Harold and Maude
n the exhausting effort to keep ahead of the tides, young friends, Stylus has a new column to offer you. We’re calling it A Kiss after Supper, and in it we’ll be tracing the expert use of pop music through some of the more music-friendly films of the past thirty years. With directors like Spike Jonze, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson using their robust appreciation for music in novel ways to document their stories through music as well as cinema, soundtracking is perhaps more critical to a film’s emotional tone than it’s ever been. As such, we thought it about time we wrote a little something on the issue...
For a land increasingly rigid with Botox and stiff with the faux-swell of saline, perhaps we’re closer than ever to understanding just how perverse it is that Harold has Maude. Yes, that he loves her, and by God, don’t say it, don’t you dare: that he fucks her. You had to go and do that. And me having just finished my no-carb Caesar salad (hold the crutons!) and herbal juice blend.
Well, if you come around to the knee-jerk reaction we have to this eternal coupling, imagine Hal Ashby’s surprise that a film that both espoused and critiqued everything the hippies had smoked so hard for was an utter commercial failure upon its release. Sure, across the years and through the independent cinema houses, Harold and Maude has established itself as one of the top five sure-fire cult hits ever played in a midnight viewing. But upon its release in 1971, it disappeared like Ishtar.
Still, for a land so alternately in love with its own ways and the funhouse-mirror distortion of those traditions, Harold and Maude was destined for feverish appreciation. In many ways, it’s the quintessential satire of, oh here it comes, The Man. It’s a poke in the eye of the where-are-you-now establishment, with its charming portrayal of a young man’s first love for an aged activist! Of all things, the flabby and unholy bound as one! Police are bumbling ticket-writers tracking down public trees, and the military is an aging institution with a string-pulled salute-arm. Organized religion is a gloomy and stern-faced priest who doesn’t appreciate the paint job on Maude’s stolen auto. (Of course, the church is one of the film’s principal targets. As Maude tells Harold, she doesn’t pray, she ‘communicates.’ The inference is clear; religion has as much to do with communal bonds as those to any God.)
Just as deftly, the film fits the hippies for straitjackets, meticulously pulling apart their naïve optimism and contorting their wishes for social progress. The three women with whom Harold is set up represent divergent elements of the era’s social aftermath. The first, a wide-eyed poly sci major named Candy, is the empty-shelled optimist of the era, the classic lemon-from-lemonade virginal bride-to-be. As she explains to Harold’s Mom, poly sci “is all about what’s going on. Is Harold into what’s going on?” The name is also a reference to Terry Southern’s novel-cum-film from the sixties about a woman so hopelessly attractive she turns men on without noticing, which in turn was a reworking of Voltaire’s Candide for the psychedelic era. The second set-up, the bookish file clerk Edith, represents the lost holdover of the Eisenhower era. Clenched in frustrated sexuality and awkward to the point of invisibility, she has no place in this ‘newly freed’ world. The third, the actress Sunshine, embodies the Age of Aquarius artist, flailing about in excessive gestures for her ‘art’ and her muse in a medium she only superficially understands, playing right into Harold’s twisted games. Her name is self-explanatory, a whimsical nom d’acting she borrowed from her drama teacher.
With these thematic winkings pushed well above the surface, it’s only fitting that Ashby chose Cat Stevens’ music as the backdrop for his satirical coming-of-age odyssey. Much like Maude, Cat was fed up with Christianity’s religious dogma and looking elsewhere for spirituality. Eventually, he would find it in Islamic faith, but as of now, the search was still vague and unsettled (In a speech at Stanford in 1999, Stevens, known since his conversion as Yusuf Islam, recalled his attraction to the Koran: “There is one Lord, one family of humanity”). With Ashby, the songwriter shared a growing fatigue with the business in which he found himself. By 1970, Cat had worn through the simple pop glee that made up his debut, Matthew and Son. He didn’t have another “I Love My Dog” or “Here Comes My Baby” in him. Frustrated by the greed he saw in the music industry, he turned out Mona Bone Jakon and Tea For the Tillerman, both of which provide the majority of the material heard in the film (two songs were written specially for it). The album’s spoke with warning and sudden caution, and the hope behind their honest lyricism sometimes feels falsely summoned. They showed Cat was worried, but trying to remain almost forcefully optimistic.
Ashby himself was struggling. His first film, The Landlord, was a warmed-over treatise on class tensions that was quickly forgotten and is still widely unavailable. At the very least, he had come upon a theme that he would use for his first three films: innocence faced with the inevitable comprehension of the world’s complexities. The silver-spooned landlord who comes to appreciate the working-class tenants in his building leads directly into Harold’s head-on collision with Maude. His third film, The Last Detail, would bring the idea to the military world as Meadows (Randy Quaid) tries to get in a life’s worth of twenty-something romps into a few nights before he’s handed over to the Navy on a theft conviction. Tracing this protagonistic awakening back to the filmmaker, it’s easy to understand how perfectly Cat Stevens’ early–seventies work would fit into his plans. The marriage was too ideal to pass up, and the results illustrate once again the remarkable synthesis that we’re after with Kiss After Supper. You can’t imagine the film without the music, and vice versa.
You don’t have long to wait for the connection to unveil itself; the first scene brings it to the fore. The camera follows Harold down a set of stairs and into his room without ever showing his face. As he puts a record on, Stevens’ “Don’t Be Shy,” one of the two songs written for the film, begins on its upbeat acoustic guitar and optimistic piano. The song’s praise for individual expression is used comically here, as Harold feigns suicide to gain his mother’s attention. His mother represents the conventions to be overcome, a woman so stiff with traditional values she believes the sexual revolution had gone too far and the mention of wife-swapping was distasteful beyond response. Additionally, the emotional contrast between action and music is riveting. Still limp from the noose, his mother walks in, looks at him dangling, and sits down to make a phone call. The irreverence works perfectly, and from the very first scene, you understand the film’s charm hangs on its well-managed contrast of lingering optimism and black humor.
After Harold’s meets Maude for the first time at a funeral, Stevens’ “Tea for the Tillerman” begins against a dim, rainy backdrop. One of the Cat’s most overtly joyous songs, its celebratory chorus serves here as a thematic linkage to Maude’s introduction. Against the black and white suits and umbrellas, Maude leads the procession off in a jaunty march, with her yellow umbrella standing against the monochromatic background as an additional visual cue to her role. She turns a moment of mourning into her own tribalistic appreciation, again emphasizing her communal view of religion, here extended to religious rite.
Aside from Ashby’s use of music to contrast his visual material, he combines Stevens’ songs with looks from Harold to ensnare the viewer in his film and remove some of its satirical edge. As Candy runs from the room after his burning stunt, “I Think I See the Light” begins, with its jovial, almost sarcastic piano lines dancing around Stevens’ lyrics. It’s as cheeky as anything the songwriter offered after his first album. A stoic Harold looks dead at the camera and gives a sly grin, pulling the reader in on the joke and aligning him with Ashby’s protagonist.
The song is repeated under similar circumstances after Harold first sleeps with Maude. The camera shows him staring dead at the viewer and blowing bubbles. Maude’s hair is down, and as she sleeps, Harold is wide awake, save for the viewer’s rather prominent presence. Aside from the obvious lyrical import to the song’s notion of awakening, the shot deepens the intimacy between filmgoer and protagonist.
Of course, Ashby isn’t beyond using music simply for its innate visceral value. “Trouble,” one of Stevens’ most melancholy songs, plays as Harold deals with Maude’s suicide. Atop its mournful acoustic guitar, images of Harold driving his Jaguar/Hearse through the rain are spliced with those of Maude’s last moments in the hospital. The scene is rigid with Harold’s loss, and the combination brings a poignant empathy that few scenes have managed as well outside Wes Anderson’s “Needle in the Hay” suicide scene in The Royal Tenenbaums.
Beyond such immediacy, the film’s most significant use of music comes through the binding of memories through a single song. In a movie based on nostalgia and its role in the first-love experience, Ashby strings the joint moments of Harold and Maude together through Stevens’ “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out.” In many ways, the track serves as the film’s principal theme. We first hear it as Maude plays on the piano in her antique traincar. She encourages Harold to sing along, and after several moments of uneasy silence, Harold steps out of his shell for the first time and joins in with his own shaky, uncertain voice. Later, as Harold continues to emerge from his closeted past, he carries Maude across the plain in his arms to the song’s brimming reach. And there it is again, as Harold tells his mom that he plans to marry Maude, picked out in the background. Finally, in the last scene, as Harold moves along the cliff’s edge playing his banjo, a visual ode to Maude’s advice that “everybody should be able to make some music,” the song reappears to highlight Harold’s slow celebratory jig across the hills. It’s another reference to Maude’s teachings, his own version of her “Cosmic Dance.” The moments become intrinsically linked through the song, and they embolden their timeless love affair with a sense of multi-tiered history and wistful romance that the film itself would have a difficult time summoning.
As the film reaches this unavoidable climax, its gloom is difficult to shed, even with a vaguely optimistic undertone. The black humor Ashby counts on could easily have given out to cold satire, especially given the directions in which both he and Stevens would move over the next few years (The Last Detail, for example, had even more bleakness underneath its ribald comedy). Here, he manages to maintain a buoyant charm that few filmmakers achieve in formats as heart-targeted and vacantly emotive as the romantic-comedy, let alone in a social commentary. And, thus, it’s where Ashby offers us the most concise distillation of his efforts; he succeeds in making an overwhelmingly warm and vibrant film from the bulls-eye mentality of the satirist. Oddly enough, in the end, Harold and Maude fits quite comfortably amongst the best American films of the generation Ashby wishes to contort, the sixties. It’s The Graduate in wrinkled blackface, and Easy Rider too young to grow a traveler’s beard.