BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE
*/**** Image B Sound B+ Extras B
starring Natalie Wood, Robert Culp, Elliott Gould, Dyan Cannon
screenplay by Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker
directed by Paul Mazursky
*/**** Image B+ Sound A- Extras B-
starring Danny Aiello, Dyan Cannon, Shelley Winters, Jerry Stiller
written and directed by Paul Mazursky
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover There are certain talented but minor directors--"second-rank," as opposed to "second-rate"--who sadly manage to outlive their moment. John Frankenheimer was one of them, Alan J. Pakula another: both made key popular films of their time and then had nowhere to go once the cultural ground shifted beneath them. Add to this list the name of Paul Mazursky. Watch his 1969 comedy Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and his 1993 summation The Pickle and you'll see two completely different people at work: one bases his work on observation and the mood of his times, and the other is so far behind the curve that his characters hardly seem human. Though it's painful to retrace Mazursky's slide and ultimately impossible to connect Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice to The Pickle, the juxtaposition of the two films is instructive in terms of what not to do when you're no longer the hot young thing and the industry contradicts your every single move.
First, the good news: Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice was well worth a trip to the vaults for DVD distributor Columbia TriStar. It's a priceless time capsule from the dawn of the sexual revolution so well-drawn that you can forgive it when it pulls up from becoming too controversial. It begins with Bob (Robert Culp) taking his wife Carol (Natalie Wood) to a maudlin human-potential retreat in the California hills, the experience of which has them pondering the concept of sexual experimentation. When Bob later confesses to an illicit fling, Carol is oddly accepting while strait-laced friends Ted (Elliott Gould) and Alice (Dyan Cannon) have their own unique reactions to the news. Turns out that Ted is intrigued by the idea and Alice is horrified on Carol's behalf; but Pandora's Box has been opened, and strange fascinations are spilling out.
What solidifies the movie is its grasp of behaviour. Mazursky rightly perceives that one can't really live without limits: every action has an equal and opposite reaction, therefore each step outside the alleged norm for our heroes has a ripple effect they can't possibly have predicted. The two couples squirm between repressed togetherness and affectless experimentation--and Mazursky, working with co-writer Larry Tucker, is close enough to the experience to lend it credibility. The new-age jargon is rendered in such excruciatingly pompous detail that you know it comes from the source (probably his Hollywood neighbours), and the tense and resentful reactions of Alice and Ted are the sound of people in the throes of a confusing new age. Sadly, the film doesn't go the full length towards transcending the impasse, opting for a Burt Bacharach song instead of a Hegelian synthesis, but Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is more gripping than comedies usually are because of its astounding fidelity to the truth of its subject matter.
The Pickle, meanwhile, is like a TV movie crossed with dinner theatre. From a popular artist with a microscope to a bewildered hack with a megaphone, Mazursky flails wildly here in an attempt to hit the easy target of crass Hollywood blockbusters, giving us Harry Stone (Danny Aiello), a faded director trying to get it back with a ludicrous "science-fiction teen movie." The film tries to be a mid-life 8½ by detailing Harry's dalliances with ex-wives (one of whom is the returning Dyan Cannon), his 22-year-old French girlfriend (Clotilde Courau), various agents, journalists, executives, and starfucking hangers-on. But this is no 8½--hell, it's no Stardust Memories. What The Pickle is, is a series of half-understood attitudes involving some central-casting stereotypes mixed with an enormous dollop of self-pity; the picture understands neither its own milieu nor the force it's fighting, and it sure doesn't evoke the behaviour of actual human beings. It's as clichéd and obvious as the trashy genre movies it's supposedly satirizing.
Though we're asked to believe that our hero is an artist fresh from a Parisian exile, he never carries himself like the sort of intellectual or even dilettante who would flee America for the City of Lights. He's a schumlpfy New Yorker prone to name-checking Montezuma and jazz clubs without explaining why they mean something to him; everything's just vaguely "beautiful," a term that would make him the laughingstock of either coast. He's got alimony problems with his ex-wives, but they're both delighted to see him when he drops by, and he jumps back and forth between shtupping his college-age girlfriend and propositioning an ex without a hint of guilt. We are supposed to be unwavering in our identification with the protagonist despite that he's selfish and unpleasant and, worst of all, boring--even the awful movie-within-a-movie is nothing like the bad movies he purports to hate. Nothing is consistent or based on real people in The Pickle, it's all just schtick.
Columbia TriStar's DVD transfer of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice leaves a little to be desired. The 1.85:1, 16x9-enhanced image is grainy throughout--it's not a travesty, but it is a nuisance. Definition is fine, though colours look a bit too muted. The Dolby 2.0 mono sound is somewhat better, soft yet eminently listenable. Extras begin with a commentary track featuring Mazursky and surviving cast members Robert Culp, Elliot Gould, and Dyan Cannon. If no big revelations surface, it's nonetheless fascinating to hear the aging cast marvel at their young selves, reminisce about old times, and express their love for the late Natalie Wood. Meanwhile, the 17-minute featurette "Tales of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" is largely a Q&A with Mazursky hosted by David Strasberg at the Strasberg Institute. Rather light on real insight (the actors are "wonderful" and nothing else), the piece at least includes a nice anecdote concerning a disastrous stand-up stint in Texas. Trailers for Easy Rider, Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius, and the first three seasons of "Seinfeld" round out the platter.
The same studio's DVD release of The Pickle is only slightly better visually. There's a washed-out quality to the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image, as well as a stickiness to dark colours--not that Fred Murphy's ultra-bland cinematography offers much of a source to reproduce. The Dolby Surround sound, however, is surprisingly good, robust beyond what the movie deserves. Mazursky flies solo on the commentary this time; a font of goodwill, he enthuses over bit players and technical personnel--one gets so caught up in his generous praise for cast and crew that it's easy to forget the track's almost total absence of anything resembling analysis. "Tales of The Pickle"--sounds like a Tom Robbins novel--is another 17-minute Mazursky/Strasberg tête-à-tête interspersed with clips from the movie. Once more, it's mostly gush about the production, although it morphs into a couple of long Shelley Winters anecdotes--which is fine, since the stories are pretty hilarious. Trailers, again for Easy Rider, Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius, and the first three seasons of "Seinfeld", complete the package.
- Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
105 minutes; R; 1.85:1 (16x9-enhanced); English DD 2.0 (Mono); CC; English, Japanese subtitles; DVD-9; Region One; Columbia TriStar
- The Pickle
100 minutes; R; 1.85:1 (16x9-enhanced); English Dolby Surround; CC; English, Japanese subtitles; DVD-9; Region One; Columbia TriStar