Tuesday, April 11, 2017

My Favorite Hal Ashby Film

One of the directors most synonymous with American filmmaking in the 1970s was Hal Ashby, in part because his rise was so meteoric, and his decline in the 1980s was just as steep. After a strong career as an editor, he transitioned to directing in his forties, and made a string of criticaly beloved, socially conscious films, often about oddballs and dreamers forging their own paths in life. Well, there was one of Ashby's '70s films that nobody seemed to likea the time of its initial release, but it found its audience and much greater appreciation over time.

"Harold and Maude" is about a young man who falls in love with an elderly woman. Harold, played by Bud Cort, is nineteen years old, obsessed with suicide, drives a hearse, and likes attending funerals in his spare time. Maude, played by Ruth Gordon, is a sunny free spirit who rides a motorcycle and is just about to turn eighty. She loves art and music, and also attends funerals for fun. Inevitably, the pair meet at a gravesite and connect, to the dismay of Harold's wealthy mother, who is trying to marry her son off for his own good. Harold, however, would much rather marry Maude.

The film's black humor was found by many to be too morbid and in bad taste. After all, it opens with Harold methodically carrying out one of his many fake suicide attempts, which his exasperated mother coldly ignores. Harold also stages shooting, drowning, burning, and even committing seppuku upon himself. However, it all comes across as pretty tame in hindsight, since morose youngsters have become much more common in the American media. And there's far more fun and wit in the movie than simple shock humor. I love the parade of blind dates Harold's mother forces on her son, and the mean prank Harold pulls on his uncle. I adore the reactions of the psychiatrist and the priest to Harold's relationship with Maude, especially the priest's outraged histrionics. I still can't hear the word "comingling" without snickering.

Still, what gives the film so much lasting power is that the romance between the leads is played straight. Harold and Maude are perfect for each other, and watching them spend time together, just talking about life and living is a delight. Ruth Gordon has long been an actress who I've happy to see in anything, whether it's in "Rosemary's Baby" or an episode of "Taxi." She gives Maude all the youthful enthusiasm for life that Harold lacks, filling the role of manic-pixie-dreamgirl with an added dose of mature wisdom gained from a long, interesting life. And Bud Cort is great, both at channeling Harold's stone-faced depression and his gradual emotional awakening. Like the best cinematic odd couples, they're incredibly specific personalities, but simultaneously very universal ones.

As with many films from the '70s, there's a particular sort of dreamy, languid atmosphere to the visuals that I associate with "Harold and Maude," in spite of its occasional jolts of fake violence and more madcap humor. The cinematographer was the great John Alonzo, who would go on to shoot "Chinatown" and "Scarface." There's such a delicacy to how he handles the more intimate moments, and the wonderful sense of place that he captures as Harold and Maude ramble around the San Francisco bay area together. It's also difficult to imagine the film without the cheerful folk-rock soundtrack by Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens), especially Maude's rendition of "If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out."

Most Hal Ashby films spend some time thumbing their noses at convention and traditional authority figures. Harold and Maude certainly make for good counterculture heroes, ignoring the constraints of class, age, and tradition in the name of love. The film became a cult classic within a few years of its release, sparking especially fierce devotion from younger audiences in the 1980s. It's still the best remembered of Ashby's films, I think because it so wholeheartedly embraces its own oddity. A common criticism of the film is that the downbeat ending undercuts the life-affirming messages. And yet, it's completely true to who the characters are, and I can't imagine the film ending any other way.

What I've Seen - Hal Ashby

The Landlord (1970)
Harold and Maude (1971)
The Last Detail (1973)
Shampoo (1975)
Bound for Glory (1976)
Coming Home (1978)
Being There (1979)

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