by Arielle Greenberg
I am indoors, with earbuds,
watching media about connecting with nature, and thus the self.
“Where have the simple pleasures of life gone?
The beauty of a forest. Just plain breathing.”
I am watching on a screen.
It’s actually a porn film I’m watching, a “white-coater”:
the short-lived subgenre of smut in which, to avoid obscenity charges
and fall under the “educational” mantel
bestowed by the Supreme Court upon I Am Curious (Yellow),
the adult industry dressed an actor in a doctor’s coat
and had him frame the forthcoming X-rated action as a kind of scientific experiment.
But in this Golden Age movie, Touch Me,
it’s not just lip service, and the educator—Dr. Lloyd Davis, we’re told, psychologist—
is wearing a dark turtleneck under a blazer as he rearranges the furniture
in a Los Angeles suburban home with concrete patio in preparation for the arriving guests.
They’re coming for an encounter group,
to address the “loss of pleasure” and figure out how to “obtain the highest levels
of satisfaction naturally, without harm to anyone,”
Dr. Davis tells us about the marathon session we’re about to witness.
“Sensual awareness, encounter therapy, sensitivity training”—
it goes by many names, its popularity is on the rise, and its “function”
is to “try to point out your own inherent potential as a human being.”
The human potential movement was and is the term used at Esalen, the Big Sur institute founded by a couple of Stanford grads in the early 1960s, a sacred site for those in search of healing modalities and organic gardens, chanting OM by the ocean and building geodesic domes, splashing in naked co-ed hot tubs and joining drum circles.
Think I’m making fun of it?
Have you been in a naked co-ed hot tub at night with the rain lightly falling down?
Have you gone for a walk on the beach at sunrise, eaten mesclun straight from the soil?
Then, like me, you know.
They’re the real thing, utter delight, connection, some of the best moments of a life.
They can make you weep.
I thought of all this a few weeks ago,
when the AMC television series Mad Men ended its triumphant run.
Along with all the other fans, each locked in our own private box tuned in at 10/9 Central,
I watched the final scene:
PTSD’ed addict anti-hero straw man Don Draper
sitting in lotus position meditating on the grounds of the Institute.
There’s sun streaming down, and his smoothly spreading smile,
and then a cut to the famous, real-life 1971 McCann Erickson television ad known as “Hilltop”:
fresh-faced, groovy youth belting out “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” arm-in-arm.
Don’s just spent days in encounter groups himself:
a gray-haired woman has shoved him, forcefully, silently, into attention,
and when he heard another man describe himself as sitting in a dark Frigidaire of existence,
Don wept with the man, and held him, and then, perhaps, this epiphany:
the multimillion dollar cola jingle heard round the world.
Maybe, like me, you saw this final scene and thought of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,
perhaps the most famous wife-swapping movie Hollywood’s made outside the porn industry,
except that no wife-swapping ever actually happens.
(We’ll get back to that.)
Maybe when you saw Don sitting in the circle,
his face a wrench of pain, trapped, his Cadillac long abandoned,
you remembered those opening scenes in Bob & Carol,
the rich hippie couple coasting up the hills in their swooping Jag,
landing in a paradise of bare-breasted yogi nymphs
and soft-eyed questers groping each other’s faces under trees.
Maybe you remember that before all the trippy wallpapered rooms
and Dyan Cannon’s hair bows waiting for them back in LA,
Bob and Carol sat at Esalen for twenty-four hours and pounded pillows with their fists,
cried, hugged, said “I love you,” and tenderly rubbed the corduroy jeans of a stranger.
Of Bob & Carol Roger Ebert wrote at the time, it’s a film about “the epidemic of moral earnestness that's sweeping our society right now. For some curious reason, we suddenly seem compelled to tell the truth in our personal relationships.” This may be fine for free-wheeling young hippies, Ebert notes, but if adults with careers and spouses and children “start telling the truth too much, they might have to decide who keeps the kids. That's the dilemma.”
It’s not really Esalen in Bob & Carol,
just as it’s not really Esalen in Mad Men:
neither were permitted to shoot there,
the space otherwise and reverently occupied, then and now,
by Herbs for Restoration and Relaxation, Painting the Outer and Inner Landscape,
and The Intention Masterclass (all offered summer 2015).
But it’s supposed to be Esalen.
You know it when you see it.
Just because it’s a porno doesn’t mean it’s a send-up.
“Don’t make a game of it!” Dr. Davis admonishes
when one of the guys gets too handsy too fast with the girl lying naked next to him.
Hard truths are said; there is sex outdoors.
Toward the end of the film, there’s role-playing, which leads to a non-consensual act by Bill,
whose partner holds his head afterward and confronts him about it.
Then psychoanalysis is recommended for this man, since, as the doctor gravely notes,
encounter groups can’t get at the kind of hostility Bill holds.
The white coating never disappears:
straight through the end, the encounter group does its work;
the doctor stays in his turtleneck and suit;
the voiceover explanation of the encounter techniques plays over the final orgy scenes.
“Your lives won’t be changed,” the good doctor says as they all depart,
“Don’t expect too much from a forty-eight hour encounter!
But I do think you’re all freer in your feelings than when you arrived.
Good luck to all of us.”
“Bill,” he continues, “Promise to call me Monday:
I want to give you the name of that psychologist.”
Can a blue movie be educational, be for real?
Can a tv show about advertising? Can a late 60s social comedy?
Bioethicist Jonathan Moreno has been studying the legacy of his father, J.L. Moreno, a psychiatrist who published “Invitation to an Encounter” in 1914, a design for a radical style of group therapy that involved techniques borrowed from experimental theater, and his own innovation, psychodrama, which entailed role-playing and other now-standard practices.
From these first experiments came T-groups, aimed at the shell-shocked vets of World War II (like Don Draper), and then other kinds of group therapies for people with some issues to work through, but not serious mental illness. This was a new use for therapy: to unlock “human potential.” There were sensitivity training groups for corporations, and the Esalen-style encounter groups and the consciousness-raising groups of the 1960s and 70s, and the many kinds of group therapies that permeate our culture today.
It all goes back to performance.
Just as Dr. Davis says in Touch Me,
the couple in Bob & Carol tell their straight-laced friends Ted and Alice afterwards
at a fancy restaurant “no one was miraculously cured” at Esalen.
“It doesn’t work that way. But just saying something out loud, in front of a room of strangers,
is the beginning of something.”
I am a person who likes intention, who likes to say things aloud in a room of strangers,
who likes to look things in the face.
Who craves authentic encounters.
It’s what I want when I look at art, when I lace up my hiking boots,
when I give birth to a baby, when I stand at the front of a classroom,
when I press my body up against others in front of the stage at a concert,
when I fuck.
I think I’ve always been this person.
I think it’s why I cried when I watched Woodstock on video as a teenager,
stood up from the beige couch in the den and wept,
openly, at the mud and the face paint and the tai chi in the grass,
all the things I was missing in my split-level ranch in the mid-1980s.
I have never stopped weeping like this.
I still want these authentic experiences out in the counterculture the way some want meat, or water.
And I’ll take it on film if I must, if it’s been a bit too long
since my own feet were bare at some summer rock festival,
or since I was on a bed full of naked bodies intertwining like ivy on a vine.
“We’re trying to deal with things,” Bob and Carol say.
“We’re trying to stop playing games with the people we love.”
(“Don’t make a game of it,” says Dr. Davis.)
“Beautiful,” Bob and Carol say, about everything,
including an admission of an affair, an insult, anything honest.
“The truth is always beautiful.”
This is meant, maybe, as satire, these people in their velvet jackets
and Hermes scarves constantly saying “beautiful.”
But they have a sense of humor about it:
“so groovy and peaceful,” Carol says of herself, carrying the canapé tray after a dinner party.
They’re not in a cult.
They are good, loving parents to their happy child,
errant trike in the Spanish-tiled hallway,
Bob giving piggybacks before bedtime.
They are smart, and successful, and happy.
And you know what? I buy it completely.
Perhaps you will think me cheesy, or naïve.
Perhaps this means I am cheesy, or naïve. That I’m New Age.
I do own a few tarot decks.
I do light a balsam-scented candle every now and then.
And, don’t tell, but like Bob and Carol,
I’ve sat on a bed next to the person my partner just fucked
and had a far-out, honest conversation.
Like Carol, I have not felt jealous
(though thought at first, as she does, “maybe I’m kidding myself.”)
I’ve sat under trees and felt the faces of strangers with my fingertips,
stood naked opposite a man I didn’t know—almost bald, hard of hearing, wrinkled—
and looked into his eyes and felt my heart swell.
And it was beautiful.
After the finale of Mad Men, the viewing public is divided: has Don reached nirvana, or has his spiritual quest merely resulted in a successful ad campaign? Is it meant to be cynical? Or a coincidence? Has he “found” anything at all? What’s the meaning of all this?
The day after the last episode of the show, I go to pick up the kids from school
with my hair in two braids with ribbons on them,
like the receptionist at Don’s retreat, like the girl in the real Coke ad.
My friend Robin, a fellow film geek waiting for his own son there in the cafeteria,
immediately spots the sartorial reference and starts humming, “I’d like to teach the world to sing.”
We talk about the last scene of Mad Men, and about the last scene of Bob & Carol.
“What the world needs now,” he sings. “It’s so creepy!”
The Vegas casino eye-gazing, the “Hilltop”-like parade of groovy nations,
the actors staring directly and lovingly into the camera,
authentic connection right there on the Strip.
“It’s not creepy!” I say, pouting a bit in my retro braids.
How to convince him? How to convince you,
without taking you to Esalen and keeping you there long enough until you,
like Don, to have a breakthrough, land at some insight,
or at least join hands with me?
Maybe my religious-slash-spiritual practice is encounter groups.
Not what comes from these, but the activity itself:
the moment of touching the face of the new and possibly previously-unattractive-to-me person
and knowing I can love them, that I do love them.
How did encounter groups get conflated with swinging anyway? In the low-fi indie film Computer Chess, a small convention of programming geeks meets an even smaller encounter group at a dumpy hotel overrun with cats. When one of the computer guys wanders into the wrong conference room, the encounter group sits on the floor and rebirths him through their arms to set him free. It doesn’t work, nor does the invitation for a threesome with a well-meaning, middle-aged, nurturing couple who want to release an MIT grad student from his virginal repression.
Watching this movie, I thought the couple—sane-seeming, friendly, the wife a bosomy blond with a sweetly maternal air—were convincing swingers, neither repulsive nor “Ken and Barbie,” as the common parlance in the lifestyle goes. But a piece in Cinema-Scope by Phil Coldiron calls them “the last sad remnants of the American ’60s via a group of free love proponents,” and the review in Film Comment calls the encounter group “hilarious.”
I think the encounter group seems interesting and after something useful and important, and the swinger couple is cute and sexy and make the young nerd a good offer in good faith. Does this say more about me than the film?
“Insight!” Carol and Bob take to uttering, wide-eyed,
as they come to some new paradigm shift. “Lights going on in my head!”
I know it’s supposed to be a joke,
or that, at least, it’s received by the audience largely as joke.
That even back then the whole thing seemed kooky, implausible, stupid.
And by 2015 we are supposed to mostly notice how dated it all is:
the outta sight convertibles and suede miniskirts
as wacky as the ideas about self-expression and world peace.
And listen, I do want to buy exactly Natalie Wood’s baby-doll nightie.
But when Robin says creepy of the final scene in Bob & Carol,
as if it were final marble-eyed moment of The Stepford Wives,
I want to cry. Because I cry with that scene. I believe in it.
And if the orgy before Tony Bennett never happens?
Well, listen—it’s pretty advanced non-monogamy
to fuck your best friends and have it all work out fine.
I know lots of couples who’ve been through that: it’s tricky to pull off. It’s Swinging PhD.
But can you get under the covers with some nice people with whom you have drinks,
and have them then show up for your kid’s birthday party at the pool,
and live to tell? Absolutely. Trust me on this.
I can tell you more later, if you’re interested.
If you’re open to it.
Maybe all of this ought to be parodied,
and I should be seen as ridiculous myself,
and the number of times I say authentic should become a drinking game.
But what else is there?
Tell me the better use of one’s time than trying to find the real thing.
Bob & Carl & Ted & Alice (1969), dir. Paul Mazursky
Woodstock (1970), dir. Michael Wadleigh
Touch Me (1971), dir. Anthony Spinelli
Computer Chess (2013), dir. Andrew Bujalski
“Person to Person,” Mad Men (S7, Ep14, 2015), dir. Matthew Weiner
Arielle Greenberg is the Resident Poet at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is the co-author of Home/Birth: A Poemic; author of My Kafka Century and Given; and co-editor of three anthologies, including Gurlesque. She lives in Maine and teaches in the community and in Oregon State University-Cascades' MFA; she is currently teaching a course in American cinema to insightful students at the Maine State Prison enrolled through the University of College at Rockland (hi, guys!). Arielle writes a regular column on contemporary poetics for the American Poetry Review.