Harold and Maude: A Happy Little Movie About Death

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When I was in college, I minored in art and learned that art kids have very specific tastes. They like Tom Waits, Eraserhead, experimental music and having Asian girlfriends…but they don’t like when you bring your copy of Jagged Little Pill to painting class to play for “inspirational music”. Lesson learned.

I also learned that without fail, every art kid loved the cult classic movie Harold and Maude. Because I was weened on 80s comedies, I of course had never seen it…and kinda didn’t know what it was about, therefore I always slowly backed away when it was brought up in conversations or just nodded along. (This was an era before Netflix and streaming movies and I didn’t remember ever seeing it at my Hollywood Video. Besides I was probably too caught up in Mean Girls.)

That is until a handful of years ago when I found it online and finally gave in and gave it a go. Once again, the hype was warranted and as is usually the case, the art kids knew what was what. Every time I watch this film, I have to several times remind myself that it was indeed released in 1971.

After all, it is about two lonely misfits obsessed with death who form an emotional and intimate bond. (Oh wait, should I have said “spoiler alert?” Oh well.) The ass kicker: the titular Harold is barely out of his teens and Maude is a few weeks shy of being an octogenarian. Where do people from those diverse background even cross paths? Going to the funerals of people they don’t know, of course…ya know…just for kicks! The movie is laced with elaborately staged fake suicides played for humor to show how much the young man is ignored and disenfranchised with life. It takes 79-year-old Maude to teach him how to live.

While watching it again this weekend, I started to see a lot of Wes Anderson in the film. Wealthy absentee parents. Quirky taboo love story. Amazing attention to detail with set and costume (THE JAGUAR HEARSE!!!). Dark characters.  Like I said, how is that even possible that a comedy this dark was made 40 years ago? (Tangent: I am not saying that dark humor is a new thing…I mean have you seen Rosemary’s Baby? Many will contend that film should be classified as horror, but so many quirk elements in it made it skew into the then-unnamed realm of dramedy. Protest if you must- IT’S TRUE!)

Aside from being reminded of the fantastic Mr. Anderson, I have started to see Maude as something magical…like a Willy Wonka. I know, let me explain.  Not unlike Wonka, Maude lives in a magically eccentric place brimming with crazy avant garde sensory installations. (her olfactory machine allows someone to relive experience by scent.) She is also not unlike the beloved candymaker in that everything she utters is like a biblical truth, a maxim that the viewer will hold onto, and if so inclined, stitch on a sampler and hock for $40 on etsy. (Out of laziness, I haven’t checked, but I can almost promise there are shops online devoted to this very thing.) Here are my few of my favorites:

“A lot of people enjoy being dead. But they are not dead, really. They’re just backing away from life.”

“Oh my, how the world still *dearly* loves a *cage.*”

“Vice, Virtue. It’s best not to be too moral. You cheat yourself out of too much *life.* Aim above morality. If you apply that to life, then you’re bound to live life fully.”

“Dear me, everybody should be able to make some music. That’s the cosmic dance.”

“Well, if some people get upset because they feel they have a hold on some things, I’m merely acting as a gentle reminder: here today, gone tomorrow, so don’t get attached to things *now.* With *that* in mind, I’m not against collecting stuff.”

Like a fancy wine, this movie gets better as the years pass. Harold and Maude’s commentary on things like war and fear and death and depression are more relevant today than ever.  Strangely a movie with such heavy themes turns out to be completely heartwarming and leaves you smiling.  Perhaps it is the amazing soundtrack by Cat Stevens; that definitely doesn’t hurt.

Harold and Maude is now streaming on Netflix. Go check it out and tell me what you think.

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