Despite nominally tenanting the early days of the New Hollywood, Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude achieves a frisky, mischievous barrel-house piano playfulness more at home with the mid-’60s works of Richard Lester, who made films masquerading as larks that nonetheless disobediently dissected society’s fascination with identity with a manic frivolity that both epitomized and upended the giddy image of the 1960s . Prefiguring and serving as an advance riposte to the grisly grottos of Scorsese and friends that embodied the dejected, askew miasma of the 1970s, Harold and Maude reflects the unbridled romanticism of the hippie movement, a time before carefree mania was played in the frenzied register of abject pandemonium.
This tonal dissonance is all the more surprising because Ashby’s film is, if viewed through a looking glass, a slantwise riff on the de facto New Hollywood founding myth of Bonnie and Clyde. A tale that could only have been formed in the peculiar mixture of unkempt, exploratory chaos and disturbed, lachrymose distress that was the Great Depression, the lovers-on-the-run tale has made the rounds throughout film history. Preempted in the pulpy perfection of the reportorial works of Howard Hawks, the inchoate version of the tale was They Live By Night by Nicholas Ray, the patron saint of the French New Wave, before the story was finally boiled to a rabble-rousing, self-destructive toxin by Jean-Luc Godard – the first director to truly turn the tale of an uprooted world into a visualized, uprooted cinema.
Somewhere between coming full circle with Arthur Penn’s ravaged Bonnie and Clyde and the magisterial, impressionistic Badlands, Ashby’s tragi-comic take on the tale is a more light-hearted vision of social outcasts. The comparisons aren’t perfect – Harold and Maude are never truly subjected to the full brunt of their anomie, nor are they actually threatened by arrest. Yet somehow the fact that the world sits back and nearly accepts their socially disjunctive car thefts – treating it as a venal offense but not a marker of true reprobate status – only further captures the spirit of an era where the world was no longer ossified and the rules no longer applied. So many ’70s films emphasize the cynicism of a world where the possible now felt impossible, but Harold and Maude’s flipped-script take invokes the impossible, the ostensibly insane or socially disabused, now rendered possible.
Which is why Ashby and screenwriter Colin Higgins, without treating the age gap between the protagonists as an inviolate, irreproachable subject, never reduce the 20 year old zombie youth Harold Chasen (Bud Cort) and the pushing-80 eternal flower-child Maude Chardin (Ruth Gordon) to their sixty year age gap. Instead, the film traces the almost accidental relationship between the two social miscreants with grace, finding harmony in a reckless, eternally vivacious encapsulation of non-withered liveliness and a rigid, gaunt, pallid youth who channels self-hatred and aristocratic-alienation into macabre acts of pseudo-suicide. Both are social outcasts, but the most humanizing gesture of the film is that its romance is, if constructed by their loneliness, not contained within it.
Ashby stages the relationship with a casual, “what’s the big deal?” nonchalance underlying the relative sanity of the pas de deux when the world around the two is encased in an ascetic subscription to social mores that itself seems increasingly off-base and disturbed as the film progresses. The relative anarchy of Harold, who fakes self-immolation and harikari and rides around in a hearse, feels like an anti-social breath of life in a deadened world, even if a truly Technicolor, positive alternative to the color-strapped, desaturated place only emerges when Maude arrives in Harold’s life.
Although hardly a formalist’s day dream, Ashby suggests the ambling dislocation of the world in the Bergmanesque static shots that characterize the opening portions of the film as well as the shambling narrative structure that disinterestedly floats from scene to scene without a modicum of momentum. With social anxiety and distress trading in for hippie rebelliousness and eternal love in the early ’70s, the arrival of Maude mid-film feels like a last hurrah, a winsome tip of the hat to the faded glory of ’60s happy days. When Ashby characterizes this flip by letting a little sunshine back into the film in the busier, more chaotic, more colorful second-half, it’s a dream of life, a will to exist in the present, restored to its former resplendence. A dream, of course, undercut by a winking self-awareness that suggests the film’s acceptance of its own desperate, fable-like longing for a hippie vision that doesn’t necessarily exist anymore.
Ashby’s grip on the schismatic mood and bifurcated world of the early ’70s is, admittedly, a touch too programmatic to fully intimate the heated unease of a time period torn between furious optimism and wordless pessimism. The screenplay is particularly burdened by a cumbersome habit of overstepping the line from droll comedy to a more morose obviousness with a waxworks-like, tentative grip on life. Yes, the point is the jarring tonal whiplash between the two characters and the two worldviews embodied in them, one deadened and embalmed and the other whimsical and momentous. But dissonance sometimes strays into a funereal somnambulism never present, for instance, in Five Easy Pieces, another film about the anomie and ennui of the youthful bourgeoisie from Ashby’s fellow traveler Bob Rafelson.
That BBS fable encompasses not only the contradictions in stilted malaise and righteous, fleeting life that characterized the turn of the clock to the ’70s, but it also impresses us with an ambidextrous, fluidity that doesn’t flip back and forth between the two moods from scene to scene but instead enjoins them into a dialectic within scenes, stressing that no one moment fully embodies either spirit without the lingering threat of the other right behind its back. Tones and moods slip into one another with the pulsing disquiet of a world in arrested development, unable to decide on its vision until the very concept of singular mood is obliterated before us. Harold and Maude, for a work about harmony between time periods, is a bit too convinced of its diametric contrast between the two characters, and the two worldviews of aging life and premature death.
Before the end, the initial volatility of the tonal imbalance eventually settles into a slightly misty, preprogrammed state, not unlike a lightswitch flipping between light and dark. Yes, the unexpected cadence of the flips inspire their own seizures of energy, but the true cinema magic happens in the in-between zone, the cinematic twilight. Harold and Maude, for all its estimable value as a sly, sardonic comedy, is never able to shift its digital button-push contrasts into the malleable , free-floating analog realm. Light switches, after all, only have an on and an off. Not a death knell for an otherwise persuasive, fun film, but it’s not difficult to be disappointed when contrasted to directors like Rafelson, who could turn the flicker between two seemingly opposed states into a magnetic maelstrom of unquantifiable, unending transition between the two, a stasis of eternal kinesis.