Viking Night: Harold and Maude
By Bruce Hall
July 7, 2015
Harold and Maude is the kind of movie that makes me glad that movies exist.
At some point we all love, hate, laugh, cry, and long for meaning, right? That's why we have art, and for some of us, art is a conduit for getting in touch with our humanity. And the great thing about film as an art form is the way it appeals to our sense of nuance. So, it's a good thing Harold and Maude is done well. An offbeat romance between two people 60 years apart needs all the nuance it can get.
Sadly though, it's not about Hugh Hefner’s ascension to the Dirty Old Man Hall of Fame. It’s about 20-year-old Harold Chasen (Bud Cort), who may well be cinema’s very first Goth Kid. Harold lives in a massive, depressing mansion with his imperious, emotionally aloof mother. The film isn’t clear on what happened to Harold’s father (I assume he chose the sweet release of death over marriage), but his mother appears to be a wealthy widower, more interested in hobnobbing with society’s upper crust than developing her relationship with her son. Thanks to this, Harold spends most of his time toodling around their cavernous home, finding increasingly elaborate ways to fake his own death.
In fact, the movie opens with Harold apparently hanging himself as his mother bursts into the room - not to help, but to make a phone call, setting up whatever super-rich person activities she has planned for the night. Her dispassionate reaction suggests she’s used to this, and for me it’s one of the most interesting parts of the movie. Here’s a wealthy widow with nothing but time to spend with her son, who instead emotionally alienates him to the point where he feels it necessary to splash fake blood all over the bathroom to win any sign at all of her affection.
Her response is to send him to a daffy head shrink, marry him off, or recruit him into the Army. At dinner, she consistently speaks about him in the third person as though he’s an old car that won’t quite run right but has just enough sentimental value to keep around. Speaking of old cars, Harold’s hobbies include driving a hearse to funerals and watching complete strangers weep over their dearly departed. Combine that with Bud Cort’s ghostly pallor and wide eyed disillusionment, and this might be the world’s first Goth comedy. Harold’s repeated attempts at fake suicide are played for laughs - dry laughs - and his mother’s bullheaded insistence on not responding to it is equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking.
One of my favorite scenes is the one where Harold’s mother signs him up for a computer dating service (which was apparently a thing in 1971), virtually ignoring his presence as she fills out the questionnaire with her own preferences. Meanwhile, her son calmly and deliberately shoots himself in the head with a prop gun. Yeah, that’s what you do with someone who’s savagely depressed - you force your will on them. It’s a high-level view of their relationship, and it makes me a little sad that dear mother doesn’t see what a bright future her child has in the movie special effects or Las Vegas based magician industries.