Harold and Maude (1971)
Directed by Hal Ashby
Written by Colin Higgins
Starring Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort, and Ellen Geer
Cinematography by John A. Alonzo
Harold and Maude seems to have set the template for the emotional tone of today’s quirky indie movie about the “lost generation”. A young male whose life has been scripted for him by an over-controlling mother expresses his rage through fake suicides, but deep down he wants to truly live. The film touches upon its protagonist’s sadism and depression a little too glibly, and skips over the darker elements of the story with too much cleverness for its own good. The whole concept of the film, to me, seems inherently perverse, but the writer seems intent on sanitizing the material to suit a broader audience. I enjoy comedy when it makes us confront things that are uncomfortable, but here the jokes felt too easy, as though I was being asked to simply “laugh it off”.
Even Maude, the fun-loving old woman who Harold meets at a stranger’s funeral, seems to have some anger lurking behind her charming exterior, but we’re asked to simply ignore the passive aggressive way in which she toys with a police officer after speeding recklessly in a car with a tree attached to the back. Harold’s blind dates are stereotyped and satirized because they have to work for a living by performing meaningless tasks, thus allowing themselves to be treated as a field of daffodils rather than a single, unique flower. The normotic mother, the military uncle, and the condescending goofball psychiatrist, who complacently plays his role as an agent of social control, represent an overly simplified conglomerate which is at odds with Maude’s spiritual zest for life. One of the details that saved the movie for me was the revelation that Maude is a holocaust survivor, because it seemed to explain how she could be capable of such carefree risk taking, having already confronted so much death. Otherwise, the film felt about as frustrating to me as reading a self-help book in which following intuition and living each day as if it were your last is presented as a simple and easy decision without consequences. I enjoyed the message of the film, and I wanted to be inspired by it, but without embracing its inherent darkness I felt the film discredited its own optimism.