Harold and Maude (1971) – Stinks of Bad Death…

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“It’s a funny old world,” W.C Fields once said, “A man’s lucky if he gets out of it alive.” When he was dying, a friend visiting him in hospital found him reading the Bible. Why? “I’m checking for loopholes.”

Those two quotes, in a round about way, sum up why I don’t like Harold and Maude. Life is hard at times, a knackering, exasperating accumulation of circumstance that sometimes leaves one wishing for a quieter life…oblivion, for example. But no-one gets out alive, and there are no loopholes. One may not have signed up for this shit, but to check out early is a dereliction of duty.

Harold and Maude is Hal Ashby’s deadpan black comedy about a young, privileged man, Harold (Bud Cort), who has a morbid obsession with death. He hangs out at funerals and orchestrates elaborate suicide attempts in a bid to get his mother’s attention.

At a funeral, he attracts meets Maude (Ruth Gordon) a vivacious, spirited old lady approaching her eightieth birthday. Maude commits herself to living each day to the full, and as their friendship develops into romance, she gradually teaches the gloomy, pallid young man to appreciate life.

Death can be funny. South Park demonstrated this with the running joke of how Kenny would be killed each episode, and one of the most esteemed black comedies of all time, Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, wrapped up with the end of the world.

Death jokes in TV and movies work along similar lines to Toilet humour. Take the scene in Dumb & Dumber when Jim Carrey dumps half a bottle of laxative into Jeff Daniel’s drink, with spectacular results. The scene isn’t funny because the character has violent diarrhoea, it’s funny because most of us have had diarrhoea, and know what it’s like to be about twenty seconds from shitting your pants and five minutes away from the nearest WC.

There’s not much funny about death, but black humour works because it plays on the audience’s own anxieties about how they will meet their fate. Someone dying isn’t funny, but someone dying in an elaborate, unexpected or ironic way is.

It’s different with suicide. When we laugh at people dying, it’s usually because it is against their will. It can vary from characters doing everything they can to stay alive, and dying, or characters doing something really stupid or terrible, and deserving to die.

Suicide is trickier, especially as it’s portrayed in Harold & Maude. At first, Harold’s attempts seem like elaborate hoaxes, but then it becomes clear that other powers may be at work. He stays submerged in a pool for an impossibly long time as his mother swims lengths. He tips petrol over himself and lights a match, only to appear in another room an instant later. He shoots himself in the head.

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Most intriguingly, he performs harakiri in front of a girl his mother has set him up with. Being an actress, she buys into the theatrics and plays out the final scene of Romeo & Juliet. When Harold’s mother walks in, he’s fine apart from the blood oozing out of his stomach, but the girl is motionless.

Is the joke that Harold is immortal, or perhaps a ghost? He mentions to Maude that he’s died a few times. Are we supposed to laugh at the idea of someone who can’t die or who’s already dead trying to top themselves? It’s never made quite clear.

Ashby’s later film, Being There, starred Peter Sellers as Chance the Gardener, an imbecile who learned everything he knows about being a normal human from TV. Thrust into powerful political circles by the death of his employer, Chance’s simplistic truths about gardening are interpreted as brilliant political aphorisms, catapulting him to the verge of the White House.

Harold is born into high society, and uses his strange powers to force his mother into recognizing him as an individual. Chance is thrust into similar circles by accident, and demonstrates otherworldly powers by walking away across the water.

Harold and Maude is basically a series of increasingly baroque suicide set-pieces set against the ever-present storm cloud of the Vietnam war, with some spring-winter romance thrown in. Luckily for the film and the viewer, the strange courtship of a 20-year-old man and an almost 80-year-old woman, which sounds distasteful on paper, is the most charming and natural thing about it.

It helps that Ruth Gordon, in a sporadic movie career spanning seven decades, nails her role as Maude perfectly. Determined to try something new every day, Maude poses nude for sculptors, rescues trees from smog in the city, and indulges in grand theft auto to get from A to B. Most of her lines are variations of “Live life to the full”, but Gordon is skilful and wily enough in her cadence to make them resonate, and not seem like corny homilies.

A glimpse of a number tattooed on Maude’s inner arm indicates her hardships were far worse than Harold could ever imagine. Apart from that, her back story is largely left untold, which helps give the film much-needed lightness.

Harold and Maude are so natural together the budding romance hardly seems offensive. Certainly not as stunted and weird as the Depp-Jolie chemistry vacuum in 2010’s putrid The Tourist, for one.

Harold and Maude is not completely lacking in power or charm. Harold’s open-hearted story of his first death in unexpectedly moving, as is a field of daisies matched against a shot of acres of headstones in a war cemetery. The sad twinkle in Maude’s eye when she reveals her 80th birthday celebration will come to an abrupt conclusion at midnight is gut-wrenching.

The contraption Harold’s rabidly militaristic uncle uses to extend a salute is one of the film’s visual jokes to actually raise a laugh.

Overall, I couldn’t stand Harold & Maude. It is a black comedy so deadpan you’ll forget to laugh, one which appears to celebrate life, while simply stinking of bad death and the grave.

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About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and baby daughter.

Posted on 04/05/2014, in cinema, Comedy, Film, Movies, Reviews, Romance and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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