I was talking with someone recently. Actually, we were texting but of course there’s nothing unusual about that. Some of my best relationships these days seem to happen over texts which is better than nothing, I suppose. I shouldn’t go into details but the conversation skirted on the issue of how we deprive ourselves of certain things in life and what are we waiting for, after all? Lately I think about this, how I was afraid of the mistakes I knew I’d make so now there’s the creeping dread that someday I’ll realize I fucked up one time too many. But let’s face it, I’m still trying to figure all this out. You plan ahead in your mind, you’ve got it all prepared, then when the moment comes you freeze up hoping the few things you actually do say are the right ones. “You’re here for about ten seconds,” Robert Culp tells his friend Elliott Gould in Paul Mazursky’s BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE as a way to chastise his friend for not acting on impulse. That impulse had to do with an affair Gould’s Ted didn’t have, but in the greater context there’s a lot on my mind. Wasted time, what certain events meant, whether I’m just treading water. But enough about all that for now. BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE was the fifth highest grossing film of 1969 and, like some of Mazursky’s best films, is locked into its era as if a few years earlier or later it would have been impossible for the film to exist at all. On the one hand I wonder how much I can identify with the film since so much about it feels far removed from me. And yet as I watch it these days not only do certain trappings begin to wash away, I realize it’s a film about people just trying to figure things out, wondering how much they’re screwing it all up in the process. Something that sounds familiar, after all.
The film is of course about the four title characters, the open-minded Bob (Robert Culp) & Carol (Natalie Wood) whose lives have seemingly been forever altered by a marathon group encounter session and the more straight-laced couple Ted (Elliott Gould) & Alice (Dyan Cannon), their friendship intermingled with their marriages, the affairs they have and what that means for each of them. When Quentin Tarantino reopened the New Beverly Cinema in the fall of 2014 this was the first film screened, in a gorgeous print that Tarantino had made as part of his DJANGO UNCHAINED deal with Columbia—Mazursky himself even supervised the color timing on it. The opening night screening took place only a few months after the director had passed away at the age of 84, serving as a fitting tribute as well as a reminder of the sort of film he specialized in, the kind that isn’t getting made much anymore, just like the concept of a gorgeous new 35mm print is sadly disappearing as well. The context of the film has of course changed, some of the ideas the characters espouse has changed and, yes, the fashions have as well, all of this is true. But instead of feeling dated the film feels free and open in its willingness to delve into these characters along with possessing a comic intelligence that is nearly obsolete today. The structure of only about a dozen or so major sequences (even the building blocks of the narrative feel a little like Tarantino) carefully examines what happens to the foursome as they learn secrets about their spouses and friends, how they relate to each other as well as the outside world. Right from the beginning the details always feel genuine as if we’re watching a satirical tweak of what 1969 was, not a sitcom exaggeration. The laughs come not from the wacky new world that Bob & Carol have discovered but from the newfound honesty it brings out of them and trying to figure out if they’ve really changed at all.
Written by Mazursky and Larry Tucker, BOB & CAROL was Mazursky’s directorial debut, coming roughly a year after their collaboration on the screenplay of the Peter Sellers comedy I LOVE YOU, ALICE B. TOKLAS and while the earlier film went for the broad, comical portrayal of the late 60s hippie zeitgeist with his own film Mazursky satirizes the scene but also keeps things grounded and humane, allowing each of his characters a point of view which, even if it isn’t always valid is at least partly understandable. Or maybe this is simply another case where the satire in the material has been drained away over time into pure naturalism. For Mazursky, there might not be a difference anyway. The encounter group which serves as the catalyst for all this is based on the Esalen Institute up in Big Sur, only called “The Institute” here (it was also the inspiration for where Don Draper found his big eureka in the final episode of MAD MEN), and the film opens with shots from above as a Quincy Jones-ified Hallelujah Chorus plays over images of the place. As Bob & Carol arrive, everyone already seems totally free of inhibitions—all the answers are there, the imagery seems to say, everything has been settled and they need to do nothing more than learn this. Mazursky went to Easlen to research the idea he had for the film, just as Bob says he’s researching a documentary he’s going to make—essentially researching an idea about a character researching an idea and finding the story about himself within that. Interestingly, Bob seems unsure whether that’s why he’s really there, as if to question how committed he’s really going to be to this newfound outlook on life--we never hear about the documentary again anyway. The sequence sets the tone right away, treating characters who would be played as jokes in other films—the old guy, the nympho—with respect and taking its time doing it so we can understand a fraction of what Bob & Carol have been through, why they insist they’ve been forever changed.
Like some of Mazursky’s best work it skirts the satirical edge of the story as the characters take their behavior to its ultimate extreme, viewing them with both sad bemusement and at times total compassion, knowing that they’re wrong more often than not, knowing that they’re trying their best no matter how outwardly odd their behavior is. It’s inevitable that they’re going to screw things up somehow but Mazursky loves them anyway, he loves how they’re trying to figure out what they’re trying to figure out. The film never becomes arch or contemptuous because he can’t, all of the four leads are part of him anyway. You can feel Mazursky as one of this crowd wondering these same things, enamored by Natalie Wood, fascinated by what Dyan Cannon isn’t admitting to those around her, feeling those same pangs of confidence and terror that Robert Culp and Elliott Gould do. Bob and Carol are the glamorous couple, almost too good to be true, and the way they insist how the affairs they’ve had are just physical and nothing beyond that is almost too perfect, there’s no way it can hold up, the all-too predictable whiplash of someone claiming to change who they are so fast. Ted & Alice are slightly supporting as characters—that’s how Gould & Cannon were nominated at the Academy Awards—but also supporting to the flashier movie star-like couple of Bob & Carol as well so when the film focuses on them after learning about Bob’s affair it’s a jolt that shifts things towards them leading to what may be the best scene in the film, a tug of war between their own individual reactions and exactly what that’s going to mean in bed for the rest of the night. Mazursky plays the confrontation perfectly through the laughs and the honesty between the two actors with their characters no longer sure how to behave with each other, ending on a note that resolves the scene and still leaves it totally unanswered as the two can barely understand what’s going on.
There’s a sense of freedom in how willing the film is to continually let these scenes play out but also an intelligence that knows what needs to be focused on. Like the post-party scene where the foursome smoke pot the film is in no rush to focus on what each character react to at any given moment and even the jokes become a normal extension of their reactions to what happens, never simply part of the patter. Instead it’s the little things, Carol’s total confidence in her new worldview, Ted’s discomfort at Bob shooting home movies of him, the tennis pro who Carol’s cheating with hedging on Bob’s offer of a drink until the 12 year-old Ballantine is mentioned. The awkward intimacy the film achieves in its close-ups reaches its peak when Cannon’s Alice visits her therapist (played by Donald F. Muhich, Mazursky’s own therapist) and how she discusses her own confusion, how much she doesn’t want to talk about sex, reaching for possible answers but not getting any beyond more questions. The aesthetic glimpses we do get at 1969 might be secondary to all this (as enticing as it is) but correctly gets across how everyone is feeling this excitement for what’s around them, something Alice simply can’t. Maybe partly because she’s the only one who stops to think about all this for more than a few seconds Alice is also the one who finally gets everyone to take things to the logical extreme—whether because she’s feeling left out by being the only one who hasn’t had an affair or because she can’t take being so afraid about the whole thing anymore it doesn’t really matter. The film wisely doesn’t always spell out the reasoning since it can’t, the tension between them makes it inevitable for things to build to the iconic image of the four of them in bed together. The answers don’t really matter, anyway. It’s just the way it is. The film observes the way things were. Or, more likely, still are.
As his own directing credit appears Mazursky makes a cameo at The Institute as someone is getting him to scream, to let it all out, the perfect entryway to four characters somehow attempting to do the same. The more I watch it the more BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE seems just miraculous, flowing beautifully with an intricate structure to the screenplay that adds to the freedom. Pauline Kael called it ‘a slick, whorey movie and the liveliest American comedy so far this year’ and although her complete review reads as pretty mixed it is lively, continually slick with a late 60s magazine layout feel to the visuals. On the surface the four of them go perfect together and the friends on the sidelines of the gatherings arguing about their kids aren’t with it enough, representing the audience who can only dream of being one of these people who on the surface have it all. With 1973’s BLUME IN LOVE
(the second film in that opening night double at the New Beverly—Donald F. Muhich appears again, basically playing the same therapist, which made the pairing even more ideal) Mazursky went deeper making a darker look at infidelity and that film dangles on a tightrope like few others do but BOB & CAROL with its 60s sense of hope and optimism still felt in every scene comes together beautifully. There are no missing parts, each of the characters get their say and the realization they all silently come to at the end feels natural for them to stay who they are.
That’s the ‘What now?’ of the final moments between the four of them in bed together, of Robert Culp’s expression when he seemingly achieves everything he was trying for since the beginning of the film. What are you supposed to do when you get everything you thought you wanted? It’s not that it’s wrong, like Ted fears, it’s just that things are more complicated than that. They have to be for anything to work. Thinking about this film and a few of Mazursky’s others reminds me of the end of his 1980 JULES AND JIM homage WILLIE AND PHIL (not at the level of BOB & CAROL but still interesting—unfortunately, it’s not even on DVD) in which the narration at the end concludes the story and then says about the two leads, “they went on to live very ordinary lives.” The intentional break with reality at the end of this film aside, it’s easy to imagine that this is what happens to Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice as well. The director actually makes a second cameo near the very end, walking along in the crowd with his co-writer/producer Larry Tucker, the two of them looking like the best friends in the world. It’s a sort of bookend to that scream he let out at the start and in some ways his films are sometimes about that scream you have to let out before you retreat to that version of ordinary life you have in front of you, having hopefully figured out a little something. You do sometimes have to let out a scream, yes, but the ending finds the main characters in silence as they redo the encounter from the Institute, finally seeing the other person and embracing what it really means for themselves, for once not hiding their feelings. Mazursky based the film on his own experience and since he’s a part of this narrative of course he doesn’t have all the answers. But he seems to know that all we have in the end is ourselves. And, if we’re lucky, the person in front of us staring back.
Along with all that is the perfection of the performances, both together and separate, always fully lived in, always fully the characters. Robert Culp displays his character’s hollow confidence with the beads and chains, obviously trying to stay with it and a certain ‘Am I really getting away with this?’ air to his actions that prefigures how fast he crumbles when he’s not able to control the situation. Natalie Wood’s own elegant blitheness perfectly matches him in how she looks at her husband with all the love in the world—she introduces herself as “Bob’s wife” as if that’s all that matters—while still being able to hold enough surprises, displaying so much confidence and amazement at the world that she can’t believe everyone else doesn’t feel the same way, amazed that there can be other such emotions. There’s a sense that Bob & Carol as characters are each more comfortable in their own skin so the more conservative Ted & Alice feel more out of place as a result. Since they don’t put on as many airs, the discomfort that they show makes their more relaxed moments that much more genuine. Elliott Gould, the goofiest of them, is maybe the most human in his physicality with the way he dances while getting high and the way he primps before the big orgy, the gears clicking away in his head always apparent as he tries to figure out the difference between Bob’s advice and what’s right. The inner awkwardness makes it Gould’s most endearing performance and the way Dyan Cannon expresses Alice’s own discomfort alongside him makes her an ideal match, displaying the right amount of insecurity as if continually unsure how to behave when any situation doesn’t go exactly her way. Her insistence of her own vulnerability feels totally honest.
We break with reality Fellini-style at the very end of course in a Las Vegas ending which could be about all sorts of things or maybe could mean nothing more than the famous lyrics of “What the World Needs Now”. Regardless, we leave the four of them content with each other, ready to face the 70s which according to Mazursky means BLUME IN LOVE and AN UNMARRIED WOMAN but hopefully Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice had a happier decade. Thinking back to that line about being here for ten seconds the actress who played Carol has been gone for close to 35 years by now. Bob has been gone for six. I hope Ted & Alice stay with us for a long time to come. Joe Swanberg’s recent film DIGGING FOR FIRE (recommended) was dedicated to him and is a valid look at how some of these themes can be expressed in 2016 so hopefully Mazursky’s legacy will continue to make its way out there through the New Beverly or other means. I also suspect certain long ago women in my life tried to apply some of what gets learned at The Institute to me but, of course, I was too young and stupid to get it. That’s the way it goes and, as usual, I forgot that we’re only here for about ten seconds. But here I am, not living anything like this film, just trying to get through this stuff, while I have those late night texting sessions with people who, if I’m being honest, I’d rather be talking to with them right there in front of me. Sometimes you have to scream, yes. But you can’t scream forever. I’m trying to remember that.