Tuesday, August 31, 2010
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2009)
I wrote a year or so ago about Paul Mazursky’s Blume In Love, one of my favourite films of the 1970’s. Who, you say? It’s hard to remember now, but there was a time (around the period of An Unmarried Woman) where Mazursky was often viewed as a leading American filmmaker (along with Cassavetes, Altman, Coppola, Woody Allen, and Michael Ritchie, also mostly overlooked now). For a decade or so, he seemed almost uniquely equipped to explore the era’s contradictory middle-class experience: unprecedented affluence, stylishness and sense of self, running ahead of the human capacity to handle it all. He belongs to the age where every film seemed to feature a psychoanalyst (Mazursky sometimes cast his own); where terms like “hostility” and “impotence” get a healthy airing. In the age of Reagan, the prevailing social narrative hardened, and Mazursky’s films became first more contrived (modern versions of Truffaut’s Jules and Jim and of The Tempest) and then coarser, if fleetingly more popular (Down And Out In Beverly Hills). In the last decade, now in his mid-70’s, he’s made a little-seen documentary about his Jewish roots, but otherwise worked more as an actor than a director.
The Way We Are
I recently watched again Mazursky’s first film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Made in 1969, it’s perhaps best remembered for the shot of (reading left to right) Ted, Carol, Bob and Alice lined up in bed, with the expression of a group of vacationers trying to figure out a confounding road sign. Of all Mazursky’s films, you might think this is the one we could most leave in the time capsule now, rooted as it is in a particular Californian vogue for self-discovery. The film immediately heralds the era’s presumed possibilities, with a chorus of hallelujahs on the soundtrack as Bob (Robert Culp) and Carol (Natalie Wood) drive up to a self-styled “institute,” to a 24-hour group exploration session. Mazursky spends a fair bit of time illustrating this process, and although most of us would likely find elements of it inherently funny (the swings from laughing to crying; the group hugs as one of their number reaches an epiphany), there’s not a hint of condescension or overt mockery in the presentation. His films are comedies in the almost now vanished sense – that if you pragmatically and affectionately examine some aspect of life not affected by inescapable tragedy or deprivation, or by deranged melodrama, then it’s probably going to be inherently pretty funny. That’s just the way we are.
Inspired by this experience, Bob and Carol spill out to their uninitiated friends Ted (Elliott Gould) and Alice (Dyan Cannon) about their new emphasis on feelings rather than thoughts, their new appreciation of love and beauty. But you can only change so much so fast. Bob admits to Carol he slept with another woman, but can’t handle it when she accepts it with equanimity. He then comes home to find Carol with another guy, and reacts just as any jealous husband would. Ted gets inspired by the idea of the affair, but can’t see the virtue of telling your wife about it. Alice is torn between thinking herself modern and just not liking the contours of this new world, but ultimately she’s the one who proposes (while they’re together in a Las Vegas hotel suite, half an hour before a Tony Bennett concert) that they swap partners. It’s the logical extension of what they’ve been doing, which isn’t to say it’s the right one.
What The World Needs Now..
The film ends in the hotel parking lot, the triumphant opening music now replaced on the soundtrack by Dionne Warwick’s much more prosaic “What the world needs now, is love sweet love…” The four are caught up in an almost strenuously diverse crowd, ethereally mingling and looking deeply into the eyes of strangers, as Bob and Carol did during one of the exercises at the institute. It’s a carefully ambiguous ending, but clearly not one that rejects the new age teachings; it suggests, it seems to me, that ambitions for greater self-awareness and connection are entirely valid and attainable, but that they’re going to need a more specific inner diagnosis and action plan. There’s some compromise and even cheapening in this of course – that choice of song must have been a little obvious even in 1969 – but also possibilities beyond those offered by mechanized professional therapies.
Of course, attaining the velocity for that kind of take-off isn’t easy. One of the best scenes has Alice at her analyst, where it may or may not be significant that she referred to “liking” her husband as opposed to “loving” her child, that she accidentally refers to making love with Bob rather than Ted, and that she still refers to her private parts using a term from her childhood (and then of course, just when she might be getting somewhere, time’s up). How do you find yourself within that? Honest intuitive reactions to infidelity or other things are to be encouraged, as long as properly examined for what they reveal - a talk process hopelessly intermingling unburying facts and spinning fictions. Before they all go to bed together, Ted goes into the bathroom, seemingly going through his usual routine, perhaps stalling, perhaps merely exercising habits and a personal sense of standards more pressing than any looming, possibly life-changing erotic possibilities. Maybe he kills the moment; maybe it helps all of them find the right one.
It’s disappointing how seldom we get films now like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. For one thing, sexuality has virtually disappeared as a serious subject in American cinema. But more broadly, I miss the sense of mainstream cinema actually taking on emotional mysteries, rather than trafficking in bland certainties. It’s worth remembering that Bob & Carol.. received several Oscar nominations, for Gould and Carroll and for the script; could that happen now, when the consensus view of serious cinema has become so soggy at one end (The Reader), so degraded at the other (No Country For Old Men)?
Among the many things we’re not adequately addressing about the economic crisis: its implications for “relationships” as we’ve come to view them in an age of debt-inflated, media-stroked, materialistic inanity. Oh, we’re getting all the stories about how dating is tougher when the purse strings tighten, and about people living longer with their parents and suchlike, but we all have to know- if we examine it at all – that this is merely the tip of the reinvention iceberg. We hear about “sacrifice” and “living within our means” on the one hand, but meanwhile we collectively hope for some “stimulus” back to a state of arrested development. It’s dire, and yet for an engaged artist, what a time it should be to find real stories and people. But for now, a few honorable exceptions like Wendy And Lucy aside, most of what’s being released isn’t worth the time of day. However distant the preoccupations of Bob & Carol… might be, they’re still more useful to us in the here and now than anything at the multiplex. Or, sadly, even the arthouse.