Archive for September 11th, 2014

18. Harold and Maude (1971)


By Dean Treadway 

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 (screenwriter Colin Higgins penned the piece in his mid-20s while attending Stanford University, studying alongside Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader). It is a work that assuredly cleaves to simple wisdoms, further seasoned by Ashby’s then-still nascent filmic style (Roger Ebert, who hated the film upon release, slammed it for not having a visual sense, but I strongly disagree; it’s the first of Ashby’s works sporting a creative, even meticulously designed look). 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 adore it but women, especially, seem to respond remarkably to its charm (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 favorably to unassailably popular movies, but this is one I firmly stand behind. Even today, I see a lot of what is admired in, say, Wes Anderson’s work as totally dependent on this film both in style and emotion.

As a kid, after years of hearing about it, I pretty much fell into an immediate crush on Harold and Maude. I can easily flash back to my first time seeing it, 14 years old circa 1981, at Atlanta GA’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 Hal Ashby’s 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).  (more…)

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