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10 Perfectly Paired Facts About Harold and Maude

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You’d be hard-pressed to find a true cinephile who doesn’t own a copy of Harold and Maude. The 1971 box office failure, directed by Hal Ashby and written by Colin Higgins, has become a Hollywood classic since its rocky debut. A brutally dark rom-com, Harold and Maude tells the story of a death-obsessed young boy (Bud Cort) who falls for a free-spirited 79-year-old woman (Ruth Gordon), much to the chagrin of his oblivious, blue-blooded mother (Vivian Pickles). Not only has the film found a second life at film festivals, outdoor park screenings, arthouse cinemas, and on home video, but it’s also become a must-see movie for anyone serious about filmmaking. Here are 10 things you might not know about the film that pushed the boundaries of May-December romances.

1. BUD CORT NEARLY KILLED HIMSELF WITH HIS METHOD ACTING.

On the Harold and Maude set, Bud Cort was infamous for his Method acting. In an interview with The Guardian, Cort shared that among the many scenes he improvised were his breaking of the fourth wall to give a cheeky glance at the camera and raising his middle finger at Vivian Pickles during her entire monologue after she tells him he’s joining the army. As further proof of his intensity, Cort described his commitment to the opening fake suicide scene, saying, “I was so into it that I believed I was hanging myself to death.” In Being Hal Ashby, author Nick Dawson shared more instances of Cort’s devotion to the character, writing that during Harold’s fake drowning scene, “Cort lay face down in the heavily chlorinated water of the Rosecourt swimming pool for take after take until he could no longer keep his eyes open.”

2. BUD CORT REFUSED TO DO PUBLICITY IF THE STUDIO DIDN’T GIVE HAL ASHBY CREATIVE CONTROL OVER THE EDIT.

During post-production, Paramount Pictures stripped Ashby of his power to edit the film. Thus, in solidarity with his director, Cort told the film’s PR team that he wouldn’t do any publicity for the film unless Ashby got his movie back. According to The Guardian, control over the footage was handed back to Ashby—save for a kissing scene between Harold and Maude that Paramount head honcho Robert Evans despised.

3. ACTRESS ALI MACGRAW, ROBERT EVANS’ THEN-WIFE, WANTED THE LOVE SCENE BETWEEN HAROLD AND MAUDE TO BE CUT.

Of course, her Paramount boss husband tried to oblige. Ashby furiously objected, saying, “That’s sort of what the whole movie is about, a boy falling in love with an old woman; the sexual aspect doesn’t have to be distasteful.” About the less-than-explicit scene, Being Hal Ashby author Nick Dawson wrote, “Ashby wanted to show the beauty of young and old flesh together, something that he knew the younger generation, the hippies, the heads, the open-minded masses would dig, but Evans said it would repulse most audiences, so it had to go.” In the end, Ashby won by sneaking the footage into the film’s trailer.

4. VIVIAN PICKLES BROUGHT HER OWN CLOTHES FOR MRS. CHASEN’S WARDROBE.

Pickles, who played Harold’s detached, socialite mother, flew in her own costumes for the character. “I had brought some of my own clothes over from England, which we had altered, and, in the week before shooting began, I shopped endlessly for the rest with the costume designer, Bill Theiss,” wrote Pickles for The Criterion Collection. “He was spot-on … He kindly raided his mother’s jewelry box to borrow antique jewelry for Mrs. Chasen.”

5. HARRISON FORD WORKED FOR SCREENWRITER COLIN HIGGINS—AS A CARPENTER.

Here’s a fun fact separate from the production of the film: According to The Criterion Collection cut, Colin Higgins employed Harrison Ford, then working as a carpenter, to build a hot tub and deck for his backyard.

6. BUD CORT AND RUTH GORDON’S REAL-LIFE RELATIONSHIP ALMOST MIRRORED THAT OF THEIR CHARACTERS.

In the April 2001 issue of Vanity Fair, Cort revisited the cult classic and reminisced on his chemistry with his co-star. “During the making of the film, [Ruth] was very standoffish. Then, the day my father died, the first call I got was from Ruth, saying 'Let me tell you about the day my father died,’” he told the magazine. “And suddenly we became the characters pretty much that we were in the film. We really became friends the night my father died. Oddly enough, he died waiting for me to show up on This is Your Life, Ruth Gordon.

7. ONE OF THE FILM’S LOST SCENES INVOLVED HAROLD SERVING UP HIS OWN HEAD.

“It opened up with a shot of a large, silver-plated serving dish," Colin Higgins told Film Quarterly in 1972. "A hand comes in and removes the cover and there, on a little bed of parsley, is Harold's head. Two hands come into the frame and pick up the head, and we move back and there's Harold holding his head and looking at it. He sort of peels off the latex blood and walks over to his bedroom chair where a headless dummy sits. He puts the head on the dummy, but the head really isn't sitting right, and he goes into the closet to find something.” Of course, that scene never made it into the theatrical cut.

8. ELTON JOHN PASSED ON DOING THE SOUNDTRACK.

According to The Criterion Collection version of the film, producer Charles Mulvehill initially approached Elton John to write the music for the movie, as Ashby was a fan of the pop star. John passed—but not before suggesting his friend, Cat Stevens, for the job.

9. HAROLD AND MAUDE WAS BASED ON COLIN HIGGINS’ THESIS FILM AT UCLA.

At the time, Higgins was working as producer Edward Lewis’ pool boy. According to Being Hal Ashby, Lewis’ wife loved the script so much that she got her husband to give it to Stanley Jaffe at Paramount. At first, Higgins was going to direct the film, but screen tests proved to the studio that he wasn’t ready. Thus, Hal Ashby was brought on.

10. HAL ASHBY ALMOST WITHDREW FROM THE FILM A MONTH BEFORE SHOOTING BEGAN.

Frustrated with several issues he was having with the studio, including not being able to hire cinematographer Gordon Willis, Ashby considered leaving the picture altogether. “My creative juices have indeed finally been tapped and it would, I’m afraid, have to take its toll on the film, and Harold and Maude deserves better,” Ashby wrote to Robert Evans. “I feel like I could make the film as funny as the Vietnam War.”

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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