1142 Harold & Maude: curiosity & desire
Glorious Birds: A Celebratory Homage to Harold and Maude
by Heidi Greco
Vancouver: Anvil Press, 2021
$18.00 / 9781772141719
Reviewed by Linda Rogers
The shadowy figures on the cover of this slight but not inconsequential book by Heidi Greco could be sitting in a movie theatre or on the roof of the world with a giant screen in front of them. On that screen, birds, allegedly seagulls, transformative creatures, maybe angels written in light, in contrast to the static lover voyeurs sitting in the dark, fly past. The ghostlike avians are holy messengers, with a bird’s eye view of the great quilt of human life moving and standing still as the world turns beneath them.
The world’s a stage and it doesn’t matter who is sitting in the dark waiting for the next sun to rise for the next seagull or dove to ride out and wake up the sleeping populations — probably us paralysed in pandemic hibernation. In Greco’s world, boundaries are not relevant. The moments she captures in poems and photographic frames always move forward and backward, memory is desire becoming memory, her poetic vocation to transcribe those moments for shared conversation.
And that is one of the delights of this lucid book, broken into coherent sections, separate conversations, including interviews and a scene-by-scene examination of the celluloid windows that frame her contention, as Greco invites the reader to engage in affectionate dialogue about Harold and Maude’s unconventional love affair, aka deep friendship, that puts the parentheses on death consecrated in the ritual celebration of life.
As Harold and Maude, callow youth and septuagenarian, exchange realities: positive-negative, light and darkness on a movie screen in the once audacious fifty-year-old film, Greco pays homage not just to the art of its maker Hal Ashby, but to the notion that we all grow as we change places in the dance of life. Harold, half in love with death, takes flying lessons from his angel in disguise, a spirit mother, much the way Mozart’s bird-catcher Papageno is enchanted by Papagena, disguised as a crone.
It is the life force, the capacity for joy that attracts both naïve young men. Maude is as young as she will ever be on her eightieth birthday, the day she really takes flight, and Greco wants us to know that, because she too has learned the dance.
That is the gift of the crone as birds of a feather take off together. In the air we are all the same, all witnesses to the movie of life.
When Cat Stevens wrote new songs for the film, he was himself morphing into a new name and new version of his own life. Greco reminds us in her exegesis “Don’t Be Shy,” “If You Want to Sing Out Sing Out.” Like The Graduate and other great films of the Sixties, directors were using popular music to speak to the heart and audiences responded.
Greco shows no fear of flying, has always been obsessed with flight, as she sends poems speeding down the runway toward the blissful unknown and to the inevitable hard (Amelia Earhart) and soft landings. Her voice is calm as she tells and documents the unconventional stories and her readers eagerly join her because they too know the view is incomparable.
It is so easy to travel with her, to enter into the experience of witnessing real life and life on celluloid as she asks the movie questions we share. Has the best actor been cast in the role? How did this or that happen? Is this plausible? Fifty years has altered her perception and ours as we approach the era of invisibility. There is still curiosity and desire. Only the surface has altered. When we arrive at the blessing of understanding, then that is irrelevant between evolved humans; we are all children in the theatre of life. All mortal and immortal changing of costumes and consciousness, we share Greco’s obsession with stories written in light.
The author has described this as her pandemic book and that is wonderfully transparent as we share the out of body experience of human dislocation. We all long for lift off, for the epiphanous moment that will help us understand what is happening in our world and in the world of dreams. We long for flight, just as Greco does, so we can share the understanding of disconnection that will enable us to reconnect in better ways.
In another film, a documentary about jails in the US, a prisoner from Angola Prison’s Death Row looks up on his way to the execution building. He smiles because he recognises the sun and the same glorious birds that the political prisoner Dreyfus saw “wheeling over” when he was exiled on Devil’s Island. Look up, the Friendly Giant exhorted, as does Maude.
Just like Harold and Maude, we’ve been grieving. The funeral where they meet in the trees, both of them there for vicarious experience of death, the neon lit EXIT, or not, is our funeral as we seek ritual explanation for inconceivable loss, but look around: there on the opposite side of the theatre is the word ENTER. Maude is Harold’s Mother Tree.
Greco describes the existential loneliness of Harold and Maude, a condition we have all experienced in the past year, as children have been unable to learn socialization and elders have left their fingerprints on windows when loved ones came for what amounted to prison visits, with no human contact.
Because they risk love, because they are willing to wear the capes of invisibility, Harold and Maude, decades apart, find their great adventure in lift off: Maude, as we learn, having been imprinted by the Holocaust. Heidi wants us to rise too. We can do it because creativity is the great leavening agent, the ace card she has held up her sleeve for this moment.
The film and this book are an inspiration to seek a better way of being, the possibility not just of reincarnation but of redemption in peace and love.
What Greco knows and we now know is the infectious power of risk and the significant interchangeability of sunrise and sunset, as birds lit by the glorious lamp in the sky experience the colours of freedom. They are as available to us as the residue of memory as an old film decomposes everywhere but in memory.
Greco quotes Nick Clooney’s introduction to The Movies That Changed Us to make the point that films, and by inference books, dance, music, and art guide the human spirit — and this at a time when the government is trying to cut funding for music education in our schools. “Millions of us sitting in the anonymous darkness every week came out of each movie slightly changed,” she writes. We have been empowered by art in a dark time, and if a pandemic has failed to silence us, nothing, no form of censorship or short-sightedness, will stop us from singing out. Maude is still dancing us out of fear.
Linda Rogers’ Empress Trilogy is now complete with the publication of Repairing the Hive (Ekstasis). Studio 123 is about to print her pandemic collection, Mother, the Verb, the Swan Sister Treasure Book, the stories of activist artists. Editor’s note: Linda Rogers has also reviewed books by Liv Albert, Amanda Hale (Mad Hatter), Howard White, Eufemia Fantetti, Patricia Demers, Amanda Hale (Angela of the Stones), for The Ormsby Review. Her book Crow Jazz (Tongue Publishing, 2018) is reviewed here by Paul Headrick.
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“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster