How does the film "Harold and Maude" (1971) reflect the different ways of thinking after the nuclear bomb?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think that the existentialist ideas presented in film coincide nicely with the multiple forms of meaning and quests for it which emerged after the dropping of the atomic bomb.  If we think about what the bomb itself meant from a meaning point of view, it translated to how can individuals live life and experience a full sense of consciousness when constantly pitted against a looming shadow of death and destruction?  Think of Hiroshima for a moment.  The moments before the bomb was dropped, life was "normal."  People were waiting in lines for various goods, preparing to go to work and school, and were probably inundated with questions of a banal nature:  "How will I provide enough money for this month's expenses?"  or "What else do I need to do today besides empty out the trash and clean the clothes?"  Then, without any warning or provocation, a device, or gadget, lands on Hiroshima, causing instant death with the power of thousands of sun.  Thousands died, more were impacted:

On Monday, August 6, 1945, at 8:15 AM, the nuclear bomb 'Little Boy' was dropped on Hiroshima by an American B-29 bomber, the Enola Gay,[14] directly killing an estimated 80,000 people. By the end of the year, injury and radiation brought total casualties to 90,000-140,000.[15] Approximately 69% of the city's buildings were completely destroyed, and about 7% severely damaged.

In the end, this is the state of being in the world under the nuclear bomb.  "Harold and Maude" can be seen to reflect different ways of approaching life within such a context.  Harold's preoccupation with suicide and struggling to find meaning in his world is an example of how one is able to find "life" in an existence where it is constantly being threatened.  The context of the film set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the disillusionment of youth in America cannot be denied.  It is within such a context that Harold has to learn how to live life when life's threats and impending challenges might not make it as appealing to live.  In contrast, Maude is shown as someone who is vivacious enough to live life in any context, emerging from an experience that sought to reduce life of its meaning.  Her experiences as a survivor undoubtedly play a role in how she perceives life, teaching Harold that there is a subjective experience that cannot nor should not be denied regardless of condition or circumstance.  If one has to live life under the shadow of the bomb, Maude would say that it is up to one to "live life."  The ending of the film, where Maude embraces suicide, and Harold has to rush her to the hospital, attempting to preserve life is a powerful one.  Individuals must make their own criteria and develop their own standards for what they define as "living life" and making life more bearable.  External conditions, such as the Vietnam War, the Holocaust, or the atomic bomb, have their place, but should not come at the cost of our own subjective experience.  The film concludes that this experience is all individuals have, which is why Harold doesn't die in the crash, but rather plays the banjo and sings, "If you want to sing out, sing out."  This is the end message of how life under the bomb,  or any context has to be lived.