Director: Mike Nichols
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It’s hard to think of two people more suited to team up on Carnal Knowledge than its director, Mike Nichols, and Jules Feiffer, who wrote the screenplay. Both men are often savage social critics, though more frequently through sardonic humor than penetrating takedown, and Carnal Knowledge is a dart aimed squarely at the confusions and conceits of the hairy ape that was the bourgeois American male during the 1950s and ’60s. While I admit that this brand of masculinity is on the wane, it is hardly on the endangered species list, with people like Rep. Steve Pearce (R-NM) keeping hope alive for this offshoot of Neanderthal by arguing in his book that wives should “voluntarily submit” to their husbands, comparing marriage to the military chain of command he experienced during his Vietnam War service.
Feiffer has expressed his disgust with the military command-control he witnessed as a private: “Nobody did it better and more harmfully than the United States Army, where you saw mindless authority run amok, and proudly run amok.” Nichols spent the first part of his career lampooning the mating rituals and pretensions of the bourgeois intelligentsia with his comedy partner Elaine May. With Carnal Knowledge, the two men ridicule male immaturity and expose the quiet tragedy of the stereotypes about women their protagonists accept and act upon without question.
Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel) are best friends and incoming freshman at Amherst. The film opens with them speaking in voiceover as the Glenn Miller instrumental version of “Moonlight Serenade” plays softly, pulling us into the nostalgic innocence of an earlier time, that is, until we focus on the conversation itself. Both Jonathan and Sandy are talking about what they want in a woman, with Sandy yearning for understanding and, of course, sex, but it’s not the most important thing, and Jonathan wanting a woman, preferably with big tits, to go all the way with him while admitting he would lose respect for her if she does.
Jonathan has bought into the cocksman role, while Sandy is the proto-emo man. When they attend a mixer, Smith freshman Susan (Candice Bergen) walks past them, drawing their attention. Jonathan “gives” her to Sandy, so sure that if he has first crack at her, he’ll score. Sandy fluffs his first attempt to chat her up, and is only saved in his second try when Susan breaks the ice first. They engage in the kind of pseudo-intellectual b.s. college students can’t seem to resist, testing their intellectual muscles around the sensitive topic of emotional honesty.
Susan starts seeing Sandy, but balks at his attempts to get sexual. She finally gives him a hand job out of pity, a dubious triumph Sandy shares with his best friend. Jonathan instantly jumps at the chance for a piece of ass and calls Susan up. That she goes out with him shows she’s pretty typical in wanting to appear nice but actually break the rules, and that she’s as attracted to bad boys as most women are. Jonathan takes her virginity outside on the leaf-strewn ground. Nichols films her move abruptly out of the frame, and we think she’s appalled by what happened. Instead, Susan cuddles lovingly with Jonathan, and their affair is off and running. Despite Jonathan’s pleas and declaration of love, Susan refuses to hurt Sandy by telling him about Jonathan. Instead, the film takes a leap in time, and we learn that Susan and Sandy, now a physician, are married with children, and Jonathan is a businessman whose madonna/whore complex has transformed into thinking that all females are ballbusters.
Carnal Knowledge put me in mind of an anthropological study by Margaret Mead, say, Coming of Age in Samoa or Male and Female. Many of the shots are static, framing a scene or a face full on, taking advantage of cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno’s lush eye, as though photographing an exotic subculture, but also his clinical distance, both characteristics he displayed to perfection in Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963). One rather unnerving scene shows Bergen laughing almost uncontrollably, her aristocratic cool shattered, as Nicholson and Garfunkel speak out of frame on either side of her. Bergen is heartbreaking in showing how trapped she is between these two men, unable to reconcile her physical desires with her intellectual and material needs. The corollary for this scene comes later in the film when Sandy tells Jonathan all the things he and Susan do to try to spice up their sex life, ending sadly with “maybe you’re not supposed to like it with someone you love.”
At times, the shooting style is simultaneously elegant and tawdry. For example, when Jonathan and Bobbie (Ann-Margret), the passive sex object he has taken to dinner, have sex for the first time in his apartment, Nichols directs the camera smoothly through Jonathan’s apartment, going from room to room and up hallways until we are in earshot of the couple’s sex noises and ending with a shadowy shot of them in bed just as they both climax. He goes for the money shot he knows audiences want—Ann-Margret naked—but lets us pretend that, like children, we just happened to stumble in on the primal scene.
Much has been said about Ann-Margret’s touching performance in this film, one that turns her happy sex kitten act on its head by revealing the vulnerability of a woman who has bought into the stay-at-home wife/mother role society has determined for her and who uses her physical gifts to snare someone to take care of her. In a cute scene of seduction in which Jonathan tries to guess Bobbie’s age, Feiffer gets at the underlying cruelty—Bobbie is 29, a desperate age for women seeking respectability in family life. The contempt both men and women have for Bobbie is exemplified by Cindy (Cynthia O’Neal), the haute-bitch Sandy hooks up with after his divorce from Susan. Nichols frames the two women side by side as they watch Jonathan and Sandy play tennis, showing the class contrast between the two. Later, Cindy calls Bobbie “that tub of lard” when Sandy and Jonathan cravenly cook up a partner swap, repudiating not only Bobbie’s ’50s brand of femininity, but Jonathan’s attraction to it. In fact, Jonathan is not so different from Bobbie, as women out of his league emotionally use him for sex and then drop him back at his metaphorical corner.
Whether you find Carnal Knowledge absorbing or alienating may depend on your age and how well you recognize men like Jonathan and Sandy. Sandy is the more common male these days, interested in being in love and moving, however superficially, with the times. Garfunkel has a certain geeky air that has become chic in 2014, and his searching for himself in traditional and counterculture ways—taking up with a much-younger hippie chick (Carol Kane, in her first big-screen appearance)—certainly continues to resonate. Today, men like Jonathan are hounded individuals—every time one says something predictably outrageous in the public sphere, the petitions and denunciations come flying out of cyberspace. There must have been something prescient in Feiffer and Nichols’ approach to this character, who ultimately ends up impotent unless a gypsy-like prostitute (Rita Morena) performs a magic incantation word for word over his dick.
The sardonic imp that Nicholson would play in many of his films blooms to its fullest in Carnal Knowledge, the perfect arch of his eyebrows matching his wiseacre speech. He uncorks his patented tantrum with barely controlled intensity; it seems a tired device now, but when I first saw this film in a theatre, it really made an impression. Nichols tries to imbue Jonathan with some pathos early in the film, training the camera on his dejected face as an oblivious Sandy and Susan bustle and chatter in the margins of the screen. Sadly, Jonathan just ends up being really creepy, inserting a picture of his daughter into the slideshow of his love life, “Ballbusters on Parade.”
In some ways, I wanted to feel sympathetic toward Sandy and Jonathan, but Feiffer and Nichols were having none of that. This is a look at the dark soul of masculinity that saves its heart for its women.