false notion that I give perfect ratings to every film I watch. The reactions to these movies I discuss will all be based upon me discovering them for the first time, my guinea pig being Harold and Maude, which I saw in a film course last week. So here we go…


The story: Harold (Bud Cort) is a young man who simply wishes he were dead. He fakes outrageous suicides (fantasized for our behalf), only to be absurdly misunderstood by the adult figures in his life, including a wealthy mother, a psychologist, a militant uncle, and a priest. But then he meets Maude (Ruth Gordon), an outrageous 79-year-old with a passion for life. Harold and she soon form a relationship, reaffirming his values and teaching him that life, no matter how grotesque, is certainly worth living.


Why you should see it: Anyone who bases their enjoyment of Harold and Maude on the narrative alone (a teenager falling in love with an elderly woman) is definitely missing the point here. Hal Ashby’s film is one of the most quirky, hilarious, and genuinely touching films ever made. Its effectiveness is justly conveyed through a story as fantastical as the characters we come to adore. Harold’s “death scenes” are indeed, quite violent, but they become funnier as the film invites us to enter its level of absurdity, mainly as we are introduced to Maude, who is played with sensational enthusiasm by Ruth Gordon. Bud Cort, whose performance is comically restrained, is also wondrous, the two arousing lovely chemistry in what is surely one of cinema’s most unorthodox romances.

Ashby’s film is no doubt a criticism of Vietnam, in ways the film makes rather obvious, but not through heavy-handed preachiness. Harold and Maude arrived at a time of cinematic counterculture, Hollywood’s “art film” movement coinciding with a new-found youth culture. Ashby had been an editor prior to the making of this film, and his ingenious choices of when to “make the cut” are startlingly honest. Meanwhile, cinematographer John A. Alonzo does a terrific job of composing grandiose imagery, that which has metaphoric connection to life and death, conformity and uniqueness, people and purpose, and ultimately, the many meanings of love.

In the end, it is not just Harold’s life that is reformed, but also our own. It is likely that each of us has a Maude in our lives, driving us to love and be happy, even when things couldn’t look more bleak. Harold and Maude is morbidly subjected, yes, but it has more heart than you could possibly imagine. Cat Stevens’ soundtrack also lends a quite essential hand, composing a unique tone of sadness and joy, one that has never quite been matched. Harold and Maude will be released on Criterion DVD and Blu-ray on June 12, the original DVD having been out-of-print for quite some time. Maybe that will return Ashby’s flick to its initial success, having long rested in obscurity. It certainly deserves it. This is one film that has to be seen to be believed.


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