Moving backwards through cinema history isn’t just fun, but essential for a person to develop a deeper sense of the medium: no matter how well you know the latest sci-fi opus or drama, its structure in some way, shape or form was almost invariably preceded by a similar one. Conversely, there are some movies that you just freaking love so, so much, and are lucky to discover ones came before it that could give you that same feeling, that sense of enjoyment, or yeah, a deeper appreciation of the one that made you look at it in the first place.
All of which brings us to the less conventional romantic comedies of the past two or three decades, and perhaps more specifically, the works of Wes Anderson. While I wouldn’t argue categorically that Anderson was inspired directly by folks like Hal Ashby in his films, looking back at Ashby’s work, there are indisputable similarities which, at the very least, will give you a few more films to watch if you a feeling of whimsy, magic realism, and wistfulness that all sort of commingles in a bouillabaisse of melancholy celebration. And the release of Criterion’s gorgeous new Blu-ray for “Harold and Maude” inspires another look at one of the filmmaker’s greatest works, to see not only how it may have influenced a generation of filmmakers, but whether it remains as impactful and entertaining as when it was released.
Released December 20, 1971, “Harold and Maude,” perhaps for obvious reasons, was not immediately embraced; its combination of pitch-black humor, off-kilter romance, and anarchic counterculturalism didn’t have quite the same zeitgeist-grabbing appeal as films like Easy Rider or The Graduate. Though the film maintains an 85 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it largely lives on as a cult classic – it never made much money, and most of its critical recognition came decades later, without a lot of significant attention. That said, both of the film’s stars, Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon, earned acting nominations for their performances as the title characters, and “Harold and Maude” was eventually awarded several nods from AFI, who declared it their #9 comedy of all time.
What Still Works
First of all, as a comedy it works like gangbusters. The opening scene is a small marvel of misdirection as Harold goes through the quiet a solemn process of preparing to hang himself, and there’s an odd, cathartic and sweeping sense of humor that colors everything from that point on after his mother walks in the room, acknowledges him, and then proceeds to go about her business as if he wasn’t there. From there, his dry and melancholy humor permeates the film – or at least Harold’s interactions with his mother – which we soon realize is deeper and more meaningful that the pranksterism that it initially seems like. And when Maude enters the film, her devil-may-care attitude to living constantly amuses without ever becoming too sanctimonious, empowering Harold (and the audience) rather than scolding them.
What’s most remarkable about the dynamic between the two characters, however, is how each of their approaches to life is not merely comical, it’s substantive. In Harold’s case, he explains pretty clearly why he pursues these death re-enactments and fake suicide attempts, but Maude’s motivations for a free, exuberant and delightfully reckless life are left, well, slightly more ambiguous; notwithstanding the Auschwitz ID number tattooed on her arm, she is racing to leave behind a deep-rooted and powerful pain, and celebrating the freedom she currently enjoys by constantly flirting with danger, far beyond the limits of even safe mischief-making. The moment that stands out most to me is during the police chase, where she spins her car in a circle until the cop’s motorcycle falls over and stops working: even after she’s prevailed over her pursuer, she takes a victory lap – or maybe just an unsafe extra twist of the steering wheel – that makes the audience fear that she and Harold won’t get away, but it also feels integral to literally the core of who she is.
The element which seems to resonate perhaps less today but seems still incredibly vital is the film’s dynamic between living a life of freedom and deliberate choice, and adhering to the expectations or demands of a society which has its own expectations for you. Harold desperately seeks to undermine his mother’s controlling influence, because she exists in a universe where people do certain things because they are expected, or “normal” – which feels utterly foreign to Harold. All of which is why he becomes so attracted to Maude and her lifestyle: she embraces passion – for literally everything – and lives her life according to the pursuit of something meaningful and individualistic rather than simply conventional and accepted. And it’s in the chemistry of their opposite worlds and the emotional connection they share that the film achieves its deepest resonance, feeling romantic and evocative and powerful, even if you’re typically not inclined to indulge a May-December romance.
What Doesn’t Work
At 91 minutes, the movie moves so quickly there’s nothing to trim, no superfluous gags and all of the content works either to support the comedy or the relationships – and often both. Suffice it to say this is not a weakness or shortcoming of the film, but the only thing that even theoretically could be said as a criticism is that its humor is occasionally so bleak that it becomes simply too intense – the sort of thing that one does not joke about, or some might so, anyway.
“Harold and Maude” is a truly beautiful film, in addition to being hilarious, and it holds up as well today as it did then – perhaps even better. There seems to be even more of an existential crisis today among young people about the vast universe of possibilities in life, and how they struggle to avoid the paralysis of indecision is imminently relatable to Harold’s efforts to escape his mother’s controlling influence. On the other hand, Maude’s fearlessness is more attractive than ever, because it never quite subscribes to a single character or personality type, nor functions in the service of judging other people for their fear.
Finally, Maude’s position as a manic pixie dream girl is the one thing that really does feel indisputable about the film, which makes it more relevant than ever, as filmmakers continue to create romances between awkward, stilted young men and free-thinkers and –doers like her who let or enable them to loosen up and appreciate life. And more than that, it’s just a beautiful romance that reminds viewers that there’s someone out there for everyone — and who doesn’t want that?