Why I’ve Come to Hate HAROLD AND MAUDE’s Harold

Did you know I have a Patreon that helps support me and my writing? Patrons at the $10 and above levels get exclusive writing. This week they got this look at Hal Ashby’s classic Harold and Maude,which I’ve excerpted below. If you want to read the whole thing, become a patron at www.patreon.com/cinemasangha!

Maude dies badly, and I hate Harold for it.

At the end of Hal Ashby’s classic Harold and Maude the April-December lovers gather to celebrate Maude’s 80th birthday. Harold plans to pop the question, but Maude has already popped some pills – she’s planned her suicide for this day. It’s clear this is how she wants to go – home, comfortable, surrounded by what she loves, including Harold.

And yet Harold, the morbid boy wonder, cannot handle true death when it confronts him, and he rushes Maude to the hospital. For the first time in the movie we see some real, raw emotion in Harold’s face – his eyes are red, watery, his mouth has become rubbery and it moves up and down as he barks silent orders at doctors. 

So Maude dies where she clearly didn’t want to die, in a hospital, and she does it surrounded by strangers, because we see Harold in a waiting room getting informed that she’s gone. Earlier in the movie she had rescued a tree from concrete, had smuggled it out of the city and returned it to the forest. But at the end of her life Harold has taken her from the forest and planted her in concrete. 

I’ve always loved Harold and Maude. You can blame the movie for the sort of twee, quirky indie fare that plagued us in the 2000s, the sort of stuff that offered a safe haven to Zach Braff, but I can’t hate the movie for its imitators. None of them capture Ashby’s lack of whimsy, and I don’t think any of them understand what he was doing with Harold in the end. 

To be certain I didn’t. Harold and Maude is one of those movies that mutates as you age, each decade of your life offering you a new perspective on the work. When I was young, Harold was my touchstone, and his morbid and dour personality lit me up. The sheer extra-ness (a concept we didn’t have in the 80s, when I first saw this film) of his faux suicides was a delight, and I loved watching him freak out his parade of square computer dates. 

But now I see Harold as a huge pain in the ass, his suicides as naked cries for attention that, simultaneously, push people away before they can reject him. He wants to be the center of attention for these computer dates, desperately wants to be noticed, but he doesn’t want to put himself in a position to be turned down, to be told that he’s no good. What seemed to me, when I was 14 and watching on VHS, to be a glorious guerrilla attack on the phoniness of the system/Western life/etc, now looks like immense phoniness in and of itself.

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