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Documentary film-maker Bob Saunders and his wife Carol attend a group therapy session that serves as the backdrop for the opening scenes of the film. Returning to their Los Angeles home, the newly "enlightened" couple chastise their closest friends, Ted and Alice, for not coming to grips with their true feelings. Bob insists that everyone "feel" rather than intellectualize their emotions, and Carol pronounces "that's beautiful" after anyone says anything even remotely personal. Ted and Alice humor their friends, but it is obvious that there is a good-natured sexual tension at work within the foursome. Written by
Any film made during the "Swinging Sixties" is almost sure to look silly to us today - a plethora of "groovy man"s as well as doped-up pontifications about "letting it all hang out" and becoming one of the "beautiful people", all served up with garish camera tricks and gaudy production design. You know, "Austin Powers" but without the wink-wink knowingness.
(NOTE: To see how a so-called "classic" can be killed by the passage of time
and the absence of pharmaceuticals in one's system - check out "Easy
Rider". That is, if you can stand it.)
On the surface, "B&C&T&A" seems to be in line with such films: it is, after all, how a quartet of middle class "squares" become indoctrinated into the hippie values of free love and "doing your own thing." However, the film uses that set-up as a means to deflate - gently and good naturedly - those very values. For, as the group becomes more uninhibited and "with it," the more goofy and ridiculous they all seem. This is particularly true of Robert Culp and Natalie Wood (Bob and Carol), as they take on the hippie philosophy full-bore and unquestionably. Casting here is impeccable: seeing the square-jawed, All-American looking Culp (then the epitome of middle-brow, as star of "I Spy") utter lines straight out of the Dennis Hopper - Peter Fonda playbook is just unutterably funny; he's got the words all right, but the music is woefully wrong. Same thing with Natalie Wood; can there be anyone more whitebread than her? The more she attempts to be "groovy" the more perfectly square she seems, particularly as Carol appears to just be parroting everything her husband says and does in adopting this new lifestyle. Quite the opposite of "liberation", wouldn't you say?
Perhaps funnier, though, are Elliot Gould and Dyan Cannon as Ted and Alice, since they get to register all the (comic) shock and horror of their friends' complete abandonment of rationality. And the equally strong undercurrents of jealousy that their friends are getting to enjoy all the freedom and sexual gratification that they themselves, as good well-behaved members of society - are missing out on. Cannon's neurotic sessions with her psychiatrist - where she continually broaches, and then backs off of, what's really troubling her - provide wonderful moments of comic denial and delusion.
What the film ultimately exposes is the moral vacuity of much of the hippie philosophy - that happiness and feeling good about oneself are not all there is to life, and that focusing too narrowly on them leads ultimately to emptiness. It also makes the subtle point, however, that much of what might initially have been good about hippie thought (or at least, the thoughts of those who inspired the hippies in the first place) was oversimplified and thereby corrupted when the middle class tried to incorporate it, seizing only upon those elements of it which seemed "fun" or "a turn-on" to them. Let's face it: how much of the so-called Woodstock Nation really had any deep political or philosophical commitments; most were just middle class kids turned on to the immediate buzz of easy drugs, free sex, and rebellion for its own sake. Likewise, cosmetic changes such as longer hair or listening to rock'n'roll didn't necessarily change the minds or policies of many in the power structure. As John Lennon said in 1971: "The Sixties didn't change anything. The same b***ards are in power now, it's just they've all got long hair."
I don't mean to suggest that the film gets into issues like this directly; it is never less than a pleasant and even sunny comedy. But these issues in a very real way undergird the film and make it ahead of its time. Released in 1969, "Bob, Carol et al. . ." displays a jaundiced attitude about the counterculture - at least, the middle-class *embrace* of the counterculture
that wouldn't come widely into vogue until at least a decade later.
Indeed, the film almost seems contemporary in its bemused and dismissive view of Sixties mores. Austin Powers fans would do well to check it out.
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