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Friday, July 2, 2010
'Harold & Maude'/'Brewster Mccloud'
Quirky American cult flicks worth a second viewing
Does anyone remember Bud Cort? My guess is that Johnny Depp does; more than a few of his early, quirkier performances — like the wide-eyed naifs of "Arizona Dream" or "Benny & Joon" — owe a great debt to Cort's work in the 1970s. Wes Anderson does: he cast him in "The Life Aquatic" as a nod to Cort's influence. But the rest of the world?
Everyone now recognizes the 1970s as the great renaissance of American film, where the balance of power shifted from the studios to the directors, with the result being a vast number of creative, gritty, and uncompromising films . . . and an equal number of quixotic, drive-off- the-cliff indulgences, which were dumped by their studios and then died at the box office.
Many a director became the victim of being too creative for his own good, and Cort's fate was to star in two of these great cinematic vicissitudes, both on revival this month in Tokyo. Cinematic stardom probably wasn't in the cards for Cort even if his career hadn't been cut short by a near-fatal auto accident in 1979, but cult fame is now his for eternity.
"Harold & Maude" (1971), the better known of the two, was director Hal Ashby's second film. Ashby would go on to great critical and box office success — with films like "Being There," The Last Detail," and "Shampoo" — but "Harold & Maude" nearly aborted his career. A black comedy about a suicidal and neurotic young man and the elderly life- embracing granny he falls for — yes, you read that right — was just too much for most people; it closed within a week of opening, a review in Variety described it as "about as funny as a burning orphanage," and even the film's producer admitted (as quoted in Peter Biskind's "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls"): "You couldn't drag people in. The whole idea of a 20-year-old boy with an 80-year-old woman just made people want to puke."
Most people, at any rate. "Harold & Maude" was one of the earliest films to court the misfit demographic, and over time it has been embraced by anyone who's ever reached the conclusion that they don't need to fit in. Its fly-the-freak- flag high philosophy certainly was part and parcel of the times, but the film just didn't look hippie enough to take off like "Easy Rider"; on the other hand, it has aged remarkably well.
Cort played Harold, the prototypical Goth-boy, a distant, troubled 20-year-old who drives a hearse, goes to funerals for fun and is prone to faking macabre suicides in an attempt to get his self-absorbed mother's attention. He resents his socialite mother's pressure to hook him up with various potential spouses, and only comes out of his shell when he meets Maude (Ruth Gordon), a motorcycle-riding, dope-smoking, nude- art-modeling senior with little regard for society's conventions.
Ashby plays the material for some outrageous comedy, but there's a darker undercurrent of life and death that comes to the fore as the film progresses. While Harold contemplates his own early demise, Maude encourages him to live life to its fullest, to "try something new every day"; the one subtle hint as to where she's coming from is when we glimpse a number tattooed on her forearm, a clear suggestion that she survived a Nazi death camp. Ashby's own father shot himself when Hal was just 12, and the "choose life" message in "Harold & Maude" is clearly heartfelt.
Director Robert Altman had a huge hit in 1970 with his first feature film, "MASH" (which had Cort in a supporting role), but his super-eccentric sophomore effort, "Brewster McCloud" (also 1970), is barely remembered. "MASH" had swiftly aligned Altman with the American counter-culture — with its cynical views of war and religion, not to mention being the first movie ever to drop the F-bomb — and had also proven that courting that audience could lead to box-office success.
"Brewster McCloud" was less fortunate. Blame it on too much weed (Altman was a notorious inhaler), or blame it on unbridled creativity, but . . . nah, blame it on the weed. "Brewster" featured a story structure seemingly shaped by stoned free-association, with overlapping dialogue and scenes that are unconnected yet slyly commenting on each other, and all sorts of movie references buried within. (Look for who's wearing those famous ruby slippers from "The Wizard of Oz.") It's also embarrassingly silly at times. (Notably Jennifer Salt's auto-erotic scene.)
The story? Well, there's an owl-eyed boy named Brewster (Cort) who lives in a hidden nestlike cranny of the Houston Astrodome and attempts to build wings so he can fly, with the help of a benevolent and totally hot fallen angel (Sally "Hot Lips" Kellerman), while a hip San Francisco detective (Michael Murphy) arrives in town to investigate a series of murders in which the victims are buried in pigeon droppings, and a nutty, squawking professor (John Schuck) munches on bird food while lecturing on avian mating and such.
It gets stranger. So strange, in fact, that when that absolutely generic staple of cinema, the car chase, turns up, you're left wondering why the film's gotten "normal" all of a sudden. (It was choreographed by the same guy who did "Bullitt.") This was Altman's most WTF film, but these days it looks a lot more lovable in its quirkiness, especially Cort's proto-Depp ability to project a dorky, otaku-esque anti-cool, both innocent and insane.
What is it about? Well, trying to fly, when "the man" just wants to drag you down, maaan . . . i.e. a rather 1970s- specific conception of freedom in the face of mean-spirited rednecks, cops, and politicians that seems a bit stark these days. It may be one of those messy experiments you admire more for the fact that somebody had the balls to actually make it than for how it turned out, but there are pleasures enough here for Altman fans to give it a look.