Classic Corner: Carnal Knowledge

“You can’t make f*cking your life’s work.”
“Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do.”

The release of Mark Harris’s excellent new Mike Nichols biography prompts, among many other thoughts, the opportunity to freshly assess what is surely one of the most impressive filmographies of any modern filmmaker. Perhaps because he continued to split his time between stage and screen, you don’t often hear Nichols discussed in the same reverential tones as other great directors of the New Hollywood era – Scoresese, Coppola, Spielberg, De Palma, even (retroactively) his former performing partner Elaine May – but the CV speaks for itself: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate, Silkwood, Working Girl, The Birdcage, Closer. (And unlike many of those big names, Nichols maintained a standard of excellence for forty years.)

Selecting the “best” Nichols film is a fool’s errand, based (as such questions always are) on personal preference and shifting winds. But there’s a solid case for the idea that his most influential picture was Carnal Knowledge, his 1971 examination of toxic masculinity, long before we were calling it that. It opening credits are simple text on a black screen, as we hear two men talking, in explicit detail, about sex, which neither of them have yet had. But they have ideas about what they want. Boy do they.

As with so many young men, they see the pursuit of sex as a game, of dating and cruising as a sport, and one in which it’s ok to play dirty. As usual, there is an alpha and a beta: Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) is the crass, ruthless one, while Sandy (Art Garfunkel) is the sensitive type, or so he’d like to say. We first meet them as college students, attending a mixer at which they both lay eyes on Susan (Candice Bergen); Jonathan announces magnanimously that he’s “giving” her to Sandy, but when Sandy fumbles, Jonathan threatens to pounce:  “It’s my turn… you struck out.” Sandy eventually gets up the nerve to chat her up, and they embark on the typical, fumbly dating rituals of the mid-20th century: heavily hyped kissing, uncomfortable fondling, pressure for sex.

A series of these early scenes encapsulate not only the ethos of Carnal Knowledge, but of being young and male and horny. Sandy and Susan are making out, and he tries to feel her up, and she resists; he plays on her sympathy, explaining his inexperience, and she takes pity on him, and takes something resembling control. This scene is immediately followed by a conversation between Sandy and Jonathan, in which he recreates the encounter, line for line, point by point – and frankly, he seems to enjoy telling the tale more than he enjoyed the encounter itself. Jonathan listens, and cheers his buddy on. And then, in the next scene, he immediately asks Susan out himself.

Screenwriter Jules Pfeiffer was mostly known as a cartoonist, though he penned a fair number of good, funny plays, including Little Murders and Knock Knock. He originally wrote Carnal Knowledge for the stage, which is most evident in its three-act structure: we first meet Jonathan and Sandy in college, we then jump ahead to their late twenties, and close with them approaching middle age, older, but certainly not wiser. He writes the script in short, crisp scenes, often slammed up against each other for comic or tragic counterpoint; the most brutal cut in the movie (and there are several) takes us from Sandy pleading with Susan for sex to an image of her and Jonathan going at it on a random pile of hay somewhere.

This was Nichols’ fourth feature film, his “rebound” movie, after following the one-two punch of Virginia Woolf and The Graduate with his poorly received adaptation of Catch-22.  It feels like a conscious attempt to reconnect with the merciless, ice-blooded spirit of Virginia Woolf; these two films and his penultimate feature Closer play like a loose trilogy, in which two men and two women engage in games of emotional and sexual cruelty, perhaps for no more reason than that’s what they believe their roles to be. Here, particularly early on, Nichols uses period music to create a sense of lush romanticism – and then punctures it, using standards as score for sport-screwing and manipulation.

The first two acts mirror each other in action – each one details these men, one or both of them, meeting a bright and vivacious woman, conquering her, and breaking her. It’s Susan in the first act; in the second, it’s Bobbie (Ann-Margret), whom Jonathan deems the perfect woman before setting about draining all of her joy and happiness. Their fights have the knock-down, drag-out discomfort of real conflict, but more distressingly, of expected roles being played. “Why do you let yourself in for this kind of abuse?” Jonathan demands.

“You call that abuse?” she scoffs.  “You don’t know what I’m used to.”

The ideas at the heart of Carnal Knowledge reappear in a good number of the “men are trash” plays and films of the ensuing years; its DNA is all over the works of David Mamet, David Rabe, and Neil LaBute, and the line from this script to Sexual Perversity in Chicago and The Shape of Things (as well as the aforementioned Closer) is a straight shot. There’s a good deal of discomfort in the consumption of those works now, thanks to subsequent political and intellectual turns of Mr. Mamet and the whispers of misconduct by Mr. LaBute, suggesting that perhaps these plays weren’t quite as introspective as we’d like to believe – that these authors were reveling in the misogyny of their subjects, rather than critiquing it.

Nichols’ film is decidedly from the male perspective as well. And yet there are two extraordinary images of the women they target, alone, that go a long way towards depicting the collateral damage of this gamesmanship in a way Carnal Knowledge’s imitators rarely did. We see Susan on a strained three-handed date, with these two men on either side of her, laughing and playing along and having a good time, and Nichols keeps his camera in a close-up of her – we never see the others, and as a result, we’re laser focused on her, and the sheer work she has to do to seem breezy and desirable and a “good sport.” It’s an incredible scene, and an astonishing bit of acting by Bergen. A later image of Ann-Margret is similarly striking, though quite different in conception; rather than the raucous sounds of carrying on at a bar, we see Bobbie alone in bed, post-coitus, and the only sound is Jonathan showering in the bathroom. She’s just there, thinking, listening, daydreaming, keenly aware that she should now be satisfied, yet feeling even more empty and alone.  

This, perhaps, is the real takeaway here. Nothing consumes more energy in Carnal Knowledge than achieving the act of sexual intercourse, but at a certain point, at least for these men, it’s no longer about the act, but the success of the pursuit. It’s become detached from pleasure, and most certainly from emotion (if it ever was attached to that). By the closing scene, the sad little ritual of dominance and masculinity that Jonathan has to go through merely to get it up has rendered the entire dating and mating process into a mechanical act of domination and affirmation.

And by that point, it’s clear that domination and affirmation are all it was ever about to begin with.

“Carnal Knowledge” is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Jason Bailey is a film critic and historian, and the author of five books. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Playlist, Vanity Fair, Vulture, Rolling Stone, Slate, and more. He is the co-host of the podcast "A Very Good Year."

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