“That’s what all women resent. That’s why they try to cut you down, because your knowledge of yourself and them is so right, so true, that it exposes the lies by which they, every scheming one of them, live by.”
I recently watched Mike Nichols’ (dir.) and Jules Feiffer’s (writ.) Carnal Knowledge (1971) on TCM—starring Jack Nicholson, Art Garfunkel, Candice Bergen, and Ann-Margret.
It. Was. Fascinating. Shortly after I began watching, I started jotting down a few notes because I was so struck by many of the moments—both for its content and for its form. It managed to feel alternately dated, modern, and timeless. It was humorous in a biting way. It was occasionally insightful and always interesting. And, by the end, it’s tragic. But, life is often tragic and funny.
The film focuses on two men who met in college, Sandy (Art) and Jonathon (Jack), and their one-sided views of the main sexual relationships they have over three decades. The one-sided nature of the film is important. Rather than decrying the film for what it is not—a multi-faceted and honest discussion of sex—I believe that the film still occasionally applies an almost-feminist critique to its male leads by presenting them in such unforgiving lights.
These are not men that appear as intrinsically or avowedly likable. The film reminded me of certain Seinfeld episodes; those characters were kind of awful, but in a relatively mundane and average way. Yet, they were able to be more honest for all of that—all while enabling the viewer to laugh along in various degrees of self-awareness. I was also reminded of Seinfeld in a surprising way because it’s kind of movie about nothing—it’s people talking about things and not really having any action—and, as we should all remember, George sells their show as a show about nothing.
The film is episodic as it returns to our two men at various points in life—namely, when they meet in college in the late ’40s, then again in the ’50s, the ’60s, and the ’70s.
Indeed, several of the reviews focused on aspects of the filming and the structure. Roger Ebert was quick to point out that the film is marked by “perception and economy,” and its brevity is used so well that not a minute of footage feels wasted. Ebert concluded: “It sets out to tell us certain things about these few characters and their sexual crucifixions, and it succeeds.” Bosley Crowther, in the NYT, echoed this sentiment, observing that the writer and the director limited their vision to a single aspect of human experience—sex—and as such were able to present something that is accurate and funny but also profound (perhaps due to its limited focus). Thus, it does not make grand statements about sex (or the sexes), it seemed to me, but zeroed in these two male characters and made a statement about them navigating sex amid cultural and gender stereotypes.
The most enduring relationships is between the two men. They have an intense friendship, forged during their college years and, for them, the blooming of their sexual lives. In fact, though it’s not explicit, I felt that there was this touch of will they or won’t they (or perhaps did they or didn’t they?) between the two men. I mean, they begin by both having sex for the first time with the same woman (at different times and unbeknownst to Art’s character). Later, Jonathon’s (Jack Nicholson’s) girl Bobbie (Ann-Margret) seems to suggest that Jonathon is emotionally cheating on her with Sandy (Art). Right after that, Jack and Art toy with the concept of swinging and switching women. There’s a sort of dependency that both men emit towards one another, though for different reasons. And the perhaps natural sexual competitiveness between the two often seems to bubble close to becoming something more physical as well.
This brevity and economy, and perhaps the fact that the screenplay was originally intended for the stage, resulted in a film that relies less on action for major developments or insights than on a series of dialogues followed by vignettes, primarily during the time when Jonathon (Nicholson) and Bobbie (Ann-Margret) were together. In line with that, the actual filming employs a lot of close-ups of our main characters. The main character whose face is featured front and center might not even be talking. The dialogue occasionally comes from off-screen, though the camera stays on one of the actors. For instance, once Jonathon (Jack) and Susan (Candice) have called it quits, there is a somewhat extended scene while Sandy (Art) and Susan (still together) bicker over inconsequential things—the inane things couples discuss—and you can hear them moving around a room, packing, in this case, but the camera stays focused up close and tight on Jonathon. The scene is poorly lit, and so his face is almost obscured, and you might think he was alone, if you didn’t hear the others speaking. But, in terms of his relationships, he is alone. You can, however, make out his forced lack of expression. It’s hard to tell if he is numb, or if he is trying to mask his feelings in front of both of them, or if he can’t believe what’s happened to him. Susan, meanwhile, is repeatedly, and forcibly, trying to bring Jonathon into the conversation in that kind of empty way that, in the end, only requires silent participation.
At the start, when Jonathon and Sandy were college boys, you had them together on screen more often, it seemed to me. And, naturally, college roommates are going to be together more. The film begins with what you can imagine as a late-night conversation as they lay across the room in their beds, ruminating on love and a chick’s tits. Later on, after the first time jump, we get many more confessional type scenes and conversations. It’s like a conversation with the other one is such a luxury, they don’t even know how to use the time well. They have to get everything out that they had saved up and wanted to say. The extended shots on one or the other as they shift between dialogues and monologues works well here.
Ebert wrote at the time that the film is about men who are “incapable of reaching, touching, or deeply knowing women.” This true to an extent, but the caveat I have is that the men can and do reach and touch women. Rather, whiel the men are capable of touching women, they are incapable of deeply knowing women, or themselves.
The utter lack of knowledge and understanding seems to be a theme that permeates this film. Nobody knows shit and yet we are all constantly trying to pretend that we understand, that we’ve made some profound discovery, either about society, the other sex, or oneself. Crowther, in the NYT review, felt that the subject of the film was the series of sexual disasters the two men experience. Again, I think that comes close to the truth in its simplicity, but the categorization of these experiences as disasters seems too strong. These escapades, though often somewhat disastrous in outcome, are not epic mistakes, but simply life experiences that, let’s face it, we all have and we often regret. The misconceptions and the misplaced blame are sadly common.
Nicholson’s character undoubtedly seems the most skewed and exaggerated, but also not. One commentator suggested his character presents as the traditional “ladykiller” and yet the viewer fears he might turn into a literal lady killer, such is his deep dissatisfaction with himself and, consequentially, women. He became increasingly misogynistic at the film progressed.
There are a lot of great lines, both throwaways, like their refrain of “I wouldn’t kick her out of bed” and the sad-but-true observations of the problems with sex and love, like when Sandy observes about sex after being married a few years: “Maybe it’s just not meant to be enjoyable with people you love.” Later, during Jonathon and Bobbie’s big fight, there are so many perfect accusations and comebacks. At one point, Bobbie pleads that all she wants is Jonathon, that’s all, and he responds: “I’m taken. By me!” In the context of his character, its a moment of honesty that he probably doesn’t even recognize, and epitomizes his own self-centered view towards sex and relationships. And, yet, the phrase resonated with me for a different reason. I could imagine a female heroine finally standing up for herself in a suffocating relationship by staking that claim—that she is already taken, by herself. Depending on how one views the character, it’s a laudable self-affirmation or an egotistical claim.
All of the characters’ insecurities are front and center, though none more then the two male leads, naturally. Jonathon’s character (Nicholson) becomes obsessed with the idea of ball-busting women. In fact, his best-known insult to Bobbie is when he refers to her as a “ball-busting, castrating, son of a cunt bitch” during a fight.
Even when he is trying for a lighter tone, Jonathon is obsessed with this notion of women as supposedly having some sort of unfair power over men, or a desire for power over men, and he observes that “women today are better hung than men.” He is so dissatisfied. Whatever he once claimed to like about a woman eventually becomes what most disgusts him.
Another exchange between Bobbie and Jonathon I liked went as follows:
Jonathon: When I caught wind of your checkered past, I felt like a celibate.
Bobbie: You made me tell you.
Jonathon: Sure, I twisted your arm.
Bobbie: It got you hot!
Jonathon: Something has to.
In those brief lines, you get clues as to several of Jonathon’s hang-ups. His double-standards regarding sexual experiences and, what becomes more and more important to him, his preoccupations with his own performance. He blames the women when he can’t get hard, and it doesn’t stop him from trying to get women into bed or trying to have sex.
The final scene, from which I quoted at the very start of the review, features Nicholson’s character entering an upscale brothel where he has a standing appointment with a particular prostitute. He is so controlling that he has come up with this script that she has to follow exactly in order to satisfy both his emotional and physical needs. This is made explicit by the fact that she has to talk him up—both his character and his dick. Both require inflation from a paid woman.
I’ll leave you with her monologue, her script, in its full. This is the last thing heard by the audience, as well.
“I don’t mean “weak” kind the way so many men are. I mean the kindness that comes from enormous strength, from an inner power so strong that every act, no matter what, is more proof of that power. That’s what all women resent. That’s why they try to cut you down, because your knowledge of yourself and them is so right, so true, that it exposes the lies by which they, every scheming one of them, live by. It takes a true woman to understand that the purest form of love is of a man who denies himself to her, of a man who inspires worship, because he has no need for any woman. Because he has himself, and who is better, more beautiful, more powerful, more perfect… you’re getting hard… more strong, more masculine, more extraordinary, more… bust. It’s rising, it’s rising… more virile, domineering. More irresistible. It’s up, it’s in the air…”
There you are. Even with knowing the details I’ve shared, the film is worth seeing. It’s a short film, and it’s so rich and odd and there are so many other scenes I want to discuss with someone, so go and watch it so we can do just that!
For those interested, I liked this brief 8-minute segment from author Howard Jacobsen on why Carnal Knowledge is the one film every young adult should see.
Second, there’s a 30-minute interview with Mike Nichols and Jason Reitman, filmed in 2011, about Carnal Knowledge.
(As a fun historical side note, the film had an interesting encounter with the U.S. Supreme Court.)
For those who want to remind themselves of those involved… Mike Nichols had recently achieved great success directing Who’s Afraid of Virgina Wolf (1966), The Graduate (1967), and Catch-22 (1970). The reviewers (both at the time and posthumous reviews) compared it to The Graduate, but usually coming down on the side of Carnal Knowledge for being more impressive, though it seems to not have entered the cultural zeitgeist as strongly as The Graduate.
(BTW, there’s another nice overview at the Criterion Collection.)
(I also liked this individual’s blog post about the film.)
All four top-billing leads were newly established names—definitely not nobodies, though still young. Art Garfunkel was transitioning into film and had worked with Mike Nichols in both The Graduate and Catch-22. Nicholson was hot after getting a break in Easy Rider (1969) and then starring in Five Easy Pieces (1970). Candice Bergen had been in the Oscar-nominated The Sand Pebbles (1966).
Ann-Margret was well-known but as a lightweight; I find her early films charming but they are definitely an acquired taste. (I kind of adore Bye Bye Birdie (1963), but also have found The Pleasure Seekers (1964) and Made in Paris (1966) to belate-night guilty pleasures along the line of the Gidget series, but more sexed up. And there’s Cincinnati Kid, but that’s more for Steve McQueen. Anyways, she has had a big career and is worth checking out. Actually, not that I’ve said mentioned Gidget, I want to write about it. For some reason, and thanks to a friend, I got really into the Gidget films during high school. Anyways.) For Ann-Margret, then, this became a role for which she earned an Academy Award nomination for Supporting Actress—perhaps because this role had a bit more depth than her previous work.
These are you main four, and there are literally only two or three other characters—one played by Cynthia O’Neal and another by Rita Moreno.