Thursday, September 15, 2011

Trying too hard to be subversive

I don't dislike this one. But I don't particularly like it either. It's just . . . eh. And I can't quite pinpoint what's keeping me from making an actual statement of preference so here are a lot of thoughts.

What I liked:
1. I can see how this is a precursor for the super dark comedies I so dearly love and for the witty, quirky movies I mostly love (Wes Anderson, I'm looking at you--like, seriously, you stole your wardrobe from Harold).
2. I like the idea of someone being obsessed with death learning to love life from a crazy granny.
3. The saluting sleeve of Uncle whomever. Cracked. Me. Up.
4. The mother. She was the best thing about the film. And, was it just me or was she not so terrible? We don't see anything she's done to deserve such a whack job of a kid. I needed to see more of her being truly horrible to make me sympathetic to Harold's suicide stunts. Otherwise, I'm TOTALLY sympathetic to her plight (see: Life lessons that were reinforced 1 and 3 below).
5. Tom Skerritt as incorrectly credited motorcycle cop.

What I found creepy:
1. Harold. Everything he did.
2. This particular May January-December relationship. I'm BEYOND thrilled that the director didn't get that sex scene he wanted.
3. Harold.
4. Harold.
5. Seriously. Harold. He looked like he was going to kill someone. Actually, him killing someone would have made him less creepy because then at least the look would be explained.

What I found extraordinarily extraneous:
1. The concentration camp tattoo. Either you do something with it or you don't. You can't just flash that ink and leave it be. Pay it heed or leave it out. Simply flashing it and a look from Harold actually lessens the impact and the significance; Maude's experience is reduced to the tattoo she's been forced to bear. In a movie that's ultimately about expanding horizons and exploring, that's terribly reductive.

Life lessons that were reinforced:
1. I should never have children.
2. I want main characters to kill themselves entirely too often.
3. I should never have children.

Edited to add: I've had a lot of time to stew on this one. I watched it much earlier than Tracy and then waited a bit to add what the book said and still had a bit of time (which is fine--we seem to go back and forth about who takes longer to watch these films). Anyway, I don't like it. What doesn't work for me most glaringly is the romantic relationship. And, not just because it's creepy or I'm not "liberated" enough (see below in the book summary). I don't like it because it's not given the narrative heft it requires to function properly within the plot or to be credible as an actual romantic relationship to be taken seriously rather than another one of Harold's morbid games. While, yes, I believe the platonic, basically familial relationship, I do not for one second see the sexual or even slightly romantic attraction build and, given Harold's penchant for trying to blow his mother's mind (especially considering his spectacular shunning of the "computer dates") and his predilection for the macabre, the romantic/sexual relationship seems just another stunt, another notch in his how-creepy-can-I-be belt as his suicide "attempts" become less and less impactful. The movie falls apart with the sex act because it undermines all of the progress Harold made toward becoming a functioning member of society (yes, even as he actively rebels against such norms--hello there, Foucault!). And, the film itself enacts that same problem because the sex act seems included in order to shock the audience whether it actually fits in the film or not.

The book says this is a "genuine" cult film (scoffing at the usual use of the term as a "marketing stunt") in which the "peculiar chemistry" of the two lead actors "made them an engaging, unforgettable romantic couple, challenging the taboos of youth, aging, sex, death, and happiness." Ok--I can buy that but I'm not agreeing that any of it is a good thing. I think I'd rather forget, frankly. But, what I can get on board with is this: "this challenge not only is a run-of-the-mill counterculture pose against traditional patriarchal society, but its even more aggressively directed against the contemporary youth-quake" which is "primarily made by reversing the 1960s concept of youth as the vital, mold-breaking counterforce to the inevitable physical and spiritual deadness affecting everybody over age 30."

The book continues this line of thought by stating that Harold is the "corpse because of his inability to break free from an oedipal fixation with his cold mother." I didn't catch any Oedipal undertones, mainly because I felt like he had her attention, just not in whatever way he desired. Tracy? Is that just my lack of concentration in the psychological in academic terms?

Further baffling me, the book states, "it is their sexual liaison that is the key to this film, revolting as it seems to several of the characters and possibly to many in the audience--even those who think of themselves as 'liberated'." Um. No. I don't particularly mind a relationship between a woman "60 years older" than the man (or vice versa for that matter). That's not what bothers me. What bothers me is the relationship between THESE two people, regardless of age. Even if they were both 16, I'd find the relationship creepy.

Finally, "Harold and Maude rids us of all such cultural preconceptions" by giving us the "insight that death is ultimately what gives life meaning." So, why then do we see Harold playing the banjo and dancing at the end. It seems the time spent in Maude's life is what gave him life and gave his life meaning. Without her life impacting his, her death would mean nothing other than another random funeral to attend.

And (edited to add), Harold's spiritual awakening comes moments too late (if he has one). Harold actively and completely selfishly robs Maude of the dignified, post-birthday party death she's planned for who knows how long (but definitely longer than she'd known Harold) by rushing her to the hospital to attempt to save her life. Maude doesn't get the death she's planned or she deserves; instead, she dies in a hospital no doubt being poked and prodded by doctors while hooked to machines which is vastly different than simply going to sleep after a dinner highlighted by organic champagne in her marvelous gypsy wagon of a home.

More or less, I'm not buying what this film or the book is selling. It seems to me that this film has reached "cult" status because it's different, slightly shocking, and incredibly difficult to like. Tracy, did you get it?


  1. First of all, I think you've hit on why it's "cult" a lot more convincingly than the book. I think it's precisely the quirky aesthetics, the fascination with death, and the black humor that has made it endure, not the half-baked philosophical/psychological arguments the book tries to make. I completely agree that the point is actually the opposite of death giving life meaning. I don't even see where they got that from--it's like a bad student essay that "explains" a text with a bromide because the major terms of the cliche (in this case, death and life) are in the text, but not at all in the way the cliche puts them together. If that makes any sense.

    I think you're right that the mother is ultimately a sympathetic character. I think the movie tries to make her more bougie than she actually is. The way she fills out the "computer dating" questionnaire does not describe a person who would shrug off her son's theatrical suicide attempts.

    As for the Oedipal thing, I don't see it. As I said in my post, I think the movie actively rejects and ridicules psychoanalysis though the goofy shrink (as it does with religion through the creepy priest), so it strikes me as unlikely that the film would be making an Oedipal argument. Strike two against the book.

    And I can't agree more with your reading of how Harold ruins Maude's autonomy by rushing her to the hospital. I actually (mis)remembered her saying something like "this isn't what I wanted" from the first time I saw the movie, and kept waiting for her to say it. It's pretty unforgivable, actually, and I think evidence that the film really instrumentalizes her character, but not in a good way. She's supposed to be a "life force"/"earth mother" in a reductive way, and the only real newness the movie brings to this stereotype is that she's old. It's lazy/sloppy writing, and I think also causes the problems with the romance that you note. Their sexual relationship is not earned, and feels superfluous rather than a culmination of Harold embracing life.

    Having said all that, I don't really dislike the film, but I think it's because I like the aesthetics enough (you're EXACTLY RIGHT about Wes Anderson's wardrobe) to overcome the shortcomings that you point out. I think if someone like Paul Haggis made it, I would hate it more because it would so obviously be trying to make a point about AGE or LIFE or WHATEVER. This feels like the juvenalia of someone talented who just couldn't figure out their voice yet, and I like it for its ambition, despite its very real failings.

    And as an aside, "It's okay, it's organic" is my new eating philosophy! :)

  2. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes! We should have written this book. Far too often it's coming off like a bad freshman essay in its reasoning.

    Ha! I think that's Whole Foods' motto (and, thus, mine :)