Wednesday, April 2, 2014

HAROLD AND MAUDE: A FILM COMMENTARY




By Ronald Fox
 
 
When I first watched Harold and Maude, shortly after it was released in 1971, I recall it triggered a full range of my emotions, from side-busting laughter to profound sadness when Maude died. Like other counter-culture adherents, I was in the midst of a value crisis, which found me questioning the values of our materialist consumer culture. I had also become disillusioned with the preoccupation of the anti-war movement with violence and death. It seemed that Harold and Maude, which offered viewers an alternative vision of life and living, was speaking directly to me. Watching it again recently, I found it to be just as timely today as it was in 1971. It remains one of my favorite films.  
 
Harold and Maude is a simple story about a young man, Harold Chasen (played by Bud Cort), living an affluent life with his materialistic, controlling single mother. Harold so hates his materialistic life, he becomes obsessed with death. To entertain himself and aggravate his patrician mother, he regularly stages fake suicides, which are notably creative and hilarious, especially when his intent is to frighten women his mother has arranged for him to meet, and hopefully marry. His suicide acts include self-immolation and self-mutilation, which, as predicted, causes the potential brides to flee in horror. To further exasperate his mother, Harold converts the XKE car his mother bought him (he did not ask for it) into a hearse-- all the more to connect to his morbid fascination with death.
 
Harold’s preoccupation with death leads him to attend the funerals of people he doesn’t know. It is at one of these funerals he meets Maude (played by Ruth Gordon), a vivacious 79-year old woman who also has a hobby of going to funerals, except she goes to celebrate life, not death. Maude is everything Harold isn’t: she is perky and carefree, has a sunny outlook on life, refuses to conform to society conventions, and disdains holding on to material things. Strangely the pair bond and as their relationship progresses, Maude teaches Harold to respect living things, place less emphasis on material possessions, enjoy the pleasures of music (she gives him a banjo), art, and nature, and cherish each new day. Mainly, she teaches him to love life and living.  
 
Eventually their friendship blossoms into a romance and Harold is so smitten with the upbeat Maude, he tells his mother of his plan to marry her. When he shows her Maude’s picture, she faints. To cure Harold of his weird infatuation with Maude, she sends him to a priest, a psychiatrist, and finally a stuffy uncle in the military, all played brilliantly with a comedic flair. But, it’s to no avail; Harold’s mind is made up.  
 
Harold throws Maude a surprise party for her 80th birthday, where he plans to pop the question. As they dance, she tells him the party is a wonderful farewell. She reveals that 80 years is long enough to live and she has taken a large number of sleeping pills and will be dead by midnight. Harold rushes her to the hospital, but she dies. He speeds away from the hospital in his car/hearse, and in the final scene we watch as it flies off a seaside cliff. No, Harold didn’t commit suicide. He is shown standing atop the cliff with his banjo. The scene fades as he walks away playing Cat Stevens’ “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out,” the movie’s anthem.  
 
Harold and Maude contrasts the destructive preoccupation with death that afflicts Harold with the far more rewarding preoccupation with life. It tells us love is what we all need: love of nature, love of humanity, love in human relationships, and love of life. It stresses that material things won’t bring happiness. Overall, Maude teaches Harold, and the movie viewers, to grasp life and live each day to the fullest.  
 
The film was released at a troubled time in America. Social and cultural rebelliousness was growing and becoming increasingly radical and violent. The proliferation of violence pervaded all levels of American life, a reality that inspired many purveyors of popular culture. Song writers warned of our “Eve of Destruction” and called for starting a revolution, television brought street battles into America’s living rooms, newspaper and magazine photos chronicled the violent rage of the times.

Film makers found the themes of brutal violence and our nihilistic malaise compelling, and brought them to the big screen in such films as King of Hearts (1967), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Easy Rider (1969), Dirty Harry (1971), Planet of the Apes (1971), and the Godfather (1972). America seemed sequestered in a culture of extremes; everything, including life, had become devalued. Death was all around us: “four dead in O-hi-o.” A dehumanized and demoralized America was sliding toward Armageddon.  
 
It was in this context that Harold and Maude was released. The movie offered a strong rebuke to America’s materialistic, hedonistic, environmentally destructive, socially indifferent, dominant culture, represented superbly by Harold’s socialite mother. More important to me, however, it sent a simple message to the death-obsessed, doomsayers of the extremist counter-culture: cheer up, love, and embrace life. As someone who believed that violent and hateful protest was not only counter-productive, but harmful to the soul, I found this message refreshing. I looked around the theater at some long hairs to see if they showed any signs of getting the message.   
 
After seeing the movie, I became a self-appointed Maude disciple (well, maybe I didn’t “borrow” cars and disregard traffic rules), admonishing graduate school colleagues who lived in their books, constantly stressed over professors, classes, and the job market, and who aspired to a life of wealth and privilege, to live in the now and embrace life and love. I proselytized dour fellow anti-war activists who had adopted Machiavellian attitudes about the use of violence, to value human life and be more generous in spirit toward those with whom they disagree.

I harbored no illusion that love was in fact all we needed, as the Beatles sang, but as a slogan to live by, it was a far better than hate, violence, and defining one’s worth by what they owned. Harold and Maude made me laugh, cry, and dream about a more humanistic America. Watching it again, warmed me all over. It should be required viewing for our political leaders.
 
 
 

















3 comments:

  1. Professor Fox,
    Thank you for posting your review of "Harold and Maude" today. I woke up this morning not wanting to think about 'McCutcheon vs. the FEC' Supreme Court decision of yesterday which struck down the limit on the amount of money wealthy donors can contribute to candidates and political committees.
    Your article reminded me that we cannot afford to be discouraged, become bitter or lose our sense of joy.
    I too, recently re-watched 'Harold and Maude' and was reminded that life is a miracle and that love is the key to changing the world.
    Still, I hope that the 'lovers' in this world can each find a way to translate compassion into some form of activism.
    I think if Maude had been a real person she would have been one to join protests and place flowers in the butts of guns.
    What think you?
    Sonya Tafejian


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  2. Ron could be a professional film critic. His reviews not only capture the essence and quality of a film, but he is also able to validly place a film's message in its historical context.

    Regarding his review of Harold and Maude, I would like to comment on his point about anti-war movement violence. He says that at the time (early 1970s), he became disillusioned with the anti-war movement's preoccupation with violence and death. I was in Berkeley during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and I witnessed first-hand many incidents of violence during political protests. There were violent incidents involving the bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam war, riots over People's Park near the Berkeley campus, and so on. Usually, protesters' violence was directed at inanimate objects not people (even the police).

    My observation at the time was that change did not occur unless there were violent protests. Peaceful protest was not seriously listened to by the power structure, whether it be politicians, university administrators, or businesspeople. Protests were routinely and appropriately allowed, but meaningful change seldom resulted. Only when peaceful protests escalated into unruly crowd behavior and violence did the protests succeed in gaining the attention of the people in charge and perhaps in influencing them to pause and consider the arguments being made.

    Thus, based on my personal experience, some of the things we value in America today would not exist without violent protests. America of the sixties was not ready for peaceful protests, and violence was the main weapon used to achieve desired change.

    Charles Snow

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  3. Ron's commentary and insightful analysis prompted me to re-watch Harold and Maude last night. I hadn't seen the film since I was in college, in the late 1980's.

    In the foggy haze of decades-old memories, and not really knowing anything about the film's origin, I had (incorrectly) remembered the film as British. So Ron's description of the film as a metaphor for a splintering American peace movement, and as "a strong rebuke to America’s [emphasis added] materialistic, hedonistic, environmentally destructive, socially indifferent, dominant culture," intrigued me.

    As I re-watched the film, it quickly became apparent that this is, in fact, an American film, full of big American cars (with left-hand drive), American (Californian, actually) highway patrol officers, and north coast California scenery. What had thrown me, and had apparently stuck in my memory above all else, was that many characters in the film speak with British accents, including Harold's mother, the military uncle, the psychiatrist, the counseling priest, and, interestingly, all of the clergy who speak at the numerous funerals. In fact, nearly all of the characters who might represent America's materialistic and dominant culture, as Ron put it, speak with British accents. Also, these characters are also all older.

    Correspondingly, Harold, Maude, and the various women that Harold's mother finds for Harold via a computer dating service (quite unorthodox for 1971), speak with decidedly American accents (though Harold's speech occasionally betrays his boarding-school upbringing). These characters all fall outside of the dominant culture. Also, with the exception of Maude - who is exceptional in every way - these characters are all younger.

    I am aware that British accents are often used metaphorically in class-conscious critiques, and perhaps that is all that is at play here. However, given the generational and professional divides in British vs. American accents, I am wondering if there is some deeper commentary? I'm curious what Ron thinks about these observations.

    The only major character who does not match the accentual divide is the CHP motorcycle cop (Tom Skerritt's character). Can we read something into this, as well?

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