Thursday, 9 July 2009

Vice, Virtue. It’s best not to be too moral. You cheat yourself out of too much life. Aim above morality.

No 65 – Harold and Maude
Director – Hal Ashby

Elliot Biddle has tried to persuade me to watch this film for a while and this always makes me wary. After all, he did the same with Taxidermia, Grave of the Fireflies and A L’interieur. The first two I found highly traumatic (though Grave of the Fireflies is beautiful in that Ghibli way) and the latter I refuse to see. However, this film was then referenced in the brilliant 30Rock and even the flimsiest of research makes it quite evident that it doesn’t fall into the ‘bleak and disgusting’ category of films that Elliot so enjoys.

The film sets the tone perfectly from the first scene in which Harold meticulously tidies his room, prepares his outfit and hangs himself (reminiscent of the opening scene to Wristcutters: A Love Story). As his body hangs there his mum walks in, has a phone conversation and tells Harold not to be late for dinner.
A fantastically odd opening scene that shows a key point about this film:
Whilst it is certainly based on the real world, there are a lot of liberties taken. Minor moments that require suspension of disbelief.
Harold’s increasingly elaborate and meticulously staged suicides are one such element.

Once you accept this top coat of cartoon-esque liberties, you are faced with quite a beautiful film about humanity, life and death.
Harold is an unnaturally pallid teenager with an obsession with death. Maude is a 79 year old with a firm understanding of life and a love of every moment. They meet at a funeral and the film follows Harold’s progression as he begins to learn from Maude and gradually they fall in love.
And whilst it is a love story that features (implied) sex between a couple with a 60 year age gap, Harold and Maude’s relationship never feel gratuitous or even particularly shocking and I think that is down to the excellent characterisation. Harold is so dour, so sombre and so smartly dressed that he is far older than his years. Meanwhile Maude’s fascination in the world, her joie de vivre makes her seem considerably younger. If it wasn’t for the ‘wrinkle factor’ the age gap would hardly be evident at all.

I think that the other reason that the other reason Harold and Maude’s partnership seems so right is that every other main character appears to be a gross cartoon character, an exaggerated stereotype of any real person.
The main characters also conveniently all fall into Harold’s family.
Firstly, Harold’s mother, played by the brilliantly named Vivian Pickles. She is every stereotype of the upper class English toff. Her voice is plumy to the point of perfection, her priorities are bonkers and her ignorance of her son is very very funny. This is most clearly seen when she decides that Harold needs to get married and therefore signs him up to a computer dating club. As she answers the questionnaire for him the answers stop being Harold’s and become her own very naïve rightwing views.
(on an unrelated note…. Considering the answers Harold’s mum enters into the questionnaire, he gets a very varied and strange list of potential dates.)

The other family member is Harold’s military uncle, a character who bashes through the cartoon bonkersness and emerges in plainly surreal.
He is the military stereotype talking about how the army can Make You A Man, Build Your Self Respect and the importance of Serving Your Country. His statements are a bit silly, very clichéd and delivered in such a stern manner that it is hard not to laugh. His one arm is the source of the bizarre – a series of pullies and toggles mean he can pull a chord to cause the armless sleeve of his jacket to snap into a military salute.
It is an ingenious touch which utterly undermines the severity of his words and displays him as a complete joke. Probably the same way that Harold views him.

If you also factor in the fact that Harold is impossibly rich and seems to have any and everything available to him. If you factor in the effortless way Maude gets away with her crimes, or the fact that despite living in an old train carriage her home seems Tardis-like with constant new areas appearing for different scenes. These little elements help to create the unreal feel to the film’s background. Which, rather than undermine the story, seems to heighten the reality in Harold’s evolution as he becomes a more rounded person.

It is also made the more moving by a wonderful 70s score. I do quite like 70s country pop and Cat Stevens’ songs are the perfect accompaniment. It was also joined with some beautiful Vivaldi (I think it is summer from the 4 seasons) which I’d recently seen used in Don Hetzfeldt’s ‘Meaning of Life’ and which makes me a bit goosebumpy.

The change from big booming classical music to sweet pop ditties reflects Harold’s change of character, as does his change of wardrobe (something I was certain to notice), moving from dour austere suits to a much lighter more fashionable (for the time) series of outfits.

It is best described in the symmetry of the film – starting with Harold’s faked hanging and ending with Harold trying desperately to keep Maude alive. A beautiful progression of the character’s new found love and respect for life, specifically the life of this one lady.

I just find it weird to think that Bud Cort who played Harold was also the bank stooge in the Life Aquatic...


EK Biddle Esq said...

The Meaning Of Life is all Tchaikovsky. I think you're thinking of Piano Concerto No 1:

Otherwise, agreed. Hal Ashby's best. Don't you think Bud Cort looks a bit like Paul Williams?

Perhaps now you'll watch more of the films I encourage you too. L'interieur for example, which I stress, despite being the most graphically disturbing film I've ever watched, is a blindingly good one too. Well crafted & ingeniously manipulative... Maybe if I can get Tina Fey to reference it somewhere...
But anyway, we should watch Cashback soon, you'll like that one too, it has that glimmer of hope you insist upon.

Captain James Amazing said...

Dammit Biddle

You are completely right on the classical music front - my brain shut down....

You are right about Bud Cort too....
Maybe as people get older they all start to look like Paul Williams

We can but dream