Do you have favorite characters that have shaped your life? I have two. One is a seventy-nine-year-old Holocaust survivor who seduces a twenty-year-old boy before taking her own life. And the other is a crazed lover to a dirty old man. To me, these women are two of the most authentic, honest women characters in art.
The first, Maude, is from the movie “Harold and Maude” by Hal Ashby, I discovered this movie when I was seventeen. I watched it at Vassar College during my summer as a playwriting student at the New York Stage and Film’s summer program called “Powerhouse Theatre.” The program was made up of actors, playwrights and directors and I watched the movie with a group of directors in the common room of one of the dorms.
The directors in the room were obsessed with the stark directing, the way the lighting and wide film angles made Harold seem isolated. The playwrights watching took notes on the script and pacing of the dialogue. The actors were watching the actors to see how the pauses between lines highlighted the emotions of disgust, shock, and dismay in otherwise deadpan characters.
I wasn’t interested in any of that. I was in love with Maude, the seventy nine year old free spirit and Holocaust survivor who lives in an abandoned train car, drives like a maniac and is so charming she will invite you for a ride in your own car while she’s stealing it.
I love Maude.
Maude is full of timeless wisdom. She encourages Harold to live life fully, worry less what people think, get attached to experiences instead of things and to notice that we are all different and special, even if it’s hard to tell. She is the mascot for the spirit of the individual. She is my hero.
Maude goes to funerals for fun, paints, makes sculptures, invents odorific contraptions, steals cars, saves trees and takes nothing seriously except for living fully.
“Well if some people get upset because they feel they have a hold on somethings. I’m just acting as a gentle reminder, here today, gone tomorrow so don’t get attached to things. Now with that in mind I don’t mind collecting things. I’ve collected quite a lot of stuff in my time. Yeah, this is all memorabilia — but it’s incidental, not integral, if you know what I mean.”
Maude is full of contradictions but if you aren’t looking at her with a fixed, microscopic focus and instead take a step back to appreciate her as part of the bigger picture of life, she makes sense.
Who better to be a collector than someone who doesn’t get attached to the things she collects? She collects them because of what they are, not because of what they are to her. Who better to teach a young man who has never been accepted how to accept himself?
She doesn’t ask Harold to be any different from who he is, she doesn’t make any demands of him, she enjoys him and his company and shows him how to accept himself and life.
“Harold, everyone has the right to make an ass out of themselves. You just can’t let the world judge you too much.”
Maude has developed an emotional honesty about life, ownership, acceptance. It’s the kind of tolerance and free spirit living that seems lost today with everyone trying to be a certain way, portray themselves carefully, force others to fit the mold. We are living in a time of sterile conformity, processed, packaged and sold as individuality. It’s anything but.
Lydia Vance is very different from Maude, but she has also gone all in on life.
Where Maude is tolerance, love and namaste, Lydia is passion, fire and hell breaking loose.
Where Maude has made peace with people and their strange ways and ridiculous rules, Lydia battles with people who are checking out and giving up.
It’s almost like Lydia, with her unrestrained fire and passion, is desperately trying to resuscitate Hank Chinaski and others back into life. They’ve nodded off, they’re too stoned or drunk to notice how great life is and that it’s passing them by. Lydia fights with Hank to get him to wake up. Despite his feelings for her, he ultimately resists love and attachment.
“I didn’t want to be interesting, it was too hard. What I really wanted was only a soft, hazy space to live in, and to be left alone.” Hank Chinaski
Eventually, Lydia disappears from the book. Despite her love for Hank, she can’t live like he does so she takes off and moves to another state to resist the temptation.
The second half of the book, after Lydia leaves, is directionless and hedonistic and boring. All the other women are pale imitations, broken replicas of Lydia.
Lydia doesn’t have or doesn’t want the self control required to act like she doesn’t care, to pretend she isn’t in love, doesn’t feel desperate, doesn’t have needs and wants. And Thank God for that. Thank God for Lydia because there are too many people faking it, hiding something, holding back, only revealing what is socially acceptable, even in literature and art.
Lydia couldn’t fake it if she wanted to. She tries, at one point to pretend she doesn’t care about Hank and goes off to screw other guys but she’s only doing it to get a reaction out of him. When it doesn’t work, she totally loses it and trashes Hank’s house.
Lydia is wide open. No filters, no editing, no pretending. She is jealous, argumentative, passionate and does not obey the unspoken social codes of the time, or any time.
I love Lydia.
“She was insane; she was miraculous.” Chinaski says.
If you haven’t read this book, you are really missing out!
Both of these were made in the seventies. “Harold and Maude” was released in 1971 and “Women” was published in 1978. You can kind of see how people trying to emulate the spirit of Maude created a bunch of posers and drop outs who mistook careless for carefree. Lydia tries to wrestle back passion from the the overdosed limp grip of the indifferent.
The gaslighting of hook-up culture, the sexual revolution, drug culture may work on all of Hank’s other women, but it doesn’t work on Lydia. The more Hank reins in his feelings or expects her to reign in hers, the more Lydia lets hers out. She does what we all wish we could do but don’t do. She loses her shit. He’s hypocritical, dramatic, unfair, mean, self-centered and unhinged.
I’ve come to realize that the seventies are my favorite years. I can’t get into the hippy, stoned, brainwashed sixties, nor the cocaine fuelled, materialistic eighties, but the mind expanding, wild, arts obsessed seventies are the decade I’d love to live if I could. Maybe we can make the 2020s a new seventies. I will be spearheading that.
Lydia ends nearly all her phone calls with Hank with wailing and screaming.
“I heard a long insane wail like a wolverine shot in the arctic snow and left to bleed and die alone…. She hung up.”
It’s a wonder we don’t all end our calls like this! The world is mad and filled with fakes and imposters. People imitate success to sell us promises. They imitate each other to compete with us, as if, like money, there is only so much happiness to go around and if one person has it, there won’t be enough for the rest of us. What a crock.
What’s the difference between an online lifestyle guru selling advice and a snake oil salesman selling “health”?
What’s the point in going online to witness pretend lives, crafted images and fake people? Why is there so little skepticism? Are we trying to believe the spectacle created by others so as not to draw attention to our own charades? Or have we just been trained by polite society not to ask uncomfortable questions or confront suspicious behavior, or feel too much.
We’ve collectively agreed it’s unsightly to be not okay, to be intense, to want or have urges, to be jealous. There are right and wrong opinions. Everyone is selling “exceptionalism” in bulk. Buy my pre-recorded course on how to be exceptional. Imitate me so that you, too, can be one of a kind.
I’d rather collect experiences like Maude. I’d rather wail like a wolverine in pain at the world like Lydia than dope myself into indifference. I’d rather be the freak writing novels filled with wrong-think and flaw-filled characters offline than tweeting witty one-liners into the Twitter void.
It might be a bumpy ride but at least I’ll be going somewhere instead of spinning my wheels in front of a screen. I am Maude and I am Lydia. Who are you?