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My Influential Film: Harold, Maude and Me

I love Harold and Maude — but not for the usual reasons one loves a movie. The story is fun, but wonky at times. The cinematography is adequate. There isn’t much in it that, if you were to break it down and compare it to other, grander films, would fare well. And yet, I love this film. I love it for its story, for its imperfections. I love it for its tenacity.

In 1971, when Harold and Maude premiered, it got terrible reviews. Renowned reviewers like Roger Ebert made snarky comments such as his: ‘Death can be as funny as most things in life, I suppose, but not the way Harold and Maude go about it’ (Ebert, 1971).  The New York Times’ Vincent Canby opined about the actors, ‘They are mismatched, at least visually. Mr. Cort’s baby face and teenage build look grotesque alongside Miss Gordon’s tiny, weazened frame’ (Canby, 1971).  In sum, the reaction was not very friendly and to a great extent missed the point of the film. There is a sequence in the film where a variety of “institutions” weigh in on Harold’s relationship with Maude, a psychiatrist, a priest, an Army man, and all pretty much come to the same conclusion Canby did: old woman+young man=gross. Did Canby really pay all that much attention to the film?

These terrible reviews are part of the movie’s story — and part of why I love it. It was mismatched to the times in which it premiered. It dealt with subject matter that people found objectionable but was actually quite tame. We don’t even really see Harold and Maude make out. Sex is implied but never shown. The reviews themselves, the rejection of the film by real institutions, played out the heart of the film, which is, of course, the value of each individual — even if that individual is a tree suffering in the pollution of urban living.

According to The Guardian’s interview with Bud Cort, ‘producer Charles Mulvehill told critic and author Peter Biskind, “The idea of a 20-year-old boy with an 80-year-old woman just made people want to vomit. If you asked people what it was about, ultimately it became a boy who was fucking his grandmother”’ (Godfrey, 2014). Needless to say, this isn’t the interpretatio I find so moving from the film.

Since Harold and Maude took off in the college scene (Stafford, 2015), I’d wager that those of us who love the film love it for similar reasons. First, it has an anti-establishment message. Second, it has an anti-establishment approach. Characters are strange; technology that doesn’t exist gets created to further the story (such as the fragrance machine Maude has somehow made); people and objects that don’t belong get smashed together and made to seem perfect — not just Harold and Maude themselves, but Harold’s Jaguar hearse, dating and self-destruction (immolation, harikiri). It is the juxtaposition that makes me crazy about the film because it gives me my favorite sensation when watching films — that my brain has somewhat broken, and I am left feeling complete open to possibility in a way that perfectly polished, perfectly structured, perfectly acted (how can Cort break the 4th wall and get away with it??) films will never do.

I love the story itself and its strange asides (the suffocating tree, the officious officer, licorice and picnics at funerals) and the real pain behind the humor. When Harold’s mother asks if Harold is feeling well at the dinner party after he has pretended to hang himself earlier that day, he replies, ‘I have a sore throat.’ When his uncle salutes with his missing arm via a mechanism he pulls on his uniform, it is ridiculous and excruciating at the same time.

My personal taste runs a little less to the absurd than Harold and Maude does, but I love the patience Ashby has with the story, and the real gut wrenching disappointment of Maude’s actual suicide at at the end. I love the authentic playful sensuality of Harold’s post- sex bubble blowing. Lastly, I adore the finale. The only sound at the end is of the car engine as Harold races to the edge of the cliff and then doesn’t go off but sends the Jaguar-hearse over on its own and then dances off playing the banjo. The use of sound in this closing image is more touching than anything Ashby could have chosen to score it. There is a presence for me in this film — all senses conjured as well as one can in a visual medium. It is fleshy and alive.

Harold and Maude is imperfect — why did she kill herself in the end? What kind of consistency is that for a character who so loved life? It is very, very dark in the beginning — hard-to-actually-see dark. Cort descends the stairs nearly invisible.  Harold’s fake arm is his least realistic stunt and it pulls you out of the film a little to see how unrealistic it is. After all that it is perfect. For all its misfires, the filmmakers explore the possibilities of the absurd, of death, of love and the reactions of our culture and community when we search those possibilities out ourselves.

And there’s another bit I didn’t know about Harold and Maude’s story that I’d like to add to my own storytelling journey. Apparently, the French didn’t hate it. In fact it did so well that that Higgins, the writer of Harold and Maude, adapted the film to a play himself.  (Tsui, 2015) That play, and the film, have continued to enjoy success since the 70s. During the 70s in the U.S., Harold and Maude played extended runs in movie houses catering to colleges. Those runs sometimes lasted years. Between the French love affair and the college crowd, Harold and Maude finally turned a profit in 1983. (Harmetz, 1983)

When I make films, I want to be able to find the heart of things as Ashby, Cort and Gordon do together in Harold and Maude.  I have patience enough to find my audience where they are. My only desire is that I can be as authentic, risk-taking and playful as this group of collaborators were.

 

References

Canby, V. (1971). Movie Review – Harold and Maude – Screen: ‘Harold and Maude’ and Life:Hal Ashby’s Comedy Opens at Coronet Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort Star as Odd Couple – NYTimes.com. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=990CE7DF1138EF34BC4951DFB467838A669EDE [Accessed 17 Jun. 2015].

Ebert, R. (1972). Harold and Maude Movie Review (1972) | Roger Ebert. [online] Rogerebert.com. Available at: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/harold-and-maude-1972 [Accessed 14 Jun. 2015].

Godfrey, A. (2014). Bud Cort: ‘Harold and Maude was a blessing and a curse’. [online] the Guardian. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/jul/10/burt-cort-harold-and-maude-blessing-and-curse [Accessed 14 Jun. 2015].

HARMETZ, A. (1983). AFTER 12 YEARS, A PROFIT FOR ‘HAROLD AND MAUDE’. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/1983/08/08/movies/after-12-years-a-profit-for-harold-and-maude.html [Accessed 17 Jun. 2015].

Stafford, J. (2015). Harold and Maude. [online] Turner Classic Movies. Available at: http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/143189%7C0/Harold-and-Maude.html [Accessed 14 Jun. 2015].

The Criterion Collection, (2015). 10 Things I Learned: Harold and Maude. [online] Available at: http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/2356-10-things-i-learned-harold-and-maude [Accessed 14 Jun. 2015].

 

Process, Planning and Art


If architecture is art -  then art CAN be planned. And probably should be.
If architecture is art - then art CAN be planned. And probably should be.


I have an MFA in English and Creative Writing. I’ve written a novel, won my class’s thesis prize and have struggled to find a way to re-approach  –  that is REVISE – my work. I knew, for a very long time, how to generate pages. Technically, if you’re open to drinking, all you have to do is throw back a couple of pops and voila, you’ve got pages. Bunches of them. Not that that was MY strategy, per se.

Then, I started to study screenwriting, that incredibly formulaic, rigidly structured form that Hollywood demands. I’m not talking Truffaut, here, I’m talking Nora Eprhron.  I’m a little shy to admit it,  to my cohorts from my grad program but – I kind of like the rules. And what’s more, it made me feel not just excited, but a little more confident to go back to the novel and make some kind of shape out of it.

Now, some folks will tell you you can’t plan art. And to them I say – tell that to Frank Lloyd Wright. Go on. Drive up to one of his buildings, noticing how they engage the environment in which they have been constructed and then, put your hand on your hip and say, “Piffle. It’s totally formulaic.”

Here is my new thought: the PLANNING process is AS CREATIVE as the EXECUTION process. So, instead of just drinking beer at your typewriter and generating long rambly scenes without much punch or verve and no real intentional structure, you could be having  FUN planning your book or screenplay or short story or short film or whatever. And save the drinking of beer for when you have friends around so it doesn’t seem so gosh darn worrisome when you do it. And what’s best – your readers, who will now number in the double digits, will appreciate your new thoughtfulness and consideration of their feelings/time.

Lastly, if you haven’t checked out Alexandra Sokoloff yet, do. She’s smart, does great story breakdowns and has a boatload of strategies for the writers of fiction from the world of screenplays. And she should know, she’s a published author who has already had a career using the tools she teaches.

Getting Behind Prop 8

Leo and Me in the hospital
Leo and Me in the hospital

Okay, I’m going to preface this whole thing with I’m a little mad, a little sleep deprived and a little bi-polar with the Obama election and prop 8 happening at the same time. The following may not make sense, but if like me, you haven’t slept, had too much coffee and use sarcasm as a way to deal with your feelings (though let’s face it, I’m open to a cupcake or two as well), then you’ll get the spirit with which this is intended… That said:


Let’s all get behind Prop 8. Sure, the people who pushed it through are lying sacks of shit. Sure, churches paid people to go out in the street and not just demonstrate, but harass No on 8 folks, and sure, the measure is both discriminatory and shows complete disrespect for the separation of church and state. But really, that’s just piffle.


Piffle Point One: I think that when you’re beat, it’s better to join them than having your nuts repeatedly kicked in while struggling for your “rights.” So, how can you help California integrate Prop 8? First, every time you see the word marriage used to mean something other than a union between a man and a woman, you do whatever it takes to put an end to it. An ad says this fridge is the marriage of style and innovation? You write that advertiser, that magazine to let them know, here in California, it’s just a union, can’t be a marriage, and we don’t cotton folks using it any other way. Start boycotts of companies that refuse.


Piffle Point Two: The No on 8 folks are arguing that the method by which this amendment was added to our constitution is wrong. It should have first gone through the legislature, gotten a 2/3 majority and then presented to the voters – that a simple majority is not enough to take away the rights of a whole class (oddly called a suspect class) of people. But hold on a minute. If 8 stays in place and the court rules that YES rights can be taken away from people based on a simple majority, what doors open for California’s real majority? Think about it, what rights could get taken away and from whom? Just tossing out ideas here.


Piffle Point Three: If the California constitution is actually a dictionary, what other words can we define and therefore regulate? How about discrimination? How about knick-knack? Tchotchke? How about “shit,” “damn,” or “God.”


So let’s all get behind Prop 8. Because you KNOW its backers are right behind us and I DON’T think that’s just a pickle in their pocket.


Because nothing is safer

Me, Sadie, Leo and Elizabeth
Me, Sadie, Leo and Elizabeth

Than free association in the middle of the night in a somewhat public forum.

My wife keeps after me to blog and so I am blogging. Perhaps not wisely, but blogging none the less. I have a secret feeling it’s really just to get me to work on my website in some other way than f’ing around with php and css, which I do in hidden folders.

My dirty secret is an unwavering romanticism that escapes in three forms: food and drink, technology and writing. Food and drink are obvious, painfully so: I want to love you so I made you some nice bread. In the web world, I want to build beautiful apps that aren’t just glossy, but have a reason to be, a functional justification and add to a person’s connection with the site. In the world of writing, whether fiction, some kind of script or “the personal narrative,” I also want to build something beautiful, but I want to do something more. I want to create in another human being the experience I am having. My romance is to buy into the new age co-opting of quantum mechanics to avoid melancholy – so that  the non-mass of my consciousness rubs up against the non-mass of yours. But then, a trip happens, not a vacation, but the stumbling kind, where you go over and hit the non-mass of the hardwood floors and you realize, again, it doesn’t take that much mass to really f you up.

What’s the point of all of this? Well, I’ve heard a million times that if you’re going to blog, your wife telling you to do it isn’t actually the best approach. You’re supposed to have a niche, something specific to say to the world. My niche then, is romance. Not roses and Jerry McGuire with Ben and Jerry’s. I mean something more Whitman-esque, something more Harold and Maude, something more Man of La Mancha, something definitely more Sophia Loren.

Let’s see how it goes.