Friday, April 26, 2024

Cult Corner: BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE

 by Anthony King


October 8, 1969

Studios: Frankovich Productions, Columbia Pictures
Director: Paul Mazursky
Writers: Paul Mazursky, Larry Tucker
Cinematography: Charles E. Lang
Composer: Quincy Jones
Editors: Stuart H. Pappe
Running Time: 105 minutes

Cast: Natalie Wood (Carol Sanders), Robert Culp (Bob Sanders), Elliott Gould (Ted Henderson), Dyan Cannon (Alice Henderson)

Adultery in cult movies: Carnal Knowledge (1971), China 9 Liberty 37 (1978), Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970), The Ice Storm (1997), Possession (1981)

Pairing recommendation: Husbands and Wives (1992)
In an era (era) where a loud minority of the newest generation of filmgoers are outspoken about their disdain for sex in movies, I can't imagine a film about couples exploring free love would be a hit. On the other hand, maybe a film about the intricacies of marriage and the inner-workings of the human psyche and honest emotions would be a big hit. Such is Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, a film clearly holding court at the center of this conundrum.

The film opens with Bob and Carol on a weekend retreat somewhere in the mountains of California. The weekend getaway consists of getting in touch with your true emotions, exploring the real feelings hidden beneath one's rough exterior, yoga, meditation, beating the shit out of cushions, staring deeply into the eyes of strangers, and oodles more uncomfortable exercises, all in the name of becoming a better human. Upon returning home, Bob and Carol go to dinner with their best pals, Ted and Alice, where the exploits of the previous weekend are shared. Later, Bob admits to Carol that he had an affair on a recent weekend away on business. To his amazement, Carol isn't upset. Alice, on the other hand, is furious for her friend when Carol shares the news. Weeks later, Bob returns home from another trip and discovers Carol having an affair of her own. After a brief moment of anger and jealousy, Bob also comes to a place of calm and understanding. Ted and Alice still can't comprehend the nature of their friends' relationship. During the final sequence, the two couples finally come to blows, resulting in the four of them in bed together.
Along with his writer/director contemporaries Woody Allen and John Cassavetes, Paul Mazursky only knew how to tell human stories and, although not as often as the previously mentioned, used the art and craft of cinematic storytelling to explore difficult and awkward emotions and ideas. More so apparent in Allen's pictures, this micro genre of storytelling was sometimes eye opening, many times damning, and constantly uncomfortable. From Allen, movies like Annie Hall (1977), Interiors (1978), Manhattan (1979), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), September (1987), Another Woman (1988), Alice (1990), and Husbands and Wives (1992) are so clearly examples of the writer/director processing very uncomfortable and difficult, yet very human feelings. For Cassavetes, the 10 films he wrote and directed show a man trying to be vulnerable by working through difficult emotional ideas as a man and human. As for Mazursky, the nine films from 1969 to 1984 which he wrote and directed shows a man processing life, growing as a human, and searching for his identity, none of which are easy and short tasks.

Bob and Carol and their friends Ted and Alice are seemingly living different versions of the American in 1969. Bob and Carol have become liberated people bordering on hippies. Ted and Alice are living a more conservative lifestyle. Both couples are seemingly upper middle class or lower high class, economically speaking. Mazursky came from a working class family in Brooklyn, so clearly this portrait of the American Dream in his first film is from the perspective of an outsider. He'd been working in Hollywood for several years as an actor and eventually a writer, so Mazursky was keen to the people portrayed in his film. But here we might be seeing Mazursky – the outsider – as the puppeteer, pulling the strings for dramatic (and possibly malevolent?) flare. B&C&T&A is by no means a malevolent film. What I'm suggesting, though, is that Mazursky may have taken some pleasure in putting his characters – people who may certainly have looked down their noses at someone like Mazursky – in very uncomfortable and awkward situations. Do I buy my own assertions? Not really, but it's a theory.
All four main characters are likable. When Bob first admits of his affair, it's immediately after we see him putting his young son to bed. In the scene we see a loving father who wants to be home with his family. After his admission, and after Carol's incredulous non reaction, Bob is almost appalled that his wife isn't furious. It's almost as if Bob, who says he admitted his infidelity because he couldn't have lived with the guilt (which I wholeheartedly believe), is dabbling in a little self sabotage. He truly is the poster boy for the American dream: a job as a working filmmaker; a gorgeous, doting wife; a beautiful little boy; and a big house in Hollywood. Later, when the blonde with whom he “balled,” approaches him for another tryst, he declines with no stress. It's as if earlier, when he admitted his faults to his wife, in a moment of existentialism, he believed he didn't deserve everything he had. Then later, when Carol is caught having her affair, Bob's initial reaction was one of anger, showing his true nature – humanity's true nature. It's only when he sits down with his wife's lover on their bed and offers him a drink are we transported back to the fantasy world of cinema. Therein lies the perfect chemistry of Mazursky as a filmmaker, a writer and director who can seamlessly weave together real life and movie life.
The film was a hit commercially and critically. Roger Ebert gave the film four stars. He opened his review by saying, "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice isn't really about wife swapping at all, but about the epidemic of moral earnestness that's sweeping our society right now. For some curious reason, we suddenly seem compelled to tell the truth in our personal relationships.” Andrew Sarris was more mixed. He praised Cannon and Gould (who received Oscar nominations), but ended by saying the “film tends to sag ultimately from inconsistencies in characterizations and affinities, and ending is embarrassingly coy in the worst look-folks-this-is-only-a-movie Hollywood tradition overlaid with a pretension Fellini finish.” I tend to agree with Sarris' sentiments about the ending.
In B&C&T&A, Mazursky is challenging the ideas and morality of a stodgier public. The film isn't promoting free love, but it challenges the viewer to come face to face with their own ideals regarding relationships. What's the most important thing between lovers? Is honesty the best policy? How will you live your life going forward? These are questions the film – ie. Mazursky – poses. In 2024, these questions still persist, but not necessarily to a more conservative crowd. These are questions every human should be asking themselves every day.

No comments:

Post a Comment