Some groundbreaking films are so influential that watching them today can result in experiences either uncanny (as you realize how many iconic scenes or images you’ve absorbed through rip-offs and parodies), oblivious (as you fail to notice the debut of filmmaking techniques that became commonplace in or before your lifetime), or both (Citizen Kane is the easiest example: a technical tour de force that can be pre-viewed almost entirely through Simpsons parodies alone). Harold and Maude, just out on Criterion DVD and Blu-ray, offers a more direct synthesis of the two feelings; I watched it for the first time thinking: Ah Ha! This is why other movies do this.
“This,” in the case of Harold and Maude and its countless imitators, refers to stories about morose young men falling in love with gregarious free spirits. Hal Ashby’s film, also sort of a sweeter, gentler, less satirical companion to The Graduate, which preceded it by three years, follows Harold (Bud Cort), a morose young man given to faking suicide scenes, driving a modified hearse, and quietly crashing funerals as his distracted mother (Vivian Pickles) looks on with a combination of concern, distaste, and disinterest. She sets Harold up on computer dates and urges him to “put away childish things”, though his obsession with death does not exactly indicate childlike innocence and her life appears charmed and privileged.
Maude (Ruth Gordon), at 79, offers implicitly oppositional advice. They meet at a funeral, and then again at another one. She offers Harold a ride home in his car, which she has stolen — or borrowed, really. He is taken aback by her outgoing strangeness, but he continues to visit her, and they form a friendship, perhaps because Maude, unlike his mother or his psychiatrist, does not try to counsel Harold, to cure him. She tells him what she thinks about life and how to live it. This could be twee-cute or graduation-card corny, and it sometimes almost is, but Ashy’s sure hand emphasizes the story’s earnest sweetness.
The bond between Harold and Maude, with its surprisingly romantic overtones, actually becomes the story: episodic, tender, unhurried. It’s also an intimate movie, with unnecessary complications stripped away: only a handful of characters have more than a handful of lines. When one of Harold’s dates seems a little more offbeat than the rest, you might expect her to turn into the conventional “surprise” love interest in Maude’s place, but even though Harold isn’t able to drive her away screaming, she still only sticks around for one scene. Instead, Ashby lets Harold and Maude off into their own world. One of the most moving shots in the film lingers on Harold trying his best to sing with Maude while she plays the piano, forcing the Cat Stevens lyrics out of his mouth.
In his essay accompanying the film — many of the package’s most interesting supplements are in the printed liner notes, like a little portfolio — Matt Zoller Seitz points out that while Ashby highlights Harold’s outcast status, most of the film’s other characters, even the ones who have nothing in common with Harold, are weirdos, too. Indeed, Harold’s one-armed military-man Uncle Victor (Charles Tyner) would be an unabashed villain in so many versions of this story. Here, he seems just as strange and solitary as his nephew, coping with his lost arm via an automated device that allows his empty sleeve to salute, and noting his own outsider bona fides when he mentions he’s “not well-liked in Washington.” The movie only gains economy as it moves along, until in its final moments Ashby and his editors William Sawyer and Edward Warschilka cut between Harold and Maude at the hospital and the aftermath of the event that brings them there, simulating the acceleration of growing up.
That coming of age also helped plenty of future movies stay arrested in mopey teenhood. Almost every onscreen morose young man, and any accompanying life-loving lady (usually aged down to conventional hotness) who brings him out of his shell, owes this movie a great debt; depending on your tolerance for such tropes, you may feel it’s the movie that owes audiences everywhere a greater one. Maude herself cannot be exempted from the category of on-screen free spirits whose behavior would very likely get them arrested in real life.
It makes sense that a more critical perspective on Harold’s mopiness and Maude’s life-loving doesn’t come through on the Criterion package. Ashby died in 1988, so the commentary track is handled by biographer Nick Dawson and producer Charles B. Mulvehill — recorded separately and spliced together semi-awkwardly. Dawson’s fandom makes him a touch over-effusive in his praise, but he makes some strong points about the attachment so many feel to the film, explaining that the movie, a box office failure in its initial release, had to be truly discovered by its first generation of fans — forming an unusually strong relationship, not unlike the outsider characters in the movie itself.
Less substantial but still of interest to those fans is batch of audio excerpts from a 1972 seminar Ashby gave at the American Film Institute, talking about the making of Harold and Maude (fascinating tidbit: Ashby had wanted a more detailed sex scene between the characters, but Paramount insisted that he cut it out). There’s also a new interview with singer-songwriter Yusuf (formerly Cat Stevens), whose songs populate the film’s soundtrack and further extend Harold and Maude‘s influence – past its more naked derivatives and toward some of the best movies of recent years, including Wes Anderson’s Rushmore and Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous.
Yusuf describes the use of songs on a soundtrack as “dangerous business”, given the ways a song’s meaning can be reinterpreted by accompanying images. The same could be said about the embrace of an offbeat movie, and the way its acolytes might learn the wrong lessons — emphasizing twee quirks over real characters, for example. But in the end, the movies influenced by Harold and Maude, for better or for worse, can’t diminish its specialness, which has probably done more good than its most obvious influence. Maude’s basic advice — “Go and love some more,” she famously tells Harold — applies to the movie and its fans, too.