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« "The Prom" gets a starry cast for its film version. | Main | Showbiz History: Chéri, Elvis, and Top Gun: Maverick? »
Wednesday
Jun262019

Soundtracking: Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice

by Chris Feil

Perfect movie endings are hard to come by. And I don’t mean a great sticking of the landing or simply ending on a high note - I mean a perfect ending. But of the ones that quickly come to mind, music feels like an essential component to the magic. Gloria (and her Bell counterpart) dancing her way into a resilient future, 45 Years slowly crescendoing to sudden romantic collapse, morbid opulence and ego to bring All That Jazz to meet its maker.

Paul Mazursky’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice belongs in that very special class, closing its satire by ascending the audience into a higher plane of communal experience. The film is already sublime, but its coda stands apart.

The film’s ending might not work as beautifully without the being stylistically and spiritually opposite from the film’s opening. It confronts its subject - the sexual revolution arriving to domestics and monogamy as inessential to marriage - and potential audience hesitation immediately with marrieds Bob and Carol arriving at a hippie retreat abound with nudists. The Hallelujah chorus overlays the sight with a gauche rock sound, recalling both stuffy respectability of polite society and the sensibilities upending it. It’s not a mistake that the film opens by riffing on classical music of religious tradition.

Mazursky captures the scene with a certain observational distance, as if purveying these subversive sexual creatures as some exotic species from a National Geographic documentary. It’s like he knew that the film will still lure conservative audiences trying to understand how their society around them was shifting. This style (one that isn’t repeated again in the film, nor is the overt religious reference) makes room for their rigid traditional perceptions before the film begins to systematically break them down.

This all provides crucial context for the holistic ending that Mazursky has in mind. After Bob and Carol find relatively easy arrangements in opening their marriage and Ted and Alice find great anxiety in even contemplating such an idea, the film ultimately comes to their much-negotiated foursome. And we don’t see any of it. The real journey we’ve discovered is how they have relinquished those strictures and the discovery that they never defined the nature of their love to begin with.

As they exit their hotel, each couple silently hand in hand and telling nothing of the outcome, we try to catch the specific brand of tension in the air. Suddenly Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “What The World Needs Now Is Love” comes in with a jazzy melancholy that breaks down their awkwardness. It turns out that tension is just admitting that their experience doesn’t carry the catastrophic weight they had been systematically warned about.

The song builds as we feel their defenses ease away wordlessly, before they leave their casino hotel into the night. A line of patrons follows behind and Mazursky lingers as the song plays on. They form a mass, gazing into eachother’s eyes and ours, breaking the fourth wall. Suddenly, the movie is about all of us. It’s an abstraction from reality, but it’s spiritually true. It feels like possibility, liberation, and even like healing.

If the song choice feels like a tongue-in-cheek double entendre that everyone should just get laid (which: where is the lie?), Mazursky counterbalances this with an earnest, holistic feeling. That remove we felt at the beginning of the film is now replaced with something vast and intimate: people close to one another, really seeing eachother. Strangers, lovers, nobodies and somebodies, all connecting. As Mazursky crafts it, its not really about sex - it about being open. What the world needs, he is stating, is more connection.

All Soundtracking installments can be found here!

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Reader Comments (7)

I haven’t seen this movie in ages (more than 30 years) and the thing I most remember is that song at the end. I would posit that (only seeing today those two videos) it is also a direct critic to religion (What the world needs now is actually written as a prayer).

June 26, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPedro

What a great take on a classic that isn't discussed enough. I love this movie and this piece and it makes me thinking about the opening of the film in an entirely different way (I already knew the ending was perfection)

June 26, 2019 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Still have never seen this and need to!

June 26, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRob

I just saw this was available to stream last night and couldn't resist. As dated as the film is, I still get a kick out of it as a very narrow window into the late 60s. Smackdown '69 is worth a read for both the recently departed Sylvia Miles and for takes on Cannon's performance here, who's a lot better than I remembered.

June 26, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterzig

Great movie for its time... is a little dated but I loved the beginning and the end.

Natalie Wood is my all time favorite film star!!!

June 26, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterrdf

Love this movie and its ending! It's so sublime.

June 26, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterthefilmjunkie

I feel Mazursky is unfairly forgotten. He showed a real feeling for humanity and all the heartbreaking frailty that entails. He had such a run in the 70s. Alex in Wonderland gave Ellen Burstyn her first prominent film role, and for that alone he deserves all the credit in the world. A wonderful filmmaker.

June 28, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

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