Thursday, October 1, 2009

Harold and Maude

(Hal Ashby, USA, 1971)

What can I say that hasn't already been said about this absolute gem of a movie? I'll offer up, right out of the gate, that I'm not as much of a johnny-come-lately as I might seem, having seen the film once before, although I was quite young at the time, and I'm sure that a good portion of Ashby's sublimely subtle hilarity went over my head.

What I'm certain I didn't miss was the effusive warmth of the film, which testifies to its status as one of the most tender portraits of alienation and acceptance ever to have been rendered in cinema. Ashby's genius has been a source of great fascination and inspiration for me as of late, and it couldn't come at a better time - as the days grow shorter, the weather colder, and the future of the human race increasingly bleak. The world is in great need of Art like Ashby's - intelligent, wise, compassionate, often bizarre, and personal.

I should probably hasten to add that I don't consider H&M to be a perfect film, or even Ashby's best - Harold's mother being an unfortunate caricature, although she's not atrocious, it gets a bit grating, and there's a good deal of Maude's fancy-free whimsy that's not 100% earned by the story. But, as with so many of Ashby's works, the brilliance that suffuses the film more than makes up for the rough patches. It's just such a damn funny movie, and a moving one too, that you can't help but be charmed by it - in a way, Harold and Maude, in one of the film's several coups of gently sublime innovations, function as perfect synecdoches for the film itself - they're cooky and strange and not quite entirely believable, but gorldarn it if they aren't expert at charming your pants off.

I'll leave off by mentioning one other daring and brilliant coup - it's perfectly obvious to anyone watching with some modicum of attention (and if you aren't at this point in the film, you're a humbug and a dolt) - but the final "mock" suicide of Harold, who (and this is coming, remember, from someone who's seen the film before) just might finally do it, so despairing he is over the loss of Muade, that it actually seems plausible that he is in that car, and that he is finally not faking it. Only to find, of course, and how could it be any other way, etc., that he's received the gift of Maude's love for life, and returns to the world kicking up his heels to the jaunty, eternally youthful tunes of Cat Stevens.

*And here again, because I can't help myself: There is a symmetry, an ease, to the narrative's conclusion that also doesn't quite feel earned. Harold, who has been rehearsing his self-obliteration throughout the entire film (in several instances, quite maliciously, I might add, when you think about it real-world style), learns to be happy and lives on, while the uncannily self-assured and content Maude does do herself in, under circumstances that can be seen both arbitrary and outright sadistic. Arbitrary, of course, because she presages her death when she first encounters Harold, remarking that 75 is too young, but 85 too old, and sadistic, because she does so right after Harold proclaims his love for her and proposes marriage. To give the characters their due, however, it must be noted that Maude's departure is far different from Harold's various rococo masquerades - she goes quietly and with dignity. As for the timing - well, it's perfectly in line with the disciplined whimsy of her character. But more importantly, I think, it perfectly underlines what could be discerned as the main theme of the film, namely, the inextricable coupling of life and death. Maude practices the kind of non-attachment that would make a Zen Buddhist proud, and understands on a profound level that death and life are two sides of the same mysterious coin - a lesson that she endeavors to teach Harold (without once seeming didactic), who was woefully unbalanced in his gravitation to death over life. She saw the potential kindred spirit in Harold - someone who intuited the necessity of death, but was tormented rather than awed by it, and who learned to live (and die, presumably) another way. Maude's wisdom was, and is, of the prophetic sort, and although Harold may not understand, at the end of the film, he seems to be willing to accept. This especially qualifies the film as a masterpiece, and much more than just a "carpe diem" sort of cinematic bromide.

**Really, there's even more to discuss, including the oft-denoted marking on Maude's wrist, subtle but unmistakable, which many have reasonably concluded to be a Holocaust tattoo. This isn't given any explication, and can almost be seen as a misguided and cavalier gesture, but I think it's just subtle enough to be acceptable, and it does play in Maude's quasi- aggressive dismissal of authority (especially the uniformed variety) and her remarks about her tempestuous past fighting for justice, and how she has since mellowed. This is all worth further meditation, and I suspect a fairly long posting on the genius of Ashby's other film will include such sundry details.

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