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No. 4: “Harold and Maude” (1971)

“A lot of people enjoy being dead. But they are not dead, really. They’re just backing away from life.” ~~Maude Chardin

Director Hal Ashby announces his intentions for “Harold and Maude” in the opening scene, and those intentions are, shall we say, a bit impish: Rich, purposeless 20-something Harold Chasen (Bud Cort) swings from a noose while his mother (Vivian Pickles) can’t be bothered to end her phone call. Staged suicides, we learn, are common in the palatial Chasen homestead and no cause for alarm — just annoying interruptions in mom’s quest to marry off her son. Those young adults, the things they do to stave off ennui.

And so begins “Harold and Maude,” an unconventional romantic comedy where the pursuit of life trumps all that mushy love stuff (yippee). But perhaps “unconventional” isn’t the right word to describe Ashby’s movie, for it hardly captures all the wild weirdness that makes the movie — based on Colin Higgins’ novel — such a strangely moving affirmation of life.

First there’s the mishmash of bizarreness to muddle through. It’s no wonder everyone calls this one a “cult classic”; “Love Story” it ain’t. (Chorus from Broken Record Girl: yippee.) Harold’s got absolutely no interest in life. But he’s cheeks over teacups in love with death, or at least the idea of it, so he spends his time staging elaborate suicides (the human torch bit is a personal favorite) and attending random funerals. It’s there, in a graveyard, that he meets Maude Chardin (Ruth Gordon), a 79-year-old widow with an irrepressibly optimistic worldview and a knack for lifting cars. She senses Harold’s stuck in limbo, so she befriends him, slowly wearing down his resistance. At first Harold is simply a tagalong in Maude’s madcap adventures — including the liberation of a potted tree that ends in a side-splitting car chase — but gradually he becomes a participant. The shift is subtle, but when you do take notice it’s so powerful that it almost knocks you over.

Which is true of “Harold and Maude” as a whole. At its core the film is a beautiful message movie, a retelling of that time-honored “carpe diem” speech. It’s the unusual script, however, that makes the message seem fresh. Higgins’ novel dials down the sentamentality and avoids cliches, and so, too, does Ashby’s film. Ashby elects to bury the insights underneath all the blackly funny suicides and Maude’s antics. (The scene where she plays war protestor to Harold’s gung-ho recruit? Priceless.) Instead, Ashby lets the insights emerge in quieter moments, like the one where Maude, desperate to save that potted tree from its stifling life of city servitude, tells Harold: “Grab the shovel.” It’s a little scene, a throwaway little line, but what punch it has. “Harold and Maude” is jam-packed with these kinds of brilliant moments. And like any truly great movie, there’s just no end to them.

Those moments probably wouldn’t mean much without Cort and Gordon, who turn in wonderful performances as good today as they were in 1971. It’s a tricky dance, shifting from dark comedy to drama and back, but these two do it beautifully. Cort’s Harold is a strange creature, a boy who can’t fully embrace life but lacks the guts to commit suicide, and that is off-putting at first. But there’s a deep current of fear in Harold that Cort makes painfully real. “I haven’t lived. I’ve died a few times,” he says. What 20-year-old, staring into that void between youth and adulthood, hasn’t felt the same? Gordon plays nicely off that negative energy, making Maude less a lover (though there’s a scene that suggests she is) than a teacher. She wants to reach Harold, show him what it means to take that fear and use it, channel it. But she’s no soapbox preacher. She couldn’t give a fig about morality: “It’s best not to be too moral. You cheat yourself out of too much life.”

That, you see, is Maude’s gift to Harold and Ashby’s gift to us: the reminder that backing away from life is its own kind of suicide. Call me sentimental, but when that truth’s hidden in a film this haunting, poignant, comical and original? I’ll fall for it every time.

Embrace the mush: A few really good V.D. flicks

I made this New Year’s resolution, see, that it seems I’m going to have to keep in the face of the most unspeakable, unholy, unfathomable truth: Saturday is Valentine’s Day.

Still, I am nothing if not steadfast in keeping resolutions, and so I will struggle valiantly to accomplish Number One on my list: Do things people don’t expect. And you see, anyone who knows me will tell you the LAST thing I’d ever do on or near V.D. is make a list of ooshy, gooshy Valentine’s Day movies that warm this cold, cold heart of mine like a Snuggie.

Yet do the unexpected I must, so I dug down deep (whoa, alliterate much?) into the darkest corner of my psyche and unearthed a list of romantic movies — some comedy, some drama, some a McCombo of both — I’ll watch any day of the year, but especially on Valentine’s Day.

Because as it turns out, there is a tiny shred of romance left in me.

Great. I outed myself. Congratulations, universe. You win.

* “Lars and the Real Girl” — How could a film about a man in love with a life-size, anatomically-correct doll be funny, whimsical and deeply moving, you ask? There’s no way to explain it; you have to see it for yourself. What Ryan Gosling accomplishes as Lars, a tactile-phobic recluse, is spectacular. The expressions, the gestures, the quiet lines of dialogue all add up to an enormously entertaining little movie that’s as much a coming-of-age movie as a romantic comedy. This is beautiful, masterful work.

* “Slumdog Millionaire” — I suspect throwing “Slumdog” in the mix is cheating because it’s not out of theaters yet, but this is the kind of sweeping, decades-spanning romance that could not be left out. From frame one, “Slumdog” stamped out all my cynicism with its wild tale of two star-crossed lovers, Latika (Freida Pinto) and Jamal (Dev Patel), who spend a lifetime trying to reconnect. There’s passion, drama, intrigue, excitement and a soul-satisfying kiss. What more do you need?

* “Harold and Maude” — I’ve blathered on endlessly about my love for this 1971 cult favorite, but I’ll repeat myself (the movie’s that good): This is the kind of movie that redefines the rom-com genre. This is what romantic comedies should be: quirky (what’s quirkier than a life-loving octogenarian dating a morbid, death-obsessed teen-age boy?), intelligent, thoughtful, unexpectedly touching and life-affirming. It’s a work of art, plain and true, and it deserves a spot in the heart of anyone who appreciates truly original romantic movies.

* “Benny and Joon” — There’s nothing I love more than a romantic comedy that’s about more than two characters locking lips, and “Benny and Joon” fits the bill. This quaint little jewel tells the tale of an illiterate, Buster Keaton-imitating eccentric (Johnny Depp) and a whip-smart schizophrenic (Mary Stuart Masterson) who meet, change each others’ lives and then fall in love. This one aims to warm the cockles of the heart. Consider them warmed.

* “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” — “Sunshine” isn’t so much a movie as a total experience for the mind, the heart and the senses. The costumes and colors and sequences are overwhelmingly original, and then there’s the plain love story: an emotional hermit (Jim Carrey) falls for an impulsive free spirit (Kate Winslet), and their relationship is simultaneously expectedly mundane and beautifully epic. And that, perhaps, is what makes “Sunshine” so brilliant; after all, isn’t every relationship boring and legendary in the mind of the lovers involved in it?

* “Definitely, Maybe” — Here’s a movie I walked into expecting to hate (the trailers alone made me gag) and walked out of thoroughly impressed. You see, “Definitely, Maybe” is smarter and twistier than the average rom-com; it uses the girl-meets-boy formula (times three, actually) but subverts it, then serves up an ending that is satisfying yet completely unexpected. It doesn’t hurt that it stars three first-rate actresses — Isla Fisher, Elizabeth Banks, Rachel Weisz — who understand the importance of subtlety and comic timing. This is a romantic comedy for people who enjoy using their brains to watch movies.

* “Under the Tuscan Sun” — OK, confession time: I’ll watch any movie starring Diane Lane. She’s an actress of such vulnerability and wit that she elevates every project she takes on (well, except for “Untraceable”). “Tuscan Sun” is no exception. This is another gem that uses your own expectations against you, surprises you at almost every turn and leaves you feeling all warm and happy inside. As Frances, a divorcee who buys a crumbling villa in Italy, Lane is divine, and she’s surrounded by a strong cast — including Sandra Oh — against the backdrop of beyond-gorgeous Tuscany. If this one doesn’t lift your spirits, it’s because you have none.

* “High Fidelity” — Ah, nothing beats a movie that lets John Cusack do what he does best: Be John Cusack. (If you don’t get what that means, ask any reasonably intelligent woman. They get it.) And “High Fidelity” gives us Cusack at his witty, snarky best as Rob, a music snob reeling over a breakup with his girlfriend. His narration alone is great, but what makes “High Fidelity” memorable — and timeless — is Rob’s transformation from selfish S.O.B. to actual human being. And Jack Black’s in it. That doesn’t hurt, either.

* “Secretary” — Call me a cynic, but I fell hard for this WAY offbeat pitch-black romantic comedy about a self-mutilating secretary (Maggie Gyllenhaal, who makes me go all aquiver inside even though I am a heterosexual woman) who engages in a little S&M with her unflinchingly rigid lawyer boss (James Spader). This isn’t “Debbie Does Dallas,” though — far from it. It’s the story of two outsiders who discover common interests — in this case, uh, bondage and whips — and begin to open themselves to the possibility of happiness and romance. They get all the neuroses and love each other because (not in spite of) them. I can’t think of anything more romantic than that.

* “Sideways” — For me, “Sideways” will forever be the movie where Paul Giamatti — who gets my vote for Sexiest Man Alive over Mel Gibson or Brad Pitt any day — stepped out of the shadows of two-bit sidekick parts and became a leading man. And what a leading man he is: As balding, failing writer/high school English teacher Miles Davis, he’s drowning his depression in Pinot and Xanax. Then he meets Maya (Virginia Madsen), a kind-hearted waitress and budding botanist who convinces Miles not to give up on life (or love) quite yet. There’s comedy, sure, but the real meat of “Sideways” is Miles and Maya’s tentative, awkward, slow-blooming relationship. This is no Cinderella tale — and thank God for that.