Monday, March 30, 2015

Film #167: Harold and Maude

MAUDE: A lot of people enjoy being dead. But they’re not dead, really. They’re just backing away from life. Reach out. Take a chance. Get hurt even. But play as well as you can. Go team, go! Give me an L. Give me an I. Give me a V. Give me an E. L-I-V-E. LIVE! Otherwise, you got nothing to talk about in the locker room.

Rewatching Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude again for the first time for what must be at least a decade, I’m struck most–in my middle age–by its naivete and glorious youthfulness. With its gorehound death fascination and breathy strivings for an actively-voiced life, it feels like a movie written by a smart, frustrated teenager (actually, screenwriter Colin Higgins penned it in his mid-20s while attending Stanford University, studying alongside Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader; sadly, he had little chance to best this work as he died unfairly at 47 after having penned such funny but not nearly as heartfelt classics as Silver Streak, Foul Play, 9 to 5, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas). As a screenplay, it is an assured work that cleaves to simple wisdoms, and it's further seasoned by Hal Ashby’s then-still nascent but preternatural filmic style. Roger Ebert, who hated it upon release, slammed the movie for not having a strong visual sense, but I vehemently disagree; it’s the first of Ashby’s works sporting a meticulously designed look, and it's the entry point into that great director's limited but almost unassailable body of work (even though his debut film, 1970's The Landlord, is also essential).

To go even further–way further–I don’t think it’s out of order to declare Harold and Maude one of the most loved movies ever made. Ask anyone who’s seen it and they’ll tell you it’s among their favorites. Lots of guys dig it but women, especially, seem to respond remarkably to its quirky grace (when I worked at video stores, 9 times out of 10 when the film was being rented, it was by a woman, and most likely one going back for seconds or thirds). I’m not usually one to react de facto to rashly popular movies, but this is one I stand behind with gusto. Even today, I see a lot of what is admired in, say, Wes Anderson’s work as dependent on this film both in style and emotion (just take a look at some of Ashby's perfectly centered images and tell me Wes Anderson doesn't worship this movie).

As a kid, after years of seeing it advertised in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I pretty much fell into an immediate crush with Harold and Maude. I can easily flash back to my first time seeing it at 14 years old, circa 1981, at Atlanta's now-defunct Rhodes Theater. I remember the look of the deep red velvet chairs in the theater auditorium being mirrored by the warm browns and reds of that sly opening sequence set to the first of Cat Stevens’ many contributions to the soundtrack, the gentle and ultimately vociferous “Don’t Be Shy.” I remember the vaguely cola-tinged smell of the theater, and feeling disturbed that Ashby and cinematographer John Alonzo chose not to reveal Harold’s face until way deep into its its oddly-paced, strangely-framed single-shot opening (Harold isn’t seen until he suitably blows out a match).

Meanwhile, Cat Stevens’ work had long been a staple on our turntable at home, thanks to his Greatest Hits record, so hearing his voice so brilliantly used throughout must have made full impact on my rather instant love for this film (Stevens’ creaky vocal style is unmistakable). Years later, after I had tried to hunt down a soundtrack to no avail, I finally realized watching Harold and Maude was the only way I would ever hear some of these tunes (“Don’t Be Shy” and “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out” were written specifically for the film, and a soundtrack has now been properly compiled here; I’m dismayed that Stevens wasn’t nearly well enough considered for the Best Song Oscar in 1971). But he was way ahead of the pack then, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised.

In all the right places, I laughed hard with Harold and Maude upon first seeing it. Like a true cultist, my deep adoration for the film grew from that very first glimpse. I suspect I also share with many of its fans a feeling as if it were a movie made especially for me. The opening’s punchline–the revelation of Harold’s penchant for so literal gallows humor–felt so fresh, so perfect for the misplaced 14-year-old kid I was, with a similar dark view of things. I’m pretty positive almost every teenager has had at least fleeting fantasies about ending their life, fueled mainly by the wonder of how the news would be received by the living (this is something that powers Harold’s love of his bizarre hobby).

So I remember adoring each of Harold’s fake suicides; the film’s first thirty minutes basically exist as a series of truly black blackout sketches. Cort’s Harold often seems to be playing to an unseen camera, even turning to regard it and the audience beyond at one point (a moment I absolutely love). However, the only actual audience member here (outside of Harold himself, and maybe a couple of his ill-fated dates) is Harold’s widowed mother, played with utmost snootiness by Vivian Pickles. As she barely reacts to the pranks, we can see she’s a humorless, self-absorbed prune, or at least one who’s failed to address in any meaningful way the underlying issues in Harold’s life (Harold’s absent father is barely mentioned and one is left to assume the man’s troubles at home led him to an early grave). As Harold floats face down in the pool in another call for attention, the mother gently swims past his corpse-like body as if it were an errant leaf on the water’s surface. In the opening, he hangs himself and, with his tongue turning blue, Pickles’ exasperated Mrs. Chasen (she might be the widow of the famed restaurateur Dave Chasen, of Hollywood’s Chasen’s) utters the film's indelible first line “I suppose you think that’s very funny, Harold.” And it’s difficult for even the toughest countenance to shake the shock of its bloodiest scenario, where Pickles walks into a darkened bathroom and, with a joltingly split-second zoom-out, discovers its mirrored walls splattered with red plasma while Harold, tongue out, lies in a sanguine bathtub pose. His mother turns and promptly has a well-deserved breakdown (I like that the movie has some sympathy for her). Meanwhile, all Harold wants to do is feel something, anything, even if it’s unpleasant.

Harold and Maude famously didn’t perform very well box-office-wise upon its 1971 release. A clearly confused Paramount Pictures saddled the film with possibly the ugliest ad campaign in movie history, badly illustrated with criminally underdone graphics. The reviews were cruelly dismissive, even by smart critics like Ebert and the New York Times’  Bosley Crowther. Remember, this was the era of A Clockwork Orange, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Last Picture Show, Punishment Park, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Carnal Knowledge, The French Connection, The Beguiled and Two-Lane Blacktop. Not many smiles or expressions of love in those films, so maybe the executives and pundits were befuddled (though Ebert never, ever updated his opinion). Luckily, there was a hungry audience lying in wait for some true blue feelings, and by the mid-1970s, it was a midnight movie and repertory theater staple guaranteed to pack the house (I remember seeing it, up until the mid-80s, in well-attended theaters and often paired with a lesser sanity-juggling film, Philippe de Broca’s King of Hearts). I wonder now if Harold and Maude would have found wider success more quickly had Harold been portrayed as a more traditionally attractive hippie dude rather than as an ahead-of-his-time proto-goth type. Still, I’m extremely glad Ashby and Higgins (and Cort) decided to go another way. Harold now seems so much more approachable (the film would feel much more dated with a longhair in the lead). And now, as it should be, Ruth Gordon’s Maude is the de facto flyer of the freak flag here.

Sweetly inexpressive as Cort is in the film' first half–and it’s easy to love the pale-skinned, wide-eyed damaged child in him–Ruth Gordon is the presence who makes the movie sing. She’s central to many of its most memorable images: fiddling with her still-red hair and eating an orange while sitting on a gravestone; in a field of flowers, admiring an average daisy while sticking up for the subtle differences between each one; confidently carrying a bright yellow umbrella through a rainy funeral procession; dancing and singing to a jangly player piano; coquettishly telling Harold his words of love makes her feel like a schoolgirl (oof, this kills me!); throwing the coin that Harold just made for her into an errant corner of the sea “so I’ll always know where it is.” She has all the best dialogue and so cheerfully gives endless hell to a variety of authority figures (the clergy, the police, the military–they’re all skewered here, which surely contributed to its anti-establishment cult status). Maude has lived through much–there’s a wonderful scene where she begins to tearfully ruminate on her long-gone husband--and we find ourselves constantly wanting to know more about her. But she’s had a hard life and is so aware that going over and over this misery is not going to do anyone–certainly not Harold nor herself–any good.

Yet that moment where she lets loose may be the movie’s center. It’s revealed late in the film, in a quick don’t-blink glance, that Nazi-commandeered tattoo on her wrist, which leaves us to understand her lust for life and impatient conquering of death. Harold, meanwhile, has lived through nothing, and nothing is exactly what’s left in his soul. It takes Maude’s joie de vivre, seasoned with a true and not at all funny intimacy with eternity, to shake him out of his prison…yet she never holds this against him. Maude generously realizes each life must have its path. Gordon is wonderful in the film–always strong, at times girlish, totally sexy, consistently lively and interesting. She’s a prize who doesn't deserve to be alone, and it’s natural to see how Harold could fall for her without even considering the difference in their age as an impediment. Even though Gordon won her Oscar for her malevolent turn in Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, her later career owed so much more to her lovely showing here. She later always arrived in movies as the elderly person one totally wishes to be in their own advanced years (I particularly like her subsequent turns in Tony Bill’s My Bodyguard and Steven Verona’s Boardwalk). Interestingly, in today’s present cinema where there seems to be no space for the aged, there is no one who matches Ruth Gordon’s gorgeous likeness.

Arguably, Harold and Maude is a one-joke film, overtly simple and appealing. I can envision having a hard time battling a smart person who has no affection for it. But it’s a tale goosed by Ashby’s deadpan visual style (the editing is always sumptuous, and often his setups, particularly in the psychiatrist’s office, look downright Kubrickian; I also love the wider tableaus in the film, most especially in the field of daisies and then, in a later matching shot, a field of gravestones, and of course, the final shot). The movie is far from perfect: a couple of its most ratcheted-up scenes still make me wince, most notably the final “date” with the actress (Ellen Geer) who joins Harold on the Hari-Kiri mat, and then the unbearably far-fetched scene that has Harold, with Maude’s help, ducking the draft by feigning an overdone madness.

Instead, I prefer its more subtle and quiet moments: the replanting of the “little tree,” Harold’s suggestive caressing of that vaginal wooden sculpture in Maude’s boudoir or his enjoyment of the evocative scent machine, or the two of them sharing a junkyard lunch and a seaside sunset. Fortuitous is the landing of both the movie's leads (Maude was very nearly played by Peggy Ashcroft or Celia Johnson, and both Richard Dreyfuss and Bob Balaban were considered as Harold). Its music, too, was arrived at by chance (Elton John, after having to drop out of the project--even as a possible lead for the film--wisely suggested Ashby contact Cat Stevens). These essential elements support each other as the crux of the film’s most luminous minutes, where Stevens’ heartbreaking tune “Trouble” plays over a smartly cut montage that directs our eyes one place and then tricks us so perfectly to another (gosh, this sequence is so absolutely superb; it brings me to tears every time, and I still get goosebumps as I see Harold piloting that absurdly cool Jaguar/Hearse down the road, rolling down the window to feel the wind in his face as that ethereal piano plinks away on the soundtrack).

harold31Finally, this movie just seems like it had to happen. I mean, where would cinema be without the image of Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon clutching each other in such gentle, understanding ecstasy? Years after seeing it for the first time as a young romantic, I still happily regard much of Harold and Maude‘s slightly-flawed brilliance as an essential part of who I am now. I imagine that those excited moviegoers–all who rescued such a humble daisy of a movie from obscurity, and who long showed such undying devotion for it–feel exactly the same way. Ashby and company, maybe with an abandon they had little note of, ultimately made us in this wildly strange tribe of lovers want to go out and love so much, much more.

Trouble / Oh trouble, set me free / I have seen your face / And it’s too much, too much for me / Trouble / Oh trouble, can’t you see / You’re eating my heart away / And there’s nothing much left of me / I’ve drunk your wine / You have made your world mine / So won’t you be fair / So won’t you be fair / I don’t want no more of you / So won’t you be kind to me / Just let me go there / I have to go there / Trouble / Oh trouble move away / I have seen your face / And it’s too much for me today / Trouble / Oh trouble, can’t you see / You have made me a wreck / Now won’t you leave me in my misery / I’ve seen your eyes / And I can see death’s disguise / Hangin’ on me / Hangin’ on me / I’m beat, I’m torn / Shattered and tossed and worn / Too shocking to see / Too shocking to see / Trouble / Oh trouble, move from me / I have paid my debt / Now won’t you leave me in my misery / Trouble / Oh trouble, please be kind / I don’t want no fight / And I haven’t got a lot of time.