“Hal Ashby’s comedy is too dark and twisted for some, and occasionally oversteps its bounds, but there’s no denying the film’s warm humor and big heart.”

Rotten Tomatoes

Harold and Maude was on TV the other day, and I watched it for what must have been the tenth time.

I knew almost every scene, which was interesting because before the opening credits, I thought I’d be surprised by the movie all over again (not having watched it in about a decade). That said to me that Harold and Maude is in my DNA. It was certainly one of my favourites when I was an adolescent, so it makes sense it influenced my patterns of thinking.

A key feature of the dramatic architecture in Harold and Maude is the darkness and morbidness of Harold played off against the sweetness and light of Maude. The fake death scenes are pretty graphic for its time – which I think was part of the hook for me. I grew up in a household where horror and sci-fi were the norm. If Harold and Maude had been less graphic and quirky, it probably wouldn’t have made any impression on me at all.

The movie also deals particularly well with existentialism – in Harold’s case, the search for sense and purpose in a seemingly absurd and pointless world. Maude’s part, in part, is to glorify absurdity and the pointless – to reveal to Harold it’s only when you stop searching for constructed meaning or a place in the arbitrarily-constructed world, that you have true freedom. So the false ending (Spoiler alert! – though it seems a little weird to say that about a movie made in 1971 – ie where Harold’s car goes over a cliff but then we see him walking off playing a banjo) – is Maude’s lesson come to life. Or, in other words, Maude’s death, rather than destroying Harold, confirms his freedom from expected behaviours and the norms of the world. Maude is gone in body, but her essence remains in the world – in every opportunity to dig up a tree from a city street or steal a police officer’s motorbike or fall in love with (and sleep with) a 79-year old woman.

What happens to Harold after the movie ends? We’ve learnt a lot about neuroscience since 1971 and we know that a lot of behaviour is hard-wired into our brains. So it’s unlikely Harold’s experience with Maude caused an epiphany that led him to become some kind of prophet or a mirror-image of Maude. I know myself: when you like grotesque things, you keep on liking grotesque things! When the scene with his last date played on TV – the one where he commits fake hara-kiri and then she does the same (being an actor) – I had a false recall that they ended up together. Perhaps that’s why I see Harold’s future continuing to be eccentric and morbid, but being that way in a more accepting world (such as acting).

Or maybe, as Maude’s influence dims, he slides back into the world of death, and becomes a serial killer. Is that another cynical 21st century lens placed on an innocent film from the 70s?

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