The original indie quirk movie, director Hal Ashby's HAROLD AND MAUDE has been re-issued this week on DVD and Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection, whose boutique home video releases are little artifacts of film goodness in and of themselves. The special edition features new digital restoration, a remastered soundtrack and a booklet of archival interviews and essays.
Watching the movie again for the first time in 20 years, I must admit my first thought was, “Hey! Wes Anderson made a movie in 1971!” Anderson has long acknowledged Ashby as an influence, but the connection is never more conspicuous than in the first darkly comic scenes of Harold and Maude.
Bud Cort plays young Harold, adrift at age 19 among the meaningless riches of his wealthy family. Harold is obsessed by death, and likes to stage elaborate fake suicides to get the attention of his distracted, society-obsessed mother. (“Are all these suicides for your mother's benefit?” a shrink asks Harold. “No,” he replies. “I wouldn't say benefit.”)
Harold also enjoys attending random funerals, as one does, and eventually crosses paths with lively, eccentric, 79-year-old Maude (Ruth Gordon). The two embark on an unlikely love affair as Maude teaches Harold about 1960s sentiments like embracing life, bucking authority and acting conspicuously weird.
Director Hal Ashby was one of the last counterculture filmmakers of the New Hollywood era, and would go on to direct Shampoo, Coming Home and the Peter Sellers thesis statement Being There. Harold and Maude was just Ashby's second film, and it's lovably ramshackle and earnest.
It's also very funny, very often. Harold's staged suicides—which include death by hanging, drowning, gunshot, self-immolation and harakiri—are met with resigned exasperation by his mother, who wishes he'd just get married, or join the army or something.
Ruth Gordon gives a funny, sweet and wide-open performance as Maude. She delivers the movie's existential message early on, when Harold suggests that she is perhaps upsetting people with her funeral antics and car thefts: “Well, some people get upset because they feel they've got a hold on some things. I'm merely acting as a gentle reminder. Here today, gone tomorrow, so don't get attached.”
The lessons of Harold and Maude seem a bit on-the-nose these days, but bear in mind that this is 1971 and irony hadn't yet gone viral. Ashby likes to work broad visual jokes into the frame, with paired symmetrical images and background details. Watch for the portraits of villainous authority figures Ashby hangs around his threadbare sets—Nixon, Freud, the Pope.
The sight gags might be rascally, but the music is straight from the heart. The soundtrack by Cat Stevens is pitch-perfect and gorgeous, and includes signature tunes “Don't Be Shy” and “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out.”
Format: DVD and Blu-ray
Extras: Both the DVD and Blu-ray versions include audio commentary by Hal Ashby biographer Nick Dawson and producer Charles B. Mulvehill. Additional supplements include audio excerpts from Ashby and writer-producer Colin Higgins, with archival photos and stills, and a new interview with songwriter Yusuf Islam, the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens. (TAFKACS?)
Also New This Week:
Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law return for more Victorian crimefighting in SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS.
Based on the bestselling book, the HBO original movie TOO BIG TO FAIL details the pivotal weeks of the 2008 financial crisis, and the curious connections between Washington and Wall Street. Directed by Curtis Hanson and starring William Hurt, Paul Giamatti, James Woods and Billy Crudup.
Actor Vincent D'onofrio makes his directorial debut with the indie rock slasher musical DON'T GO INTO THE WOODS.
Criterion has also reissued the underappreciated 1994 Danny Boyle thriller SHALLOW GRAVE, starring that handsome Scotsman Ewan McGregor.
Plus: Nicholas Cage in GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE, Tyler Perry in GOOD DEEDS, Greg Kinnear in THIN ICE, and TV season collections from ENTOURAGE, SCANDAL, GCB and MISSING.