Reflections of the Third Eye
29 April 2013
Carnal Knowledge (1971)
Now Playing: Can "Monster Movie"
Topic: C

German-born director Mike Nichols saw an early break-through with The Graduate in 1967, a movie which may appear almost incomprehensible to teenagers today but was a huge critical and commercial success at its time. Only Nichols' second feature movie, it dealt with the woes of coming of age in an upper middle-class '60s far from the sociocultural street theatre of Merry Pranksters and Mario Savios alike. Four years later Nichols took on a work that was wholly adult in both subject and tone; you may have to be 25 just to understand the title.

Carnal Knowledge is a character study that follows two young college friends through their friendship, relationships, and the occasional intertwining of the two. It's talky, seemingly ad libbed at times, moderately psychological, depressing but sometimes fun, and would, in 10 years time, have been directed by Woody Allen rather than Mike Nichols. Allen had undoubtedly made much better use of the New York City setting than Nichols, who wastes his opportunities by using generic back projection shots instead of filming on location. This drawback, along with a near complete lack of extras and complex mise-en-scene* shots, contributes to the feeling of a theatre play adapted for TV. Written by noted (well, he was noted in the '60s) cartoonist/writer Jules Feiffer it had in fact started out as a stage project, and maybe it should have stayed that way too.

The first thing that may strike a modern viewer is how good an actor Art Garfunkel is. He goes up against a Jack Nicholson fresh out of Five Easy Pieces and holds his own ground, particularly in the opening half of the movie where his role is given most screen time. As the story and characters age, Nicholson's seemingly more troubled protagonist gradually takes over, and in a sense Carnal Knowledge betrays its initial promise of a chamber play and becomes another 'Jack' vehicle instead. And Nicholson is quite good, of course, particularly in the increasingly despairing scenes he shares with Ann-Margret, who does a very good acting job in addition to her Swedish bomb-shell looks. The talented couple basically hijack the last reel and turns Carnal Knowledge into a watchable relationship movie that finds Nichols revisiting the razorsharp domestic scenes of his debut Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1966).

However, this household purgatory makes for a different movie than the one which began with two young college friends who secretly dated the same girl, an interesting premise that is never mentioned or referenced in the later parts of the film. It's unclear whether Nichols, and maybe Feiffer too, knew exactly what the point was with the storyline as it unfolds over some 20 years; a feeling you never get with Five Easy Pieces, as an example. The viewer may be tempted to think that director and producer observed that most of the substance of the third reel was in the domestic Woolf dialogue and Nicholson's performance, and let that take over while sacrificing the dual or even quadruple balance indicated in the exposition.

I don't particularly care about the 'message' or 'politics' of a movie as these things are subjective between different persons and also bound to change over time, but Carnal Knowledge, despite its seemingly liberated and self-assured female characters, has a rather unpleasant tone of patriarchal smugness about it. All the women, and ultimately Garfunkel's loyal friend, are reduced to mirrors for Nicholson's increasingly pathetic womanizer. The script tries to work around its inability to show his falling apart by invoking a theme of impotency, a cliché as tired as there is, and one which also brings sympathy to the character and reduces the chances for credible psychological demasking even more. It's all rather clumsily done, and I suspect the editing made it worse.

Nichols seems influenced by the gritty realism of the New Hollywood yet misses two vital ingredients from the style, which is a sense of memorable cinema (not filmed theatre) in images and sets, and a striving towards originality and unpredictability in the storyline. The end result is simply a pretty dull affair, a mediocre made-for-TV drama with an unpleasant aftertaste, memorable mostly for a performance from Jack Nicholson which oddly both improves and damages the movie.

The guys over at Cinefiles referred to Mike Nichols as a director who made a couple of good movies long ago which carried his entire career. Seeing Carnal Knowledge in 2013 seems to validate the remark. 5/10

*'Mise en scene', as used here at the Reflections, refers specifically to complex, choreographed shots that involve several people, a heterogenous setting (such as a plaza), and movements. The term is notoriously vague, but this narrow definition is how I was taught it long ago, and I find it useful.


Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 9:33 PM MEST
Updated: 7 October 2013 10:11 PM MEST

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