Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Carnal Knowledge

Shortly after his stunning success with "The Graduate", a movie that propelled Dustin Hoffman to stardom, Mike Nichols directed an amazing cast in Jules Feiffer's screen adaptation of his unproduced play, "Carnal Knowledge". Starring Jack Nicholson, Art Garfunkle, Candice Bergen, Ann-Margret, Rita Moreno, Carol Kane and Cynthia O'Neal, it's the story of two friends and their journey from naive virginal college roommates at Amherst in the late '40s to jaded Manhattan professionals in the late '60s. It's a satirical black comedy that emphasizes stereotypical male emotions and sexual behavior. Jonathon (Nicholson) is a brash but insecure wise guy and his roomate Sandy (Garfunkle) is a nerdy innocent. They encounter Susan (Bergen) at a college mixer. After some awkward moments Sandy and Susan engage in a memorable discussion of acting and the two hit it off and establish a relationship. Jonathon, intent on losing his virginity and intrigued by Susan, begins dating her as well. When he demands that she cast Sandy aside, she rejects Jonathon.

Moving forward, we find that Jonathon has become a Manhattan attorney and Sandy, married to Susan, is now a doctor. Neither is happy. As they stand overlooking the skating rink at Rockefeller Center, they observe a beautiful woman clad in white figure skating, doing an Olympic routine while an older gentleman scrambles to stay near her. She seems to epitomize the grace, beauty and feminine perfection that obsesses but eludes Jonathon and interests Sandy. The camera work in "Carnal Knowledge" is unusual in that most of the scenes are filmed with a fixed camera, even the few outdoor clips. In some scenes focus on a character is so long and intense as to make the viewer almost uncomfortable. The technique is a cinematic version of a stage play. The dialogue is exquisite. Jonathon and live-in girlfriend Bobbie (Ann-Margret) have a stupendous argument in their bedroom that allows Nicholson full opportunity to display the frustrated rage that has been his specialty. Sandy takes up with a representative of the new 60's feminism, Cindy (Cynthia O'Neal), who beats the men at tennis, calls the shots at sex and takes no guff from anyone. Jonathon attempts to arrange a swap but Cindy pulls the plug on it. Walking in to the bedroom expecting to see Sandy and Bobbie together, he finds that Bobbie has overdosed on pills and Sandy is professionally organizing medical attention over the phone.

Later we learn that Jonathon and Bobbie have married and then divorced. Sandy has a new, new age female companion (Kane), and Jonathon's virility can only be stimulated by a set ritual performed by prostitute Louise (Moreno). At the end we once more see the lady figure skater in white.

Nicholson had reached the highest level of box office magnetism before this picture was made and the story centers on his character, he is in virtually every scene. His friend Sandy is more of a foil and contrast to Jonathon than a character in his own right. The females are transitory figures used to depict the changing gender relationships. Susan, the initial romantic interest for both men, is an example of the post-war emancipation of females in the workplace, she's studying to become an attorney, although we never discover if she was indeed successful. While planning to break barriers in business she remains emotionally at odds with changing circumstances. Cindy is an example of perhaps the first wave of feminism, a confrontational, aggressive woman intent on using her sex in a dominant role. Jennifer, Sandy's last girlfriend, is an adherent of the peace and love ethos that emerged in society in the 60s. All the women, including Bobbie, are portrayed in a sympathetic, or at least positive light. Even Sandy, who eventually becomes bored with his partners, presents an agreeable aspect. He is a success at his job and gets along well with whomever his current love interest might be.

The film actually is a study of Jonathon. In one scene he describes the torture of his childhood, being the son of a father that was a failure, who couldn't hold a job. Jonathon is determined not to fail, in wooing his best friend's girl, in his career and more than anything in his quest for the perfect female, at least in physical terms. But as he ages, his libido declines and failure in the bedroom presents itself. For a time, Bobbie can alleviate this problem but finally even her tales of previous sexual adventures no longer arouse Jonathon. He presents Sandy and Jennifer a slide show of the history of his conquests and near-conquests one evening, a bizarre scene that repels them both.

"Carnal Knowledge" became a controversial movie, banned in Italy for a time, as well as in Albany, Georgia where it became the focus of legal action that was finally resolved somewhat ambiguously in the US Supreme Court, which ruled that the film was not obscene. Almost as controversial was its cynical depiction of the American male in the changing social climate of the sixties era. The film has stood the test of time surprisingly well, the conversations between the characters are probably as believable now as they were in 1971. Mike Nichols never made another movie quite as ground-breaking as this one. PRCA bullriding score 91 points.

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