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NU Film Society to screen “Harold and Maude”

Harold and Maude

NEW ULM–The New Ulm Film Society will continue its NU Hollywood film series this Tuesday with a free screening of the  1971 dark comedy “Harold and Maude.”

“Harold and Maude” is about a death obsessed young man named Harold, played by Bud Cort, who learns to live life to the fullest after meeting Maude, a 79-year-old woman played by Ruth Gordon.

The film is primarily a comedy, but since the theme of death and dying is at the forefront most critics cite is as dark comedy. At the start of the film Harold has only two great joys in life. The first involves staging elaborate suicides at his mother’s expense. In the first ten minutes of the film Harold pretends to hang himself and cut his wrists. Later he admits to his therapist his only other joy in life is attending the funerals of strangers. Harold’s fixation on death even extends to his car. He could afford to drive around in any type of vehicle, but chooses a hearse.

Despite the fake suicides and funeral scenes the film is staged with enough whimsy and dry wit to make it funny rather than horrific. Once Harold meets his polar opposite in Maude the film begins to take on a more optimistic tone. Maude is excited by life and finds joy in nearly everything she does. Gordon portrays Maude with a genuine sense excitement and zest for life. Maude seems incapable of seeing the negative side of the world, which is inspiring since hints of her past suggest traumatic youth.

The film’s optimistic tone is reflected in the film’s soundtrack. Cat Stevens composed and performed most of the music heard in the film. The song “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out” was originally written for “Harold and Maude” and is played multiple times throughout the film. The song has since become one of Steven’s most famous songs.

The film was directed by Hal Ashby who liked to make films about outsiders. Ashby was older than most of his NU Hollywood contemporaries but he adapted to the counter culture scene of the late ’60s and the film reflects the anti-establishment sentiments of the time. Harold starts by rebelling against his mother’s wishes, but once he meets Maude this rebellion extends to law enforcement, military figures, therapists and even members of the clergy. No respected institution is beyond ridicule.

“Harold and Maude” is most subversive in its treatment of romantic relationships. Even today it is still common to cast on screen love interests with an older male actor and young actress but “Harold and Maude” dared to show a romance in which the female lead is 60 years older than the male lead. Of all the conventions broken by “Harold and Maude” this is the one that still seems the most transgressive.

In hindsight audience in the early ’70s were not ready for this type of film. It performed poorly at the box office and upon initial release it received mixed to poor reviews. Audiences and critics were uncertain what to make of the film. The tone was so unusual and many found the characters to be off putting. Harold and Maude did not turn a profit until 1983, over a decade after it was released.

By the ’80s the film developed a cult following among younger audiences embracing the unusual nature of the film. Over the next few decades dozens of writers and directors would imitate the style and tone of Harold and Maude and many critics have re-evaluated the film as an overlooked classic.

In 2000, the American Film Institute (AFI) put Harold and Maude on its list of 100 best American comedies. A few years later AFI also placed on the list of the 100 Most Inspiring American Films.

Harold and Maude will screen at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 13 at the New Ulm Public Library. Come early to learn more about the film and vote on the theme for the next film series.

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