Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Carnal Knowledge (1971)

By Eric Jessen 6/29/09

Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) in Carnal Knowledge is a despicable creep. He's crude, rude, and an embarrassment to men everywhere. (But then, aren't most a little bit of an embarrassment to men everywhere at times?) He thinks and talks about nothing but sex. He's a manipulative prick and women are his victims. He treats them as toys for to play with one minute and throw aside the next. Women, for him, are to be judged on their waist and breast size. Everything he does is part of his game to have sex with as many women as possible.
In Carnal Knowledge we follow the sexual exploits of Jonathan and his roommate Sandy (Art Garfunkel) from their college years to their middle age. Sandy is a more compassionate and timid version of Jonathan. He is also less interesting because he is less tormented by the women in his life. Carnal Knowledge has three stages. In the first both Jonathan and Sandy, as college students at Amherst, pursue Smith student, Susan (Candice Bergen). They spot her at a party and Jonathan confidently tells Sandy “you can have her” and then proceeds to sleep with her behind Sandy's back. In the next stage both Jonathan and Sandy are on the verge of marriage, one with the passive and weak Bobbie (Ann-Margret) and the other with the aggressive tom-girl Cindy (Cynthia O'Neal). In the third stage they're both in different relationships, Sandy with a na├»ve eighteen year old and Jonathan with a prostitute. By the end they are disgusting (Sandy has a porn star mustache). They are desperate and ugly as they talk about the trouble they have “getting it up.” The once witty characters from the beginning become depressing. They mark the history of their lives by the women they've slept with or “felt up”.
We follow both Jonathan and Sandy, but this is Jack Nicholson's movie. He brings fire and energy to every role he plays, and in this movie he gives Jonathan complexity. We should all despise Jonathan, and yet by the end I pity him. He's sad, and pathetic because he acts like he doesn't care about women even though he needs them desperately. Jonathan's relationships with Susan and Bobbie are indicative of his suffering. He pursues both women for sex, but eventually wants more from their relationship. He wants to “open up” to them but is afraid of commitment and instead hides behind a facade as a sexual deviant. He blames everything on women for being “ball busters.” Johnathan is also tormented by time. He is steadily approaching an age where he won't have sex to fulfill his neediness.
Carnal Knowledge is a movie worth seeing, because it understands its characters. It knows everything from their thoughts and hardships to their language. It understands its two creeps so well it begs the question – is there any of Jonathan or Sandy in director Mike Nichols? (He was married 4 times.) Nichols must have known what it was like to be a man like Jonathan to understand how sex invigorates but also plagues his life. This is not a movie about the sex but a movie about how sex defines its characters.

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