Maude: [gesturing to a sick tree growing through a sidewalk] Harold, we have *got* to do something about this life.
Maude: We’ll transplant it. To the forest.
Harold: You can’t do that.
Maude: Why not?
Harold: This is public property.
Maude: Well, *exactly*.
Car thieving old lady, hearse driving young socialite, immolation, bullet to the head, Hara-kiri, and all on a first date. This is a special film.
How can you avoid chuckling when the film’s opening scene depicts a son swinging from a rope, eyes bulging while his mother makes plans on the phone in the background, aware and unamused at this display. Harold (Bud Cort) is attempting, yet again, to illicit any response possible from his disconnected, self absorbed, high society mother. Feigning suicide seems like a viable option.
I love this film because it gives a knock to expectations. For me, expectations tend to stifle life. It’s only when we surprise others and ourselves that we feel alive. In this black comedy, the police officer expects that Maude will behave like a typical octogenarian, but she speeds off, giving him a shock and the audience a howl. Harold’s mother, uncle, priest, and dates, expect Harold to behave like a suitor and choose a possible companion to begin a normal, respectable, life. He responds by cleverly committing suicide – 15 times. These attempts do not injure Harold, but instead, cause the others great distress. These people fail to convince young Harold that their way of living is suitable. He instead, finds comfort attending funerals and eventually in the arms of a 79 year old Holocaust survivor named Maude (Ruth Gordon). Maude is in her twilight years, has learned the secret to life, and begins to impart her wisdom to young Harold. A romance blossoms. The finest lesson in the film; life is not found by accumulating things, but in loving people, laughing, and giving back.
As an editor, I’m thrilled to know that Ashby was an editor before becoming a director. His strong visual style was clearly developed in the edit suite, where all editors know the real creativity takes place! Each frame of the film visually describes how individuals occupy space in life.
In this cemetery scene, Harold and Maude seem to be outnumbered by the dead. Ashby uses the space to box the characters in by filling the negative space, in this case with graves. however, soon enough he sets them free with wide open space filling the frame, like the open sky in the shot at the top of this blog.
Pauline Kale, Roger Ebert, the New York Times, everyone panned this film back in 1971. Today, nearly 50 years since its release, this film is embraced by young and old. If you crave more of the same after viewing, also check out “Being There” by Ashby and just about any work by Wes Anderson. The list of directors who admired Ashby continues with Crowe, Apatow, Braff, and Russel, but certainly doesn’t stop there.
And now, for a life affirming moment click below: