Sunday, May 1, 2011

Quick Picks: Harold and Maude (1971); The Spook Who Sat at the Door (1973)

According to InstantWatcher, a large list of Miramax films will be coming to Netflix Watch Instantly this week (in fact, it is supposed to be today, so stay tuned) and I plan to cover many of the highlights to the list over the course of this week.  There are so many to look at, in fact, that I decided to add a Quick Picks entry today to look briefly at some films from the 1970s that otherwise might be overlooked.

Not that Harold and Maude is an overlooked film, but it might not be noticed in the onslaught of films that are coming this week.  Simply put, everyone needs to see Harold and Maude at some point in their time on this Earth.  I associate the film with the film society scene at the University of Wisconsin--Madison, where it would be certain to play at least once every year until the societies died out.  It benefits from multiple viewings not only because of the quality of the film, but also because ones perspective it changes as one gets older.  It's perfect for the college crowd because it touches on youth angst and resistance to authority.  But it is also a rare Hollywood film that is also about getting old.  I hate to sound like a broken record when discussing films from the 1970s, but the experimentation in Hollywood as it tried to capture the emerging youth market of the counter culture led to some films that would have a hard time being made today.  It was possible to make a studio film that wasn't really for everybody, and Harold and Maude is not for all tastes in terms of content and tone. 

A thought occurred to me as I was preparing this entry: Is Michael Cera the Bud Cort of the 2000s?  Both of them are unlikely leading men, yet they both found their respective niche playing awkward young men in quirky narratives.  The difference, I think, is that even Michael Cera probably couldn't pull of the delicate mix of tones required for Harold and Maude.  Perhaps more importantly, I don't know of any recent American film (indie or studio) that has a character like Maude, or a performance comparable to Ruth Gordon's performance here.  Any attempt to do similar material now would probably come off as cold and ironic, but what is special about Harold and Maude is that by the end it is genuinely moving despite the broad, dark humor.

Harold and Maude (Hal Ashby, USA, 1971, 91 minutes)
Netflix: Death-obsessed teen Harold Chasen (Bud Cort) is being hassled by his domineering mother (Vivian Pickles) to play the dating game, but he'd much rather attend funerals, which is where he meets the feisty Maude (Ruth Gordon), a geriatric widow who's high on life. The seemingly mismatched pair forms a bond that turns into a highly unconventional -- but ultimately satisfying – romance in this comical cult favorite from director Hal Ashby.  Netflix link.

I still have not seen The Spook Who Sat by the Door, but I first heard about it from Christopher Sieving when discussing his research on African-American cinema and blaxploitation.  So its addition to Netflix Watch Instantly gives me an opportunity to add it to my queue as well as congratulate Chris on the recent publication of his book, Soul Searching: Black Themed Cinema from the March on Washington to the Rise of Blaxploitation from Wesleyan Press.

The Spook Who Sat by the Door (Ivan Dixon, USA, 1973, 102 minutes)
Netflix: After spending several years in Washington as the CIA's token black agent, Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook) quietly returns to Chicago to launch a potent political revolution made up of leftist radicals and black nationalists. The goal of his well-trained guerilla army? To launch an all-out offensive against the nation's white-dominated power structure. Ivan Dixon, best known for his role as Sgt. "Kinch" Kinchloe on "Hogan's Heroes," directs. Netflix link.

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