Harold and Maude – Hal Ashby
1971, Starring Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon
This early seventies movies made me laugh and cry and I’m sure it will do that to you as well. Let’s take a closer look at what this cultclassic about a disaffected young boy is all about.
To put a label on it, Harold and Maude can be described as a tragicomedy intertwined with absurd humor, tragedy and romance. It’s difficult, however, to really put the movie in a box since it has an eclectic use of genres.
Harold and Maude, the ninety-one minutes during film by Hal Ashby, tells the tale of the friendship and love affair between a disaffected young man, Harold, who is obsessed with death and Maude, an old woman full of life. This movie, although one of its main themes is death, is cheerful and upbeat, for Ashby is convinced that not just movies but life itself can be musical when everyone sings along.
Back to childhood, back to life!
Harold needs to go back to his childhood to overcome his depressions because, as you know, children are often metaphors for innocence, freedom and happiness. Harold, apart from putting on suicide plays, has lost his touch with his inner child. Maude on the other hand, although his elder by many years, has embraced her inner child like no other.
Harold’s family situation is quite unusual. He lives with his cold, snobbish mother, in an enormous estate, his father is out of the picture – perhaps he died in the war – and his uncle Victor, a general, tries to educate him. Nor his mother, nor his uncle really understand Harold or try to communicate with him. His fake suicides are a way of expressing himself and when his psychiatrist asks what he does for fun he answers that he goes to funerals. This is where he meets Maude, who also enjoys attending funerals, but for a different reason: it reminds her of her own aliveness, she sees the circle of life in them. Maude takes Harold under her wings and little by little he learns to be “vivacious” again.
The eccentric Maude introduces him to her artist friend, sings songs for Harold, dances with him, takes him to a fair and together they plant a tree after mischievously getting rid of a policeman. She gives him the motherly love he lacks and introduces him into the romantic world of courtship.
His real mother’s only advice for her son is “try and be a little more vivacious”. She thinks she is helping him by setting up dates with possible partners in marriage, who are all extremely unfitting, and replaces his hearse with an expensive sports car.
Whereas Harold’s only hobbies are his suicide plays, funeral visits, and watching buildings and cars being destroyed, Maude likes to watch things grow, wants to try out new things each day, steals cars for fun, goes on adventures, poses in the nude for her artist friend, sings, plays music and dances as if she was twenty years old. But, of course, she needs a friend and partner for most of her activities, and she has found him in Harold. Happy about her new friend and the joy he brings her, she tells Harold that he makes her “feel like a schoolgirl”. She gets Harold to wear more vivacious colors, play an instrument, dance, blow bubbles and do summersaults. In short, where he is her accomplish in her youthful games, she is the trigger for him to rediscover his pre-teen happiness.
Ashby applies the technique of synecdoche when dressing his characters, defining them by their clothes and possessions. When Maude visits funerals, she dresses colorful and opens up her yellow umbrella, whereas the rest of the visitors are all dressed in black and carry dark umbrellas. Harold’s favorite outfits are odd, dark costumes, but when has spent some time with Maude he will start wearing brighter colors like pink and red, associated with joy.
Soundtrack: Cat Stevens
Ashby chose to use only one artist for the entire soundtrack of his film. The British folk-rock artist Cat Stevens was the perfect choice for this quirky tragicomedy. His songs “But Where Do the Children Play?” and “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out” fit the content of the film for they emphasize the childlike positivity flowing from games and music which Maude has understood and Harold learns throughout the movie. Cat Stevens’ songs capture both the melancholy and joy inherent in this movie.
Ashby employs a stylized style by means of excessive framing, symmetry, planimetrics (frontal and dorsal), close-ups, top views and zoom ins on details.
The ending of Harold and Maude is both positive and ambiguous. When Maude has decided her time has come on her eightieth birthday, she takes suicide pills and says goodbye to life. She has had a full life, and figures it can only go downhill from here on. Harold, who did not see this coming, is upset and sad because his only friend and first love has died. Although this is a dramatic plot twist, the ending of the film remains positive. Harold leaves the hospital, gets in his car and starts driving really fast. The next shot is that of a car driving off a cliff, pausing in a freeze frame and crashing on the beach. Fortunately, it appeared to have been Harold’s last fake suicide for we see him standing on the top off the cliff with his banjo in his hands. As a last honor to Maude, he starts playing the beginning chords of “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out” and dances away while the Cat Stevens version comes in. The freeze frame ending points at the circle of life and death represented in this movie.