Growing up, I remember hearing stories of people saying that a certain band or singer saved their life through music, or a writer that spoke to them so personally that it convinced them to keep living. I never understood this. I used to find it so childish when somebody would contribute their own success to somebody else. I still believe to this day that it's not the media itself that saves someone, but the person's own will power, extra things can only help. Up until I was 16 I never understood why somebody could say that a movie "saved them," until I came across a particular film by Hal Ashby. A film called Harold and Maude.
It is impossible to personally know me for more than a week without discovering my obsession with Harold and Maude. For those who don't know, it is a 1971 black comedy film written by Colin Higgins and directed by Hal Ashby. It tells the story of a 20 year old man named Harold Chasen who has grown such a disdain for life and his mother that he stages daily fake suicides to shock her. Harold has absolutely no friends and will often attend random funerals for fun. His overbearing mother has been trying desperately to find him a wife while he shows no interest in anything but death. That might sound macabre and grotesque but I promise this is one of the most heartfelt movies out there. The heart comes from the character, Maude, a 79 year old woman that Harold meets at one of these funerals. The film explores the evolution of Harold and Maude's relationship over the week they knew each other.
Maude, is a particularly special character. She's played incredibly by Ruth Gordon, who was famous for starring in Rosemary's Baby, and had been working in the film industry since 1915. As a character, Maude has a distinct lust for life, she's irresponsible, and terminally positive. Her hobbies include, attending funerals, collecting trinkets, and stealing cars. In a lot of ways, she is the polar opposite of Harold Chasen. She lives in the moment, she wants to live with no regrets. In the dark and gloomy crowd of a funeral, she is the one with the yellow umbrella. At one of these funerals that the two frequent, Harold and Maude officially meet, become fast friends, and spend every waking moment together. Despite their monumental age gap, the two become inseparable. First as friends, but eventually as boyfriend and girlfriend, a union that shocks and disgusts everyone around them. Together they steal and replant a tree, hang around in fields, piss off police officers, and dance around the house in kimonos. By the end of the film, the character we once saw staging fake suicides is now doing cartwheels in the grass.
I discovered Harold and Maude in the winter of 2020, during the peak of my battle with clinical anxiety and suicidal depression. I was a junior in high school, I couldn't get through a remote class without bursting into tears, I was getting stress-induced nosebleeds regularly, and my relationships with my friends were struggling. I distinctly remember shutting myself in my room for days on end simply just to watch as many films as possible. I laid in bed and consumed movie after movie, from Chaplin, to Kubrick, to Scorsese, I was averaging at least 50 films a week, and as much as I love movies, it wasn't healthy. In the midst of this self-destructive movie binge I somehow came across Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude after hearing a positive review from a Youtuber. Something about the film's philosophy of life struck a chord with me. I can still remember the first time I heard Ruth Gordon say "Reach out! Take a chance! Get hurt maybe. But play as well as you can...otherwise you'll have nothing to talk about in the locker room."
I don't think I'll be met with much objection when I say that people with clinical depression are sick of being told to "just cheer up." At the time it seemed like everywhere I went there were signs with some phony positive slogan, or infographics on Instagram posted solely for people to appear charitable. I was sick of it, but there was something about Harold and Maude that felt special. It's not until you're a good portion through the film that the audience is finally given the backstories of the two main characters. Harold Chasen witnessed his mother hear the false news that he had died in an explosion while at school, and her reaction made him "enjoy being dead." We also find out from a very brief shot that Maude has numbers tattooed on her forearm from being imprisoned in a concentration camp. The uplifting, hopeful nature of this movie resonated with me so much because the sentiment was coming from characters who had gone through their own personal hell. They would never be able to achieve happiness if they had not known misery first. It's the cliché "rainbow after rain" analogy but this time it felt different.
Harold and Maude not only worked wonders for me, but it also helped my mom. For months, my mother had to witness her first born child struggle with suicidal ideology and debilitating anxiety attacks. The few moments of peace that I can remember from that time were all of my mother and I sitting on the couch, watching Harold and Maude. When I was finally hospitalized for psychiatric help, it was the first film that I watched with my mom during my four days in the emergency room. For me, Harold and Maude was medicine, a balm during an extraordinarily difficult time in my life. Even now, nearly two years after my hospitalization, I still turn to the film whenever I want to feel held and seen. I don't think I will ever stop recommending it for as long as I live. While I was walking across the stage to receive my diploma on graduation, I even sported my very own Harold and Maude themed grad cap that my dad and I had constructed together on the dining room table.
I still find it difficult to say that a piece of media "saved" my life because at the end of the day, I'm the one who saved my life. But I'll always remember how much of an impact Harold and Maude left on me while I was at my lowest. If you're someone who's feeling a little lost like I was, don't hesitate to give it a watch, it'll surprise you. And Lastly, if you want to sing out, sing out!
If you or someone you know is suffering from suicidal ideation, please do not hesitate to dial the Suicide and Crisis Hotline at their new, abbreviated number: 988