Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Carnal Knowledge"

I actually watch more old movies than I write about. In the past week I've also seen "The China Syndrome" and "This is Spinal Tap." But if I don't react particularly strongly to a movie, or don't feel like I have anything particularly pertinent to say about it, then I don't pick it for a Reeling Backward feature.

It's not necessarily a matter of good or bad. I did not particularly care for "Carnal Knowledge," but I found it interesting. It seems to me to be a fairly self-conscious attempt by American filmmakers and actors to make a European-style erotic movie. This was 1971, and filmmakers were just beginning to test the limits of the new MPAA ratings system, and porn films had not yet entered the popular mainstream.

Time works wonders. It's amazing to think that this movie was highly controversial in its day. In terms of nudity and overt depictions of sexuality, I think "Carnal" would get a PG-13 rating if it were released today. The language is another thing, as two pals (Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel) deal with sexual issues from college through early mid-life. So they talk a great deal about women's various assets, in terms ranging from giggly to venal.

I think director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Jules Feiffer were trying to make a grand statement about the immaturity of men, or at least men of their generation who came of age in the late 1940s and early '50s, too young to fight in the big war. In that sense, it grows less and less resonant as the two characters age.

It's perfectly normal for 18-year-old freshmen to think about women in such terms, as essentially a collection of boobs and legs and other body parts waiting to be graded and scored upon. But for men to remain stuck in that mode into their 20s, 30s and beyond isn't an indictment of either a gender or a generation, but simply two headcases who never mature.

The early section really sings, especially with Candice Bergen as a girl who unwittingly ends up stringing both men along. Bergen strikes sparks in every scene she's in, with her bundle of desire, ambition and reticence. She marries the Garfunkel character, but somehow gets lost in one of the time shifts. We assume they divorced, but Nichols never lets us see a glimmer of its decay. The effect is to take an interesting, vibrant character and kick her to the curb.

The later stages grow more and more dirge-like, as the two men grow more and more remote to each other, and the audience. In the end, Garfunkel is dating an teenage flower girl he's convinced is his sexual mentor, and Nicholson has become an aging misogynist who hires a prostitute to berate the ball-busting nature of womankind in a ritualistic attempt for him to get it up. We don't know these men, and we don't even care enough about them to despise them.

"Carnal Knowledge" isn't very titillating, and it certainly doesn't reveal any great truths about men, or women, or sex, or much of anything other than how not to make an erotic film.

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