Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Carnal Knowledge


Carnal Knowledge is the kind of comedy where the laughs increasingly stick in one's throat; this is dangerously barbed comedy, laughter laced with poison. In fact, the film is often incredibly uncomfortable to watch, its raw-nerve examination of sexual gamesmanship and strife continually crossing the line from satirical observation to overpowering psychological reality. As a stark satire of the games that men and women play with each other, and the unreasonable expectations and competing ideas that each gender brings to relationships, there is no better or harsher film. Of course, this kind of psychological acuity is exactly what one should expect from the auspicious pairing of Village Voice cartoonist Jules Feiffer, who originally wrote this as a play, and director Mike Nichols, who adapted the script for the screen.

Split into three acts, the film follows a pair of men from their college days, to their middle age, to their aging decline, all the while tracing the ways in which these two very different men seek some ill-defined "something" from the women in their lives. In many ways, Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel), are direct descendants of their prototypes in Feiffer's long-running Voice comic strip: the macho tough guy Huey, and the sensitive, gentle, perennial best friend Bernard. These two characters developed naturally in Feiffer's strip from the two "types" who would continually crop up whenever his satirical pen touched upon sexual politics and the gender war. Jonathan, like Huey, is basically an asshole, a guy who cares about little besides sex, who views each woman as an opportunity for a conquest and fears being trapped in a relationship for too long. Sandy is more the Bernard type: he's sensitive, caring, an intelligent conversationalist, someone who women naturally gravitate to as friends rather than lovers. Ironically, Sandy would like to be a Huey instead, and he takes advice from his more aggressive friend, advice that surprisingly enough seems to work even when it seems like incredibly bad advice.

The film opens in the college years, when both Sandy and Jonathan are virgins looking, more than anything, to get their first score. Right from the start, the film establishes its approach with the credits, which are accompanied by the unseen friends chatting about what they'd like from a woman — a contradictory and impossible laundry list that spans from huge breasts to being bright, but not too bright. Despite these high expectations, Sandy soon meets and begins dating the pretty, intelligent Susan (Candice Bergen), who likes him but is reluctant to make their relationship too physical; she has no passion for him, and he's trapped in the Bernard cliché of the best friend. On the other hand, when Susan meets the deceptive, sneering, but oddly charming Jonathan, she definitely feels something for him: contempt for his cheerful willingness to go behind his friend's back, but also an animal attraction for him that makes her go to bed with him before she ever does with Sandy. As a result, Susan becomes trapped between the two men and their expectations for her, even as the men are wounded by her indecisiveness about them and what she wants from them. For Sandy, Susan is a revelation, a woman who opens up to him and tells him about "thoughts I never even knew I had," while with Jonathan she seems much different, more sexually open but intellectually closed-off. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, both of these self-absorbed men find in Susan exactly what they were looking for and nothing more — they certainly don't find Susan herself, only the sides of her that reflect themselves. Eventually, and absurdly, even though he's the one going behind his friend's back, Jonathan becomes the jealous one, lambasting Susan for not giving more of her inner self to him, the way she does with Sandy. Their relationship essentially ends with Jonathan screaming, in childish exasperation, "Tell me my thoughts! Tell me my thoughts!"

Susan is a victim here of Jonathan's momentary, and as it turns out fleeting, realization that there can be more to relationships than just sex. His interest in her was purely prurient at first — indeed, he only pursued her after he heard about her willingness to go further than kissing with Sandy — but she must have awakened something in him that wanted more. It's possible to read Jonathan's character throughout the rest of the film as his unconscious denial of that realization, especially in light of the scene after their breakup where Sandy and Susan get ready to go camping. Throughout the scene, Nichols keeps the camera in a tight closeup on Nicholson's face, shrouded in shadows, as in the foreground the blurry forms of the two newly recommitted lovers shift back and forth, preparing for their trip. Jonathan is silent throughout the scene, even when one of the others addresses him, and his eyes are going steely and cold; it looks like a full retreat into the Huey persona, a decision to seek nothing more than sex from women.


This kind of closeup, so potent in this scene, is a crucial aspect of Nichols' approach to the film in general. The closeup is perhaps the film's signature shot, especially tight closeups that put the focus squarely on the nuances of the performances. There is also a gender element to these closeups, in terms of the way they're used differently for the men and the women in the film. For the most part, the men are the only characters who are allowed to speak freely in these intimate closeups. Each of the two friends deliver lengthy monologues on their inner states, desires, and dissatisfaction, spoken while looking directly into a camera that seems to be just inches away. These shots place the spectator in the position of the other friend, the other half of a conversation, listening in on the most private thoughts of these people who come to seem like familiar friends even if they're both often pitiable and unlikeable. In contrast, the women's closeups are silent, impassive, revealing nothing, largely because these women are seen almost entirely through the eyes of their lovers. Neither Jonathan nor Sandy ever tries to see a woman for herself, for a complicated person with her own thoughts, ideas, desires, and human emotions. Where Jonathan sees only sex, Sandy sees an idealized, transcendent other, so far from his own sphere that she might as well be an alien; neither man sees a fellow person or equal. The closeups reflect this disparity. Susan is seen in a striking, very long closeup where she simply laughs, turning red and howling with delight at the mostly unheard banter of the unseen men offscreen, throwing her head back, squinting her eyes, looking at times like she's on the verge of crying. It's a remarkable shot, sustained for so long that there is no choice but to contemplate the essential impenetrability of this woman. What is she thinking? What does she feel for these men she's with? What does she want? They're questions that barely occur to the two men, a point that Nichols makes with understated economy simply by keeping Susan's inscrutable face onscreen for so long, without allowing her to launch into the kind of inner monologue that lets us understand the men so fully.

Later, Jonathan's lover Bobbie (Ann-Margret) gets a similar closeup, revealing nothing in a scene where she seems to be deep in thought, her mind moving in ways we can barely imagine, and which Jonathan never seems curious to find out. Bobbie is a pure sex kitten to him, with the "huge breasts" he always wanted, wild in bed and endlessly fun to be with, but somehow this still isn't enough, and he makes every effort to avoid getting "trapped" in a marriage with this fun, sexy woman. Jonathan never seems to realize that he is continually looking for women who he wants only sex from, and then growing dissatisfied with them when they don't give him more than sex. In fact, Bobbie very well might have had more to offer, but she seems cowed and discouraged by a long series of relationships very much like this one; at one point, she tells Jonathan that after the abuse she's endured he seems positively gentle. She's reduced here to speaking in an entirely generic, neutered way, a far cry from the bluntly honest monologues that the men deliver to each other. The only way she knows how to express what she wants is to say she wants to get married, an idea that seems to hold more meaning for her than its obvious connotations, and which is almost entirely abstracted from the realities of her actual relationship with Jonathan. Certainly, when she plaintively tells him this in the midst of an argument during which he has done nothing but berate and insult her, it seems absurd to think she'd actually want to marry this man. The unspoken subtext, unspoken because these men never give the women a chance to express themselves, is that marriage represents for Bobbie a stability and fulfillment that is completely lacking from any of her relationships with men. It's the same urge for an undefinable and probably unrealistic "more" that powers both male leads; the difference is that the men never allow her or any other woman they meet to express this urge. All of this is present wholly in Ann-Margret's phenomenal performance, which manages to convey both the fun-loving male fantasy and the inner turmoil of this character. In her closeup, she simply sits against a blank white wall in bed, naked and photographed from the shoulders up, slightly off-center in the frame as she thinks, her mind churning through unknown thoughts glimpsed behind her eyes.


The closeup is the film's most rigorously applied formal device, but Nichols alternates this intimate shot with, basically, two other kinds of shots which define the film's aesthetic in more subtle ways. The first of these is the two-shot, usually used in Hollywood films for romantic couples but here mostly reserved for shots of Sandy and Jonathan together. The second is a tableau-like long shot that is very theatrical in its effect, a quality that has often been cited as a knock against Nichols, who is a theater director in addition to his involvement in films, but is here used in very effective ways. This is particularly apparent in a scene between Bobbie and Jonathan, after they've had a vicious argument, and Nichols pulls back to show the couple separated by the uncrossable gulf of their own bedroom, using the full extent of the widescreen vista to emphasize the distance between the couple. In the background, the phone rings unanswered, a nagging presence on the soundtrack contributing to the scene's unresolvable tension. It's a striking use of the fusion between cinematic and theatrical modes of treating space, with the viewing angle and the spartan sets suggesting a theatrical viewpoint even as Nichols utilizes the cinema's sense of negative space to communicate his characters' alienation.

This is a dark, even angry film, especially for a comedy. There's something about Feiffer's writing that seems to translate in especially bitter, sardonic ways to the screen. In his comics, his humor often seems more tempered, more wryly satirical, with the darker undercurrents more subdued. There are darker touches in his cartooning, like the famous Voice strip where a woman goes into the country to smell the flowers, only to be killed by a shotgun that's growing there instead, but even his darkest strips aren't quite as pointed and unfiltered as this hate-filled relationship comedy or the even more bitter Alan Arkin-directed Little Murders. It may just be that Feiffer's satire is easier to take when it's abstracted, when it's being delivered by his casually sketched cartoon figures, who seem more like whimsical pen strokes than actual people. The emotions and ideas and, yes, the humor, being expressed simply hit much harder in the context of the film's stark realism. In fact, there are scenes here that are almost unbearable in their raw, awkward humanity, like the scene where Sandy attempts to convince an unwilling but naked Susan to sleep with him for the first time. The way he's pawing at her, his earnest neediness coupled with clumsy sexual predation, makes one wonder if Nicolas Roeg had this scene in mind when casting Garfunkel for the execrable Bad Timing a decade later. In any case, Garfunkel is far better here, because far more believable; he's a normal and fairly decent guy who wants to get laid and has to (or thinks he has to) become a bit of a bastard to get what he wants. This disparity between inner and outer personae, and the corruption of male/female dynamics by warped expectations and distorted desires, is the angry indictment at the core of Carnal Knowledge.

9 comments:

Marilyn said...

Ed, brilliant commentary. I saw this film when it came out in 1971, and parts of it have stuck with me like a bullet that can't be removed. The slide show of Jonathan's conquests, and how he has to quickly skip Susan's when he shows them to Sandy. Sandy's recounting of how he has tried to spice up his sex life with Susan by going into different rooms, trying different positions, and finally says something like "I guess it's not supposed to be exciting with the person you love." Jonathan's berating a prostitute Rita Morena for saying "the sky's the limit," a deviation from the script he needs her to say exactly just to get an erection. Jonathan calling the perhaps significantly named Bobbie "Queen of the Ballbusters."

Jonathan's intense need for control and super machoism suggests to me homoerotic impulses. His anger at women reminds me very much of a short story in gay writer Hubert Selby Jr.'s Last Exit to Brooklyn called "Strike": (summary from Wikipedia) Harry, a detestable, mysogynistic sycophant, gains a position as a high-ranking official at an industrial workers' union. He uses the time and finances he receives during a long-term strike to explore the gay underground of Brooklyn, escaping his unhappy marriage while steadfastly denying his true sexuality.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks Marilyn. Lines like the ones you cite hit hard because they're so casually delivered, and the characters don't even seem to realize what they're saying about themselves.

I'm not so sure about Jonathan being a repressed homosexual; it's an intriguing idea, and certainly possible, but not something the film itself ever really pursues. I think Jonathan actually does want a more meaningful relationship with a woman, but doesn't really know how to get it or why he gets so bored of his conquests so quickly. The film's use of intimate two-shots of Jonathan/Sandy does link them in ways usually reserved for romantic couples, but I don't see anything homoerotic in these scenes, just an acknowledgment that these men can talk to each other in an open, sincere way that they never do with women. I think saying that either of them was subconsciously homosexual might actually reduce the film's impact. Part of what makes them so pitiable is that they so desperately want to be fulfilled by their relationships with women, not realizing just how badly they themselves are bungling things.

Marilyn said...

I understand what you're saying, Ed, and given that this was at the edge of the second wave of the modern women's movement, it makes sense. I'm not going to say you're wrong, either, because it does give these men (and perhaps traditional men in general) a real poignance. But the vehemence Jonathan's hatred at some points ("Answer me, you ball-busting, castrating, son of a cunt bitch! Is this an ultimatum or not?") still make me wonder.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Men who can't deal with women and are more comfortable being around one another aren't gay!

Gay men like women inordinately (see Proust), and their romantic relationships with one another are in no way easily characterized or summarized (see Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train.)

Marilyn said...

David, No one ever said they were. I am commenting on Jonathan's character specifically and how it reminded me of a character in Last Exit to Brooklyn.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I don't see the parallel with Selby (who's bi, by the way.) Carnal Knowledge is a more explicit rendition of character tropes found in Roth, Updike and John O'Hara. The film made the impact that it did because no one had ever seen men talk this way about women in a movie. And the man doing most o the talking was Jack at his most devestating. I can't think of another actor back in 1971 who could have done that part as uncompromisingly as he did.

Marilyn said...

It's something that struck me. Perhaps you don't remember "Strike" the way I do or didn't read it.

Reactions to this film can be as varied as gay attitudes toward women (not all gay men love women; I've been called "it" by a gay man), and this is mine. BTW, I admire this film very much. And I wouldn't begin to presume to know how gay men relate to each other.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Yes there are some very rude gay men. But all worthwhile gays thenk women are teriffic.

Marilyn said...

That's really good to know. Thanks!