Tuesday 1 December 2009

Carnal Knowledge (1971)

Director: Mike Nichols
Stars: Jack Nicholson, Candice Bergen, Arthur Garfunkel and Ann-Margret
'If you had a choice, would you rather love a girl or have her love you?' So begins the philosophy of this movie before we ever see anyone, Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel discussing girls while the opening credits unfold. We find out plenty about how different they are. Art hasn't ever been able to talk to a girl, while Jack gets turned off girls they let him feel them up on the first date. Art just wants his prospective girl to be nice, that's all, but Jack wants sexy and beautiful and perfect. All these comparisons go on, long after we finally see the characters they're playing, which is when we realise that these well established names begin here as college roommates.

They're Jonathan and Sandy and they're at Amherst College back in an age when college students were virgins lusting after every girl that moves and trying to figure out the routine. What's most surprising is that neither of them is actually that unbelievable at it, given that this is 1971. Nicholson was 34 and looked a couple of years younger, at the point he'd begun to break out of the Corman school into the mainstream, building on the success of Five Easy Pieces a year earlier. Garfunkel was only thirty and certainly looked younger, even though he'd been a double act with Paul Simon since he was sixteen, back when they were called Tom and Jerry. This was only his second film, after 1970's Catch-22, but he was never a prolific actor, averaging only a couple of pictures a decade. In fact his 2009 movie The Rebound was only his seventh film in 39 years.

It's all about the rules of sexual politics, the American courting process of the 1950s apparently being as much of a ritual as any arranged marriage, requiring a textbook that nobody wrote but everyone has to follow. For a while it's hammered home as we watch events unfold twice, first with Sandy working through the date process with a girl from Smith that he meets at a mixer and then with him detailing the gradual progression to Jonathan. She's Susan and she's played by Candice Bergen, who is also surprisingly young, though this was five years into a screen career that began well in year one with a starring role opposite Steve McQueen in The Sand Pebbles. What complicates matters, if this courting ritual wasn't complicated enough to begin with, is that Jonathan pursues her too and in fact hits the jackpot first, at least the jackpot he's looking for as she ends up marrying Sandy.

It's very obvious that these two roommates are two halves of the same coin, which is explored as they go on to very different lives but still come back to each other as friends to talk through how everything's going, in scenes that are initially one sided and appear to break the fourth wall, but are really just two guys sitting in a room talking to each other. Sandy has an emotional connection to Susan, which is good given that he settles down with her to marriage and kids in their seven room house, even though we only hear about it. Yet however many years in we go, he gets bored so Jonathan sets him up with a bit on the side called Cindy to bring some excitement back into his life.

Meanwhile Jonathan works through woman after woman, though sometimes only a dozen or so a year, apparently. He ends up shacking up with Bobbie, played by the voluptuous Ann-Margret, but is a real prick to live with, believing something that he tells Sandy: 'Believe me, looks are everything.' He's not talking about her, he's talking about him because that's the only way he knows how to relate to anyone. Nicholson is excellent as Jonathan, sleazy and unkempt and utterly Nicholson, giving his character so much depth that we can't just despise him as much as we want to because that's too cheap a reaction for such a complex performance. By the time we get to his ballbuster slideshow he's become pathetic but his lack of true understanding reaches out at us. He digs himself into a bigger hole as time goes by because he simply doesn't know what he wants and is frustrated when he gets what he thinks he wants only to find it isn't what he wanted all along.

For a film about relationships, something that intrinsically doesn't lead to obvious cinematic innovation, this is shot capably but subtly. The age progression is very well done. When Jonathan and Bobbie scream at each other, we don't see them in the same shot once, everything being batted back and forth from screen to screen like a R rated game of Pong. There are lots of shots of people ostensibly doing nothing while the more overt action is happening somewhere else, because it's those quiet people who are really telling the story. So we watch Bobbie thinking about marriage while Jack Nicholson showers off screen. We watch Jonathan sit on the bed, an obvious third wheel, while Sandy and Susan make plans around him. When Jonathan runs through his slideshow, we watch the women in the slides rather than him, as he's in shadow merely exuding misogyny.

Ann-Margret got the most nods for her work in this film, garnering an Oscar nomination and a win at the Golden Globes as a Best Supporting Actress. She's very good indeed, but hampered by only appearing during the middle third of the movie, which is the most depressing third because almost all of it is bickering. In fact the fight scene between Bobbie and Jonathan took a week to shoot and by the end of it both had lost their voices. The other ladies are good too, not just Candice Bergen but also in smaller roles Cynthia O'Neal and Rita Moreno. Carol Kane is in there too but only really has a credit because there are only seven characters in the entire film, only two of them men. Both Nicholson and Garfunkel were nominated for Golden Globes but didn't win.

Carnal Knowledge is very much a product of the times. It's great to watch the performances, Nicholson really flexing the acting muscles he'd be putting to such great effect throughout the rest of the decade. I'd seen the most famous ones long ago like Chinatown, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Shining, and I've been catching up on others like The Passenger, Tommy and The Missouri Breaks, but there are so many in there to find and like this one they seem to be integral parts of the American cultural heritage of the era. Nicholson had a habit of tapping into that vein of the now, keeping himself relevant throughout the years. He consistently picked the right movies like John Travolta consistently picked the wrong ones.

How much there is here of the analysis of relationships that stands up today I really don't know. This film may have been pioneering in a number of ways but like Bonnie and Clyde, the pioneering elements are just commonplace nowadays. Carnal Knowledge apparently contains the first condom shown on screen in American film and Jonathan uses the C word a couple of times. Now the latter isn't desperately surprising to hear and we can see condoms on sitcoms. Sometimes films work in their era and while they don't age and they keep a power to them, they just don't stay as relevant any more. They don't speak to us the way they did to a particular era of people and this seems like a prime example of that.

1 comment:

Ed Howard said...

I really like this movie. Well, OK, maybe "like" is the wrong word because it's ultimately such a bitter, depressing experience, all about the copious ways in which men and women misunderstand themselves and one another. In that respect, it's a real reflection of its writer, Jules Feiffer, a phenomenal playwright, cartoonist and occasional screenwriter who has an angry, satirical wit. This film is an obvious development from his comic strips featuring the characters of Huey (the macho misogynist who gets all the girls) and Bernard (the "sensitive" type who's constantly rejected). As a translation of his sensibility, this film is fantastic, and Nichols' cinematic touch is subtle but always in service to the characters and emotions of any given scene, as you point out. Alan Arkin's Little Murders, the other major film adaptation of Feiffer, is less cinematically interesting but arguably more interesting in other ways — and certainly more dark, nasty fun than this movie.