Monday, 7 March 2011

GREAT FILMS: Harold And Maude (1971)

Sergey Eisenstein’s words about juxtaposition being the key, most crucial element in a work of art have always stuck with me. And if that is indeed so, then Hal Ashby’s Harold And Maude truly is a classic to end all classics. Well, not quite, but it is definitely a revelation to see a film that balances romance and black humour in such a convincing, charming way. 

Harold And Maude is neither mainstream nor particularly left-field. It can’t be the latter because the film is really quite romantic (though not in a nasty, mawkish way); as for the former, it is also out of the question due to those numerous suicide scenes as well as the presumable (though obviously not shown on screen) love-making between a boy and an old woman. So if you compress everything that’s been said about Harold And Maude into one brief statement you’ll get something akin to ‘historically and culturally significant cult classic’, whatever a thing like that may mean.

The plot is peculiar, and the word is not too strong. The main character is a boy named Harold (played by Bud Cort) who is obsessed with death to such an extent that his main preoccupations in life are faking his own suicides and attending funerals of people he doesn’t even know. And it is at one of these funerals that he first meets Maude (played by Ruth Gordon), an old woman of almost eighty, whose reasons for visiting graveyards and church services are quite different from Harold’s. The unlikely relationship that then ensues might seem rather too fruity and downright improbable were it not for the playful, comic element that never leaves the film. The episodes involving Harold’s bizarre dates, his detached, refined, immaculate mother, and his histrionic military uncle will not make you laugh so much as chuckle – incredulously, hysterically. That the emotions you feel during the breathtaking, bittersweet ending of Harold And Maude are very real and powerful is nothing short of magnificent.

While the whole thing is very well-acted (the performances being comic but never overbearingly so), due kudos should also go to Colin Higgins’ screenplay. Yes, the symbolism and the numerous social issues we get here are rather obvious, but I would still argue that the fresh, inventive way with which the writer views the trite, well-beaten topic is truly remarkable. For Harold And Maude walks upon a very dangerous ground – what with its life-affirming message and Cat Stevens’ twee, idealistic songs. But you believe it all, and, however cynical, you can’t deny yourself the pleasure of singing along to “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out”.  

Because Harold And Maude means it all. Because wit could still be applicable to optimism. Well, okay, at least in the 70’s.

No comments:

Post a Comment