BEING THERE (HAL ASHBY, 1979)
HAL ASHBY is a really great director, and these are both black comedies, which is why I thought they would be good as a double bill. They are such well-made and original films.
Harold and Maude is about a young man obsessed with suicide, who drives around in a big hearse, and stages his own death. He wants to scare people. He meets a 79-year-old woman at one of the funerals, a concentration camp survivor, and falls in love. It explores the love affair between two eccentrics.
The film appeals because they are two eccentric people who must relate to one another. She teaches him to enjoy life more - he doesn't have much of a life because he is obsessed with death. She brings him out of himself. And he gives her love and affection.
Some found the physical relationship between an old woman and a young boy shocking at the time, and it is still highly unusual. But it is filmed decently, and shot in a subtle, restrained way. It's classy.
In Being There a man has grown up in a huge house where he's worked in the garden since he was a child. He has never been outside the walls of the garden, until the rich old man dies and he is evicted. To make things worse, the only way he has seen the real world is through TV - through fantasy - making the film a modern parable.
He gets picked up by a millionaire politician's wife, becoming an adviser to the politician and by proxy to the President. Everything he says is taken as wisdom. In fact, he is almost a moron. He is just thought to be a wise man who has come out of a paradise existence. He talks in a really childish way about his garden, because that is all he knows, but people think he is being clever and wise. He is literally talking about his garden. It's very funny.
I think Being There is the more cynical film, representative of an attitude to society that was growing at the time. It's about how society is desensitised to suffering. The main character doesn't really have any emotions; he doesn't know about relationships and feelings. In Harold and Maude, life is about love and affection.
But they each make heroes of outsiders. I don't think outsider films would get made in the mainstream studios these days; things have changed so much. Hollywood has dumbed down a lot; films aren't nearly as intelligent.