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Posts Tagged ‘Harold and Maude’

What a joy to see Harold and Maude (1971) on Criterion’s new blu-ray. I saw this film at least a dozen times theatrically, probably many more, and every few years on DVD. I can say with certainty that the Blu-ray, projected on my home screen, looked better than those 35mm prints. Details I had never noticed were visible.

The film’s vibrancy in this new format seemed like a metaphor for its everfresh status as a classic, and it drew me into a deeper consideration of what makes it so special. If you asked me for a list of the greatest films ever made, I would think in terms of historical significance, films that had advanced and shaped and defined the medium’s formal and narrative possibilities. On that score, I am not sure I’d even think to include Harold and Maude. It’s a very small film. Yet there is no denying that it fulfills certain capacities of narrative art with a purity and intensity that have been achieved by few other films.

I first saw Harold and Maude in early 1973 at Toronto’s “Original 99 cent Roxy.” This was a large (800 seats) old neighbourhood movie house in a working class east-Toronto area, conveniently located near the subway. Every night they showed a different double bill, for 99 cent admission (very cheap even in the day, when a first-run movie cost about $3.00, there was no such thing as VHS or pay TV, and the only other rep house in Toronto was the Revue, which showed single-bill second run art films for $2.25.). The first feature started at 7:00, the second started at a specified time a few minutes after the first one ended, and then the first one got a repeat screening around 10:30 or so, again depending on the running times. Their programming ranged across cinema history, but of course consisted mostly of films from the past 15 years, for which prints were readily available. Films that proved popular with their audience were brought back regularly. It was the kind of cinema that would make cult films, because so many people would go there without even knowing what they were showing, drawn by the low price, the accepting attitude towards the consumption of illegal substances in the audience (on the weekends you would get a contact high from the smoke hanging in the air), the limited alternatives, and the quality of the programming: adventurous in its scope but reliable in its quality. Audiences themselves were also more adventurous in those days, I think – because, paradoxically, more sheltered. Nowadays a 14 year-old (that’s how old I was when I went to see Harold and Maude this first time) who never leaves his parents’ basement can be expert in even the most obscure types of cinema. But in those days you had to go to the Roxy.

That first time, I had not gone to the Roxy to see Harold and Maude. This was its first rep screening in Toronto, locally the very beginning of its triumphant march to cult status. I had read a dismissive review of it a little more than a year previously during its first run by Clyde Gilmour, the movie reviewer in the Toronto Star. That, and Paramount’s ad campaign had left me with the impression that it was some sort of clunky romance, a big-studio attempt at being offbeat and countercultural – the screens had been awash with such turkeys in recent years. No, I was at the Roxy to see a film for which I had read an interesting review in Cinefantastique, at the time the one slick, intelligent, professional magazine about horror/science-fiction/fantasy films: Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End, also a recent Paramount release, but an independently made British/German co-production by the Polish writer/director. I was a huge Polanski fan (I knew of Skolimowski as the co-writer of Polanski’s first feature, Knife in the Water) and had developed a strong taste for realistic portraits of abnormal psychology with horror-film overtones. The fact that Deep End’s focus was on a boy my age only made it more intriguing.

As it happened I arrived early, and caught the last third of Harold and Maude, arriving just in time to see Harold chop off his hand during his second blind date. Wow! This movie was up my alley! I was immediately captivated by its tone, its combination of wide-eyed enthusiasm and sardonic humour, very close to the way I experienced at the world.

Harold’s Second Date

Deep End did not disappoint (and it also became a film I watched repeatedly at the Roxy — and I recently saw it again on a terrific Blu-Ray from the BFI!). Afterwards, though the next day was a school day, I stayed to watch in its entirety the second screening of Harold, before taking the long subway ride home, suffused with the joy of discovery.

Harold and Maude came back to the Roxy every few months, its audience building, and then it got picked up by the other rep houses that, as a result of the Roxy’s huge success, were then sprouting up around the city. Finally it came back for a lengthy second run at the Cinecity, a lovely and technically superb cinema with a huge screen that had been built into an old postal station at Yonge and Charles. (It’s now a Starbuck’s.) I was regularly dragging friends to see it.

It was my wife Elyse, whom I married about midway between my discovery of Harold and Maude in the cinemas and my first time watching it on DVD, who pointed out that she and I had more than a bit in common with the title characters (minus the sixty year age gap): she the ebullient and extroverted lover of life, artist in ever-changing media, who had been described as a little old lady even as a child; I the introverted, moody, perennial adolescent with a taste for the macabre.

In spite of these (and many other) differences in our character, when Elyse and I met we discovered that our smaller number of shared passions were so important to us, they far outweighed the differences. One of those shared passions was Harold and Maude. Elyse had not been quite such an early adaptor as I – she is a few years younger, and not quite as cinematically obsessed – but she was certainly the first among her friends and like me was returning to the film repeatedly, dragging different friends to see it, having decided that it was an ideal litmus test of character.

On screening Harold and Maude last night, it struck that there are three things that make it so special.

One is the film’s thematic purity. There are few types of titles more inherently trite than the names of two characters. Yet this film redeems the whole genre. It demonstrates how much can be achieved through the encounter of two contrasting characters, with something to bring them together, something to pull them apart, and a capacity for transformation. Most of all, though, it is the clarity with which the thematic forces of life and death meet in the encounter between these two souls.

Second, is the film’s marvelous craftsmanship in the way it tells its story. Scene after scene has been boiled down to its comic essence and builds to a brilliantly off-kilter punchline.

Third, and perhaps most movingly for those involved in filmmaking, it is brilliant proof of what can be achieved in a collaborative art form, an achievement that is usually diminished, obstructed and/or corrupted by forces of ego and commerce. That it somehow so fully bypasses these is what makes the film truly miraculous. Colin Higgins wrote Harold and Maude when he was a third year film student at UCLA, and it was sold to Paramount by Edward and Mildred Lewis (he was working for them as a groundskeeper at the time, and Edward happened to be a well-established producer who knew Robert Evans, Paramount’s head of production). Higgins went on to a successful career as a writer-director, but his other films are shallow and trivial confections. 21-year-old Bud Cort, who had made several promising appearances in films preceding this, basically never gave another performance of any significance. Hal Ashby of course remains one of the best American directors of the 70’s, but his work and his spirit were increasingly chewed up by the system (I recently read the somewhat dispiriting biography by Nick Dawson). One is left with the impression that the film was a miraculous gift to them, as much as to us.

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