Harold and Maude

(I wrote this entry in July, but was reluctant to post it at the time. Now that I'm ready to post it, I'm not going to try to update the various time references.)

It was with some trepidation that I rewatched Harold and Maude the other week.

On one hand, I've rewatched some other high-school-favorite movies recently that haven't worked as well for me as they once did. In particular, I was sad to discover a few years ago that Heathers, which was once one of my favorite movies, no longer appealed to me much. I watched and liked Harold and Maude several times in high school and college, but don't think I've seen it in the past twenty-five years, and my tastes might have changed.

And on the other side, I was worried that it would be too dark for me right now, or too painful to watch. The point of watching it that particular day (a few hours after Sara's memorial service) was to find some catharsis, especially in the ending of the movie, but I wasn't sure whether the dark humor was going to be too much.

For the past several weeks, since Sara's been away, I've been avoiding difficult and painful movies. I don't usually go out of my way to watch such, but in times of trouble when I'm low on emotional resources, they seem like a particularly bad idea.

But sometimes they can be cathartic, and I seemed to remember Harold and Maude having that effect last time I watched it, which I think was in college not long after my maternal grandmother died. And over the course of the day or so after I found out about Sara's death, every time I glanced at my movie shelf, this movie would catch my eye and the song “If you want to sing out, sing out” would start running through my head. So I decided it was time.

And as it turned out, in the opening minutes of the movie, the first “suicide” scene was so laugh-out-loud funny that it simultaneously washed away my concerns about no longer enjoying it and about it being too dark.

The rest of this entry will contain spoilers.

I had a moment of thinking that Maude is a bit of a Manic Pixie Dream Granny—that is, someone whose existence serves primarily to give Harold new ideas and more zest for life—but on further reflection, I think part of what's going on in the movie is that she has a lot of subjectivity, some of which Harold is unaware of. My second thought was that she's kind of an avatar of chaos, but that too is too simplistic and doesn't give enough credit to her subjectivity. I was especially impressed by a moment in the middle of the movie that I don't think I ever noticed before, in which Harold takes her hand and briefly glimpses a tattoo of blue numbers on her wrist; that really reconfigured my sense of her backstory and how she became who she is.

Pretty much everything about the movie is really well-done. The actors are perfect. (I said to Kam that I couldn't imagine anyone else in those roles, but it turns out there's a play version, so lots of other people have been in those roles.) Maude is awesome. I really like the long closeups on Harold's face. I think when I first saw the movie I wanted to know how he was doing the fake suicides, but now I think it's part of the magic of the film that we never know how he does most of them.

The music fits perfectly. There are three or four Cat Stevens songs in the soundtrack that I'm unfamiliar with and that don't do much for me. But the famous ones are great, and I didn't know that two of them were original to the movie. (I wrote much of this entry with the intent of posting it on Cat Stevens's birthday last week, but didn't quite get around to finishing it 'til now.)

A couple more notes:

  • I did find it a little difficult to watch both of the protagonists being randomly cruel to some people who don't deserve it; I've been having a harder and harder time lately with movies where that kind of thing happens. But even so, this is one of my favorite movies that I've seen in the past couple years.
  • We were very amused to learn, from one of the making-of segments, that the writer started writing this movie as an exercise for using a particular camera-operating tool he had access to. The whole opening scene is shot in such a way as to put the tool to maximal use, and then the creation of the script went on from there.
  • I was amazed to learn that Ruth Gordon (who played Maude) co-wrote the Hepburn/Tracy movies Adam's Rib and Pat and Mike (the latter of which is my favorite of theirs) with her husband.
  • There's a great interview with Ruth Gordon (originally published in the New York Times in 1971) in the booklet accompanying the disc; link is to an online copy of the same interview.

I had hoped that the ending of the movie would give me a chance for some cathartic crying. It did have a little of that effect, but not as much as I'd expected. Still lovely and sad, though.

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