An Analysis of Hal Ashby’s film Harold & Maude
Though there are many things to draw upon in the film, to me I felt that both Harold and Maude were representations of different environments. Maude, in this case, symbolizes not only the natural environment but also true meaning; whereas Harold can be seen to symbolize a societal environment as well as the meaninglessness that arises from created tensions. Maude’s experience with oppression is, no doubt, drowning in meaning that is born from time spent in a concentration camp (Hal Ashby, the director, does an excellent job of only providing us with a glimpse of this as her tattoo, perhaps as a way to bring more awareness to the meaningful effect and not so much the oppressive cause). In this way, her connection with existence is powerful and her actions are willfully significant. Harold, on the other hand, a youth during the Vietnam War, shows no real significance or meaning for his obsession with death. We are given no insight into his past to suggest a purposeful reason for his attention-seeking place in society.
Hal Ashby creates Maude as a character who appreciates Nature’s gifts and embraces the impermanence of everything that makes up a life. Ashby animates her with a yellow umbrella after a funeral to subtly remind us of death as a part of life, and even makes several relations of her with breath: For example, her letting Harold breathe an oxygen tank filled with flavors of snowfall; showing him the yoga breath called “breath of fire”; letting him smoke from her hookah water pipe; and, most importantly, her concern, care, and love for plants—showing the importance of a coexistence not only with humans, but also with Nature; as plants and animals work together to provide breath and life for one another.
Maude also seems to be a rejection of any adopted moralities; we can assume as a result of her experiences in the Holocaust. Though Harold points out to her the ‘immorality’ of taking people’s cars and upsetting people, she continues to do so based on her own intent and not that which is imposed on her or implied from some alternative ‘morality’.
Slowly we see Harold accepting his existence, as a warm blood runs through his once pale face toward the end of the film. The ultimate affirmation for him is when he sends his hearse over a cliff onto the ocean’s shore. Perhaps synonymous with emptiness and meaninglessness, his hearse was once something that (literally and metaphorically) drove him through life, casting a grim murkiness onto his perceptions of existence. The hearse being sent onto the ocean’s shore can also be seen as a reuniting of life (the ocean which bores existence) and death (symbolized by the hearse).
His ability to affirm existence after Maude’s death is shown in the final scene when he strums his banjo—creating a ‘music’ for life—while walking amidst the lengths oforganic, natural phenomenon.