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Shelf Life: “Harold and Maude”

Harold and Maude

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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.


The Facts:

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.


The Verdict

“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?

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at IFC.com

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…