Wednesday, November 26, 2008

If you want to sing out, sing out!

So I watched some movies, as you might expect, while I was not blogging. I'll discuss them in no particular order over a series of posts. First up, Harold and Maude.



I knew absolutely nothing about Harold and Maude until I picked up the DVD from the library. All I knew was that it had been cited on the recent AFI list of great romantic comedies; on that basis I checked it out, since I do love a good romantic comedy. Imagine my surprise, then, when I looked at the DVD cover and discovered that the couple in the film involves a young man in his late teens (Harold) and a woman who is about to turn eighty (Maude). What's more, Maude is played by Ruth Gordon, an actress whom I've always seen as, well, the crusty old lady, which is basically what she is here. I wasn't sure I'd like the film at all, but I decided to watch it anyway.

Which is a good thing. What a movie.

Upon further reflection, I realized that my impression of Gordon is rather unfair. The only other movies I'd seen her in before this were the two Clint Eastwood comedies Every Which Way But Loose and Any Which Way You Can, in which Gordon plays Eastwood's incredibly crusty and foul-mouthed mother. That's not what Maude is, at all. So my initial expectation of the film was confounded, and rather delightfully so.

Maude is quite a character. She first meets Harold at a funeral, which she attends because she likes attending funerals, and not because she has any connection at all to the person in the coffin. This is also why Harold is there: he has a bizarre fascination with death and suicide that give the film many of its fine moments of black humor, such as the opening shots in which Harold fakes hanging himself in his family's living room, to have his mother merely walk in and react to this as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened at all.

Over the course of the movie, Harold and Maude form a very unlikely friendship based on mutual notions of what it means to live a life worth the effort. There's one wonderful moment when they are sitting at the edge of a hillside that is covered with daisies. Harold comments that the daisies all look the same, and Maude objects, saying that a daisy is a beautiful thing, and that it's tragic that so many people are really "like this" (holding up a daisy) but allow themselves to be "treated as if they're that" (gesturing to the field of nearly-identical flowers).

Maude's conversations with Harold are mostly about rediscovering zest for life, and over the course of the film, it's clear that these conversations have their desired effect as Harold slowly begins to come out of the death-worshiping shell he's built for himself, even as he stages several outrageous fake suicides for the benefit of the nice girls that his mother keeps trying to fix him up with. Maude seems so completely random in her approach to life, but as the film reaches its conclusion, we discover that she's not random at all, and everything she's been doing has been leading up to her final act that somehow surprised me even though it's pretty strongly telegraphed early on.

One small thing that I greatly appreciated about Harold and Maude is in the way the key fact about Maude's past – that she is a Holocaust survivor – is conveyed by the simple device of having Harold getting a brief glimpse of the numbers tattooed on the inside of her wrist. What's so great about this is that this happens, Harold has an expression of recognition on his face that lasts a couple of seconds, and then that's it: the moment is over and never mentioned again. I have the feeling that if Harold and Maude were made today, Harold's glimpse of her concentration camp tattoo would eventually lead to a Big Major Scene wherein he gets her to open up about the horrors she saw there, and she'd have the obligatory Big Oscar Clip in which the actress playing Maude would chew the scenery in grand fashion. Not so here: Harold gets a brief glimpse of insight into his new friend's character, and so do we, but it's not the only insight we get and the film neither highlights it nor downplays it. How often does this kind of thing happen, after all? How often do we find ourselves learning something new about someone we've thought to know so well that the new thing, prosaic as it may be, comes as a complete surprise? And yet, as we get to know these two people, so many of the things they do don't come as any surprise at all. When Harold gives Maude a trinket he's had engraved with the words "Harold loves Maude", she throws it into the nearby water, and then says, "So I always know where it is." This is the kind of movie that has characters who do things that would strike anyone else as being nonsensical but, given the people they are, make perfect sense when we think about it.

One other aspect of Harold and Maude that warrants mention are the songs, written and performed by Cat Stevens. His voice, an earnest tenor that occupies the same kind of area as Jim Croce, is ideally suited to the kind of story told here – or, more specifically, to the characters whose story we are following. I wasn't terribly familiar with Cat Stevens before I saw this movie. The most important song in the film, "If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out" is, in particular, a very special song.

I loved Harold and Maude.

4 comments:

Roger Owen Green said...

good choice!

Anonymous said...

Thanks! I haven't seen this movie and wasn't the least bit interested in it until now. :-)

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you took a chance on this movie, Jaquandor. I haven't seen it in many years, not since college, but it was a pretty big deal to me at one time. The night I saw it at the campus theater with a band of new friends (I was a wide-eyed freshman) and especially this one girl who had every line memorized and knew every song is one of my most cherished memories of that time. Your review brought back a lot of things, but especially the warm glow the film leaves, and the way it felt to be 18 years old and suddenly seeing the world in a whole new way.

Thanks...

Anonymous said...

Oh the scene where Maude talks about the "big issues". That she doesn't regret the fall of the kingdoms but she does miss the kings. That she thought she would marry a soldier. And then the mention of Frederick.

Then the far-away look and the glimmer of tears in her eyes.

An absolutely beautiful touching scene.

I feel her wistfulness and ache for her sorrows.