Monday, May 19, 2014

Harold and Maude: The Best Wes Anderson Film that Wes Anderson Didn’t Make | Guest Post

by Brandon Engel

Wes Anderson is the darling of contemporary populist filmmaking. Most people love him, and everyone is familiar with him. The scripts for his films are well written. His music choices are distinctive and usually fit the tone of his films nicely. His characters are well-constructed and relatable. One of the things that makes his work so endearing to fans is that he manages to integrate elements of nostalgic sentimentality without his films feeling overwrought — a little too cutesy at times, maybe, but he usually manages to temper this.

Whatever your personal feelings are about the man and his work, Anderson is one of the most distinguished contemporary filmmakers. Obviously though, as with any sort of artmaking, nothing is born from nothing — which is another way of saying that everything is informed by something. Anderson owes much of his trademark aesthetic sensibility to the directors who influenced him, and perhaps none more so than Hal Ashby. Hearken back a few decades to Ashby’s cult comedy Harold and Maude (1971), and you can see that the film essentially sets the template for virtually every film that Anderson has ever made — if not thematically, than at least in terms of style.

Harold and Maude tells the story of a young man named Harold (Bud Cort) who lives in the United States in an opulent home with a mother of undisclosed European ancestry (Vivian Pickles). Harold has a peculiar fascination with death, which stems from his equally peculiar relationship with his mother. Harold drives a hearse, routinely stages elaborate prank suicides to shock her, and prefers to spend his time attending funerals. Never funerals of anyone he knows, however.

Already, you can see a major similarity to Anderson’s work. The comical ennui of wealthy, disenchanted children, set against the backdrop of an affluent (albeit, dysfunctional) household, a la The Royal Tenenbaums.

Harold’s mother insists on setting him up on a series of dates, and Harold manages to sabotage every single one with his pranks. He does become smitten eventually though, with a rambunctious, free-spirited woman sixty years his senior named Maude (Ruth Gordon). The pair meet at a stranger’s funeral, and afterwards, Maude offers to drive Harold home in a car she steals from the priest. The two begin an odd courtship. Together, they steal vehicles, eat picnics in front of housing demolition sites, sing songs, and generally make merry.

If you haven’t seen the film, this might all sound nihilistic and deranged. And to some degree, it is. But it also manages to be strangely life affirming and light-hearted. The soundtrack is provided by Cat Stevens, which provides additional aesthetic similarity to Wes Anderson’s films, particularly his soundtrack for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. It is the sort of lilting acoustic guitar music which manages to accentuate both the melancholic and pleasant undertones of the film.

Its ending is less than uplifting, but on the whole, it is what you might call a “feel good movie” in spite of, or partially because of, its darker themes. It bears repeated viewing also; there are a number of subtle narrative devices that you might not catch on the first viewing (pay particular attention to the picnic scene, and also the sequence where Harold speaks with his psychologist, priest, and Vietnam veteran uncle).

It didn’t perform phenomenally at the box office upon its initial release, and the film was most certainly not without its neighsayers (Ebert particularly disliked the film). But, Hal Ashby’s classic should be required viewing for any die-hard Wes Anderson fan, and while it was rather difficult to find rental copies back in the day when Blockbuster dominated that market, it has enjoyed something of a resurgence in popularity in recent years, due largely to the fact that it can be streamed off sites like Netflix or found “on demand” with DTV and similar cable providers.

Perhaps one day, Harold and Maude will get the mainstream attention it deserves. I suppose that we can at least be thankful that Wes Anderson has kept the spirit of the film alive within his own body of work.


  1. OMG! I love this movie so much. So happy to find a fellow blogger who feels the same way. Excellent review. This film was just ahead of its time.

    1. I love it a lot too but never saw how it was an inspiration for Wes Anderson before!


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