I’ve been on the verge of suicide at numerous points of my life. I keep trying to convince myself that everything is going to get better; yet nothing I find out of my life is set to really change that. Even my own peers seem to be of no use to me anymore, even when I feel like they’re supposed to be the ones I trust most. My whole life feels like I’m just stuck inside of a void that only digs a much deeper hole as it keeps going on, and I lose track even of what is supposedly happy in this world anymore. Sometimes I find myself watching a movie hoping that I can find myself escaping this void even if it lasts temporarily, but even as that feeling can provide temporary relief from the most painful moments in one’s life, we leave hoping it would last forever. Then there comes a film like Harold and Maude, which also has a lingering empathy for what brings people like myself to where we are right now, even amidst all the absurdity of what goes on – but perhaps that helps in ensuring the film’s own statement on life lasts on, it’s absurd, full of joys, with the inevitable sadness, that’s how we continually move forward.
The film’s opening already tells us everything that we need to know about Harold; he clearly dislikes the life that he is made to live, thanks to his wealthy mother and her own inability to see beyond the image that she creates for herself. Fascinated by deaths, he is often misunderstood by people around him, for he attends funerals on the regular and also drives a hearse. Harold has never experienced love, even when his mother tries to set him up for dates – because he can’t be made to feel it. But this way of living has found itself a nice counterpart in the 79-year-old Maude, who shares Harold’s habit of attending funerals but also has a very carefree and bright outlook on life contrasting Harold’s own morbidity. You already have the idea of one broken by his own environment set up beautifully, but it’s also clear enough that even the more optimistic Maude is still missing something in her own life – so there you have a unique spin on the traditional romantic comedy.
When you think about how ideally, the pairing of an 18-year-old and a 79-year-old in a romantic comedy can sound like a huge eyebrow-shifter, there’s another statement being made in the hands of Hal Ashby that only shows the concept’s own thoughtfulness. In a sense, what Ashby and screenwriter Colin Higgins have also created is a romantic comedy that seeps not only in black comedy in order to give a sense of life as it is, but also a musing about the value of life as it is as we tiptoe around life and death. It is a film that celebrates the rebellious ideals of the youth during its own time period but also one that bridges the generational gap by having the idealistic sense of happiness all coming straight from the mouth of a woman who is far closer to death than her own counterpart. But most importantly it’s in her own empathy for Harold’s own circumstances that makes this relationship all the more touching.
Harold is continuously being pushed around in his life, because there’s no one that cares – even his mother never seems phased by the fact that he does not enjoy this lifestyle. I picture myself in the shoes of Harold, trying to find an escape by staging suicides, but oftentimes I wonder what my actual death would leave upon my own peers. I rarely if ever feel like I’m a welcome presence, even my own problems are being silenced out because everyone around me seems like they don’t have time for what I deal with on the regular. But sometimes even having company might not even be enough for a person like us, because our complicated moods are all seen under such a black-and-white light – and our only impression of how others see our problems just feels nothing more than a simple, “We don’t care.” It’s the way the film understands Harold’s own problems that drives Harold and Maude forth but also one that pokes fun at the cynicism that his own world has inspired around him – simply because we just know all around that none of this is, or has ever been his own fault.
My own outlook on life has generally been very cynical, and after coming back to Harold and Maude this time around I would also dig up a folder I found of old suicide notes that I never completed. Finding these again just now, I even wonder why I never went on with it anyway. I had my own plans in mind and I just felt so afraid. I keep trying to tell myself to improve and all it really does to my well-being is push me back even further and only distract me all the more from what I could really be improving with living. I want to enjoy my own life, but even given how young I am, I don’t know if I am able to really see the best with what’s set to come – for I just keep getting distracted by all the bad once again. Through watching Harold and Maude I suddenly see light shining right through those cracks. I see light shining through those cracks and I think to myself about how this should aid me in getting a better picture of what’s missing from the way I live at the very moment.
Maude is already near the age of eighty, but she lives her life almost like she would as if she were much younger. She’s already embraced the fact that her life is nearing her own end, but she still wants to celebrate with what it is that she has left – and it’s the perfect contrast to the young Harold, who is infinitely obsessed with death. When she first meets Harold at a funeral, we also get the idea that she shares his own fascination with attending the funerals of strangers – but is also disgusted by the looming pessimism that death brings onto the living. But in taking all the pleasures of life while she still has the chance, she seizes an opportunity with Harold to pass on those joys in order to live as comfortably as he can, to which Harold’s curiosity is also being fed all the more. And it’s also the root of what makes their relationship every bit as touching as it is, because of how these contrasts enlighten each other on more possibilities with what they have at the very moment – because deep down with all their polarizing qualities they still see that they happen to be the same in some sense.
The film is already rooted in black comedy (especially the moments where Harold is scaring off the dates that his mother sets him up for with nothing else but great indifference to his own feelings), but it’s also brutal in the sense that it completely contrasts the film’s visual aesthetic – which is mostly bright and colourful. But in what it emphasizes in the world that Hal Ashby creates is that a positive outlook on life isn’t something that just comes to you in the very moment, because there’s only so much to which a person who is suffering grand depression can withstand. They don’t need to change their own outlook in order to recognize that there is still something beautiful to be seen around themselves, because in the simplest terms it only ever remains so shallow and it only creates a very black-and-white image about what’s good in life and what’s not. But where the satire bites, it also distorts how people define what they see as being their own definition of happiness, especially in the upper class nature of Harold’s family, for their own excess becomes everything they define themselves by – and Harold finds that this is imprisoning himself. It’s also a very normal, shallow idea of how people define themselves as being happy, but it also alienates Harold from reality.
In watching how Hal Ashby’s own reminiscing on life and death comes straight to us through the form of what we can already see to be an unconventional romance between someone as young as Harold and someone as old as Maude, but there’s already something more beautiful in the film’s own outlook presenting itself almost like wandering through the afterlife. But we are still reminded of what it is that makes our life move the way it is, it is just the ongoing monotony that we wish to escape – but in looking back at how Harold and Maudecontinually reinforces everything so wonderful out of what’s there, it also feels like coming on board a beautiful trip. But of course it never can simply be as simple as being told we need to live our own life to the fullest, because Ashby and screenwriter Colin Higgins are biting at how trite and repetitive that message sounds on the surface and rather instead looking at life with the darkness that breaks our souls all the more – because maybe coming closer to the positive outlook we need may be time-consuming, but it comes back to being reminded of what’s joyful within these moments. Because we know it isn’t going to get rid of everything we hate about life right on the spot, but a good spirit makes it easier to go through them.
Hal Ashby made this film far outside of its own time, but we know already that it isn’t the sort of film that we can so simply expect to make us more optimistic about life – because he doesn’t know the sort of lifestyle we live within. But I love how Ashby shows that this struggle is universal, because it couldn’t be any clearer that he just wants to remind ourselves that we aren’t lost. Maybe there’s something more that we need to be made aware of within the many troubles that life gives us at this very moment, and we just need to keep looking. Cat Stevens’s music recurs throughout the movie in order to help set that mood even clearer, but one song among all stands out – “Well, if you want to sing out, sing out / And if you want to be free, be free / ‘Cause there’s a million things to be, you know that there are, you know that there are.” Maybe we can’t simply be free right on the spot, but it’s a song that exemplifies the spirit of the film. Sometimes we just want to sing out, and maybe we need to in order to free ourselves. I just know I still need that reminder then and there, because I never know whether or not I’m being welcomed. I still get reminded even of an old friend who committed suicide many years ago from watching this. Sometimes I just want to think that she would have loved this.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Paramount Pictures.
Directed by Hal Ashby
Screenplay by Colin Higgins
Produced by Colin Higgins, Charles B. Mulvehill
Starring Bud Cort, Ruth Gordon, Vivian Pickles, Cyril Cusack
Release Year: 1971
Running Time: 91 minutes