FILM (1971)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 May, 2012, 12:00am


Harold and Maude
Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort, Vivian Pickles
Director: Hal Ashby

Among the many fresh-faced filmmakers who breathed new life into 1970s Hollywood - Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese - probably none is as under-appreciated as Hal Ashby. In films such as The Last Detail, Shampoo, Coming Home and Being There, the director perfectly captured the era's confused, carefree zeitgeist, while coaxing award-winning performances out of such generation-definers as Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Jon Voight and Peter Sellers.

Yet for all their acclaim then, Ashby's films are now mostly ignored, lumped in with other classics from a decade that produced far too many. Ironically, his only effort to stand the test of time is one of his most frivolous (on the surface, at least): the romantic comedy Harold and Maude.

That sub-genre is labelled lightly: there's a lot about love in the film, and quite a bit of comedy, but this is far from a Friday night in with the girlfriend. Harold is young, rich, good looking, and obsessed with death. While attending one of his random daily funerals, he meets Maude, a 79-year-old Holocaust survivor with a lust for life, and falls in love.

It sounds oddly familiar, like a Wes Anderson-wannabe, and that's not far off. Two camps in particular have kept the Harold and Maude cult alive over the decades.

The first comprises pseudo-intellectuals who adore the film's many quirks, the eccentric little asides. But its idiosyncrasies are merely a means to its end of philosophical messages and cyclical themes of death and rebirth - which is where the other camp of libertarians and life-affirming Buddhists come in.

Through Maude's blithe manner, astute musings and joie de vivre, Harold finds himself both in love with a woman much too old for him and with a world much too large for his newly opened mind. Their time together is moving and meditative.

Like many of Ashby's 1970s films, Harold and Maude is a journey, one that impels the idea that to be born again, one must first die. For Maude, that idea is literal. But for Harold, the previously death-obsessed rich teenager who finds an appreciation for his life, dancing off to the Cat Stevens soundtrack is the first step.

The theme of rebirth can be traced through many of Ashby's major films, but it is most fully realised in Harold and Maude. And even if the wholly tragic nature of Ashby's own life saw that element become increasingly negative, one of the benefits of the medium of film is its renewing nature: that a movie like this can be reborn, again and again, with every new generation.