(Spoilers ahead. Duh.)
I was sixteen at the time and working at the local library. I must have spotted the Harold and Maude paperback while reshelving books and noticed “Paramount Pictures Presents” and “Songs by Cat Stevens” on the back cover. (I listened to a lot of Cat Stevens as a depressed, small town teenager. He seemed to have had it all figured out.)
My Cat fascination led me to locate the VHS copy of this particular Paramount Picture in our library’s AV department. I remember noticing it hadn’t been checked out in months. This was not 1994’s version of a smash library hit like Return of the Jedi or Fifty Shades of Grey; this was a bizarro 1971 cult film featuring mock suicides and age play that had mysteriously made its way into the catacombs of a library located in a quiet, one-stoplighted village in western New York. Were forest gnomes to blame? Or the high school janitor with the missing hard palate? We may never know.
The day I met Harold and Maude was a day that changed my life. I had been spending my free time writing poetry about hating myself and being stuck inside the brain of an OCD sufferer who ofttimes wished she wouldn’t wake up, only to open my eyes each morning to begin the hellish cycle of Pure O all over again. Bud Cort’s Harold Chasen was stuck in a holding pattern of his own, hungry for hope, freedom and a new direction in life, but in his isolation he didn’t realize these things were possible — and without Maude to show him the way, he most definitely wouldn’t have known which steps to take. I could relate to this 20 year old kid dressed in Vietnam-era bell bottoms more than I could relate to pretty much all of the people I knew in real life. He was also cute and sweet and funny.
Ruth Gordon’s Maude was like Death of the Endless (from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman graphic novels) if Death traded in her black buckle boots and tank for your grandma’s tweedy winter coat and wool tights, then aged six human decades. Maude is old and wise. She teaches Harold about the ways of the world and how one person has the power to make it a better place, but when she does this she’s really teaching us. Aside from her horrendous driving skills, I hope to be as Maude-like as possible when I’m her age. You want to see someone who truly has no fucks to give? That person is Dame Marjorie Chardin, but you can call her Maude.
I figure I’ve probably viewed Harold and Maude approximately one hundred times since 1994. It is, without a doubt, my favorite movie of all time. That being said, I became worried a few months back, having not watched my favorite movie for a few years and wanting to but fearing that the darker events involving death by suicide that had recently occurred in my own life would change my perspective on the film in a bad way. What if I now felt it trivialized suicide? Or mocked it? Or used it to get a cheap laugh? What if I felt the deep meanings I took away from the film in the past wouldn’t hold up to a viewing today? What if the world had become so fucking painful that my precious celluloid life raft would leave me to drown in my own disillusionment? There was only one way to find out.
Had I known that director Hal Ashby’s father had suicided when Hal was 12, maybe I wouldn’t have worried. Because I shouldn’t have. If anything, Harold and Maude is even more beautiful, profound and perfect now. Now I notice things I hadn’t noticed during a hundred previous viewings: stuff on the shelves in Maude’s train car; the expression on Glaucus’ face; the observation that everything Maude says to Harold in the greenhouse about “living things” applies to him. Now it consistently brings me to tears…as it should. It’s a phenomenal movie.
I drove up to the Bay Area a few weeks ago and made it my mission to visit as many Harold and Maude filming locations as possible. What follows is a rag tag compilation of photos taken with my DSLR and my phone (depending on what I had with me at the time), as well as a YouTube video! Some images have been edited, some are raw, and some require lengthy descriptions. At any rate, I hope you enjoy this project that’s been twenty years in the making. ❤