Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Carnal Knowledge


I think just about the best thing about the ‘70s was the movies. Don’t even talk about the clothes! A handful of movies broke new ground, led us in new directions that lasted most of the decade, until the mega-million blockbuster and big studio timidity shut much of the experimental stuff down. We may be coming out of that today, with more adventurous films appearing to compete with the cookie-cutter superhero dreck that had taken over the first part of the new century. Mike Nichols made two of those movies (his first two), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate. This was his fourth, and it was another ground-breaker. It smashed through a lot of barriers concerning sex. Ann-Margret did nude scenes. Not a huge deal today, but pretty gutsy back then. She got an Oscar nomination. Rita Moreno should have, too.

I had forgotten that this was written by Jules Feiffer. Viewing it again, I can easily see it now. Feiffer was known (he’s still alive, BTW) for his cartoon panel strips, sometimes taking up a whole page in the New Yorker and Playboy, where I saw them, and many other magazines. They would typically feature two people talking, exposing their neuroses, insecurities, lack of self-esteem. They were very trendy in the ‘50s and ‘60s and into the ‘80s, I guess. I haven’t seen any for a while, though. After a while you will probably notice—if you’re a film buff like me who notices the camera—that the camera hardly moves here. So most of the shots are framed like a Feiffer strip. Even more important, there are only two or three scenes that have more than two people in them. Almost the whole movie is composed of scenes where just two people are interacting. Little set pieces where the people talking reveal a lot more to us than they know about themselves. There are only six speaking roles.

It’s a very sad story. Art Garfunkel (who surprised me by acting much, much better than I had expected) and Jack Nicholson are college roommates, both of them desperate to get laid. What boy isn’t at that age? I sure was. Art is the shy, sensitive one, Jack is more outgoing, and a supreme bullshit artist. But neither of them can really see a woman as a person. She’s pretty much tits and ass to them.

Again, I was the same way in high school. I was bloody awful. But I like to think I grew out of it. These guys never do. Jack is the worst, thinking nothing of taking Art’s girlfriend, Candace Bergen, driving her to distraction, a real rotter. But Art is not a lot better, when you look closely at him.

We skip ahead twenty years, drop in on them when Art is a doctor and Jack is successful at … something. Can’t recall what, if it was even mentioned. He’s made a lot of money, okay? Women are still a puzzle to them, and the boys still want to get laid. Only Jack is having a little trouble in the erection department. He meets a girl, Ann-Margret, who finally satisfies all his requirements in a female: great tits, great legs, great ass. But he is incapable of having a human relationship with her, or any female, and it goes bad in her depression, boredom, and screaming fights. Ann-Margret attempts suicide.

The final scene is among the most brutal ever written, I think. Jack is regularly seeing a woman who we soon realize is a prostitute (Rita Moreno, in one of the most riveting small parts I’ve ever seen). She prepares to give him a blow-job … and suddenly he is livid! She has blown her lines! She must follow the script exactly as he wrote it. So she starts over. And she is slowly sinking to her knees, talking to the camera, and she’s telling him what a masterful, powerful, manly, wonderful guy he is, just raining praise on him, and she’s sinking, sinking, sinking down. The wallpaper behind her keeps moving up, and it’s clear pretty soon that it must be on a roller, because no one can sink that far into the floor. This is the only way Jack can get it up anymore. It is so far beyond pathetic that it gives me chills, makes me shudder, to watch it.

This is a movie where everyone involved is at the top of their form, and really one of the saddest movies I’ve ever seen. Seldom have relationships been dissected so ruthlessly.