Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Harold And Maude Uses Dark Comedy In Service Of A Soulful Exploration Of Its Lead Characters

In the vein of Bringing Up Baby and Citizen Kane, Harold and Maude was not well-liked upon its initial theatrical release. Critics and audiences alike were puzzled by this movie and it's easy to see why, this is certainly a strange movie, one with an unorthodox sense of humor that may not be for everyone. But just like those two aforementioned classics, Harold and Maude has managed to endure throughout the decades and hasn't just become an acclaimed classic but also a motion picture that holds a special place in the hearts of countless people. Count me in as one of those people because Hal Ashby's 1971 directorial effort is an outstanding piece of work with a macabre sense of humor and a thoughtful heart.

Harold and Maude is perhaps the only film that one could say simultaneously feels like a precursor to the works of Yorgos Lanthimos, Wes Anderson and James Bobin. The spirit of Lanthimos is felt in the numerous instances of dark humor found throughout the script by Colin Higgins, which immediately establishes the kind of dark humor you'll get throughout the feature as it opens with the titular lead character Harold (Bud Cort) preparing to commit suicide by way of hanging himself over the opening credits. It isn't long before we see that this isn't an actual suicide but rather just one of numerous instances of Harold gruesomely pretending to kill himself in front of his mother., Mrs. Chasen (Vivian Pickles). Why on Earth does Harold choose to do this so often? 

Well, it's a response to how miserable he is in his life, his mother, throughout his whole life, is constantly trying to erase his own unique identity and turn him into something "proper". The only way he see's out of this scenario is by way of death itself, thus explaining his fascination with everything related to death (he even drives around in a hearse). In one of the most heartbreaking moments in a movie filled with such emotionally powerful moments, Harold vocalizes his internal struggle with constantly being forced to shed his own distinct nature for the first time when looking at a field of similar-looking flowers and wishing that he could be like these flowers because "they're just like everyone else".  

Luckily, while attending a funeral, Harold runs into Maude (Ruth Gordon, in a phenomenal performance that's just endlessly delightful), a 79-year-old (only for one more week though) lady who's the complete opposite of Harold. Whereas Harold is withdrawn and fixated on death, Maude is vibrant, boisterous and always taking each new day as a gift. She's a fascinating person with a quirky exterior and a thoughtful distinctively humanistic interior that makes her feel like she could have come out of a Wes Anderson movie and also make her a fine friend for Harold, one that can help him appreciate the joys that life has to offer. In the time this unlikely pair spends together, she'll also help him learn how to wittily fight back against oppressive conformative authority figures like local police officers, Harold's military obsessed Uncle and Mrs. Chasen herself. 

The basic framework of this story, of a young man going through turmoil receiving wisdom and friendship from an older soul, could have been used for some disposable schmaltz in lesser hands, but Harold and Maude instead uses this framework to create something extraordinarily moving that doesn't forget to incorporate realism into its story. Maude isn't giving Harold get-well-quick situations that solve all of his problems in an instant, rather, their friendship is simply built upon her being the only person in his life that doesn't shun him for being different from the pack. This is a story about two individuals who stand out in an overly conventional society and find kinship in encouraging each other to embrace what makes them unique.

That's such a beautiful foundation to build a friendship on and said friendship is also built upon a melancholy tone that stems from how seriously the feature handles the plights of these two lead characters. For instance, Harold's fixation on death is sometimes clearly played for dark comedy (the funniest of which is a switcheroo where he makes it look like he's setting himself on fire in the background), but such instances of levity are done because Harold is using this trait of his to trick or deter prospective dates rather than using comedy to mock Harold's internal issues. Harold and Maude approaches Harold's preoccupation with death with a sense of thoughtfulness as it intricately explores the complexities found in a character that people, including his own mother, keep trying to cram into conventionality. 

As for Maude, she's also got parts of her psyche that she grapples with every day, though hers are related to memories of the past (including time spent in a concentration camp) that inform her desire to make the most of each day. Though the people surrounding Harold and Maude see them as merely problems in need of solutions, Harold and Maude as a movie see's its two lead characters as actual people, ones who find great comfort, and eventually romance, in the other's company. The fact that this motion picture makes its two lead characters and their day-to-day plights so well-developed means that a sequence depicting Harold and Maude just having fun across the countryside takes on an extra layer of affecting pathos. Even just for a minute, Harold and Maude have each other and that's more than enough.

Such a sequence and numerous other scenes throughout Harold and Maude are accompanied by an assortment of Cat Stevens songs, including his masterful tune If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out which was apparently written for Harold and Maude. Stevens easy-going vocals that can still manage to move you deeply feel like a perfect fit for this particular motion picture, a frequently breezy dark comedy that manages to land such powerful moments of poignancy. Harold and Maude didn't get all that much in the way of praise in its initial release, but the years have been kind to it and why wouldn't they? This is such a thoughtful and beautiful portrait of human beings unfairly deemed outcasts by society, it's no wonder it's managed to endure and leave such a major impact on so many, yours truly included.

No comments:

Post a Comment