MUBI Movies: CARNAL KNOWLEDGE

Mike Nichols' 1971 look at sex and masculinity is a quiet masterwork.

MUBI is a streaming service catering to cinephiles who believe in quality over quantity. Each day, MUBI adds a new film to its library, where it will stay for 30 days, after which it circulates out and gives room for another new entry. Throughout 2017, we will highlight one MUBI movie per month to help illustrate the catalog’s breadth and importance.

Mike Nichols’ 1971 masterpiece Carnal Knowledge opens on plain black and white credits, over which we hear our leads (Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel) discuss women. Before we even see a character, the entire film is laid bare right here. One guy hopes to find a woman who can teach him things. The other is more of a T&A type. Neither know what they’re talking about, and both are serious assholes in their own way. We can explain some of this with the ignorance of youth, but by the film’s conclusion, twenty years have gone by and neither has changed.

Carnal Knowledge takes place over three different time periods. In the first, Sandy (Garfunkel) and Jonathan (Nicholson) are college roommates and supposedly best friends. At a party they watch for women like lecherous future predators still in training wheels. In walks Susan (Candice Bergen). In his infinite kindness, Jonathan “gives” her to Sandy, who begins a truly awkward and pathetic seduction. It works, partly because Susan is also young and inexperienced, but also because underneath Sandy’s nice guy charm is a manipulative abuser, once he gets over his initial shyness.

Eventually, Sandy and Susan are going steady, and a jealous Jonathan deliberately seduces his best friend’s girl, subjecting her to a completely different kind of emotional abuse as their relationship deepens. Neither man can get what they want from her - she is physically cold to Sandy, emotionally cold to Jonathan - a she suffers twice as much as a result.

And just like that, Nichols ejects her from the film. Within these three chapters, Nichols gives us little indication other than quick dialog to mark the passage of time. Months and years can go by from shot to shot and we’re often none the wiser. Nothing really changes with these guys so why does it matter? Time passes. We learn Sandy and Susan got married, but we never see her again. And the next time we hear her name, she and Sandy are divorced. There is no softness to Carnal Knowledge; from the passage of time to the passing of characters out of its two leads’ lives, the presentation is cold, sterile, severe, only softening when transitioning to a new chapter. This is a movie about sex, but there is no sensuality to be found. Its title indicates an appropriate, almost scientific detachment from the act itself, if not, at times, disgust. There is no shower colder than watching Art Garfunkel paw at an unwilling but relenting Candice Bergen against a tree.

Boys will be boys, but these boys become men, and then sad losers. Through all their experience, they learn no lessons except to be more cynical in Jonathan’s case or lost in Sandy’s. The film is more about what Nichols shows less and less of as the film progresses - the damage these awful men inflict on the women around them. First with Susan, later with Ann-Margret’s Bobbie. By the time the film gets to Carol Kane, she’s not even allowed a line of dialog. There’s no sense of tragedy to the lack of progression in these mens’ lives because they are too self-centered to know they’re the villains of their own stories. Nichols and writer Jules Feiffer don’t make them total bastards but don’t pity them either.

Nichols doesn’t get enough credit as one of our great filmmakers, capable of superb wit and powerful bluntness. Carnal Knowledge utilizes the latter far more than the former, unless you think the whole thing is a mean joke. The film quietly oozes with technique. The first act, when the men are young, involves a bunch of busy walk-and-talks as they discuss sex. When they get older, Nichols puts the camera right in front of them, turning their discussions into confessionals that also serve to separate them from each other. The friendship is habit by this point, perhaps united by awful honesty. 

Each scene is a set piece. Sometimes we watch characters observe rather than what they’re observing. Notice in the second part, when Jonathan has found the (physical) woman of his dreams, how often he takes showers, as if to indicate even in the first days of their relationship how little he can stand her. Nichols plays with reality as well. As Nicholson seduces Bobbie over dinner, the table rotates, endlessly going round and round. Later when he has Rita Moreno’s prostitute character recite a monologue he wrote for her to seduce him, she crouches, but somehow doesn’t finish the infinite move until the two-minute speech is over.

Garfunkel and Nicholson are incredible in the film. With Nicholson this is no surprise, and he obviously gets the showier role. But Garfunkel is an uncanny bit of casting. Carnal Knowledge was made right after Nichols used the pop singer in his Catch-22 adaptation, a film with a cast too big to offer anyone other than lead Alan Arkin much screen time (not a complaint by the way - people get down on Catch-22 because it “doesn’t live up to the book”. This is nonsense; the film is amazing). Here, it’s not so much that Garfunkel is a great actor (though he is good in the role) - he’s just the perfect actor for the part, precisely embodying what can only be implied on paper. With his terminally boyish good looks and calm voice, it’s easy to see how this man can justify wrongdoings by looking in the mirror and finding obvious innocence staring back. As a result, his character feels even more odious than the more obviously hostile and unhealthy Nicholson. Every girl knows a Jonathan. But I bet every girl also knows a Sandy and regrets it just as much.

Carnal Knowledge is not one of the first films you think about when Mike Nichols comes up, which would be a shame if he didn’t have a filmography filled with so many classics. Nevertheless, this is a quiet masterwork no one should skip. It’ll be available at MUBI for the next twenty days.

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