Monday, June 29, 2009

Harold and Maude (1971)

The film opens with the camera following a pair of feet, slowly but deliberately moving down a flight of stairs. We follow the feet to a record player, the camera slowly showing us more of this character as a Cat Stevens record in put on the turntable. We're up to the waist, which is enough to see the expensive watch and rings the gentleman is wearing, and that the room is covered in the wood that denotes money...old money, inherited money. Cat Stevens plays on as the body, now visible save for the head, moves to a table where he writes a note and delicately pins it to the lapel of his expensive suit. His slender, delicate hands move for a match, striking it against the crystal case.

Arms outstretched, his hands light a candle, and it's only as the hand moves back and he blows out the match that we see his face: young, refined, half covered and back lit, providing an almost ghostly visage before the camera retreats back to his feet, which move back across the floor, jumping up to a small step stool. The music crescendos and abruptly ends as the feet step off, swinging in a dead man's dance as, directly below, the words "Directed by Hal Ashby" appear.

What a credit sequence. And for a comedy, no less.

Utterly failing in its initial box office run, HAROLD AND MAUDE has become a cult classic; a black, morbid comedy whose situations feel more at home now than it did when it was release over 35 years ago. Even though I had seen THE LAST DETAIL years before, this feels like my "true" introduction to Hal Ashby. The basic story, despite its somewhat unique concept of a young, 20ish something boy falling in love with an 80 year old woman, is pretty standard stuff for a film coming out during the horrors of a post-Woodstock, Vietnam War: reject the Establishment, the military is a joke, live free easy, blah blah blah... In truth, there's not a lot you can't figure out 20 minutes into the film.

So what makes it so special? A large part of it is the perfect casting and top-notch performance of Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon as the titular couple. A lot of the praise over the years has been showered on Gordon as the vivacious hippie/flapper/guru Maude, but watching the film I feel like she had the easier role of the two. Bud Cort had to be very careful - it's clear that, although he is much younger than Maude, he's by no means a child: a hard trick to pull of with such a youthful face. Luckily he's got a great, mature voice that balances things out, and his slow discovery of love and living, even in the midst of killing himself time and time again, is captured beautifully.

None of that would have worked, however, without Ashby's eye and fresh visual take. Wrapping the obvious message in a visually arresting, genuinely funny film (all to the great soundtrack by Cat Stevens), Ashby brings an astute eye to the scenes, using longer takes and a very naturalistic shooting style that still manages to feel very filmic (if that's even a word - I don't want to give the impression that this in any way feels like a documentary).

Harold's "suicides" are a perfect example of the type of look Ashby brings to HAROLD AND MAUDE. Each is graphic, sudden and explosive, cut a second later by the humor of the situation. The first time I saw a still of the bathroom scene, where Harold's mock suicide involves slashed wrists and more blood than your average horror movie, I had no idea what I was seeing, let alone how effective it would be by his mother's pronouncement seconds after walking in on the scene. Likewise with his final attempt in front of a potential date set up by his mother - he demonstrates hari kiri, stabbing himself in the stomach and falling to the floor, blood spilling everywhere. His date, not in on the joke, still thinks it's an act (she's an actress) and proceeds to mimic his death throes perfectly. Hilarious.

You may know where you're going with HAROLD AND MAUDE, but it's the ride getting there that makes it such a fun and embracing film. As a kickoff to the work of Ashby it's a great starting place, and I'm looking forward to what's on deck, the Woody Guthrie biopic BOUND FOR GLORY, a film of a different make altogether.

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