Sunday, October 2, 2016
Harold and Maude
SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.
This 1971 film has one of the odder relationships in movie history, which is one of the reasons it is a dark comedy “cult” classic. But this Hal Ashby directed movie’s early May, late December romance is at the thematic center of a movie that emphasizes the need to reconsider the whole perpetuating cycle of birth, life, and death.
The opening scene is a bit of a shocker as we hear the first of several Cat Stevens songs while Harold (Bud Cort) goes through preparations which culminate in his supposed hanging suicide. As he swings from the rope in one of the many dark, garishly opulent rooms in his family’s mansion, his mother enters, Mrs. Chasen (Vivian Pickles). She is unfazed and asks if Harold thinks he is being funny. As she talks on the phone about an appointment, Harold laughs slightly and then makes fake gagging sounds. This form of suicide could be indicative of the way his mother is emotionally “suffocating” him. She tells him that dinner will be at eight o’clock and that maybe he could be a little more “vivacious.” The black comic tone has been launched.
Harold performs several phony suicides during the course of the story, including a pretend self-inflicted gunshot wound, where he initially points the gun at his mother while she fills out all the questions meant for him in a dating questionnaire with her own opinions. In answer to his psychiatrist’s question if the suicides are for his mother’s benefit, he says no, not “benefit.” The movie obviously reflects the anti-establishment, anti-parental authority attitude among the youth in America at the time fueled by the hostility toward the Vietnam War. The house and Mrs. Chasen’s exaggerated clothes show a society preoccupied with material things (similarly satirized in Warren Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait). The movie directs its satiric thrust against the military in the form of Harold’s Uncle Victor (Charles Tyner), a high-ranking armed forces member whose name is ironic, since what he has won along with his glorious war stories is the loss of his right arm. The empty uniformed sleeve responds to the pulling of a cord by simulating a salute, an obvious jab at overzealous patriotism. It is darkly funny that right after Uncle Victor says he sees in Harold a little Nathan Hale, the man who said he regretted that he had only one life to lose for his country, that we have the shot of Harold floating like a dead person in the overly affluent family’s pool as his mother takes a swim, thus satirizing the loss of life for the object-worshiping country America has become.
Harold folds his hands over his chest as he lies on his back with his eyes closed, looking like a corpse at his psychiatric sessions. Harold’s psychiatrist (G. Wood) asks him what he does for enjoyment, the youth says he goes to funerals. He even buys a hearse for his car. He later modifies the sports car his mother provided as a replacement by welding on a hearse-like roof onto the Jaguar, a vehicular “screw-you” to his mother’s controlling nature and her preoccupation with materialism and appearances. Harold, although young, preoccupies himself morbidly with the end of life. Then he meets Maude (Ruth Gordon), a woman approaching the end of life, at a funeral. The first thing she does is offer him a piece of licorice. She brings something pleasurable, and a form of sustenance (although a dubious one) to the sad proceedings. She says “Who sends dead flowers to a funeral? It’s absurd.” She wants to celebrate that death is a part of life, and dead flowers just double down on one side of that process. She sizes up Harold’s inability to see the whole picture quickly. When he answers in the negative to her question about whether he sings or dances, she says, “No, I thought not.”
To emphasize the need to see that panoramic picture of worldly experience, Ashby gives us a joyous parade in the same shot as the funeral procession. Maude wears colorful clothes and carries a bight umbrella in contrast to the dark appearance of the mourners. Maude takes whatever car is available for transportation, including the priest’s at the funeral service. She even steals Harold’s original funeral conveyance, not knowing he owned it. He comments that her auto thefts upset people. She responds by saying, “I’m merely acting as a gentle reminder: here today, gone tomorrow, so don’t get attached to things.” But, she says that doesn’t mean she is averse to collecting stuff. Her “memorabilia” is not to show capitalistic gain, but instead reminds her of past experiences, and helps her appreciate the world. As she says, these things are, “incidental, not integral” to existence. It is significant that Maude lives in a train car. As opposed to Harold’s hearse, this mode of transportation symbolizes that living things are on a journey between two points, birth and death, and there are numerous stops along the way to experience what life offers.
Through her “stuff,” Maude opens Harold up to appreciate the body’s senses. She shows him paintings that stimulate the visual and provides him with smells to savor olfactory delights. He explores the tactile sense by touching a wood sculpture that suggests a vagina. He penetrates the opening with his hand, and even tries to fit his head through it (a substitute for the penis?). In this way, Maude is his midwife into bringing to life his youthful latent sexuality. She also introduces him to expressing himself artistically in dance and music, starting him on his interest in playing the banjo. While still pursuing his disturbingly comical theatrical self-destruction at home to ward off his mother’s picks for a potential mate (self-immolation, dismemberment, and disembowelment), he enjoys himself with Maude in the woods, saving a dying tree, where she celebrates “living things,” and going to a carnival (where they play with toy trains, reinforcing the journey of life initially implied by Maude’s train/home). She tries to convey to him the satisfaction derived from a passion to participate in life. She tells him that she is always looking for “variety” and “the new experience.” When she asks Harold why he would like to be a flower in a field, he says because they all are alike. It probably shows his desire to conform like most young people to the pressure around them to fit in. She says that they may look alike, but all living things are unique, and that specialness should be celebrated. She tells him “that much of the world’s sorrow” comes from people allowing themselves to think that they are not individually important.
She preaches that there are important issues worth fighting for: “Liberty. Rights, Justice … what sense in borders and nations and patriotism.” She sees these creations as mental prisons. She tells him that she used to “break into pet shops to liberate the canaries.” She comments that “the zoos are full, the prisons overflowing ... how the world still dearly loves a cage.” It seems she sees that people sometimes seek security in being told how to live so they can have the relief of giving up the responsibility of choices, and also incarcerating that which interferes with the status quo. He now realizes the incompleteness of his life so far when he says that “I haven’t lived. I died a few times.” Maude understands that many are afraid to risk failures by engaging in possible opportunities. She says, “A lot of people enjoy being dead. But they are not dead, really. They’re just backing away from life.” Like the coach of a sports team, she exhorts Harold to “LIVE! Otherwise, you got nothing to talk about in the locker room.”
There are two scenes which provide a personal insight into why these two characters act the way they do, and deepen their presentation. Harold admits to Maude in a tearful moment that he was involved in a scientific experiment at school which resulted in an explosion and fire. When he saw how genuinely affected his mother was by the possibility that Harold was dead, he decided that he elicited more real emotion by dying instead of living. A single shot economically lets the audience peer into Maude’s psyche. While the two sit together, Harold sees the imprint of a Nazi concentration camp brand on her arm. We realize that her being a holocaust survivor amplified her commitment to “live life fully.”
The two declare their love for each other, and, yes, become physically intimate. The representatives of the established world order which are outraged at such a union are satirized because they are limited by their restricted ways of thinking. The psychiatrist, with Sigmund Freud’s picture on the wall, is baffled because Harold does not fit into the typical psychoanalytical belief in the Oedipal complex, because he doesn’t subconsciously want to sleep with his mother, but instead wants to have sex with his “grandmother.” The celibate priest, with the picture of the pope behind him, declares his revulsion at the union, while perversely overly imagining the physical appearance of Maude’s aging female form.
Maude already gave us hints early on where the story was headed. She told Harold that “it will all be over” on her approaching 80th birthday. She said that 75 was too young and 85 was just biding time. At a birthday celebration he prepared where he is ready to ask her to marry him, she says what a wonderful farewell he organized, as she has already taken the pills and would be gone soon. Unlike his false suicides, hers is real, but more appropriate because she realizes that she has lived a full life and is ending it on her terms. He tells her that he loves her again, and she encourages his tapping into this feeling by saying, “that’s wonderful. Go and love some more.” He is crushed by her death, and we see him driving his hybrid hearse up a hill. It plunges off a cliff. For a moment we think that he has killed himself for real this time. But, the demolition of the car symbolizes the destruction of his previous morbid outlook on life. The camera points upward to the top of the precipice, and Harold, now in life-affirming mode, plays his banjo, and dances away.
This motion picture challenges preconceived notions about material ownership, patriotism, and especially, love. But, isn’t that what art is supposed to do?
The next film is Gilda.