Harold and Maude (1971) Starring Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort. Directed by Hal Ashby.
I first watched this movie in the mid-1980’s during my four+- year relationship with ‘Ryan’ a young man 12 years younger than I was. Like many lovers before us we sought confirmation of our relatively unorthodox relationship through any means possible, and Harold and Maude was one of them. While the difference in ages between us and the two protagonists in the film was not as stark (Harold is 20, Maude 79); like Harold and Maude the things we had in common dissolved the age barriers between us – until they didn’t. I was drawn to Ryan’s angst riven, gothic, bad boy, heavy metal persona (and his androgynous beauty) and he was intrigued by my sexual and life experience, my validation of his worth, involvement in historical re-enactment and passion for literature and writing.
Watching Harold and Maude recently I can see why we were attracted to the film despite Harold’s deceptively conservative background. The start of the film, as Harold slowly descends a gothic style staircase before apparently attempting suicide, is an exercise in ponderous sensuality, which quickly develops into black comedy with the appearance – and indifference, of Harold’s mother (Vivian Pickles).
My own inamorato, while not one for suicide attempts, was very intrigued by the possibilities for creating antisocial mayhem that Harold, and later Maude, embodies. We both loved the idea of attending random funerals, although strangely we never attempted to do this (although we did visit cemeteries together, sometimes, after dark). In an age where we are constantly reminded not to leave keys in our cars because of widespread carjackings it is bemusing to see how readily Maude is able to make off with other people’s vehicles and get away with the kind of driving which would bring down the immediate and possibly lethal wrath of the authorities in the present day. This is not to say that her reckless driving does not prompt Maude’s own encounters with the law, but in 2017 they have an anachronistic innocence which is greatly at odds with current reality.
Maude’s passion for life extends to green growing things, in a way that is more in keeping with 21st century environmental sensibilities – she is strongly subscribed to the idea of both personal responsibility and the capacity of an individual to make a difference. It is this combination of a lust for life and living, along with a distaste for social constraints that fuels both Harold’s romantic interest in her, his own re-engagement with the world on his own terms, and ultimately my own re-enjoyment of the film. Her eccentricities are fuelled by a personal philosophy developed through a life time of experience, some of which – like the Holocaust tattoo on Maude’s arm, are inserted subtley into the flow of the film and can easily be overlooked. But a second viewing helps to bring both the ideas and the woman more sharply into focus, and in doing so altered the whole tenor of my remembered understanding, while deepening my appreciation for what has deservedly become a cult classic. The most telling quote, for me, this time around:
“At one time I broke into pet shops to liberate the canaries, but I decided that was an idea way before its time. Zoos are full, prisons are overflowing…Ah, my! How the world still dearly loves a cage.”
Perhaps because of my own age and recent interactions with death and dying, Harold’s youthfulness, apparent passivity and resistance to change irritated me a little this time around. The ending of the film frustrated me and I found it a little too glib, although in some ways it was entirely in keeping with Maude’s approach to life. In retrospect I know I did manage to retain something of Maude’s liberated spirit when Ryan and I finally parted ways, but to my discredit I never quite matched the open hearted spirit with which Maude greeted Harold’s declaration of love…
“I love you”
“That’s wonderful! Go love some more.”
Writing about the relationship between Ryan and myself has been challenging. I have re-opened doors I locked a long time ago, and found a mixture of emotions, memories, joys and regrets inside. Even though it’s been thirty years since we dissolved our relationship, I still approach the anniversary of the break up with trepidation. So while many of you are anticipating All Hallows’ Eve with pleasure, I cannot yet find a cause for celebration in that time. The door between the worlds did indeed open up leaving Ryan and myself on separate sides. Perhaps I should rather say that in Ryan’s perception I seemed less like Maude, and more like Mother, especially when a wild young woman appeared on the scene. We have both moved on in the world, and yet when remember how it was between us, and I watch films like Harold and Maude, I miss the man who remains my lost soul mate and the closest I have ever come to having a Master.
I don’t know what others will make of this film, if they have not yet seen it. However I am not alone in my appreciation of it. My recommendation is for you to take the time to watch it, and hopefully appreciate it.
Please, let me know if you do.