What I Am Learning From Harold and Maude

Cover of "Harold and Maude"

Cover of Harold and Maude

Answering the Question:  What am I learning from Harold and Maude?

In an earlier post I mention the many times I have watched Harold and Maude; I comment that I think I am learning something while watching the movie but cannot say exactly what that is.  As promised — to you and to myself — I watched Harold and Maude once again, and I believe I have figured out what I am learning when I watch Harold and Maude.  What is that?  Harold’s mother is a saint.

Not only is she a saint, but she’s an angel.   Not to disappoint my one and former frequent reader, U No Hu, who I am certain as noticed a lack of lust in my posts, I have to say…Vivian Pickles does it for me.  She’s fantastic fun and hot as a fresh biscuit.  In fact I think she is the true, yet understated, star of the film.

Here’s what’s going on…

With each viewing of Harold and Maude, I realize how utterly tiresome living with Harold must be.  His death-obsessed antics are darkly amusing first time around, but with each subsequent viewing the scenes labor and at times even annoy.  Harold’s petulance is lost in the novelty of the film on first viewing, but once you know what’s going on, it glares.  You you will want to grab the kid by his furry lapels and send him off to the military academy, tout suite!

But Harold’s mother — Mrs. Chasen played so nicely by Vivian Pickles — plows right past Harold in a delightfully unhampered and eccentric manner that remains strong and fresh despite the silly repetitiveness of it all.  That saintliness is the quality I admire.

Harold Gets a Present

Most people think Harold and Maude is about a troubled rich young man (Bud Cort) struggling to find meaning in his life when he meets crazy old Maude, a much older life-affirming woman (Ruth Gordon), who teaches Harold how to live freely in a conventional world.

Hal Ashby, the films director, creates an interesting character and caricature in Maude, but she becomes a predictable foil to Harold.  It might be contradictory to say so, but she’s almost a compatible foil to Harold.

Maude’s life isn’t too hard to reconstruct in the film even if it lacks details.  She comes from a background of exotic experience and apparent privilege, but lives modestly and with careless regard for social conventions.  She is creative and lively.  And in one scene we quickly catch a glimpse of a tattoo indicating that her past includes a darker history, one that involved German concentration camps.  Maude’s disrespect for uniformed authority might be understandable.

Harold Showing His Appreciation

Harold, on the other hand, is 60 years younger than Maude and appears to have had all the opportunity he needs to have lived a lifetime of experience, but turns away from that opportunity in favor for unclear reasons and plays out death-wish fantasies in a state of perpetual pout.  In at leastone scene, Harold’s mother tells stories of Harold’s privileged experiences while Harold stares dumbly at a plate of beets.

But Harold does shine and eventually comes to life.  Bud Cort is great fun to watch.  However while the film’s direction appears to be quite clear, any satisfying denouement has gone lacking.  I’m convinced things haven’t changed all that much for Harold as he goes skipping up the coastal hills of California at the film’s end.

So while Maude has in fact lived close to real death and faced death itself — indeed as she ages faces the inevitable death and makes an effort to expedite things — she is otherwise full of life.  Harold on the other hand plays out death as a means of escape from a life he fails to live, even with all of his advantages…until he meets Maude, that is.  It’s just a damn shame that she’s older than mom.

Maude and Harold

So that’s a quick and sloppy assessment of Harold and Maude, but it doesn’t need to be much more than that because if you watch the film several times you might see it as I do.  This is a film about Harold’s mother, Mrs. Chasen, the only true and genuine character in the film.  A woman who refuses to let her spoiled and misguided son ruin her exceptional derring do eyes-forward approach to life.  Watching the film over and over again you get a sense of what a real Mrs. Chasen would have felt experiencing Harold’s annoying attention-seeking stunts.  It gets old.

Yes, the film is a funny cult classic and wonderful fun to watch.  Bud Cort is outstanding and Ruth Gordon, well…pretty good in a cliched sort of way, but both get annoying once you’ve seen the film four or five times or more.

Vivian Pickles on the other hand…never grows old.  She holds this film together.  As a comedian, she’s on the spot.  (She isn’t all that bad in Sunday Bloody Sunday, either.  Now that is a film for Michele Bachmann and her husband!  We don’t get enough of Vivian Pickles in that film though, not as I recall.  A true bummer.  It is on my “to watch again” list nonetheless.)  Harold’s mother starts the Harold and Maude sharp, finishes sharp.  If you’re like me, you want to see more of Mrs. Chasen.

You’ll also want to hear a little less Cat Stevens.

In short, Harold and Maude deserves all the praise it gets for its quirky dark humor.  It is a fun and unique film.  But if you’re looking for a lesson in the film, the most obvious one is a bit predictable and cliched.  If you watch the film repeadetly, however, you begin to experience Mrs. Chasen’s hell and understand that cute and quirky is a matter of perspective.

Now off to watch Sunday Bloody Sunday with its homo erotic sexuality and pot-smoking kids.  Sounds good, huh?  Well, it also has Vivian Pickles!

He Knows...


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