Last night had the singular pleasure of almost getting killed with my friend Keith. We were walking around downtown DC, killing time before a late movie, and looking for a bar or a restaurant that wasn't packed or at least not packed with jerks. The weather has been bad in DC lately, making some of the roads treacherously narrow with mounded snow. At one particular intersection (F and 10 NW), the bright white hand indicated that we could begin to cross and we did so.
At the same time, a large red SUV clearly marked as an EMS vehicle began to make a left turn directly into us. When it was perhaps 20 feet away we both stopped and stared at its progression. We were clearly visible, Keith clad in an iridescent white jacket, and directly in front of the driver's field of vision. "Is this actually happening?" I asked.
It's hard to say how close it was before the drive finally noticed us and adjusted his trajectory, but it felt very, very close. I noticed the particular pattern the street lamps made on the red fender of the vehicle; shining little flecks in the paint that made it shimmer like the individual stars in a galaxy, while still having a smooth finish. "What the hell?" I asked out loud.
It was at that point that I saw the driver's face, mouth open in utter terror, as the SUV swerved away from us. Obviously, I can never know what went through the driver's mind when he finally saw us, but his face communicated a very clear message to me: "I am about to kill two people in an idiotic and avoidable traffic accident that is clearly my fault, and the irony of doing so in an EMS vehicle is very apparent to me."
I mention all of this because it is funny but also because Keith and I were headed to see Harold and Maude before we were nearly killed. For those unaware, Harold and Maude is a '70s cult classic film that focuses on three things: the music of Cat Stevens, cars, and death. The titular Harold is a 19-year old with something of a death obsession, who rebels against his mother and his phenomenally privileged life-style by driving hearses, attending the funerals of strangers, and frequently faking suicidal deaths. It's at a funeral that he meets Maude, a free-spirited and rebellious woman on the cusp of octogenarian-hood.
The film is, in a word, delicious. The humor oozes out of every scene, with actors playing brilliantly off each other. The story itself is lovingly constructed so that every moment has meaning, and tells us a little more about the characters. Its satire is crippling, quietly eviscerating just about every beloved modern American institution: the church, the Army, the family, psychiatry. By tearing these down, the film challenges the way we look at life and death. Why drive a fancy car? Why not pose for ice-sculptors? Why not casually steal cars, and be disarmingly honest and kind? Why don't we all steal more trees? Why don't we live our lives on our own terms, and not fear an inevitable death?
Don't be fooled by the philosophy, though. The movie cherishes its characters, even the most reviled. Everyone is charming, vulnerable, and even likable in their own way.
The essence of the film, as I understand it, is conveniently stated by Maude. She holds up a daisy, one of many where she and Harold are sitting, and says, "The trouble with people is that they are one of these," indicating the flower, "but we let ourselves get treated like one of those." The camera zooms out as they stand, showing an endless field of white gravestones that cascade down hills and spread across ravines. We are flowers, but we let ourselves be treated like corpses.
I'd like to conclude by talking about a specific part of the film that I found to be especially interesting. However, it occurs at the end of the movie and I don't want to ruin anyone's personal enjoyment of it. I've already done that once this week. So: SPOILER ALERT. Nothing specific, but I am just covering my bases.
What truly touched me about the movie was the actual character growth. Most films will present someone with a major character defect, and then at some point that character will break and become something new and better. We've come to accept this about-face as character growth, but it's really not. It's a complete change, not growth. You may as well substitute a completely different character in for the first, because the two have little connection. Growth happens slowly, almost imperceptibly. It is a natural progression, that you can feel the shape of without knowing what will happen next.
Over the course of the film, Harold truly grows. He learns to like people, and then he learns to love people. The penultimate moment of the film is the cusp of a transformation. Sad Harold is about to give himself over to a life of love, and probably become Happy Harold: a one-dimensional being of pure joy that we all can look at admiringly, but know we will never attain. However, the story won't let that happen. In the end, Harold learns not just to like and love but to live: and he does this by letting go.
This movie savors the painful and beautiful parts of existence, and reminds us that life is strange and wonderful. Life is living, and living is motion through sorrow and joy. But it's all worthwhile, as long as we don't live like we're dead.