Sunday 1 November 2015

1,001 Films: "Harold and Maude" (1971)

At a moment when studio comedy has been reduced to shipping variably funny individuals out on location and having them spitball enough material - amusing or otherwise - for a two-hour feature, it's a joy to encounter one with a degree of precision factored into its writing and framing, and a sense of idiosyncratic detail being locked down for the ages. Industry lore connects Harold and Maude's enduring, lovable quirks with Hal Ashby's reliably shaggy direction, but it also surely stands as a tribute to Colin Higgins' fairytale screenplay, which must have offered its director something funny, off or otherwise unique on every page. What Higgins and Ashby pulled off here was essentially a Goth Graduate: the story of a smart, sensitive yet inexperienced soul - Bud Cort's Harold, seen floating uncertainly in a swimming pool as part of his roster of mock-suicide stunts - who comes to be brought out of his shell by an older woman. This is sexy septuagenarian Maude (Ruth Gordon), who proves as full of beans at the possibilities of life as her young swain appears sick of the moneyed existence he's been born into and grown trapped within.

You can, pretty much from the word go, see why the counterculture's kids went for it so: it's not just the often beautifully integrated Cat Stevens soundtrack, but the abiding sense of an America where everyone between the ages of 20 and 70 has been utterly compromised by money, politics and the way the planet turns, and of two bodies attempting to keep one another out of the ground. What possibly started life as a tiny, offbeam comedy now really does resemble a document of a moment when - thanks to TV reporting of Vietnam - most Americans were having to look death squarely in the eye for the first time in decades: the lovers meet over an open grave, and when the screen fills with white military tombstones at a critical juncture in their relationship, we know exactly the grain the pair are rubbing against. Still, Ashby was a savvy enough hophead to know there could be something funny and spiriting in the sight of two people at all turns defying social convention, and Cort and Gordon, a far more affectionate pairing than the satirical Hoffman-Bancroft hook-up, get us around the film's more extreme tonal fluctuations; they create their own world, and pull us through it. Annoyingly, it's become one of those films liable to be claimed retrospectively as "very Wes Anderson", but all its pieces move, and there's a lived-in, thought-through and sensitively verbalised philosophy underpinning its quirks: it would be impossible to say how many people the film has inspired, over the past four decades, to think, love and live differently.

Harold and Maude is available on DVD through Paramount Home Entertainment.

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