An experiment was once done in which a screenwriter submitted a script titled “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” to over two hundred agencies, of which only three considered it “commercially viable”. In fact, the script was a slightly altered version of Casablanca - and not one agent who bothered to read it recognized it as such.
So imagine the response of agents and film producers now if they had read the screenplay for the cult classic Harold and Maude.
Harold Chasen is seventeen years old, living with his wealthy mother in luxurious yet suffocating conformity. Two of his favorite pastimes are staging fake suicides and attending the funerals of total strangers. At one of these funerals, he meets a free-spirited elderly woman named Maude, and they become friends. Maude’s cheerful yet eccentric behavior not only appeals to Harold, but teaches him to embrace life more fully, and in time their friendship becomes a love affair – much to the shock of the more conventional folks around him.
Harold and Maude seems to defy convention by being both dark and light in its comedy, while also mixing in poignant moments in its dialogue and visual symbolism to provide some serious commentary on how our society appears to repress individuality. The character of Maude has been compared to the trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, yet I would refute this – Maude may bubble over with youthful exuberance, but she also possesses genuine wisdom and insight, such as in this excerpt:
Not to mention the fact that Harold actually grows as a result of Maude’s encouragement, finally moving beyond his morbid antics into a full embrace of life, still quirky yet very much in tune with his true self, and indeed healing. The ending leaves it open where he’s going, but we feel assured that he’s finally on a path that will lead him forward.
Many have commented that Harold and Maude is deeply existential, with Harold representing alienated nihilism, and Maude the response of living with purpose and free choice. Yet I would contend that it is about how our society ignores, marginalizes and attempts to control those who don’t “fit in” – including and especially youth (Harold) and elders (Maude) – and attempts to address how we might respond. I believe this motif is best expressed in this pivotal scene:
As the above scene shows, there are spiritual consequences to how we deal with difference in our society – and in our UU congregations. How best do we respond to that? This film, I believe, gives us insights into doing so. We need not march in picket lines or steal cars, nor retreat into obsession over the dark side of human nature, but instead embrace with joy our capacity to change and grow each day, and encourage those around us to do the same.