Few things in life are as frustrating as films that aren’t willing to go all the way; movies that bob and weave with utter delight, hitting all the right notes, only to crash and burn with fear of their own power. Subversion, then, yields to convention, and as most people are struck by (and supposed to “learn” from) a film’s conclusion, the radical nature of a work can be wiped away in a moment of cowardice. Paul Mazursky’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is just such a movie — fun, outrageous, breezy, and delightfully brash for most of its running time, yet utterly insipid at the end because the filmmaker suddenly got religion. Or the next worst thing, a compulsion to provide moral closure. Throughout, the squares were on the run, man, only to find their way back to the party and humorlessly harsh the collective buzz. It’s as if the film anticipated the Manson Family murders and subsequent “end of innocence” that fueled the first of many backlashes against 60s values. It was Altamont, the assassinations, Jimi and Janis kickin’ off; only all at once. Mazursky allowed us to see a new way of life, what might have been labeled “enlightened,” only to reassure us that there was a price to pay for all that free love. We’d have to go back to looking — really looking — at ourselves once again.
But while it lasts, the film’s crazy vision is liberating, even if it seems tame in our current tell-all age. But it’s not the sex I’m talking about, here, for we don’t really see any at all. I’m speaking of the idea that sex could be reduced to purely physical terms; that we could engage in all sorts of activities and couplings without guilt, exploitation, jealousy, or hurt. Flower power indeed, but it’s still taboo to speak of marriage as anything other than heterosexual, monogomous intercourse — preferably procreative — that blocks out an outside world and doesn’t acknowledge biology, physiology, or the possibility that feelings wax and wane. To be sure, some marriages are just as fine as institutions of that nature — and more power to them — but have we lost that libertarian spirit that asks more of our relationships? Why, for example, must wife-swapping and orgies produce immediate giggles, as if they’re relics from the ancient past; seen only in films like The Ice Storm because they’re safely of another era? And why the bad feelings? There might be a group encounter from time to time on film, but doesn’t someone always indulge in such perversions because they’re wounded souls, desperately searching for meaning? What happened to people acting on their impulses — experimenting! — without judgment, reprisal, or a “responsible” coda?
Bob (Robert Culp), Carol (Natalie Wood), Ted (Elliott Gould), and Alice (Dyan Cannon) are fascinating characters to be sure, not because they’re intellectual (they’re not), or glamorous (far from it), or powerful (well-off, yes, but just faces in the crowd), but because they feel just right as they are. I’ve seen better films, of course, but I was immediately struck by the authenticity of the performances. The screenplay is clever, witty, and light as a feather, but it understands that people must talk, not merely bark insipid remarks to push the story along. Nor are these people packed with meaning and self-consciously metaphorical. They genuinely act and react; revealing surprise, astonishment, incredulity, and self-pity with grace and the sort of awkwardness that can only come from improvisational insight. These were people who were finding their way as they were acting, as if they too just found out that this was the new direction in their lives. I loved the rhythm of the picture, but these four actors are what made it so blissful. They could have been playing checkers for all I cared, just spend a little more time in my company.
The film begins at one of those perfectly dreadful “couples’ retreats” so popular in the Age of Aquarius; narcissism so thick and heavy that it’s a wonder people can find and locate one another through the din. Bob is a documentary filmmaker doing research, and Carol is just “tagging along,” although it takes but a few moments before they’re participating in the inane rituals like everyone else. I assume that Mazursky is blasting these self-indulgent parades of navel gazing, for we move from group hugs, to crying therapy, to groups of adult men and women pounding pillows with an insane fury. People are told to turn off what they think and simply “feel,” much in the way that “E.Q.” has managed to worm its way into modern understandings of self. Sobbing leads to embracing, and honesty turns hard-asses to blubbery blobs of feminized jello. Needless to say, Bob and Carol are changed by the experience, and after they return, they go out to dinner with Ted and Alice, who are immediately disgusted by the new touchy-feely couple. Still, despite the childish behavior confused for “enlightenment,” the new course allows the couple to handle the pain of adultery with frankness and unexpected dignity. Or does it?
Bob eventually tells Carol that he slept with some co-worker while on assignment in San Francisco, and rather than fuming with despair, Carol accepts Bob’s decision and realizes that yes, it was purely physical and where there is sex, there need not be love. In a great retort, Bob even states, after Carol calls the woman a dumb blond, “No, she wasn’t dumb.” Why is it great? Because here we are, in bed with a couple where one party has just revealed that he’s screwed another woman, and he makes certain to correct his wife’s faulty assumption about his recent lay. This would be the time for him to agree wholeheartedly, and even add the expected “she meant nothing” line in order to further dehumanize her. This is repeated later in the film by Ted, as he confesses an affair to Alice. While giving the particulars (he meets some young hottie in Miami while at a lawyer’s conference), he is careful to point out that the experience was fantastic and the woman extremely attractive. Again, no regrets! And I couldn’t help but smile as it is rare indeed to hear characters speak of such things with unapologetic delight, while at the same time having no desire to wound their spouse. This wasn’t about the infliction of pain; this was simply naked honesty, damn the consequences. No games, no bullshit, just openness.
Another great turn involves the inevitable affair undertaken by Carol. While Bob is away on business, she invites Horst, the tennis instructor, over for a little dalliance. Bob arrives home early, only to be met by Carol on the stairs. She openly admits the affair (the lover is tucked away in the bedroom) and while he overreacts at first, it is a brief episode; instinctive, perhaps, and not at all the responsible thing to do. Within moments, he gathers his thoughts and is beaming like a schoolboy. Bob evens knocks at the door to have a chat and offer the shocked man a drink. It’s a great comic moment, yet it feels completely sane. Again, this isn’t revenge on Carol’s part, only an indulgence that feels right and need not be explained. The initial — and incorrect — assumption on Bob’s part was that Carol was being vindictive, but these are liberated lovers, you dig, and such feelings are best left behind. While the film was in this zone, it worked as well as any film of this type. Social satire could be at work, yes, but just as easily we could be witnessing an attack on that which seeks to define human beings narrowly, as if we should all be on the same page in how we define “husband,” “wife,” or “couple.”
At first, Alice reacts with middle-class revulsion, only to be swept away by the idea of sexual freedom late in the film. Only not quite. After the couples have arrived in Las Vegas for some gambling and Tony Bennett, they get to talking in the hotel room and Bob reveals Carol’s affair, while Ted blurts out his secret. Alice reacts as we want her to, which is with anger, and it is clear that her suggestion of an orgy is a gut-level reaction to chase away feelings of betrayal. But the foursome do begin the process — stripping down, crawling into bed, and even kissing — only to feel the pangs of conscience. A few of the characters even look away as if lost in thought, perhaps regret. It would have been a fitting end to have these good friends share the best part of themselves (they’re too vapid to really speak of anything else), yet they lack the courage to take their new worldview to its logical conclusion.
Fine, I had had enough of Elliott Gould’s insanely hairy back by that time, but Natalie Wood looked pretty fetching in her underwear. So don’t pull away before it’s time. But they did. And if it wasn’t bad enough that the two couples avoid group sex, they had to walk out of their hotel and join some surreal group of other couples in a bizarre “dance of love.” Everyone looks at each other, much as Bob and Carol were instructed to do at the opening retreat, apparently because the sexual attitudes of the previous 100 minutes had taken people away from what’s important. As a capper, “What the World Needs Now is Love (Sweet Love)” plays gushingly on the soundtrack, almost as a call to the family values of old. No, what we needed then, and what we sure as shit need now, is a full retreat from conventional moral structures; the appeals to authority and guilt that make life respectable perhaps, but just as often joyless and routine. That, and a director with balls (sweet balls).