I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Throwing the Wheels to the Sea: The Power of Staged Autocide in Harold and Maude and Quadrophenia


by Steve Subrizi
March 13, 2011

Spoiler alert: this essay will discuss the endings of both movies concerned. But let’s not talk about how the ending of Quadrophenia rips off, borrows, or pays homage to that of Harold and Maude; let’s not try to excuse said theft by pointing out that Pete Townshend (whose concept album inspired Quadrophenia) was wrecking his guitars years before Hal Ashby wrecked Harold’s Jaguar hearse in what was supposed to be slow motion; by all accounts, people have been wrecking their machines and instruments since the early times of machine and instrument ownership.

Let’s just consider two particular split seconds that these films have in common: first, that instant in which the Jaguar, or the GC Scooter, flies off the cliff and the viewer is not yet sure whether the protagonist is flying with it. In this split second we perfectly and literally identify the vehicle with its owner. In the split second that follows, when we see that the rider has dismounted, there is a flash of catharsis not unlike setting an ex’s letters on fire. An old and problematic identity has been shed, and a young man takes a sunny walk along the beach, free of a corroded chunk of himself.

Of course, in the case of Jimmy in Quadrophenia, the scooter belongs to Ace Face, a most revered Mod of Mods (played by a never cooler ever again Sting); this is all the more fitting given how Jimmy struggles throughout the film (as in the concept album) first to identify with, then to tease his identity from, the Modernists as a collective brain. The scooter, like the identity he comes to reject, was never truly his own.

The essential tragedy of Jimmy’s saga, arguably the film’s failure as a bildungsroman, is that nothing in the suburbs or the sea ever surfaces to replace what is being shed. Harold replaces his hearse with a song of love in his heart, played on his beloved Maude’s old banjo, much as the Jimmy in the concept album decides to let love reign o’er him. The Jimmy of the film, however, does nothing but ride and lose. His parents kick him out, his girlfriend ditches him for someone cooler, and Mod life turns out to be a big empty sham (interestingly enough, the Mod-Rocker gang rivalry so exploited in the film and so central to Jimmy’s idea of Mod-ism could be considered a total headline fabrication). But damned if he doesn’t cling to the handles until the very end. In an argument with Kevin, his childhood friend who’s joined the wrong gang, Kevin says, “I don’t give a monkey’s asshole about Mods and Rockers. Underneath we’re all the same, aren’t we?” to which Jimmy replies, “That’s just it! I don’t want to be the same as everybody else. That’s why I’m a Mod, see? I mean, you gotta be somebody, ain’t ya? Or you might as well jump in the sea and drown.” As Jimmy lays it down (setting aside the brightly flashing theme of conformity versus individuality), the way to “being somebody” appears to be a bike-only lane—no pedestrians.

But check out Maude, with her skeleton key, stealing people’s cars to carry trees back to the forest and to remind their owners about the fragile nature of possession. She is, among many other things, the embodiment of the anti-car culture backlash of the early 1970’s. It is for love of her free spirit, his first memorial tribute to her, that Harold sends his hearse-ified Jaguar down to the rocks. We take this gesture to mean that Harold has cashed in his love of “being dead” for a love of life, but moreover, look at the symbols: the death identity is a car, and life is a banjo on a stroll. Surely Maude would have agreed that a car isn’t the soul of the person who drives it, it’s only a thing. If you want to remember it, throw it into a large body of water so you’ll always know where it is. There are, as the song goes, ‘a million things to be.’

A prophetic 1907 article in Harper’s Weekly said of the automobile, “Yesterday it was the plaything of the few, today it is the servant of many, tomorrow it will be the necessity of humanity.” For decades, with increasing desperation, the automotive industry has found new ways for people to need it, progressing, as John Jerome put it in his 1972 prognosis The Death of the Automobile, “from the essential to the sybaritic” (16). And although the allure of the car has always had a lot to do with personal freedom and –  increasingly as the market expanded – individuality, the costs to the average owner have always insured more of a mutually enslaved relationship. The myth of the keys to the Toyota being the keys to the self may be harder to dispel, but for starters, why not return our attention to the latter split second aforementioned. In that catharsis, that heartfelt freedom in the cleaving of youth from vehicle, there is a much deeper sense of “seeing the real” Jimmy or Harold than the cinematic shorthand of the ride itself. Jimmy’s life may be empty, but in actuality that may have always been true; Harold’s true love may be dead, but he’s got that banjo and Maude’s blessing to “go love some more.” For both of them, the vessel on the shore was a shackle.

If you think the way I do, when you finish watching these films you get the urge to break something that really cost you. I encourage you to follow that urge. But since automobiles are dangerous, proceed sensibly but in the spirit of individuation.  Put on some boots and stomp on your cell phone. Delete your Facebook page, or if you feel even braver, chuck your laptop out a window. Destroy an object or electronic form that has been posing as you. Take a walk wearing nothing but your clothes. Sing out. Be free.

 

Works Consulted

 

  • Cohen, Stanley. Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of Mods and Rockers. Oxford: MacGibbon and Kee Ltd, 1972.
  • Davies, Richard O. The Age of Asphalt: The Automobile, the Freeway, and the Condition of Metropolitan America. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1975.
  • Dawson, Nick. Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel. Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2009.
  • Holtz Kay, Jane. Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back. New York: Random House, 1997.
  • Jerome, John. The Death of the Automobile. New York: W.W Norton & Co, 1972.
  • Who, The. Quadrophenia. Perf, Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, Keith Moon, Chris Stainton. UK: Track Record, 1973.

 

Steve Subrizi sometimes co-hosts the Wednesday night poetry mic at the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He has performed his poetry at lecture halls and dive bars across America, and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in such places as NAPThe ScramblerMuzzlePANKPhantom KangarooNOO Journal, and Monday Night. His latest chapbook, Newly Wild Hedgehog, will be available from NAP in July. He plays in a band called The Crazy Exes from Hell.