So, I’ve finally gotten around to completing the next Obstruction. For this month, we were presented with a challenge that seemed rather easy to me. Write a review which consists of at least 1250 words. I write long reviews; have for a long time. This appeared on the outset to be a piece of cake. It wasn’t. In fact, I realized about halfway through that the length of my reviews usually cap off at about 900 words. The fact that I was going for a Golden Checkmark (which required 2,000 words) didn’t help.
By the way, I’m still waiting for my Golden Checkmark on Obstruction #1 ;-)
Anyways, the biggest hurdle was finding the right film to review. You can’t just write 2,000 words about any film. I’m sure that the real challenge would have been trying to write a 2,000 word review about an Adam Sandler movie and not have it repeat the same sentiments over and over again. Still, if I was going to write a lengthy review, I needed to write one about a film that I personally connected to so that I could really invest my heart into it. I initially thought of re-writing my review of ‘Jules et Jim’, but I already posted that here and wasn’t about to post another review of the same film. Then I thought I’d review ‘Scenes From a Marriage’, which had an enormous impact on me upon viewing it a few years back, while I was going through a brief separation. Sadly (but not really, since his review is exceptional), I saw that that film was already being covered.
Then it hit me. I had just seen a certain film that was so much deeper and so much more profound than I had initially anticipated, and so, without further ado, here is my 2,128 word review of 1969’s ‘Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice’:
A few weeks ago I settled in to watch ‘Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice’ and I have to say that I expected something far less profound and meaningful than what I was actually presented with. I don’t know why I was under the false impression that this was a comedy, and while some may try and pass this off as a black comedy it really isn’t. The dramatic and rather prolific gut punch of the film’s finale (masked over by a somewhat hopeful ‘walk of the couples’) is too much to be passed off as a comedy.
This film is too real.
Now, I have to open this review by mentioning something that made me question Ben Mankiewicz’s intelligence. He’s already my least favorite ‘host’ on Turner Classic Movies, but when he introduced this film I was dumbfounded by his nonchalant admittance to wishing that he had been around in the 60’s, during the time of ‘free love’. Now, had this film been a relaxed and fun comedy, I may have understood his comment, but I found myself wondering if he had even watched the same movie I had just seen. Sure, it was probably an offhand comment, but meant to mean much of anything at all or not meant to be taken seriously, but it really feels inappropriate when you consider the context of the film itself, which exposes how that very line of thinking is beyond dangerous.
Sadly, I’m talking from experience here. While I’ve never been one to hold back from getting ‘personal’ with my reviews, I feel compelled to say that this particular film was especially rough for me, and much like my personal reaction to Francois Truffaut’s ‘Jules et Jim’ (a true masterpiece and my all-time favorite film ever made), I feel a special connection to this film because of my own personal circumstances and experiences.
I’ll say this now, and I’ve said this before; sex ruins friendships.
‘Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice’ tells the story of two very different couples that come together in bizarre and unexpected ways when the Sanders’ return home from a therapy retreat with some odd ideas about love and ‘sharing’. Bob and Carol are liberal and have no problems exposing their feelings, or at least a superficial version of their feelings. Their friends, Ted and Alice Henderson are uncomfortable with their friend’s newfound openness. Things come to a head when Bob has an affair and is bowled over by Carol’s reaction. She embraces it. She not only forgives him on the spot but pries at him for details and encourages him to keep it up. An open marriage is a happy marriage, apparently, and she seems to thrive on the idea of her husband’s happiness. The Henderson’s, especially Alice, are not as understanding. When Alice hears of Bob’s betrayal she is seething. She is dripping with loathing and is completely aghast at Alice’s acceptance of Bob’s indiscretions, so much so that she feels uncomfortable in her presence.
Here is where the cracks in their relationships and personas start to rear their heads. I mentioned earlier that Bob and Carol had no problem sharing these superficial perceptions of their true feelings; the masked idea of their ideals they wanted to project for those around them to ascertain and ‘believe’ was their newfound clarity. The thing is, Bob and Carol are just as confused as everyone else by their new stance on life and love and this is made VERY clear by the way they answer questions and meet viewer judgment. Just the way that Carol feels obligated to share with Alice and Ted that Bob has had an affair was a way of gaining attention for her relaxed perception of life, which she so eagerly wants those around her to accept, as if she is still uncertain that their eye opening experience in that retreat was as life affirming or life altering as she thought it was. When Ted confronts Bob with his affair and asks him if he would be as forgiving or as understanding if Carol had had an affair, he answers without hesitation. This isn’t something he’s even thinking about. This is his new outlook on life and it is coming so easily to him.
Until it isn’t easy anymore.
No, the kinks in this new outlook are exposed the second Bob comes home early from a business trip and finds his wife having an affair of her own. His emotional collapse, his instant state of panic and anger and betrayal come crashing in on him to the point where he can’t even muster the strength to pretend that he’s ok with it all, until he has to. Until he’s forced to admit that fair is fair and that his new outlook on life is what is important. You can see, right then and there, that they haven’t thought this thing through, and yet they are too deep to turn back just yet.
This is where the Henderson’s own experiences come into play. I relate to these two personally, because I’ve been in their shoes. When you are attached to a certain couple you start to become steeped in their lives and their foolish decisions begin to weigh heavily on you, to the point where they become your stupid decisions. The Henderson’s are not entirely prudish (at least Ted isn’t), but they are nowhere near as comfortable with themselves as the Sanders are. What is particularly unsettling about this couple, and what I reacted to the strongest, was the way that they allowed their personal feelings about the wayward direction of their friend’s lives to affect their own marriage and their reactions to one another. This is especially notable in Alice, who not only happens to be my favorite character in the film but also contains my favorite performance (Dyan Cannon is marvelous here). I don’t know what this says about my marriage, because I see so much of my wife in Alice, but maybe it says something about my feelings for her if I admit that Alice is my favorite character. Sure, she can appear to be shrill and unsympathetic and controlling and selfish, but at the center of it I see a virtue there; an almost all knowing understanding, deeper than that of her husband and friends.
There is a particular scene, in the Henderson bedroom, that shook me. In the scene it is apparent that Ted just wants sex. Alice, spoiled by the admission earlier that evening by Carol of Bob’s indiscretions, is not in the mood. She wants to ruminate over the affair and her feelings towards both Bob and Carol (her immediate loathing of Bob and her lack of respect for Carol’s reaction to him) begin to fester to the point where she is overtaken by them. Ted is trying to allow his feelings for his friends and his moral separation from their actions to become one and he simply wants to indulge in his wife. The dialog between the couple and the hidden (and some not so hidden) interplay with regard to sex and what it means for their relationship (and the ways in which it can become more than or even LESS than the sum of its parts) is mesmerizing. I think it exposes a lot with regard to Ted as well, showing that the shallow understanding of ‘sex being sex’ to a man is not really as black and white as suggested but that sex without passion or mutual tenderness can become unappealing.
But of course, folly comes to those that bait it, and the Henderson’s, especially Ted, fall into a desensitized moral state. Allowing Bob’s staunch stance on his newfound views persuade him, Ted begins to fancy the idea of meaningless affairs. What makes this all the more impactful is the fact that Bob himself is basically convincing his unsuspecting friend of something that he himself isn’t entirely convinced of but is merely parading around as a mask to hide his own confusion. He’s a poser, but a dangerous one because he doesn’t have the common sense to keep his idea of ideals to himself so as not to pollute or even destroy the lives of those he holds close to him.
He doesn’t know what he’s doing.
All of this culminates into something rather abrupt yet expected as the couple vacation together and wind up contemplating the unthinkable (or should I say inevitable); swinging. I’d say ‘wife swapping’, but when you factor in that it is really Alice who, at her breaking point, becomes the advocate for the ‘swap’ it really takes on a different connotation. In fact, her mental collapse and subsequent disillusioned suggestion really breaks down all of the film’s walls and paints a fuller, more heart wrenching story.
And this is where speculation and debate can be had over the actual conclusion to the film and possibly what ‘should have been’ the conclusion to the film. I’ll start by saying that I do consider this to be a masterpiece. The film, regardless of my personal feelings on the ending, is a staggering work of honesty and emotional complexity and even the ending used leaves the viewer with a knot in the stomach and a heavy weight on the brain (so much to take in) and yet there is a moment, or maybe I should say ‘an image’, that comes mere moments before the actual final scene that I think captures so much of the impactful devastation of the film that I almost wish they had scaled back the film and just cut it right there. The moment happens when Bob Saunders is attempting to bed Alice and he stares up at the camera, as if he is looking right at the audience, and in his eyes you can see that he knows he’s gone too far. It is that knowing, that complete understanding that really says so much and caps off the film’s intentions marvelously.
Sadly, it doesn’t end there.
No, the film continues with a montage of couples leaving the hotel and parading around to ‘What the World Needs Now Is Love’. This rather upbeat and almost hopeful climax is not without merit, because it adds a layer of complexity to the film’s stance. It allows the audience to come to terms with the failure of the film’s protagonists and thus find the shreds of redemption (or the inkling of necessary back peddling). This adds a tier to the film’s impact actually, and so one could argue that this is the best possible way to conclude the film. It also serves up one of the most memorable sequences in film (for the 60’s at least) and so it shouldn’t be discredited. Still, that moment in the bed (a scene that has been immortalized on the film poster and subsequent advertisements and really has become synonymous with the film’s title) is brilliant and would have made the perfect end cap.
Paul Mazursky directs this tale with the needed restraint, allowing the passion for the subject to seep through into the many layers (crevices) of the film and not become a burden or an abrasive distraction. This is aided by the brilliant performances by the cast, most notable the two women. I want to start by addressing the disgraceful category fraud on the part of The Academy who placed both Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon in the supporting categories, when there are four LEADS in this film. I can’t understand how anyone could classify them as supporting. Alas, that is an entirely different discussion.
Dyan Cannon delivers one of the most emotionally layered and dynamic (not to mention brutally honest) performances I’ve seen in film, ever. The way that she filters her character’s moral superiority, clustered confusion, intimacy issues (both sexual and emotional) and obvious naivety send shivers down my spine. Natalie Wood is also a standout, taking on a completely different character and approaching it from a fresh perspective. She’s flirtatious, but never in the obvious ways but always shaded with a personal reluctance to divulge everything she’s feeling. She wears her mask off-kilter, which only strengthens her performance.
‘Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice’ is not an easy film. That isn’t to say that it is devastating, because Marzursky shades the film in a way that lightens the tones and allows us to digest it without feeling completely crushed, but the aftermath left as the credits roll surely takes its toll, especially if you’ve ever found yourself in a situation of similarity. This is a surprisingly astute and honest look at the way that friendships and sex can collide and the way that relationships can alter, shift and eventually break under the misguided need to ‘adapt’.