CARNAL KNOWLEDGE (1971)
After CATCH 22, Mike Nichols returned to the modern day but with equally challenging material in CARNAL KNOWLEDGE from a screenplay by Jules Feiffer that was originally intended as a play. It’s a very frank, adult depiction of sex and relationships between men and women covering the college years to middle-age in the lives of two best friends and how their attitudes to their needs define their future happiness.
Art Garfunkel is Sandy, the virginal, gauche one of the two. Jack Nicholson is Jonathan - who even as an undergraduate talks a wise experienced game as though he is a master seducer of women, lecturing his friend on what to do. Nicholson’s needs are shallower: ‘big tits’ attached to a nice body are really the vital pre-requisites. Garfunkel is a shade more romantic and idealistic yet his nice-guy bourgeois blandness is no more a guarantee of his later fulfilment than Nicholson’s wolfish bad-boy promiscuity. Both men change partners during the film; their sexual history at the start maps out their characteristic flaws – Garfunkel’s technique with women is clumsy, impatient – whereas Jonathan has less morals. He seduces Sandy’s girlfriend Susan (Candice Bergen) behind Sandy’s back, taking her virginity before his friend and continuing to see her without his knowledge.
Into the second act, by now Sandy has settled into dull domesticity while Jonathan has shacked up with Bobbi, the curvy Ann Marget (whom he would later team up with again in Ken Russell’s TOMMY). She is a model possessed of the looks, lack of inhibition and big boobs that satisfy his simple cravings – however she is miserable and craves marriage to give her life meaning. As she fails to please him or nourish herself, she deteriorates into a drudgery of compensatory over-sleeping, their sex life that was their only bond becoming moribund until eventually, uncared for, she attempts suicide.
As the story deepens and time passes, each man achieves career security, Jonathan as a lawyer, Sandy as a doctor - but neither man’s maturity has extended to their constant impulse to seek new, perceived better, partners. Sandy actually switches roles with Jonathan, gradually seeing himself as the counsellor, encouraging Jonathan to make a pass at his later girlfriend Cindy (Cynthia O’Neal) who proves more than a match for Nicholson’s ‘player’ tactics.
As the ‘60s end, female emancipation adds to Jonathan’s resentment of women, exacerbated by his impotence. In the middle-aged conclusion, he presents Sandy and his latest 18 year-old partner Jennifer (Carol Kane) with a slide-show of his conquests entitled ‘Ballbusters on Parade’ coupled with a sour running commentary. Jennifer is offended so they leave. Jonathan is all-at-sea and apologises to Sandy who is now full of modish encounter group pseudo-profundity for him, yet lacks the self-awareness to see his own mid-life crisis in his choices of women. Sandy calls Jennifer his ‘love teacher’ and crows about her beguiling youthful wisdom compared to Susan, failing to realise this is just his version of always looking for greener grass. Jonathan sees through his friend’s latest transient state but at least Sandy seems to find pleasure. Jonathan is reduced to paying experienced hooker Rita Moreno to recite well-rehearsed patter that swells his ego and hopefully his penis every visit.
CARNAL KNOWLEDGE is a brave and honest look at male and female sexual politics, which earned some critical disapproval for its reflection of a new openness and casuality about sex in modern western society. As in THE GRADUATE, Mike Nichols shows great sensitivity with the cast in long exploratory takes, and artful cinematography uses shadow to conceal the protagonists’ innermost conflicts (such as Jonathan’s break-up ‘phone conversation in the hallway). An inciteful sign of the times…