Friday, August 14, 2009

251) Carnal Knowledge (1971)

251) Carnal Knowledge (1971) Dir: Mike Nichols Date Released: June 1971 Date Seen: August 13, 2009 Rating: 4/5

 In its naked ambition to be a film of and about its time, Carnal Knowledge is striking for its single-mindedness and depth of cynicism. Cartoonist/playwright/screenwriter Jules Feiffer's scenario zips along with a clarity of intention that only an artist proud of his ability to announce his intentions plainly and without condescension could provide. Combined with director Mike Nichols' knack for filming people as statues, or objects whose humanity is defined by whatever pose they assume, Feiffer's anecdotal narrative seems constructed out of a combative sense of inductive reasoning. Scene by scene, Feiffer leads us to the sexual self-destruction of Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) in order to lay out a damning putdown of contemporary sexual progressivism and the deceptively innocuous, decades-old roots of misogyny that undermined those radical ideals.

Jonathan's story begins in the '50s like a buddy comedy, making nebbish but impatient Sandy (Art Garfunkel) our anti-hero's wingman. As the film goes on, Sandy is gradually phased out of the story and only infrequently returns as Jonathan's foil. Spoiled by the myriad opportunities he sees before him, Jonathan eventually ditches him like he does all of the women in his life. They're just things to him, making Sandy nothing but an inutile extension of Jonathan's ego. Sandy's only important to Jonathan as an extension of himself. Not satisfied with getting a vicarious sexual education through Sandy's stories of new girlfriend Susan (Candice Bergen), Jonathan decides that he too should try to make a pass at the girl in question. 

Initially, the trio's relationship isn't so much a menage a trois as an act of ventriloquism with Sandy as the dummy and Susan as the silent but captive audience. This delusional, one-way relationship is best expressed in the scene where Sandy introduces himself to Susan at a collegiate soiree while Jonathan lurks prominently in the background. His strained air of non-chalance quickly gives way to impatience when he wolfishly prepares to pounce on Susan as soon as Sandy blows his first pass at her. To Jonathan, Sandy's just a way to vicariously dip his feet in the water with Susan. His feelings, like hers, are irrelevant.

Even when he begins to seduce Susan behind Sandy's back, Jonathan's still pulling his best friend's strings. He tells Sandy that he shouldn't tell Susan that he's bagged "Myrtle," his imaginary girlfriend "Myrtle," who is in fact Susan. By lying to Sandy about "Myrtle"/Susan, Jonathan perverts what would otherwise be fraternal advice into a patronizing command which Sandy, of course, obediently obeys without a second thought. In fact, the subject is never brought up again in the story because it's assumed that Sandy has blindly followed Jonathan's orders.

Once Jonathan begins to pursue Susan for himself, it becomes clear that he's the film's real protagonist. We don't get to see Sandy's relationship with Susan end because at this point, Jonathan is no longer enamored with the possibility of sharing her. Her refusal to respond kindly to his brusque ultimatum, which cruelly echoes Bogey's admonishment to Sam in Casbalanca--"You can do it with him, you can do it with me," Jonathan bellows querulously--is the most damning blow to his psyche, more so than his later relationship with Bobbie (Ann-Margaret). Bobbie and Jonathan's falling out only coaxes out the scars of this earlier rejection. The disintegration of Jonathan's seminal fling with Susan on the other hand is like the first few panels in any of Feiffer's cartoon strips from The Village Voice: a dense set-up to a foregone conclusion. 

As a privileged child of the '50s, Jonathan's sense of entitlement comes from the uninhibited freedom granted him by the idyllic college campus that he and Sandy galumph about. Paths surrounded by radiant foliage and the diorama charms of the pair's dorm room, lit only by their massive double windows, makes the period resemble Norman Rockwell's version of Heaven. Jonathan's break-up with Susan boots him out of that Eden into the harsh new world of the '60s, where he unexpectedly looks to Sandy for advice, trying and ultimately failing to to acknowledge Sandy as something like a person in the process.* 

To relate the decade as a period of self-discovery, Nichols playfully films Jonathan's pathetic attempt to relate to Sandy as someone might to his reflection. First we see Sandy confessing the secrets of his sex life while staring directly at the camera. Though he initially looks like he's breaking the fourth wall by addressing the audience, Nichols reveals later that there is a revere-shot component to these monologues, turning it into a conversation between him and Jonathan. Jonathan's sudden appearance changes his earlier role from that of a silent partner to the dominant speaking role. Nichols primes us with this view of Sandy to show him as Jonathan's detached reflection, an otherworldly second skin similar to Peter Pan's shadow. Jonathan's fatal attempt to swap wives with Sandy later can be thus seen as his attempt to suture the two personalities back together, an attempt that fails because it willfully ignores their fundamental differences.

Therein lies Jonathan's fatal flaw--his inability to see difference in either his sexual conquests or his best friend. Jonathan's bitter, alcohol-fueled rant of a slideshow presentation is the culmination of his myopic worldview. It's Feiffer and Nicholas crystallized argument against contemporary forward-thinking sexual crusaders who insisted that equality between the sexes was possible. In that rant, Jonathan can barely identify the various girls he's gone out with, recalling them mostly based on their physical appearances, especially the handful of ethnic girlfriends of his ("This is my Jap in a sack," he crows obliviously to Sandy and his wife, the latter of who responds in kind with muffled tears). 

He's so far gone that he has no hope of any kind of relationship based on mutual respect, resorting instead to fantasy. In the final scene, where Jonathan enacts a bit of Orientalist role-playing with an Indian girl, complete with tantric sitar music and a shot of him slumped on a couch as if he were a Pasha on his throne, is a slap in the face to the possibility of sexual revolution. And boy, does it sting.

*Being someone that grew up in the '90s, I have nothing perceptive to say about the veracity of Feiffer and Nichols depiction of the '50s, '60s or '70s. Not my generation, man.


  1. It's interesting that it was Nichols who later on got to examine the sexual mores of 1980s in ANGELS IN AMERICA. He was working with a very different material, though: Tony Kushner's broad symbolism and mock-prophetic mode of writing is a far cry from Feiffer's ultimately mundane dialogue. Still, even in ANGELS IN AMERICA what you rightly describe as Nichlos' "knack for filming people as statues" comes through.

    Also: Jonathan's using Sandy as a seduction stand-in is a sour and cynical variation on the theme of both CYRANO DE BERGERAC, and (by extension) Fred Schepisi's ROXANNE.

    PS. Nichols is so much into dissecting seduction (see: THE GRADUATE), that he treats politics as if it was the same thing (see: PRIMARY COLORS, and - more successfuly - CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR).

  2. I like both PRIMARY COLORS and CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR and agree re: your CYRANO reference. I guess you could say that CARNAL KNOWLEDGE is like a putdown of CYRANO's romantic view of love. Misogyny is the future of man.

    Think I saw Tony Kushner bopping and jiving down the street right before I went to see HARRY POTTER 6...