Skip to main content

He's not in my pyjamas, is he?

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice

(SPOILERS) By rights, Paul Mazursky’s swinging, post-flower-power-gen partner-swap movie ought to have aged terribly. So much of the era’s scene-specific fare has, particularly so when attempting to reflect its reverberations with any degree of serious intent. Perhaps it’s because Mazursky and co-writer Larry Tucker (also of The Monkees, Alex in Wonderland and I Love You, Alice B. Toklas!) maintain a wry distance from their characters’ endeavours, much more on the wavelength of Elliott Gould’s Ted than Robert Culp’s Bob; we know any pretensions towards uninhibited expression can’t end well, but we also know Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice have to learn the hard way.

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is essentially a comedy of manners, but of the bedroom variety, and its attractive conceit is showing the educated classes’ perverse ability to intellectualise themselves out of accepted societal norms, irrespective of whether that’s in the interest of their emotional or marital wellbeing. Bob and Carol (Natalie Wood) represent those not sprightly enough to be part of a youth movement yet nevertheless desirous to inhale some fumes from the scene (obviously, the actual parameters varied, hence old-timer Dennis Hopper inhaling the entire scene in greedy gulps and failing to come up for air for another decade).

Bob, a documentary filmmaker (a surprisingly affluent one, by the looks of it) attends a group honesty retreat with Carol; it’s the kind of place indulging beautiful nude women meditating as well as not-so-beautiful types attempting to get to grips with not being so beautiful. There’s an abundance of excruciating navel gazing (“Say hello with your eyes”), primal screaming and utterly repellent group hugging, and the couple emerge transformed, eager to impress their newfound wisdom upon bezzie-mates couple Ted and Alice (Dyan Cannon). Both of whom are decidedly more conservative and possessed of concordantly stronger BS detectors.

Even Wiki refers to Bob and Carol’s educational “jaunt” as “an Elsalen-style retreat”. Which should speak volumes. Esalen was, of course, the poster palace of the Human Potential Movement, founded by a couple of Stanford graduates – uh-huh – on the principle that “The divine is incarnate in the world and is present in us and is trying to manifest”. Which may sound all sorts of New Age mah-vellous, but… perhaps not so rosy, all told, what with boosting its patent brand of gestalt therapy, boasting guest lecturers/teachers such as popular eugenicist Aldous Huxley, MKUltra specialist John C Lilly and (reportedly, per Dave McGowan) the Process Church’s Robert DeGrimston, and accepting attendees including Charles Manson (who got very famous the year Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice was released). The movie doesn’t need to be proselyting for such societal-shifting institutions, mind. It simply needs, by its fact of being, to publicise them.

As they express their very flaky ideas of indulging complete honesty – “That’s what we used to do” says Bob of concealing truths – Bob and Carol reveal an immediately facile understanding of basic human psychology, so it’s very evident we’re this is leading, and the only foolishness of Ted and Alice is indulging their friends as much as they do. Gould sets himself up for the next decade as Ted – although M*A*S*H would be his truly star-making turn – both witty and nursing a perma-daze. Essentially, he’s there to surrogate the average cinemagoer, unconvinced by his pals but too amenable to tell them where to go. He’s sheepish about the prospect of his own indiscretions – “Do you realise you’re here for about ten seconds? For Peter’s sake! It’s a part of life that’s meant to be lived!” scolds Bob at the news of Ted’s non-consummation of a potential fling, owing to a “terrible feeling of ambivalence at my pleasure” – and plagued by guilt when he does indulge them.

Indeed, perhaps the movie’s best scene revolves around Ted’s stoned horniness while Alice, still fuming at the news of Bob’s infidelity – and Carol being okay with it – tells him she isn’t in the mood. It might have been an uncomfortable scene – particularly given the current highly-strung mood of our times – as even though they talk it through, he continually has to be batted away (she doesn’t want him to go for a walk, his only response to being denied passion).

If Ted is a bumbler, Alice is a straight arrow, yet too rigid to invite easy empathy. Kael considered Bob and Carol represented a good marriage, and Ted and Alice a mismatch (she bored to his bewildered). I don’t know if that’s quite right, but Alice’s anxieties are expressed in a much tenser, more bottled manner than Ted’s abject shambles, as evidenced by her meeting with her shrink (Donald F Murch Mazursky’s actual therapist, which is curious, as he comes across as remote and unsympathetic, absolutely not giving the profession a vote of confidence). This is presumably supposed to explain her sudden demand for an “orgy” after Ted reveals his affair to the quartet, but it isn’t entirely convincing. Kael’s description of Cannon, that she “looks a bit like Lauren Bacall and a bit like Jeanne Moreau, but the wrong bits” is supremely, cattily hilarious.

Kael thought Cannon’s performance was very good, however much she may have poked at her looks. She was much less kind to Wood, who “doesn’t seem to have any substance as a human being, so there’s nothing at stake”. She’s actually fine in the movie, and if anything, the qualities Kael alluded to help congeal someone so shallow and egotistical, she thinks it appropriate to espouse her life-changing doctrine to a poor, confused waiter at a restaurant. Or exude vacuous sincerity when she announces to Alice “I feel very close to you now”. Culp is similarly well cast; generally speaking, you expect him to be the one selling overt cynicism in his roles, so undercutting that born-again zeal is rather effective (Kael: “Robert Cummings crossed with Timothy Leary”). At one point, he can be seen bumping into his I Spy co-star, Rohypnol-fiend Bill Cosby, in a night club (they’d later pair again for Culp’s directorial debut Hickey and Boggs).

The upshot of the foursome is that neither exchange of partners can go through with it, Mazursky and Tucker apparently deciding that, despite their daring, traditional values should/will reassert themselves when it really comes to the crunch. In this regard, having Burt Bacharach poured wholesale over a montage of the leads encountering assorted couples in the casino parking lot is an undignified sop to ’60s idealism. Love will out over sex, they – or Burt – seems to be saying.

Although, who knows how their relationships, both as couples and as friends, fared after this. In theory, there’s a comforting affirmation here, that they can resume their lives and be okay; the aberration has passed. But on a more defining, instrumental level, one has to wonder at the strings Mazursky is pulling. Whether Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice’s “innocent” reflection of the circles in which he and Tucker were mingling represented him doing his bit to extend the era’s programming of the population – as they’d already done on a more juvenile level with The Monkees – by spreading California’s peccadilloes to the nation at large. Was Bob normalising swinging – and the fabled key parties of the subsequent decade – and would many of those tempted by the movie’s fantasy lack the discipline to pull back and prevent marital carnage? It was, after all, the sixth most popular movie of the year.

Regardless, Mazursky acutely identifies the pitfalls of mutually condoned impropriety. When Bob walks in on Carol mid-affair – with a tennis coach – he betrays his obliging attitude to his own affair by flying into a rage (earlier, he attempted to get a rise out of Carol, to persuade her she should be infuriated – “I don’t feel jealous” – at his infidelity). Then he rationalises that it meant nothing; she doesn’t love the guy, it’s purely physical, and so he coaxes the reluctant coach out for an awkward drink. There’s a recognition this doesn’t really fly, that it’s going to stew and brew.

Elsewhere, Mazursky is less assured. Ted’s in-flight sex fantasy seems to have strayed in from another, clumsier picture. Gould and Cannon were both nominated in Best Supporting Oscar categories (Ted trapped on the sofa, attempting to escape the self-conscious canoodling of Bob and Carol is first-rate physical comedy, but there’s no way Gould could have beaten Jack in Easy Rider… who was mystifyingly beaten by Gig Young). Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay (not a chance) and cinematography (a rare nom for a comedy, but Charles Lang’s work is terrific). Mazursky rated it his best film, reputedly, and he was probably right. It certainly beats Scenes from a Mall.

Popular posts from this blog

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Volume 1 (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

Is this supposed to be me? It’s grotesque.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) (SPOILERS) I didn’t hold out much hope for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent being more than moderately tolerable. Not so much because its relatively untested director and his co-writer are mostly known in the TV sphere (and not so much for anything anyone is raving about). Although, it has to be admitted, the finished movie flourishes a degree of digital flatness typical of small-screen productions (it’s fine, but nothing more). Rather, due to the already over-tapped meta-strain of celebs showing they’re good sports about themselves. When Spike Jonze did it with John Malkovich, it was weird and different. By the time we had JCVD , not so much. And both of them are pre-dated by Arnie in Last Action Hero (“ You brought me nothing but pain ” he is told by Jack Slater). Plus, it isn’t as if Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten have much in the way of an angle on Nic; the movie’s basically there to glorify “him”, give or take a few foibles, do

All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies.

Watership Down (1978) (SPOILERS) I only read Watership Down recently, despite having loved the film from the first, and I was immediately impressed with how faithful, albeit inevitably compacted, Martin Rosen’s adaptation is. It manages to translate the lyrical, mythic and metaphysical qualities of Richard Adams’ novel without succumbing to dumbing down or the urge to cater for a broader or younger audience. It may be true that parents are the ones who get most concerned over the more disturbing elements of the picture but, given the maturity of the content, it remains a surprise that, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey (which may on the face of it seem like an odd bedfellow), this doesn’t garner a PG certificate. As the makers noted, Watership Down is at least in part an Exodus story, but the biblical implications extend beyond Hazel merely leading his fluffle to the titular promised land. There is a prevalent spiritual dimension to this rabbit universe, one very much

Whacking. I'm hell at whacking.

Witness (1985) (SPOILERS) Witness saw the advent of a relatively brief period – just over half a decade –during which Harrison Ford was willing to use his star power in an attempt to branch out. The results were mixed, and abruptly concluded when his typically too late to go where Daniel Day Lewis, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro had gone before (with at bare minimum Oscar-nominated results) – but not “ full retard ” – ended in derision with Regarding Henry . He retreated to the world of Tom Clancy, and it’s the point where his cachet began to crumble. There had always been a stolid quality beneath even his more colourful characters, but now it came to the fore. You can see something of that as John Book in Witness – despite his sole Oscar nom, it might be one of Ford’s least interesting performances of the 80s – but it scarcely matters, or that the screenplay (which won) is by turns nostalgic, reactionary, wistful and formulaic, as director Peter Weir, in his Hollywood debu

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

If that small woman is small enough, she could fit behind a small tree.

Stranger Things Season 4: Volume 2 (SPOILERS) I can’t quite find it within myself to perform the rapturous somersaults that seem to be the prevailing response to this fourth run of the show. I’ve outlined some of my thematic issues in the Volume 1 review, largely borne out here, but the greater concern is one I’ve held since Season Two began – and this is the best run since Season One, at least as far my failing memory can account for – and that’s the purpose-built formula dictated by the Duffer Brothers. It’s there in each new Big Bad, obviously, even to the extent that this is the Big-Bad-who-binds-them-all (except the Upside Down was always there, right?) And it’s there with the resurgent emotional beats, partings, reunions and plaintively stirring music cues. I have to be really on board with a movie or show to embrace such flagrantly shameless manipulation, season after season, and I find myself increasingly immune.

Get away from my burro!

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) (SPOILERS) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is beloved by so many of the cinematic firmament’s luminaries – Stanley Kubrick, Sam Raimi, , Paul Thomas Anderson and who knows maybe also WS, Vince Gilligan, Spike Lee, Daniel Day Lewis; Oliver Stone was going to remake it – not to mention those anteriorly influential Stone Roses, that it seems foolhardy to suggest it isn’t quite all that. There’s no faulting the performances – a career best Humphrey Bogart, with director John Huston’s dad Walter stealing the movie from under him – but the greed-is-bad theme is laid on a little thick, just in case you were a bit too dim to get it yourself the first time, and Huston’s direction may be right there were it counts for the dramatics, but it’s a little too relaxed when it comes to showing the seams between Mexican location and studio.

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls… dyin’ time’s here!

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) Time was kind to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome . As in, it was such a long time since I’d seen the “final chapter” of the trilogy, it had dwindled in my memory to the status of an “alright but not great” sequel. I’d half-expected to have positive things to say along the lines of it being misunderstood, or being able to see what it was trying for but perhaps failing to quite achieve. Instead, I re-discovered a massive turkey that is really a Mad Max movie in name only (appropriately, since Max was an afterthought). This is the kind of picture fans of beloved series tend to loathe; when a favourite character returns but without the qualities or tone that made them adored in the first place (see Indiana Jones in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull , or John McClane in the last two Die Hard s). Thunderdome stinks even more than the methane fuelling Bartertown. I hadn’t been aware of the origins of Thunderdome until recently, mainly because I was