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Gathering Rosebuds in "Harold and Maude"

In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, one of the memories that Viktor Frankl relates from his time in a concentration camp is of a particularly memorable sunset. He describes the scene of him and his fellow prisoners being exhausted after another endless string of grueling workdays. They were laying together on the floor of their hut, when another prisoner came in, telling them that they needed to come outside to see something wonderful.

Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate grey mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner says to another, ‘How beautiful the world could be!’

Frankl’s book is, among other things, an exploration of how people find and create meaning in their lives, and how through such meaning, people can sustain themselves during even the very worst of circumstances. In this anecdote of Frankl’s, the sunset in no way erased anything of the seemingly hopeless circumstances that he and his fellow prisoners were just barely living through, but, just the same, a moment of shared beauty was still something that, if only for a moment, made them feel a little more alive and lightened their load. Reading this story recently, I thought of a pivotal scene in Hal Ashby’s 1971 film, Harold and Maude.

The titular Harold and Maude have just spent the day together. Harold, never stated, but about twenty or so; Maude, on the very cusp of turning 80. They are sitting side by side in a marshy and rusted-out trainyard, with a very busy highway in the background behind them. Harold is beginning to realize that he’s falling in love with Maude. Holding her hand, he looks down and notices, for the first time, the concentration camp number on her arm. At that same moment, with a joyful gasp, Maude points to a flock of birds taking flight in front of them. The camera cuts to a view from behind them that shows what they’ve been looking at all along is a beautiful magic hour sunset, with waves gently crashing right in front of them. The contrast is drawn between their surroundings and what they’re choosing to look at instead is plain.

We cut back to the view of them from the front, and again see the ugly, industrial debris all around them. Maude makes a passing allusion to the glorious birds that Dreyfus saw on Devil’s Island, without mentioning to Harold, or the audience for that matter, that Devil’s Island was a French penal colony, or that Alfred Dreyfus was a French military officer falsely accused of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment there due to the rampant antisemitism in the French military at that time. Maude knows the story, but her interest in the moment is only the glorious birds that Dreyfus had marveled at. We cut again to a view from behind and watch the two lovebirds snuggling further into one another, savoring the beautiful moment, though surrounded by ugliness.

Looked at from one angle. Harold and Maude is a carpe diem story, similar in spirit to the later Dead Poets Society. Harold overlaps in a number of ways with the unformed schoolboys of that story, and Maude overlaps more than a bit with the manic pixie English teacher that taught them all to seize the day. The key difference though is that having taught Harold his much-needed lesson - shaking him from his aversion to life and fixation on death - Maude actually goes on to take her own life. It would have more straightforwardly underlined her message to Harold if Maude merely died, but it dramatically complicates that lesson when she chooses to end her own life. There’s a climactic suicide in Dead Poets Society as well, but it’s noteworthy how the two films differ on this. In Dead Poets Society, it’s a young boy who takes his own life out of feelings of hopelessness. The closer parallel for Harold and Maude would be if it were Harold who had taken his own life rather than Maude. In the case of Maude, she is anything but hopeless. She’s satiated. She’s lived a rich and full life, and she sincerely wishes the same for everyone else, but she’s had her fill and is ready to be done.

In the first scene where Harold & Maude speak to one another, they’re both recreationally attending the funeral of a gentleman that neither of them knows. Maude comes up to Harold to ask if he knew the deceased. When Harold says, “No,” she mentions to him that the man died at 80, which to her is a good time to pass on:

I heard he’s 80 years old. I’ll be 80 next week. Good time to move on, don’t you think? …Well, I mean 75 is too early, but at 85 you’re just marking time. You may as well go over the horizon.

It’s this idea that I struggle with most in this story. As I’m writing this, the legendary star of stage and screen, Rita Moreno, has just turned 90 and is being talked about as a strong possibility to receive an academy award nomination for her role in Stephen Spielberg’s recently released adaptation of West Side Story. She has 14 acting credits since turning 80, including 46 episodes as a regular on a TV series. Rita Moreno has certainly not just been “marking time.” My own parents are rapidly approaching their 80s, and I hope that they also have a great many fulfilling years ahead of them, and will have something to look forward to in every day they have left. But, that said, I’m probably not being honest with myself if I don’t concede that there is something to what Maude is saying, and all I’m doing is quibbling with which age she picked for her departure.

In every life, if it lasts long enough, the inevitability of its ending can’t help but eventually become an ever-present and all-consuming concern, and not wanting to live to see that day seems to make some sense. Not wanting to live long enough to outlive all of your friends, or the usefulness of your own mind and body, makes sense. However, how we square acknowledging that with Maude’s life lessons to Harold, has everything to do with her being 80, and his only being 20 or so.

Maude is interesting in that, as far as the film goes, she doesn’t have a character arc. From the first words we hear her speak, she is already on a course she has chosen for how her story will end. Her interactions with Harold don’t divert her from that course at all. Her character arc has already happened during the long and rich life she lived before the film even starts. Harold, as the cliche goes, still has his whole life ahead of him. While it’s at least coherent that Maude may want to choose to end her life before she is no longer able to enjoy it, she awakens Harold to the idea that a similar fatalism makes no sense for him when he seemingly has so much wonderful life available to him.

When Harold tearfully confides in Maude what first prompted him to start faking his suicide - the reaction he saw from his otherwise unfeeling mother after she had thought he had been killed in an accident at school - and how he came to think he’d enjoy being dead, Maude makes her full-throated endorsement of life:

I understand. A lot of people enjoy being dead. But, they’re not dead, really. They’re just backing away from life. Reach out. Take a chance. Get hurt even. Play as well as you can. Go team, Go! Gimme an ‘L’. Gimme an ‘I’. Gimme a ‘V’. Gimme an ‘E’. L-I-V-E Live! Otherwise, you’ve got nothing to talk about in the locker room.

This isn’t just a thing that Maude is saying for Harold’s benefit, while secretly having given up on her own life. She is living her life fully and is collecting stories for the locker room right up until the end. She’s leading police on high-speed chases. She’s liberating trees from city streets to replant in the woods. She’s posing nude for an ice sculptor. She’s living all the days she’s chosen to have left. Even as she’s riding with Harold to the hospital in the ambulance he has called, she is more bemused by the whole thing than anything. Harold implores her not to die, and tells her that he loves her. She’s thrilled by this. Not so much that he loves her, but that he’s loving at all. “Oh, Harold,” she says. ”That’s Wonderful. Go and love some more.”

I think it’s this last line that captures the enduring legacy of this film. At that moment, Harold says, “No. Never.” But, we leave him on a slightly more hopeful note as the credits roll. He’s somewhat at peace with what has happened, and what’s in store for all of us eventually, softly dancing towards the horizon and playing the banjo that Maude gave him, having absorbed the lessons she had to give. He has lived and loved, and thankfully, he will go on to do so again and again.


Damian Masterson

Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.




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