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  • Ravi Swami

"Harold & Maud", Dir: Hal Ashby, 1971

So, another year of films is almost over and I noticed a folder I had created in the image gallery for this site named "2020", for all the films that I'd watched but hadn't reviewed for whatever reason, many of them "classics", intended for an "end of year" round-up post (see earlier).

My posts have been less frequent recently but that doesn't mean I've stopped watching films, far from it, in fact I seek them out once whatever is on offer on Netflix etc fails to excite my attention, though I have been binge-watching the excellent "Call My Agent".

It also depends on watching a film whose effect might linger until the next morning, as is the case with Hal Ashby's 1971 film, "Harold & Maud".

I was certainly aware of the film as far back as the late 70's but I guess a combination of the title (is it about two old people ?) and a general lack of interest due to my preoccupations in film at the time led to me giving it a very wide berth.

It seems to have gained something of a cult status in the interim, helped by being removed from distribution early on following less than encouraging box-office receipts in the U.S, where audiences were scandalized by the theme of the film, which is basically a love story between a young man of 20,"Harold" (Bud Cort) and an elderly woman, "Maud" (Ruth Gordon) and the fact that Corts' erratic behaviour on-set - as an untrained "method actor" - caused him to be dropped by Universal, the producing studio, and affected his career negatively, which persisted until the late 80's and 90's by which time audiences were rediscovering the film and Cort.

I watched it over two nights, possibly spaced-out since I found Cat Steven's accompanying score comprising of several songs written for the film, intrusive, and I've never been particularly a fan of his work. Here its' inclusion is very much on-trend in terms of films from the 70's onward until the 80's and 90's of using popular music (see "Subway") as a marketing tool but I have to concede that where many such films had themes that didn't especially rock the boat, here it serves to draw you in to a story that is at points, quite shocking, depending upon your point of view.

I think its' appeal lies largely in the fact that "Harold" is at that age when young people experience the conflicting surge of emotions that follow carefree early childhood and that precede adulthood and accepting responsibility, both for oneself and others. I've never really understood the appeal of Tim Burton's early work, which tends to have a quite gloomy perspective and also the fact that it attracts what might be described as a "Goth" sensibility, but I understand where it stems from since I remember similar feelings at the same age.

For Burton and others, such as Wes Anderson, that period appears to be an unending fount of material with which to write stories and make films.

For Harold, suffocated by the strictures imposed on him by his domineering and controlling single mother (Vivian Pickles), who lacks basic warmth and affection for her son, life has been reduced to being a series of unsuccessful fake-suicide attempts and other forms of attention-getting. His home clearly shows signs of wealth, his mother has influential friends and she spoils him with expensive gifts to win his loyalty, but he feels stifled.

A chance meeting with "Maud" leads to an unlikely bonding of a kind rarely depicted, if at all, in film, and while it may come across as a shocking as their friendship leads to a certain level of intimacy, it's clear that the film works on several levels. For example, audiences, certainly in the U.S, were already attuned to plots featuring relationships between much older men and younger woman that rarely raised an eyebrow for decades, so here the plot cleverly flips that convention on its' head, and to be frank, there were moments where even I felt attracted to Maud due to her vivacity and desire for life.

Maud is also the complete opposite of Harold being a free-thinker, former Suffragette who doesn't believe in boundaries of any kind, eg between nations, and with no respect for societal norms. When the two go on a spree, Maud steals cars with wild abandon and sweet-talks policemen before stealing one their motorbikes as they race off to transplant an urban sapling into a forest. Maud's concern for the environment feels very prescient in that context and we gain an insight into her world-view, suggesting that environmentalist concerns predated those of 60's counter-culture by several decades and generations.

So, we have a young man whose jaundiced view of life is perhaps to be expected from someone much much older and with more life experience, and a much older woman in Maud whose playful approach to life suggests that she has rediscovered the joys of youth or that suggests that perhaps , mentally, we never really grow old, and the end result is a story of contrasts that goes beyond the shock value of seeing a younger man in bed with a very old woman, and into a poetic commentary on existence.

Of course, you can't ignore a class dimension that might permit such a relationship - could this story be told between the classes ? eg a young man from a wealthy background and an older woman living in relative poverty ? or vice versa...I think not. Harold and Maud could be said to belong to a certain class in society, of the wealthy and educated.

It's certainly an odd film which is reinforced by Cort's rather unsettling performance, and for me personally, it took a while to warm to it, only really getting into its' stride once Harold and Maud go on their spree involving stolen cars and other adventures. I won't spoil the ending but as with many of the plots' twists, turns and comedic shocks, it is unexpected and possibly appropriate and Harold ends the films transformed as a result of his fateful meeting with Maud.

"Harold & Maud", Dir: Hal Ashby, 1971

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