Saturday, January 22, 2011

#169. Carnal Knowledge (1971)

Directed By: Mike Nichols

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Candice Bergen, Ann-Margret

Trivia: Writer Jules Feiffer originally pitched the concept to director Mike Nichols as a theatre project. After listening to Feiffer's ideas, Nichols said, "I see it as a movie."

Released in 1971, Carnal Knowledge proved to be a very controversial film. Attacked as ‘obscene’ by a number of groups, several of the film's exhibitors were even arrested and brought to trial on charges of public indecency. As is the case with many such “moral crusades”, those who attacked Carnal Knowledge never bothered to look beyond the surface, condemning the film for what it showed while ignoring what it was trying to say. Far from glamorizing promiscuous sexuality, Carnal Knowledge actually attacks that very lifestyle, relating with extraordinary skill the tale of a man torn apart by his inability to connect with women on any level other than a physical one.

Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel) are college roommates, and spend a lot of time talking about woman. While they agree on many things, when it comes to actual matters of the heart, Jonathan and Sandy couldn’t be more different. Jonathan is extremely confident, and doesn’t hesitate in going after as many women as he possibly can, while Sandy is shy and uneasy in the company of the opposite sex. Spurred on by Jonathan, Sandy musters up the courage to talk with Susan (Candice Bergen), whom he spots one night across the room at a campus party. With this as a starting point, Carnal Knowledge follows the two friends as they experience a variety of relationships over the course of the next 20 years

Far from the rallying cry of free love the moral pundits professed it to be, Carnal Knowledge is, in fact, the tale of one man’s descent into the dark recesses of his own sexuality. Jonathan can easily attract women, yet fails to relate to any of them on an emotional level. As Sandy’s romance with Susan blossoms, he fills Jonathan in on all the details, including the intimate conversations they engage in, but it isn’t until Sandy reveals the details of their first sexual encounter that Jonathan finds he’s also attracted to Susan, and begins pursuing her for himself. Before long, Susan is dating both men, and having sex with each one as well. Sandy, who knows nothing of Susan and Jonathan’s relationship, continues telling Jonathan about how well he and Susan get along, leaving Jonathan perplexed. He can’t understand why Sandy and Susan are sharing so much, whereas he and Susan have found nothing in common aside from the sex. Jonathan longs to connect with Susan on a deeper level, yet is unable to do so.

The Supreme Court would eventually rule that Carnal Knowledge was not obscene, with Justice William Rehnquist delivering the unanimous decision that “(The Court’s) own viewing of the film satisfies us that Carnal Knowledge could not be found…to depict sexual conduct in a patently offensive way”. I absolutely agree with them. The sexuality depicted in Carnal Knowledge is far from offensive, and farther still from sensual.

If anything, I’d say it’s downright destructive.


David said...

We rarely let scene's play out that long these days, even though it felt like an edit toward the end when it cuts back to her. Great stuff

Dave Becker said...

@David: Thanks for stopping by, and for the comment.

You make a good point. In this day of rapid cuts, rarely do we get a chance to see two performers build a scene like this. I love how she can see right through his BS. He has zero respect for her, but she's smarter than he thinks.

Thanks again.

TyTy Horror said...

This movie is fascinating.

beep said...

I saw this in a theater when it first came out. As I was in High School, I was a bit nonplussed, altho apparently I really did get it as I remember saying, "Well, that was pretty depressing, wasn't it?" I have never seen it since, but I still remember quite a bit about it. For instance, I always harbored a bit of a horror that I would develope the same basketball stomach that the Garfunkle character acquires in middle age (mine didn't become quite that bad :). So, at the time, I was rather disappointed in the film. I think I was hoping for another Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe (which, face it, is too much to ask for; the fact that we at least got A Lion in Winter just goes to show that the gods cans sometimes be kind...). One thing tho, I do not remember any of the controversy surrounding this. Also, while I would say that this is a very good film, I do not think that I would ever subject myself to it again. One of those.

John Rieber said...

Ann Margret was so honest in this film - based on her background, this was VERY BRAVE -