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Hal Ashby
Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort, Vivian Pickles, Cyril Cusack, Charles Tyner, Ellen Geer
Writing Credits:
Colin Higgins

They were meant to be. But exactly what they were meant to be is not quite clear.

With the idiosyncratic American fable Harold and Maude, countercultural director Hal Ashby fashioned what would become the cult classic of its era. Working from a script by Colin Higgins, Ashby tells the story of the emotional and romantic bond between a death-obsessed young man from a wealthy family and a devil-may-care, bohemian octogenarian. Equal parts gallows humor and romantic innocence, Harold and Maude dissolves the line between darkness and light along with the ones that separate people by class, gender, and age, and it features indelible performances and a remarkable soundtrack by Cat Stevens.

Box Office:
$1.2 million.

Rated PG

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
English Monaural
English Stereo
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 92 min.
Price: $39.95
Release Date: 6/12/2012

• Audio Commentary with Producer Charles B. Mulvehill and Biographer Nick Dawson
• “Hal Ashby” 1972 Audio Excerpts
• “Colin Higgins” 1979 Audio Excerpts
• “Yusuf/Cat Stevens” Interview
• Booklet


Panasonic 50" TH-50PZ77U 1080p Plasma Monitor; Sony STR-DG1200 7.1 Channel Receiver; Panasonic DMP-BD60K Blu-Ray Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.


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Harold And Maude: Criterion Collection [Blu-Ray] (1971)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 11, 2012)

With 1971’s Harold and Maude, we work from a premise that remains unusual even 40 years later. We find the romantic couple of 20-year-old Harold (Bud Cort) and nearly 80-year-old Maude (Ruth Gordon). That wasn’t exactly a recipe for box office gold, so the flick bombed in its initial release, but it developed a strong cult audience over the years.

Why has it endured as a “cult classic” across the last four decades? I have no idea, as I actively loathed this condescending and self-righteous film. Maude clearly was the product of its time, as everything about it signifies the worst aspects of the counterculture prevalent in the late Sixties and early Seventies. It's all about letting your freak flag fly, and don't let the Man tell you what to do. Right on, brothers!

Or some such nonsense. I dislike propaganda of any sort, and I find this sort of "do what you wanna do, dude!" trash just as offensive as any kind of totalitarian screed. It's not the content itself that so bothers me - hey, I don't like war or silly rules either - but I can't stand to have viewpoints shoved upon me in an arrogant and smug manner, which is how the vast majority of Maude proceeds.

Our "hero" Harold has been held down by the Man. Or rather, the Woman, in the person of his mother (Vivian Pickles). In their wealthy family, she constantly shoves her ideas of how Harold should live his life down his throat, and his only manner of rebellion stems from his faked suicide attempts. Mom has Harold talk to a psychiatrist, a priest and an Army officer, but none connect with the youngster and he continues along his miserable existence.

As demonstrated through his phony suicides, Harold is obsessed with death; he also visits the funerals of strangers. At one of these he meets wrinkly old Maude and the two quickly become friends. Despite her advanced age, Maude retains a joy for life, and she teaches Harold how to really thrive through her irrepressible viewpoint.

Please excuse me while I vomit. The entire film is a thinly-disguised hippie manifesto in which all things organized and conventional are criticized while anarchy and selfishness are praised. Maude has the habit of stealing cars for her own use, and we're clearly supposed to think this is cute and acceptable. She also drives like a maniac and does exactly what she wants to do whenever she wants to do it.

Some aspects of the Sixties counterculture were quite positive, but Maude bases its theme around the most self-absorbed and unproductive parts of the era. There's a fine line between indulgent fantasy and realistic pragmatism, and this movie wants us to believe the latter is absolutely unnecessary; hey, as long as you're happy, it doesn't matter how badly you've inconvenienced or harmed others.

That's the attitude I took from this film. It's one thing to take a stand against ridiculous societal conventions - ala Dr. Strangelove or M*A*S*H - but it's quite another to go to this egocentric extreme. For example, take the scene in which Maude decides that a tree planted in the city needs to be in the country to thrive. She a) steals another car, b) steals the tree, and c) drives recklessly to replant the tree.

Due to her multiple traffic violations, a cop pulls her over and finds that she possesses no driver's license; she freely admits she stole the car and she doesn't care. Throughout this interaction, the officer is presented as an oppressive moron who is to be ignored and disdained, while Maude – who breaks a multitude of (logical) laws at every step – is to be adored and praised.

I can't get over the idiocy of this viewpoint. The cop tries to enforce laws that exist for the protection of others - Maude is clearly a danger to society with her careless driving - and does so in a reasonable manner; this isn't some authority-obsessed fascist. Nonetheless, we're supposed to empathize with wacky old Maude and her anti-establishment ways.

Ugh! I'm all for projects that mock the stupidity of many rules and regulations – ala the work of Terry Gilliam - but I always thought laws against reckless and dangerous driving and against thievery were a good thing.

Apparently not, if the theme of Maude is to be accepted. The film is neither clever nor witty in its attack on authority, and it seems just as pompous as the figures it so despises. All those in positions of power are treated as idiots or fascists or both.

The acting is tolerable at best. Cort strongly resembles one of those God-awful paintings of the kids with the giant eyes, and he makes for an unpleasant screen presence. That's not just because he's a creepy-looking kid; it occurs also due to his generally irritating and self-righteous demeanor. He tends to overplay his scenes and makes for a wholly unlikable, unsympathetic character.

I never liked Gordon, and her usual flaws are on display here. She's the wacky old lady who's all spunk and spirit, and she's quite annoying. The only moment in which she displays any real talent is one where she shows some emotion about the past. Other than that, she's all wisecracks, craziness and smug platitudes.

The movie can’t even resist its preaching when it comes to the credits. A then-unknown Tom Skeritt played the motorcycle cop, but you won’t find his name in the end credits. Instead, the role of “Motorcycle Officer” is attributed to “M. Borman”, a not-so-subtle link to Martin Bormann, Hitler’s right-hand man. Clever, huh?

Add to this appalling concoction some atrocious songs by lightweight singer/songwriter Cat Stevens and you have a genuinely terrible film. Harold and Maude wants to be The Graduate: a poignant and honest "coming of age" story about a young man who doesn't fit in with the ways society tries to buttonhole him.

The Graduate makes its points in subtle and understated ways that reflect the reality of the situation without becoming excessive, and many of us could identify with Benjamin. Few will see much of themselves in a selfish jerk like Harold, however, and I doubt many will want to identify with the cruel, smug kid.

And why is a movie about tolerance so incredibly intolerant? It says “be who you want to be – as long as who you want to be fits the tiny boxes of which we approve”. Maude is one of the most self-centered, oppressive characters in film history. She cares not a whit what anyone actually wants; you have to fit her idea of life or else you’re wrong. She speaks in nothing but cheap slogans best suited to inspirational posters with kittens and sunsets and lacks even the slightest hint of wisdom.

I disliked Harold and Maude while I watched it, but my anger only escalated as I thought about it afterward. This is nothing more than heavy-handed and arrogant piece of propaganda that offers nothing of value.

The Blu-ray Grades: Picture B/ Audio B-/ Bonus B-

Harold and Maude appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. The image suffered from the limitations of its source but represented the original material well.

Sharpness was the most erratic element\ here. Though much of the movie showed positive clarity and accuracy, more than a few soft spots occurred. These tended toward wide images, and were usually affected by the movie’s high level of grain; the latter gave the film a bit of a murky feel at times. This was inevitable, though, and not a real issue, so overall definition seemed fine.

I witnessed no issues with jaggies or moiré effects, and print flaws were absent. As I mentioned, grain could be heavy, but that was a natural outgrowth of the original photography, so I accepted it.

At no point did the film deliver a dynamic palette, as it tended toward a sober, brownish feel. Nonetheless, occasional instances of brighter tones occasionally emerged, and these looked quite good. Again, grain could affect the colors, but they were generally appealing and accurate. Blacks were reasonably dark and tight, while shadows showed pretty good clarity; a few shots looked a bit thick, but most seemed fine. Given the nature of the source photography, this was never going to be an attractive presentation, but the Blu-ray made it look about as good as possible.

I also felt pretty pleased with the film’s PCM Stereo soundtrack. This was reworked from the movie’s original mono mix, which also appeared here. The soundfield remained fairly conservative throughout the film, as the track usually stayed focused on the front center. A few light effects popped up on the sides, and a smattering of louder sequences occurred, such as during the junkyard section. The music delivered the most consistent use of the side channels; we got nice stereo spread to the songs throughout the flick.

Audio quality varied but seemed generally good for the film’s era. Dialogue could be a bit thin and light, but the lines sounded intelligible and clear. Effects often lacked depth but came across as acceptably realistic and lacked distortion. The Stevens songs worked best of all, as they sounded crisp and warm, with just a smidgen of distortion on a few occasions. This was a more than acceptable soundtrack for a character-based movie.

How did the Blu-ray compare to original DVD from 2000? Audio was pretty similar, as the DVD’s 5.1 mix seemed a little less rich than this one’s PCM stereo material but they remained a lot alike.

On the other hand, visuals demonstrated radical improvements. The DVD was a disaster, as it seemed bland, messy, dirty and ill-defined. The Blu-ray provided a decidedly more appealing impression; it’s a true night and day difference.

The Criterion disc brings us a new collection of extras, though it’s a bit skimpy compared to most from the company. We launch these with an audio commentary from producer Charles B. Mulvehill and Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel author Nick Dawson. Each recorded separate, screen-specific discussions that got edited together for this running piece. They cover the project's origins and development, its initial release/reception and later cult status, aspects of Ashby's life/career and how he came to the film, cast and performances, music, sets and locations, themes/interpretation, cinematography, editing and a few other areas.

We learn a whole bunch about the film during this engrossing commentary. We find out about folks considered for the lead roles as well as production complications and related subjects. The commentary goes over the movie quite well and offers an engaging, informative piece.

Two collections of “Audio Excerpts” follow. We hear from director Hal Ashby circa 1972 (13:17) and from screenwriter/producer Colin Higgins in 1979 (13:09). Ashby chats about how he got into movies and aspects of working on Maude, while Higgins goes over the project’s origins and early ideas, inspirations/influences, and other aspects of the film’s creation. Both of the conversations add useful information about the flick, so they’re both worthwhile.

Shot in 2011, we also find an interview with composer/musician Yusuf/Cat Stevens. It runs 11 minutes, five seconds and involves a look at his music career and his work on Maude. This offers another insightful examination of the film, as we get nice notes about the flick’s songs.

We end with a 36-page Booklet. It features a new essay from journalist Matt Zoller Seitz plus a 1971 New York Times article from Leticia Kent, a 1997 conversation among the Colin Higgins Trust’s James Rogers, actor Bud Cort and cinematographer John Alonzo, and Rogers’ interview with executive producer Mildred Lewis, producer Edward Lewis, and their daughter Susan. This is a quality booklet that helps compensate for the relative lack of disc-based extras.

How an overbearing clunker like Harold and Maude has maintained a cult fanbase for 40 years befuddles me. I found little to enjoy in this obnoxious tale and actively disliked the vast majority of it. The Blu-ray delivers good picture and audio plus a small but useful set of supplements highlighted by a strong commentary. I might actively loathe this flick, but it will makes its fans happy.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.375 Stars Number of Votes: 8
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