What qualifies a film for cult status? There are as many answers to this question as there are ways to dance the Time Warp. Again. But recently, Nick Flynn — whose bestselling memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City was recently adapted for the screen as “Being Flynn” — took to the stage at New York city’s Crosby Street Hotel and courageously attempted to trace the origins of Harold and Maude’s cult following while simultaneously solving the riddle of the film’s unique ability to make one feel slightly less alone in the world.
As the most recent participant in “Under the Influence: Writers on Film,” the Crosby’s screening series exploring writers’ cinematic touchstones, Flynn selected Hal Ashby’s 1971 dark comedy about a misunderstood young scion (Bud Cort) who fakes his own suicide and attends strangers’ funerals until he’s defibrillated out of his depression by a sparky septugenarian free spirit (Ruth Gordon). It’s tough to trace the thematic strands directly linking “Harold and Maude” to Suck City, Flynn’s bracing reflection on his chaotic upbringing and turbulent adult relationship with his homeless alcoholic father. But the two share a subversive sensibility and a conviction that what pains us most should be celebrated as the most basic proof of being alive.
During last night’s opening remarks and post-screening discussion, Flynn confessed his ambivalence to his first exposure to the film. “My best friend, Phil, and I went to see it and I’m still trying to figure out at what point we fled the theater and why,” he said shortly before the film rolled. “It was way too weird. Twenty years later, it blew me away.”
That’s the thing about “Harold and Maude” in particular and most cult films in general: Timing has everything to do with enjoying the film. Its carpe diem message is not going to register as forcefully with a teenager bullish on his amplified sense of present power and future possibilities. But hit that early twenties sweet spot where life feels at its most nebulous and “Harold and Maude” will instantly become a go-to source of sweet succor, repeat when necessary. The same goes for “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “Eraserhead,” and any of the other cult films in constant rotation in midnight movie slots around the country for perpetuity.
Flynn didn’t offer many concrete details about the source of his personal connection to “Harold and Maude,” beyond praising it as “incredibly well made.” But he did come equipped with a dog-eared copy of Ruth Gordon’s autobiography and served up a steady stream of fascinating details from the film’s backstory. For instance, Flynn recalled that Bud Cort, ever the method actor, had insisted he needed to actually have sex with Ruth Gordon to better immerse himself in, um, the character. That idea was quickly snuffed out by Ashby, who, according to Flynn, only got a crack at helming the film (at age forty-one) when the screenwriter crashed and burned in his attempt to mount the production of his own script, which was his film school senior thesis project.
Ultimately Flynn’s most compelling observation about “Harold and Maude” had more to do with the films it has influenced than any insight he gleaned from repeated viewings of Maude’s imperative to L-I-V-E. “Have you ever noticed that all of Wes Anderson’s movies look like Hal Ashby’s?” wondered Flynn aloud to the audience, shifting in his chair, with a chuckle. “They both compose these beautiful tableaux with strange things happening in them.” He paused before adding: “I love Wes Anderson, particularly “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” but I don’t cry in his movies. “Harold and Maude” will make you cry when you least expect it.”