Harold and Maude

by H. Becker

Note: I only review movies worth seeing, and enriching oneself by today's releases is about as fruitful as plumbing urinals for stray nickels. So today we travel back in time to the early '70s for a bit of vintage hippie fluff. "Harold and Maude" is worth renting or viewing on AMC, which shows movies uninterrupted or with an intermission only. Watch it when you get the chance....

"Harold and Maude" is the story of a gloomy rich boy and the free-spirited old woman who befriends and breathes new life into him, effecting a transmigration of souls as she exits the earthly scene. He's 20, she's 80, and they end up married on her birthday, which is also her deathday. I can hardly disagree with the priest who advises against the union on grounds of repugnance:

"The fact of your firm young body...commingling...with the withered flesh...sagging breasts...and flabby buttocks makes...me...want...to......vomit."

What makes the movie extraordinary is the ability of the owlish kid, played by Bud Cort, to inflect off deadpan. He's got a prodigious ability to convey mixed feelings by the way he holds his face. He composes attitudes, then alters them by imperceptible degree -- unfailingly conveying precise emotional gradient; it's first-rate acting, genuine art.

He does everything very slowly, the opposite of the broad, loud, obvious nigger every actor is forced play today, that the moronic and wiggerized masses "get it." The scene with Harold lying in bed next to sleeping Maude, smoking a cigarette the morning after, is exact -- precisely acted and directed. A kid lying in bed with a whole new conception of things after a night of pleasure with his 80-year-old girlfriend? Little sicker, perhaps. Still, "Too much judging gets in the way of life," as Maude preaches. The kid does a great job of conveying how life comes to his character, that we can see and feel it ourselves, if not exactly identify. It's a sort of sex- and age-reversed Lolita the filmmakers pull, getting us to identify with a young man glomming a witheress, as opposed to an old man stiffening for a lollipopsy.

And that's just one of several scenes in which emotional truth is cracked raw.

The story...

The main story is the developing friendship between Harold and Maude. The undercurrent is the ongoing conflict between Harold and his mother, an urbane, widowed socialite with no idea what's going on in her son's head. "Perhaps he can fathom you," she says, forwarding the gravely weird youth to his one-armed war-hero uncle to advise him on the glories of the military career. Besides finding him a career, Harold's mother attempts to procure him a girlfriend, inviting a less than stellar selection of computer dates to the mansion to mingle their spirits with the oddness that is Harold.

And that oddness is pretty odd: A goodly portion of Harold's waking hours is consumed with elaborately staged fake suicides. Very funny, these, and very used to and annoyed by them his mother. He shoots himself, burns himself, drowns himself, stabs himself -- anything, as we later find, to engender the emotionally correct reaction in her. As he explains to Maude, after fleeing boarding school following a chemistry-lab explosion, he got the chance to see the cops tell his mother he'd been killed. She affected a dramatic faint, rather than the genuine anguish he felt appropriate. Since then, he's turned inward, gloomy, beset with themes funereal, down to driving a hearse, even welding the top of the hearse to a nifty sports car his rich mother buys him.

Attending the funeral of a stranger he runs across Maude (Ruth Gordon), who shares the curious hobby. At first reticent, he opens to her lilting charms, begins to come out of his shell and see the world differently as she leads him on a variety of escapades aimed at teaching him that your attitude is what matters -- you have to make your own happiness and define your own reality and live life to the fullest. Her silly hippie ideas are ridiculous, but no more ridiculous than his eternal gloom, as he comes to see. Reality can't be denied, but perhaps the most important part of reality is that you can choose your attitude toward it. Most men are about as happy as they make up their minds to be, as Abraham Lincoln said. His awakening to this truth is the story of the movie.

Here's where I could insert the standard complaints: Maude's a "Holocaust" survivor, although this is made more of by reviewers than the film itself, in which the word is never mentioned. Her affirmation of life could be called 101 ways to reject authority -- but as you'd expect, all these rejections run in pat, Semitically Correct lines: smoke pot, disdain the military, disrespect cops, steal other people's cars, fornicate with grandma. Well, I guess that last one's a bit unusual, but you get the idea: This movie was made back during the Viet Nam war, and the "cool" it's pitching is neatly in lockstep with the Jew-led radicals of the time: Question Authority, yes, but never question Jews. What makes it work here is the lightness of the lesson. Maude's strong, warm, lilting voice ebbs and flows in a way that reinforces the birth-death-rebirth cycle she's always talking about. She's the opposite of the obnoxious or strident we expect from ugly jews in that she is able to laugh at herself. Of course, this is a movie! No hard sell, and she doesn't push her small rebellions too far, so we are content to take them as she sees them -- attempts to savour life and live it anew each day, without letting small things like licenses and property rights get in the way. It's all very cute as long as you don't think about it.

By the end of the movie, she has Harold hooked. She announces that she's departing -- "took the pills an hour ago" -- and we get the first wild emotional reaction from Harold -- entirely in character and appropriate. He cares. The difference is not between love and hate, but between feeling and unfeeling, as Leo Buscaglia used to say back then. Harold does everything he can to save her, but she dies anyway. He responds by driving his hearse off the cliff, and there the movie ends. Was he in it? Did he choose life over death, or did his gloom overcome her lebenslust? You'll have to rent it.

Just a couple other points. The first is how well tied in the music is with the story. I can't think of another picture in which there's a better marriage of soundtrack and sense than this one, songs by Stevens, Cat, including two written expressly for the movie. The old pre-turban peace-trainer was in full throat in those days, and his heart-stabbing mix of pain and joy perfectly swathes and sound-stages the subtle facial conveyances and emotional diphthongs the film turns on. Exceptional music, acting and direction make "Harold and Maude" a minor classic. There is humor, heartache and hope in the music and its movie.

The mother deserves mention. Skillfully played by Vivian Pickles, I kid you not, this character in nine of ten pictures would be pure stereotype: rich bitch. But she humanizes the role. The mother is one of those emotionally compressed women hyperconcerned with Schedule and the Right Thing to Do, but she does have a nice wit, her condescending patrician ironies sailing over the heads of Harold's clueless dates. Too, we can feel her inward wonderment, concealed by her mask, at this odd creature she's birthed and must deal with. How did something like that emerge from me, we can picture her petitioning the heavens as she lies widowed in bed. That's one of the mysteries of life. Are you in that callous you peel off your heel? Are you in the hair you cut out of your nose? Are you in the skin you scrape off on the rail? Where are you? How can something that's not give birth to something that is? The answer, my friends, is blowin' in the wind...

The juxtaposition of Mother-Facade and Harold-the-Internal sets the best scene in the movie, in which Harold's face and eyes see into our soul, his mother behind him, looking our direction, but veering off. Harold has performed his latest bravura faux-suicide, driving off a date, and stands before us, stock-still. His mother duly clucks in the background, as women do, as the date runs off screaming. Not a movement from deadpan Harold, appraising the camera, then ever so -- ever so -- slight a laughter, in the distance of his iris; a man laughing and clicking his heels on a tiny, faraway greensward under an unseen rainbow -- like that sick little grin the Norman Fell-Roper would throw the camera in Three's Company refined to the nth degree; a little like the scene in "Brazil," where the tortured dental patient o'erfloats the pain to his private paradise. But only for a moment...reality returns, as always it must. Harold conveys the complete arc of the emotion, the faint, emergent smile -- its piercing, Stevens-backed apogee -- its decline back into the this-world everyday of his mother's clucking concern. Pure perfect telepathy, gesamt-gestalt, it's; life, after all, is internal, isn't it? The solipsistic spiritual truth -- that's the deepest part of real, and the frivolous cluck-wrapping doesn't really matter, withdraw from it though we can't. In his world, she failed at the moment of truth; in her world, he fails every waking second. They're both right, they're both wrong, they're both ineluctable.

I linger on this moment because it struck me as exemplary of the power of film itself. We can physically see Harold, Bud Cort, a fellow human, seeing into us. We get the wonderful synaesthesia of listening to his conventional mother clucking away about all the social-appearances tinsel that doesn't matter, while his eyes speak the truth, and we recognize it in them, and know what he means. But perfect, wordless, musical communication is unsettling, thus we are always shifting, indirect, hinting and flashing, afraid of more than a tiny dose. We can't even fuck ourselves lock-eyedly, studies say. It's too unsettling, frightening even; what might we see? What's left when you unpeel the onion? Perhaps nothing more than three tears and a small ball of nothing. There is nothing sexual about this scene, but we do feel a soul-connection to Harold in wordlessly recognizing that certain things are both funny and inevitable, and nothing we can say or do will change anything. That's how it is, the annoyance and the wryness and our modest attempts to fight back, and the inevitability of their failure. But the one look says it all where words are like typing with wrists. The eyes, after all, are the windows to the soul, not the fingertips. It's a glorious and funny and triumphant scene, and it alone makes the movie worthwhile. It is, as I say, pure telepathy, and in my opinion the finest moment in film.


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