Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) and Natural Born Killers (1994)

Dir. Paul Mazursky. Starring Natalie Wood, Elliott Gould, Dyan Cannon

Dir. Oliver Stone. Starring Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Robert Downey, Jr.

Anything which is even vaguely critical of its time and place is all too easily labeled a “satire,” and any time an open-class word gets overused it becomes diluted. We’ve lost something important in our cultural perception of satires: they’re supposed to be fun. Satires are humorous. Social critiques are serious. A satire which is too serious, or takes itself too seriously, is edging over to social critique and thus losing track of its own genre. Even if one no longer gets all of the in-jokes of early 18th Century British policy, Gulliver’s Travels is entertaining. “A Modest Proposal” remains famous because actually reading the thing is a real kick in the pants. Dr. Strangelove is a blast. The world of Armando Iannucci is incredibly funny, even though it’s best taken half an hour at a time. Even second-rate satires, like The Truman Show or American Psycho, have entertainment value. There’s very little that’s fun in either Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice or Natural Born Killers, and that seriously caps how much value either has as satire.

The former is a pretty slow brand of dull. An hour into the movie and nothing had actually happened, and not in the good way that you sometimes see in art films. The latter is dull in its own way, too secure in its belief that the excesses of the music video are forever and too sophomoric in its lazy “the media is really the one at fault” premise. There’s nothing fun about either movie, and they share that dubious honor of being satires which fail simply because they aren’t a joy to consume; they’re only smug, and smugness is really only fun for one person at a time. Worst of all, smug doesn’t age well. Jon Stewart’s Daily Show was a center-left bastion of chortling indignation until, a few years later, it turns out it blinded that group to larger issues while it simultaneously patted itself on the back. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice makes a target of the emotionally “aware” haute bourgeois, a group of people with just enough spare time to “find” itself. Fifty years on, those haute bourgeois are no longer spouse-swapping but have instead looked within themselves and found the emotional truth of whatever Gwyneth Paltrow is hawking, whatever Jenny McCarthy is yelling, and whatever Vani Hari is preaching. Natural Born Killers makes a target of the media’s obsession with what makes a good headline. Twenty-five years on, we have the Internet (which frankly atomizes Natural Born Killers‘ belief that media happens to us into dust) and we have a twenty-four hour news cycle that does rather the same things Wayne Gale (Downey, Jr.) does in the film. This is not to suggest that a good satire destroys what it makes fun of, because that’s not how art works. All  the same it’s interesting to note that one of the highest-grossing American movies of 1969 and arguably the buzziest movie of 1994 have held their thumbs up to the world only to see the world (in this analogy an eighteen-wheeler) blow right past ’em.

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice has the more interesting premise of the two. A skeptical director, Bob (Robert Culp) goes to “the Institute,” a thinly coded Esalen stand-in, to do some research for a documentary. He has a surprisingly good experience there, though, struck by the openness of the other folks and moved by the encouragement of others to be in touch with his own feelings. Bob and his wife Carol (Wood) come to a new understanding with each other there, have a big group hug, and then return to L.A. to bring their evangel to their best friends, Ted (Gould) and Alice (Cannon). Over time, the Sanders wear down the Hendersons. Bob sleeps with a much younger woman, but Carol, who more than anyone else views the Institute as the source of a new lease on life, forgives her husband immediately; after all, he does not love that girl. Alice and Ted are horrified and slightly horrified, respectively, when Carol tells them about how Bob slept with someone else. Of the bunch, Alice is the most repressed, so far as these things go, and she takes the longest to adjust to the way that her friends—and her husband—have started to “liberate” themselves from Squaresville. Bob and Carol are more plot points than people, maybe because Culp and Wood are both a dash stony. Elliott Gould is the best part of this movie by a lot, the only quarter of this foursome that really lives up to the satirical promise of the film. He tokes a little and dances like a windmill in a tornado. He is inspired by Bob’s extramarital dalliance, as I suppose men of a certain age are. Bob & Carol etc. lands its strongest punch in a scene where Bob encourages Ted to let go of his guilt about adultery. You feel guilty when you want to cheat and don’t, Bob says, and you feel guilty if you do cheat. Why take the guilt without any of the pleasure? (This is significantly less interesting than the similar Mad Men thesis of “Why would you deny yourself something you want?” The Mad Men thesis would itself be less interesting if Don had said it.) On a trip to Miami, Ted sizes up a young woman in the row across from him for the same purpose, has a sex dream about her, and makes contact coming off the plane. It falls flat despite its importance to the movie; the pod person has successfully snared another victim, but there’s no sense of loss to accompany that moment because of the inevitability of Ted’s conversion.

Natural Born Killers has more happening—does it ever—and that fullness makes the movie slosh around when it moves too quickly. Cruel prisons! Family dysfunction! Media firestorms! Glorified violence! Oliver Stone (who had the privilege of going to an elite preparatory school before having the privilege to drop out of Yale twice and end up at NYU later), like fellow New Yorkers Budd Schulberg and Elia Kazan, makes the mistake of looking for these problems in a milieu far away from their own; no one ever wonders how New York City might cause these problems. They must obviously be issues from the unwashed population as opposed to the squeaky clean Big Apple. The movie’s great Mephistopheles, Downey, Jr’s. Wayne Gale, is not a New Yawker or even an Angeleno: he’s from Down Under. The protagonists are crackers from some unidentifiable South. Mickey and Mallory (Harrelson and Lewis) are trailer trash personified, wearing thick hick accents like shawls even as we see them primarily in Arizona and New Mexico. Bonnie and Clyde became media darlings because they belonged to a certain type of rural and represented a catharsis for their rural brethren against the banks. What class do Mickey and Mallory belong to other than “white trash?” And if that’s all there is to it, then why are they so fascinating not just nationally but internationally?

In this madcap rush to shout “The media does it!” as loudly as possible, Oliver Stone makes a silly mistake: he doesn’t realize that exposing causation is not as simple as pointing at who you think is responsible. (He also makes the mistake of not realizing that if you’re making light of a certain kind of filmmaking, then you should probably draw a line so that your movie doesn’t honest to goodness resemble Battlefield Earth.) Our history of violence in pop culture is certainly fed by the media, but the celebrities who became that way through violence were not anointed as media stars and then shoved down our throats. We asked for them because we saw something of themselves in us. Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Charles Manson, Patty Hearst, and O.J. Simpson represented something to communities and became touchstones for that reason. Manson was the nightmare that nice bourgeois folks imagined was just on the other side of those seemingly harmless flower people; O.J. Simpson, aside from being one of the most famous people in America already, looked to a great many people like Tom Robinson in a new age To Kill a Mockingbird. Natural Born Killers cynically assumes that we like violence for violence’s sake, that we enjoy the soap operatic elements of media villains for the sake of it, and that we have it all shoved down our throats by CNN. One is at least confused, if not offended, at the belief that people have their thoughts fed to them by television rather than the other way around.

A final key similarity between the two movies is that neither has a particularly satisfactory ending. It’s not just that the endings feel like empty calories, but neither ending occurs as a logical offshoot of its plot. At the end of Bob & Carol etc., after the quartet has tried swapping spouses, they each stop kissing and groping and sit still. Then they go, presumably, to the Tony Bennett concert without saying a word. The reading is fairly clear, that everyone has come to their senses and realized how ridiculous they were being. But what next? The fact that they’re seeing Tony Bennett means they’re returning to Squaresville, but will they take off their hippie beads and pretend this didn’t happen? I think the film suggests just that route, but it gives no indication of how the mess will play out in the long run because I don’t think it knows. The punchline appears to be something like “Ha! These people just tried to have sex with their best friends in front of their spouses! Suckers!” (It’s not much of a punchline.) The punchline of Natural Born Killers, on the other hand, is “They all lived happily ever after.” Mickey and Mallory raise a family and drive the kids around in an RV for the last bits of the picture, sort of a commentary on the fifteen minutes of fame we’ll all get in the future. It all rings hollow, especially after the fairly straightforward scene we’ve just left in which they off Wayne. The movie would have been better served simply ending after that—it would have been a smart reversal of Bonnie and Clyde down to the bullet-ridden body—but it must go on a little longer and give us this sneak peek into next week’s episode. Of course, those extra few minutes allow us to watch Mickey and Mallory superimposed on virtually every violent/sordid case in contemporary America, just in case we didn’t get the point during the first two hours of the movie.

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