Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Harold and Maude: The Criterion Blu-ray review

[Note: All screengrabs in this piece are taken from the old Paramount DVD release of Harold and Maude and are by no means indicative of the video quality of this Blu-ray.]

Trying to find something profound or insightful to say about Harold and Maude feels like an exercise in futility; anything I’ve got, the film already says about 20 times more eloquently, yet let’s give it a whirl, but be warned, because you’re gonna get tons of “me, me, me” in this piece. I can’t write about the movie any other way. It’s too personal. Nor do I wish to offer up some kind of plot summary, which would be pointless. If you’ve not already seen this movie, then just go buy this disc, you poor bastard, and if you don’t like it, I don’t want to know you. There are few movies that grab me emotionally the way this one does; some of the others that do, like Shampoo, are also directed by Hal Ashby, who was one of the most gifted visual storytellers that ever lived. The guy had a knack for finding truth in the most unlikely of places; he made a career out of it. This ability of his was never more obvious than in Harold and Maude, the story of the awkward, depressed young man (Bud Cort) who falls for a free-spirited lover of life (Ruth Gordon) that’s four times his age.

Remember those people who were diagnosed with a sort of depression after seeing Avatar, because they were so affected by the movie that they wanted to live in that world, but couldn’t? Harold and Maude is my Avatar. It guts me. I have to be careful about the frame of mind I’m in when I watch it, otherwise it’s liable to send me spiraling into a state of melancholy, much like yesterday’s viewing of this Blu-ray did. This is an odd reaction to such a life-affirming movie, but I think the reason I respond like this is because it’s a reminder that I’m not living my life as fully and with as much joy as I should.

It’s so easy to be pessimistic in this day and age, because our culture is drenched in cynicism. How do you fight against what’s in front of you at every turn? Further complicating the issue is that there’s a potential price to pay for not joining in on the group skepticism and that’s that you may not be taken seriously. You may even, heaven forbid, be labeled na├»ve. Most everything we are as a culture today is the exact opposite of what Harold and Maude is (was?) about. If I could, I’d sit the entire country down, pass around joints, bongs and baked goods, and make everyone watch Harold and Maude simultaneously. If it made a dent for just one day, it’d be worth it.

One of my favorite lines, depending on which day I’m talking about the movie, is Maude’s, when she’s dealing with an angry police officer (played by an uncredited Tom Skerritt): “Don't get officious. You're not yourself when you're officious. That is the curse of a government job.” Harold and Maude is all about challenging authority, and it was part of a whole wave of films that were doing just that, although few of them managed to do it as sweetly as this one. It was made in era when film really took authority to task in a way it doesn’t today. Maybe it reflected the times. Back then people thought they could make a difference and cause change. They felt their opinions carried some weight and that authority figures like politicians had some decency buried deep inside them that was just waiting to be dragged to the surface. Nixon probably changed a lot of that, but certainly today – and this goes back to the rampant cynicism – too many people believe less in challenging authority than they do in dismantling it altogether.

So I guess Harold and Maude takes me to a time that I never got to experience (having been born about a month before the film’s release), and it does it in a way that’s not even remotely preachy or maudlin or nostalgic (or maybe it’s all of those things?). It’s a story of two people who’ve experienced tragedy and hurt and pain, and how one of them overcame it long ago, and is now intent on helping the other through the rough times, so they can both get to a better place. Folks have often placed an emphasis on the romance between the two leads, but that’s the last thing I think about when it comes to Harold and Maude, because it’s about so much more than that. There are a million romance flicks out there - many of them with pairings far stranger than this one - but there is only one Harold and Maude.

Having dealt with Harold and Maude for years now through Paramount’s DVD release (and before that on Paramount’s laserdisc), it’s never really occurred to me how much of an overhaul this movie might need, but the difference between that disc and this Criterion Blu-ray is pretty revelatory in terms of picture quality. Whereas before the movie was mired in muddy dark browns and greens, on this Blu-ray it’s now covered in eye-popping dark browns and greens, not to mention a whole other palette of surprising colors that I was never able to notice before. I often wonder with Criterion discs if some of these old movies look better than they did upon release. This one certainly looks better than I’ve seen it before, and in fact when I went back and looked at the Paramount DVD for screengrab purposes, I was rather stunned by how bad it looked. Also, in addition to the original uncompressed mono soundtrack, this edition offers up a newly remastered stereo track. The music of Cat Stevens has never sounded so good in a feature film.

Hey Criterion! More Hal Ashby on Blu-ray! Shampoo, pretty please!?!? You did that one many years ago on laserdisc and it’s time to go back to the well. 

Director Hal Ashby's Hitchcock cameo
Blu-ray Extras: In a perfect world, the special features here would be considerably more extensive, or at the very least there’d be interviews or commentaries with Bud Cort and/or Vivian Pickles[1], but alas, ‘tis not to be. Perhaps it was the lovely little 2011 interview with Yusef/Cat Stevens that made me want more? Yes, that must have been it. Because before this Criterion disc came along, I was satisfied with the content of the nearly bare bones Paramount DVD I’ve had for years. In addition to talking with Cat, there are vintage audio pieces (that play over montages) with both Hal Ashby and screenwriter Colin Higgins from ’72 and ’79 respectively, taken from Harold Lloyd Masters Seminars. An informative commentary track alternating between Ashby biographer Nick Dawson and the film’s producer Charles B. Mulvehill rounds out the disc’s bonus features. (The two theatrical trailers on the Paramount disc have not made the leap, I’m afraid to report.)

Additionally, the Blu-ray includes one of those fine inner booklets that Criterion does so well. This one spans 36 pages and is full of cute little Harold and Maude illustrations in the same vein as the cover art. It features: A new essay entitled “Life and How to Live It,” by one of the most insightful, not to mention dangerous, living movie/TV critics, Matt Zoller Seitz (whom, it must be said, I also call a friend); a reprint of a 1971 New York Times article/interview with Ruth Gordon by Leticia Kent entitled “A Boy of Twenty and a Woman of Eighty”; a transcript of a 1997 conversation between Bud Cort, cinematographer John Alonzo, and James Rogers of the Colin Higgins Trust; lastly, there’s a short 2001 interview conducted by Rogers with the film’s executive producer, Mildred Lewis, and her family, entitled “Meeting Colin Higgins.”

 [1] Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon have quite understandably gotten all the glory for Harold and Maude over the years, but damn it, Vivian Pickles, who plays Harold’s mother, is just as good as the two leads, and maybe as important to the goings-on. Through many viewings, I’ve come to really appreciate what this actress brought to the movie, and how spot on her portrayal is of a mother very much at wits end and utterly ill-equipped to deal with her emotionally disturbed son. Again, like so much of this movie, Mrs. Chasen is very much a character of her time, yet the character transcends the decades and works every bit as well today. Nearly every word that comes out of her mouth is priceless and every move she makes is calculated comedic perfection. Pickles just doesn’t get nearly enough credit for her work here.