The 1970s were a confusing time, particularly for cinema. The dark clouds of the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam had rolled away (the former) or were in their death throes (the latter), and Women’s Liberation and the Cold War were heating up. Cinema grappled with a lot and the movies during this time period generally focused on angry young men asserting their place in an ever changing world. This, of course, leads me to Saturday Night Fever. Why? Because that movie remains one of my most popular and divisive reviews ever written, and it was released just four years after this. I bring it up because I’m sure I’ll get similar nasty comments about how I obviously didn’t “get” the filmmakers intent regarding my analysis of two misogynistic men mired in arrested development that Carnal Knowledge. If there’s something underneath this ugly portrait of masculinity I didn’t see, please enlighten me.
Jonathan and Sandy (Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel) are best friends with their own individual hang-ups regarding sex and relationships.
I’m a fan of the late Mike Nichols’ work, much of which deals with intimacy and the often painful brutality of relationships. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Closer certainly present a more balanced, yet equally ugly, exploration of sex and romance, while more comedic works like The Graduate and The Birdcage convey similar sentiments couched within the ridiculous nature of love itself. (Although, there is a broader essay to be worked out regarding Nichols’ use of gender, with women as the harpy, shrew, fatale, or ninny.) How is it then that we can get something as chauvinist and gross as Carnal Knowledge?
My preference for the Nichols films mentioned above are easily understandable; there’s a marked balance in those films with their discussion of differing perspectives concerning gender, and there’s definitely similar sentiments found within Carnal Knowledge…it’s just not worked out with our heterosexual couples. The relationship between Jonathan and Sandy is rife for a queer reading. In fact, it’s Ann-Margret’s Bobbi who hits the nail on the head by mentioning that Jonathan should just sleep with Sandy. They’re two halves of a whole; Jonathan being the frank ladies man and Sandy the wavering milquetoast. Based on how the two have various sexual hang-ups they can only purge by swapping stories with each other illustrates their an intimate, sexual relationship by proxy.
That doesn’t mean this is a relationship I want to see. Neither Jonathan nor Sandy are decent human beings, and their conversations revolve around women, getting women into bed, and, once said women have been to bed with them, why they’re still dissatisfied with them. It’s hard to fathom how they’ve stayed friends this long (looking like the oldest college students in the world). Are we supposed to believe Jonathan hasn’t been sabotaging Sandy before their college days, or is it purely once sex is involved? However, what Jonathan and Sandy fail to understand is why the world and its women, aren’t catering to them. The script doesn’t give them any motivations, ambitions, or dreams short of screwing as many women as possible, leaving them shallow and boring characters. The script acts like there’s a tacit understanding the audience will work out, but it’s never grasped. Outside of their desire to “get laid,” it’s hard ascertaining their personality traits short of how ladies respond to them. Characters don’t need to be heroic or good, but they do need some compelling reason to keep audiences engrossed, and it’s hard finding a reason to keep watching the adventures of two misogynistic Lotharios spewing out unlikeable line after unlikeable line.
Jack Nicholson is good, although I doubt this was a stretch for him. If screentime’s anything to go off of he’s meant to be the sadder of the two men, content to bogart Sandy’s ladies as a means of both “being” with Sandy and showing his dominance over him. His core relationship is with the needy Bobbi (Ann-Margret), the only character with any type of sympathetic motivation. Margret, nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar, exhibits the fear and frustration of having little purpose in life. However, said purpose devolves towards wanting to get married, but at least she has a clearly defined desire compared to Nicholson’s Jonathan. Sandy is meant to be bland, and in that case Art Garfunkel excels. He’s calm and monotone with absolutely no emotion to spare. That’s not a criticism against him, per se, since the script doesn’t give him any emotional high points. He never learns of Jonathan’s duplicity so never receives a moment of confrontation or catharsis. There’s also Candice Bergen in a pretty minor role, playing a woman with morals…that go out the window during a sequence of “dates” with Sandy that are a bit too close to assault for my taste. That aside, her character is unceremoniously dumped and only mentioned in passing after that.
Maybe in 1971 this movie was progressive for its open and frank discussions of sex, but in 2016 it’s way too misogynistic and ridiculous. The women are simply sex objects to be rated, attacked, and disposed of by two male characters without any personality who bitch about how women fail them without looking into their own lives and wondering what they, personally, are doing wrong. Maybe that’s the point, and if that’s the case I still didn’t like it. I appreciate that Nichols kept this a running theme in his work, building and providing balance and nuance to all sides, instead of presenting a flat, two-dimensional examination of something requiring multiple perspectives without coming off like it was written by a men’s rights group.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.