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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol 35 no. 7. 19 April 1972

film — Carnal Knowledge

page 11


Carnal Knowledge

Not so long ago a major theme in Hollywood sex comedies was matriarchal power and the psychological castration of the male. Rock Hudson and Jack Lemmon were two constantly at the mercy of women, either as hen-pecked spouses or pursued bachelors.

Today things have turned full circle. Women's claims for equality in society are being recognised and "sexist" oppression exposed. The self-centred and aggressive characters of Richard Benjamin have replaced the smoothies and movies like Diary of a Mad Housewife and The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker have drawn new lines in domestic strife. Carnal Knowledge goes the whole hog. It is an ambitious but inadequate attempt to understand (and condemn) male Chauvinism through glimpses of the sex life of two men from their college days to middle age.

Jack Nicholson has an unhealthy attitude, not to say obsession toward sex. You know, because he's always showering to keep clean. He also lays Art Garfunkel's girlfriend, and later wife (Candice Bergen), before he does. Garfunkel is sensitive, sympathetic but is a keen admirer of Nicholson's methods. Nicholson's misogyny increases in direct relation to lack of ability to show any positive emotions toward anyone. After Candice Bergen disappears from screen (her husband unaware of her two-timing, though their later divorce could have resulted from that revelation), Nicholson maintains a rocky relationship with Ann-Margret.

He has always professed a preference for big tits (the kind of man who reads Playboy.....) and Ann-Margret is no disappointment in that regard. She is also, as one of Garfunkel's snooty girlfriends ungenerously observes, a "lump of lard". You'd have to call Ann-Margret an actress with that sort of remark.

Garfunkel's girl also proves Nicholson's undoing when a good chance for a wife-swap backfires on him and, more tragically, on Ann-Margret. This of course underlines the fact that Nicholson is a hung-up bastard, so hung-up in fact that he becomes unbelievable. I don't think the excuse that Feiffer is a cartoonist gets rid of a fundamental weakness. Caricatures are best when they are funny. Barry MacKenzie, hero to hundreds of Aussies, in London and elsewhere, is a successful caricature because of this. Nicholson's is of monster proportions but totally without humour. The male masochistic view of the film therefore has no basis on which to get across properly to the audience. A caricature without humour is merely a failure to comprehend how reality works on film.

This is why so many attempts at surreal humour in cinema fail either in their entirety (The Bed Sitting Room) or in part (some of the otherwise highly successful Little Murders, written by Feiffer). Part of the failure of Carnal Knowledge lies in Nichol's direction. Catch-22 showed his penchant for imitating the grandiose visions of Orson Wells (the director) and Fellini. Carnal Knowledge reverts back to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf country but without the tight, dramatic use of cutting and camera. Instead early Antonioni and Eric Rohmer seem to have become the models with minimal use of the camera and the principals, speaking for much of the time off-screen. If Nichols more fully developed his own style and less of others' he might do better justice to his scripts. And probably as the world's most fashionable commercial director he is more likely to get hold of the best ones than anyone else.

By courtesy of the censor, the dialogue of Carnal Knowledge has been interfered with at several points. None make much difference to the overall plot or characters — as indeed they would no other indiscriminately selected small chunks — but they are important for emphasis and place undue interest to the viewer on where the word 'fuck' occurs. The importance of protesting the censor's cutting of language is one of principle, not of context. On these grounds any criticism of the film is unfair in that it is judging an incomplete work.

— Nevil Gibson