Two great films embrace life and death
Last night, three female friends came over to my place to watch the 1971 classic film Harold and Maude. In previous conversation, we had discovered that this movie was an all-time favourite for all of us, so I invited them for a group screening.
What a hoot. As my husband would say, this movie “has legs” even four decades after it was made. It was wonderful to watch this much-loved flick again and savour its irreverence. This movie is a tremendous affirmation to live life to its fullest, follow your heart, and embrace both life and death as an ongoing continuum. Ironically, without my realizing it until later, this informal screening took place four months to the day that my dad died.
I don’t want to spoil plot specifics for those who haven’t seen it, but the film follows the coming together of a death-obsessed young man and an almost-80-year-old woman who share hilarious antics to the consternation of police, Harold’s wealthy, uptight mother, his shrink, priest, and wacky military uncle. The characters and dialogue are truly delightful. Stars Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort capture the perfect blend of rebellious eccentricity, gutsy imagination, go-for-it spirit, and refusal to conform to mind-numbing routine. They’re great role models for anyone who’s a creative anarchist at heart.
I was surprised at some of the scenes that I had forgotten and relished again; to avoid a spoiler alert, I won’t recount them. Several times, the movie makes a point of mentioning that what Harold and Maude are drinking or eating is “organic”; this was 4o years ago — the mainstream world is just waking up to such choices now.
Director Hal Ashby, who also directed another irreverent classic, Being There, has a cameo in the film as a scruffy, bearded guy in a midway complex. Screenwriter Colin Higgins unfortunately died of AIDS in 1988 at the age of 47. The screenplay for Harold and Maude came out of his MFA screenwriting thesis at UCLA. He also wrote and directed Nine to Five in 1980 and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas in 1982. Before he died, he set up the Colin Higgins Foundation to further his humanitarian goals.
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Another intriguing film that tackles fearlessness towards death is the National Film Board documentary Griefwalker. Made in 2008 by Tim Wilson, it follows the spiritual activist Stephen Jenkinson as he counsels dying people, their loved ones, clinicians, and “people of the cloth” to befriend death, rather than try and avoid or deny it. This Harvard-trained theologian, who canoes, traps animals, and shares a deep reverence for life, death, and the earth, says there’s “a hole inside most of us and it’s in the approximate shape of a soul.”
The filmmaker felt prompted to explore his own relationship with death after he wound up on life support and almost succumbed to a sudden post-surgery infection. The tone and visual impact of this movie are like a moving Zen koan with captivating nature close-ups and Jenkinson’s wise, inspirational words.