What I Feel Like Doing: Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969)
When you’re determined to change, there’s no secret to making it happen for yourself. But the biggest challenge can be getting those in your life to accept the change - to see the changes you’ve made as a positive instead of a negative. Subtly or radically, this change can create anything from a ripple to a wave, and threatens to push back those in our radius who aren’t ready for it. Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, with a pinch of comedy and a heaping helping of honesty, ask what those changes could mean to the most grounded of relationships.
Set in the fading days of the swinging 60’s amongst an affluent set of friends in the Southern California foothills, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice are a tight knit quartet of unlikely friends. Bob (Robert Culp) a documentary filmmaker researching his next subject takes a weekend trip with his wife, Carol (Natalie Wood), attend a getaway that is in the sweet spot between that place Don Draper was at the end of Mad Men and the Rajeneesh gatherings in Wild WIld Country. Finding purpose in the teachings and yielding a radical honesty, they communicate without the purposeful subterfuge that bogs down most communication. Their straight-laced friends, Ted (Elliot Gould) and Alice (Dyan Cannon), are fascinated yet put off, especially after Carol reveals an affair Bob had on a recent business trip. Forced to confront their own communication issues, Ted finds inspiration and Alice finds isolation from those she felt she could trust. It culminates in a weekend Vegas trip where feelings, and eventually bodies, are laid bare, and everyone’s commitment to honesty has to decide if it’s hitting the streets, or hitting the sheets.
Quentin Tarantino cites Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice as an inspiration for Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. It’s easy to see it’s then modern style, preserving a stylishly distressed but beautifully pristine version of the era his movie is set. Bob and Carol are the gracefully aging free spirits, with Bob’s carefully disheveled blonde hair betrayed by it’s rapid greying, and Carol the fashionable mom in bell bottoms, vests and babydoll nightwear. Ted and Alice, squares in almost every way compared to their hip contemporaries, are a sort of proto-yuppie before their time, transfixed by gazpacho and wearing full body pajamas and unnecessary robes. It’s equally lavish and realistic, not to the point of parody but authentic to the affluence that make their lives enviable to our modern eyes.
But looking at Tarantino’s body of work, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice’s central conflict, of the tension of change, has always been in his work. In Pulp Fiction, the change that Vincent represents to Mia or Butch’s plans against Marcellus; in Kill Bill, The Bride’s pursuit of a new life away from Bill. Reservoir Dogs and Jackie Brown are conflicts of change based on power and truth, and Inglourious Basterds and The Hateful Eight are about the changes we can’t anticipate. How the film truly influences Once Upon A Time In Hollywood remains to be seen, but so long as someone in a QT movie wants to find a new life, or a new way of living their current one, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice will have a place in his works.
The final shots of Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice replay a version of the activity Bob and Carol first partook in at their getaway - sharply dressed after their intentions were laid bare, the titular pairs lead a march through a Las Vegas casino, out to the driveway, and wander through a loose mob amongst their parade participants. They pause and look into the eyes of these strangers, lavishly dressed and representing many of the parts of the great American melting pot - Native Americans dressed in ceremonial outfits, immigrants in their native clothes, nuns, priests, rabbis, monks of all varieties; the rich, the poor, all equal in their pursuit of honesty. This gathering of unexpected fellows parts and we are left with Bob and Carol, and Ted and Alice, and a question we can ask ourselves as they walk into the night - was their journey an indictment of these radical self discoveries of those looking inward, or was it an indictment of the square culture those radical’s bristled against?