Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Day 12: Carnal Knowledge

Sandy: You can't make fucking your life's work.

While watching Carnal Knowledge, it struck me how perfect an actor Jack Nicholson is for director Mike Nichols. Both men seem to have an impeccable understanding for the comedy found in every moment of high drama and the drama found in every moment of comedy. Carnal Knowledge is full of moments where Nicholson says something that makes you laugh while it simultaneously makes you cringe. It’s a raw, nerve-jangling movie about misogyny, sexual dysfunction, and male ego that pulls no punches. It’s powerful and honest from moment to moment, but there’s something ultimately off-putting about it as a whole that keeps it from gelling into a sum greater than its parts.

The movie opens, not unlike a Woody Allen movie, with credits over a black screen. It’s hard to put the similarity out of your mind as two men talk over the credit sequence about the kind of women they would like to have in their lives. The two men are Sandy, played by Art Garfunkel, and Jonathan, played by Nicholson. At the movie’s start, Sandy is nerdy, shy around women, and virginal. Jonathan is brash, confident, and equally virginal (though he hides this quality in himself behind a false bravado). The structure of the movie presents vignettes from their lives (beginning in college and ending in middle age), during which they fall in love, pursue relationships with various women, and break up with them.

This structure is compelling, but it is also one of the problems with the movie. The jumps in time are followed by some laboring on the script’s part to bring the viewer up to speed on where the two are in their lives and what girls they’re with. At these moments, the movie’s dialogue, otherwise elegant and stylish, is too expositional. Indeed, the overall pace of the movie is interrupted at these time shifts, since the movie has to pause while we get our bearings. It’s an admirable concept, depicting the characters’ lives as defined by their relationships with women, but the execution didn’t work for me.

What really does work in the movie is Nicholson. He’s a joy to watch as he sinks his teeth into the script (and at times, the scenery), creating a character that is realistically angry at women. He’s not a two-dimensional cad, but a very, very confused man. When a woman tells him that all she wants is him, Nicholson screams, “I’m taken!..... by me!” The beat between the two lines is both absurdly funny and bitterly honest. Art Garfunkel also has a nice turn here, surprisingly convincing as Nicholson’s nebbishy foil. He is equally unjust to women, though he means well and hides his anger in sublimation.

And that’s just it, the two characters mean well, but they suffer from misogynistic tendencies; they treat women as sexual objects first, trophies second, and actual people never. This, too, is reminiscent of Woody Allen’s films, but Jules Feiffer’s script doesn’t let these two off the hook the way Allen does. Where Allen’s films surrender to the misogyny of their main characters, at best (celebrate it at worst), Carnal Knowledge examines the results of the misogyny, not just on those it hurts, but on the men who exhibit it. At one point, Nicholson launches into an angry tirade at his live-in girlfriend and then collapses and asks her to leave him. “I’d marry you if you left me,” he sighs.

Another problem in the movie has is some stylistic choices by Nichols. The script is somewhat stagy and Nichols is certainly adept at transforming stage work to film (I’ve only seen the 1st half of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but that was more than enough to impress me), but here, for every neat trick that works there’s one that doesn’t. It’s emotionally resonant when a prostitute, kneeling between Jack Nicholson’s legs while reciting a monologue, is framed in front of wallpaper that is constantly moving upward (lending the appearance that she’s going down (heh) the whole time she is speaking) but not so much when Nicholson wines and dines a woman and the restaurant revolves around their table.

At all other times, Nichols’s direction is fantastic. This is first an actor’s movie and then a writer’s movie, but Nichols is able to put his own stamp on it. The camera setups are lovely and the blocking of the actors in relation to the camera is delightful. The characters are constantly moving into the foreground, the background, off camera, into light, and out of light in accordance with their emotional state. There’s a close-up of Candice Bergen laughing and laughing as she flirts with both characters that goes on so long it crosses the line between comedy and drama at least twice.

Carnal Knowledge is a fantastic movie in fits and starts. It’s a pity that these bits couldn’t have come together, for if they had, it probably would have been one of the all-time greats. As it is, it’s worth it just to see Jack Nicholson at the top of his game and a script that never flinches. Some of its sexual politics are a bit dated in this day and age, but the emotions on display have, unfortunately, never gone out of style.


Ghost Particle said...

Hii..found ur blog in the blogger 'Sites we noted' site blog blog site...

What an interesting goal, a movie a day.

Good Luck bro.

Tyler durden said...

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The Game

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Whoever’s name appears as the ORIGINATOR of the email and is already registered at DMAFB wins an iPOD NANO, but there must be at least six people on the email list. It’s that simple!

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Brian said...

Hey these movie reviews are great. Very detailed and would be great reads for people who go movie shopping or renting. You'd be a good movie critic, maybe you should try that out one day.

My blog isn't as in depth as yours, but a good read none the less. Check it out at

remmaps said...

Natalee "Natalee Holloway" Holloway

Beth "Beth Twitty" Twitty

tuesday moon said...

Wow. A movie every day. And your reviews are so in-depth too! God bless you.

Just B said...

Your thoughts communicated through your comments are very profound, I think there's a lot more to you than meets the eye and, almost, leaves one curious on solving the mystery that is You.


Elmi said...

I was fascinated when seeing the title in "sites we noted", because I'm also doing a movie review blog (, although my goal is to eventually put on all the movies I've watched (which, at this rate, will never happen - I'm well over 700 already).
I truly love the way you review a movie - it gives credit where due, without creating steriotypes of 'bad' and 'good' with no grey areas inbetween.
I believe movie watching is like most things in life - some take it serious, some do it for fun, and there is credit in all different points of views. Your reviews are very enlightning, and the fact that you watch lesser known films is quite refreshing and informative.

movie-man2000 said...

Wow, man, you have less life than me! Have a look at my blog to see what I mean:

Keep up the excellent work, man!

Moncho said...

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R2K said...

This is a great idea for a page. Out of the million or so, most blogs are boring, or teenagers :)

But I can read about films, something that is something I care about. So thanks for that, good luck!


~maffs_punts uber*cool kre@ta~ said...

hey, i also found ur blog on noted thingy, thou ive neva heard of carnal knowledge, but ur idea is gold.
l#ve stinx,
angry beaver

Mona Buonanotte said...

Have you ever seen the film "The Group"? It also has Candace Bergen (as a lesbian, no less!) and has one of those 'stellar casts' that make you head straight to imdb! Jack Nicholson is awesome (in the original "Little Shop of Horrors", how cool is dat?), but he's aging like a perv old man. Still, a bit of a crush on him, tho.

Internet Movie Maiden said...

Although I find this movie very interesting and well made , I believe any personal opinion on any movie is just word of mouth and to each its own.
Not everyone believes the same things about every movie.
Critics are people like everyone else , with some sort of opinion , just like everyone else.
Critics BORE me.
Have a nice day.


I absolutely *LOVE* the idea behind this blog. I'm such a movie whore!

I recently signed up with Netflix and I yes pointing and clicking my way around to rate movies. I easily rated over 600 without really trying that hard. It was then that I realized, "wow, I've seen A LOT of movies." :)


Tom said...

Couldn't agree more. I just saw it again (for the first time in years) last weekend. The script seems so precise. Every word is firmly rooted. I was surprised by Art Garfunkel. Remarkably underplayed. Nichols is brilliant at simultaneously making the viewer engrossed and put-off by his characters.

My girlfriend and I tried the movie-a-day with our netflix...what happened was we maxed out our queue. Carnal Knowledge came after Goin' South and just before Five Easy Pieces. We were in the middle of a Nicholson marathon.

Lactose said...

Irreverent and knowledgeable. Your blog is sickeningly good and your commitment verging on the insane ;-)

Nice one geezer. My hat is off to you.

M. Gants v4.0 said...

I love Jack Nicholson...A LOT. I want to make a giant sandwich that looks like him and eat it while watching his movies.

Enjoying your reviews - appears that a lot of other people are as well. Good work!

zora said...

ooooo i like what you do!
wish i had the time to do it, my studies on film theory (7 years) seems so long ago... and obsolete, after reading some of your stuff.

keep it up!

Ash Karreau said...

Looks like you hit the big time, David. Don't forget the little movies now that you're famous. Zombies 4 and 5 need you.

Christopher Willard author of Garbage Head said...

I never saw a movie where Nicholson could act yet...

Joe Paris said...

love the effort you are making - keep it up ! i will come back and back and back !

also visit my blogs if you get a chance:

Memphis said...

I just found your blog in the aforementioned, "Sites We Noted."

It was really nice to read some reviews that were actually intelligent and not completely dumbed down to, "Action good...Boring bad."

Anonymous said...

cool blog you've got there.i hope you're going to publish more of these as i've been reading them since the day i saw your blog i just can't believe how you could create such a cool one. i hope to chat with you one day that you can leave me your hotmail if you have one. name's guy by the way, guy wilson.

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