Monday, 22 October 2012

Harold and Maude (1971)

Fig. 1

Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude (1971) is a dark comedy, with two rather intriguing and eccentric protagonists. Ashby has a way of making something so serious and mentally disturbing as suicide into something uplifting and comical, even if in some instances it makes the audience feel slightly 'grossed out'! So although not a personal favourite, the clever use of the character arc makes the film a must see. The plot follows a young man who is obsessed with death, Harold. Harold's constant staging of fake, decorative suicides and hobby of attending funerals makes him socially rejected from his environment, despite his mother's best attempts to gain him a wife. Whilst attending one of the many funerals, Harold meets 79 year old Maude, who instantly takes interest in him. Her quirky, carefree attitude on life intrigues Harold and for once in his life he has a friend. It's not long before the two of them are creating havoc and become more than friends. As Maude teaches Harold how to live and experience art, music, love etc she herself is ready to die. With the shock ending and change in character arcs the film expresses the two different outlooks on life vibrantly.  

Roger Ebert observes, "Death can be as funny as most things in life, I suppose, but not the way Harold and Maude go about it. They meet because they're both funeral freaks, and one day their eyes lock over a grave. They fall into conversation after Maude steals Harold's hearse and offers him a ride. Harold drives a hearse, by the way, because he is fascinated by death, particularly his own. So fascinated that maybe the only reason he doesn't kill himself is that suicide would put an end to his suicide fantasies. You can see that Harold is a young man with a problem." (Ebert 1972) Ebert eloquently outlines the narrative and touches upon why Harold, although obsessed with death, will not actually commit suicide.    

Fig. 2
In terms of themes and character arcs the film is brave and bold. The fact that in the first five minutes of the film we are faced with the serious and horrifying scene of Harold hanging himself, then to contrast the image with his mothers calm and nonchalant reaction creates an unthinkable humour. It already puts the audience at a compromising stance on what type of film they're viewing. Derek Adams states, "Like Bob Rafelson, a director similarly obsessed with the trials and tribulations of the children of the rich, Ashby forever treads the thin line between whimsy and absurdity and 'tough' sentimentality and black comedy. " (Adams 2008) Adams picks up upon the directing styles of Ashby, whilst comparing them with Rafelson and celebrates his boldness in terms of themes.

Fig. 3
The films style and direction is like Marmite you either 'love it or hate it'. It has a very morbid humour and a constant need to add all things eccentric. Variey Staff argues, "Harold and Maude has all the fun and gaiety of a burning orphanage. Ruth Gordon heads the cast as an offensive eccentric who becomes a beacon in the life of a self-destructive rich boy, played by Bud Cort. Together they attend funerals and indulge in specious philosophizing. Director Hal Ashby's second feature is marked by a few good gags, but marred by a greater preponderance of sophomoric, overdone and mocking humor ... One thing that can be said about Ashby - he begins the film in a gross and macabre manner, and never once deviates from the concept. That's style for you." (Variety 2008) Variety expresses an immediate dislike of the genre in terms of its bold stance on prominent themes and the way in which they are conveyed throughout the film. It celebrates slightly the comical impact the film has in places, but mainly focuses on the fact that this extreme dark comedy isn't for everyone.

List of illustrations

Figure 1. Ashby, Hal (1971) Harold and Maude Movie Poster. At: (Accessed on: 18/10/12)

Figure 2. Ashby, Hal (1971) Harold's suicide 'pranks'. At: (Accessed on: 18/10/12)

Figure 3. Ashby, Hal (1971) Harold and Maude. At: on: 18/10/12)


Roger Ebert (1972) Harold and Maude. At: (Accessed on: 18/10/12)

Derek Adams (2008) Harold and Maude (1971). At: (Accessed on: 18/10/12)

Variety Staff (1971) Harold and Maude. At: (Accessed on: 18/10/12)

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