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Episode 132 - Carnal Knowledge (w/ Molly Lambert)


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Poll: Episode 132 - Carnal Knowledge (w/ Molly Lambert) (21 member(s) have cast votes)

Should "Carnal Knowledge" enter The Canon?

  1. Yes (7 votes [33.33%])

    Percentage of vote: 33.33%

  2. No (14 votes [66.67%])

    Percentage of vote: 66.67%

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#1 Dalton Maltz

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Posted 11 December 2017 - 12:09 AM

Writer Molly Lambert joins Amy this week to discuss the 1971 drama “Carnal Knowledge.” They break down the contrast between Art Garfunkel and Jack Nicholson’s characters, the contemptuous directing of Mike Nichols, and Candice Bergen’s complex performance. Plus, they assess how the film contributed to the socialization of the genders and where it took advantage of the repeal of the Motion Picture Production Code.

#2 vanveen13

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Posted 11 December 2017 - 08:54 AM

I'm not really sure that this is a movie that had a great effect on films in general, and I think it's quite flawed, yet it's a really interesting subject. I was surprised Amy didn't bring up how much Pauline Kael hated the thing. She thought it was a total phony about how men like to view themselves as rotters and insensitive jerks always on the make. Interestingly, her take was that the movie negatively flattered men, which I thought was funny.

In any case the film is probably different for most guys than it was for our female hosts. Partly it's because the schematic structure of the material is somewhat muddled. The idea is that the Nicholson character is supposed to come across as a strong sexist stud who's actually very sensitive. His slobby macho act is a way to hide his vulnerability, which he projects onto the women he's involved with as rage and frustration, but there's something missing and we never quite get the sensitivity and intelligence that's supposed to be there. The irony of the first part of the movie is that he actually has much more feeling for the Candice Bergen character than Garfunkle, who seems smart and tender but who's self serving and self pitying; his icky neediness is totally narcissistic and there are few scenes more unpleasant than his whining Bergen into having sex with him. This is important because it seems to me that Bergen's choosing Garfunkle over Nicholson doesn't derive from her feeling safer with him, as Molly Lambert suggested, but because she thinks he's weaker and needs her more than NIcholson does, a terrible way to pick a spouse.

I also think the stuff with Ann Margaret is strong and pathetic, but it's wrong to view the material in black and white terms, with the women as pure victims and the men as evil oppressors. Terms like "good" and "evil" don't apply to this sort of subject matter; after all, much as we may sympathize with Margaret's predicament there is something truly ugly and manipulative in her suicide attempt, which after all gets her what she thinks she wants from Nicholson, until she becomes fed up with him, divorces him and takes him for a bunch of money. We're glad she got away in the end, yet she really was dishonest and did put one over on him. My point is that we should not be too quick to relate this film, and these men, to people like Harvey Weinstein or Matt Lauer, whose crimes are completely out of the realm of the kind of self centered mistakes the men in this movie make, which have more sides to them than I think were discussed..

Which brings me to the problem of the movie's end. It's far too moralistic and jars with the early part of the movie. I wish it hadn't felt the need to punish the Nicholson character in such an on the nose sort of way, making him impotent and forcing him to see prostitutes who talk up his manly ego to remind the audience how pathetic he is. It's ridiculous. Life almost never winds up with justice being served in such clearly ironic terms; that sort of thing only happens in melodrama. It's cautionary silliness: Don't be a sex-only womanizer, the movie says, or you'll wind up unable to have sex altogether! But what really would have happened, to both these men is that they would have wound up married to lovely younger women between the ages of twenty-seven and thirty-five, changing diapers in their completely stable homes, writing off their early adventures as an immature sowing of wild oats.. Also, I wish the movie would have made the women more complicated and complicit than it does--after all women are contributing to the way society works as well as men do. And the film's pace is slightly off. It takes a good deal of time in the beginning part then rushes to its editorializing end., Still, I'm going yes with this movie because of the performances of Nicholson and Garfunkle, and because the opening shot of Bergen walking in out of darkness is one of my favorite shots in all of movies.

#3 bleary

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Posted 11 December 2017 - 03:17 PM

I'm with Amy, in that I'm voting no on pasta salad.

Also, if no one gets in on the "actually" before me, I'll point out that although Amy said that this would be the first Mike Nichols film in the Canon, we did successfully induct Working Girl, much to Devin's chagrin!

As for Carnal Knowledge, this is another film where I was a soft no going into the podcast and reconsidered my position while hearing their arguments. I won't say that I didn't like the movie, but I'll slide laterally and say that I didn't enjoy the movie, which is probably an intended outcome. Jack Nicholson's Jonathan ranks as one of the most despicable characters I've seen. I thought it was interesting to hear Amy and Molly say that they thought Jack Nicholson has natural charm that he brings to all his roles, because I feel that he seems to bring a bit of natural vileness to all his roles. And I think this is him at his vilest. But then again, as Molly suggested, his vileness seems to be coming from nurture rather than nature. He has these terrible, societally-induced preconceived notions of how men are supposed to feel and behave sexually, romantically, and domestically, and he allows them to destroy his life. But I still don't feel sorry for him, because seriously, fuck that guy. What happened to the part of growing up that makes you embarrassed of the asshole you were at 18? Jonathan's behavior in college, while not really forgivable, is at least understandable. His inability to learn anything over the course of his life is sad in an abhorrent sort of way.

I sheepishly admit that I did feel bad for Art Garfunkel's Sandy, at least for around 2/3 of the first act. Maybe I empathized with his frustration with the "nothin' to it" attitude of charismatic people who look down on those who struggle with social interaction. Maybe I felt betrayed on his behalf when his ostensible best friend tried to seduce his girlfriend and lied to him about it. It really wasn't until his awkward, whiny, pleading sex scene with Susan that I realized: ah, no, this dude is gross too. And in hindsight it's clear that anyone who buys into the ethos of someone like Jonathan can't be as harmless or sensitive as Jonathan or Susan or even Sandy himself think he is. Sandy reminds me of the moronic "men's rights activists" of today, rigidly subscribing to a dumb pop-culture idea of relationship dynamics with all the intellectualism of a 6-year-old watching Disney princess movies. Jonathan might be the devil on his shoulder telling him to take what he deserves, but it's still Sandy who feels he deserves it.

My biggest issue with the film is that the second act spends too much time with Jonathan and not enough time with Sandy, and perhaps that's due to Ann-Margret deserving as much screen time as possible. Although I thought she gave a solid performance, I wasn't as drawn in by this chapter of the story as I was by Susan's chapter, and I think Candice Bergen's performance was even stronger. But Sandy's absence made things feel unbalanced; note that we learn more about Cindy's character in her scene with Jonathan than in anything else. I would have liked to see more of Sandy and Cindy's relationship. Finally, in the last chapter, I'm left wondering how the film ultimately judges Sandy. On one side, he seems to basically reject Jonathan's rancor, but at the same time, he's still bringing a girlfriend over to meet Jonathan at all, so how much has he really learned? Is his rejection of Jonathan meaningless, since he's on the road to repeating his same pattern with Jennifer, just playing a different game than he used to?

All in all, I'm glad Molly suggested this, as I knew nothing about this film and I'm happy to have seen it now. It's hard to argue that this film is culturally important (which we'll likely see by the drop-off in votes this week; prove me wrong, everyone) since it's among the least talked about Nichols films. But at the same time, perhaps it should be, because I think it illustrates the acid sprinkled on relationship dynamics by patriarchal beliefs in a way that is painfully still relevant. Also, count me in the ranks of those who think The Graduate is overrated, although it's still a movie I enjoy. For me, Nichols' best is Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which is probably in my top 20 favorite movies ever. But I also enjoy Closer, which I think is very much informed by this film, so again, I'm very glad to have seen it. So with the presupposition that the Canon will likely get 1 or 2 more Nichols films after this, I'll happily vote yes on Carnal Knowledge. Plus, I just really hope Molly comes back and does another episode, as she's one of my favorite writers and podcasters, and if voting this into the Canon on this increases the chances of her coming back, that's almost enough reason right there to vote yes.

#4 DrEricFritz

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Posted 11 December 2017 - 05:01 PM

I had a hard time deciding whether I liked this movie or not. This was something I had not seen, but I find watching horrible people doing horrible things generally an unpleasant experience. After listening to the episode, I really liked Molly's arguments that the film is a lesson to be learned. Basically, do not be an ass hole, do not treat people (men treating women) like sexual objects. It's is an educational film!

The film is beautifully shot and acted. Those long shots held on the various characters while things happened around them are just fantastic. It forced me to be empathetic, understand their (horrible) motivations and thoughts, which made the viewing experience difficult but in a way where I could not stop watching. I loved the final shot looking down on Jonathan, the camera seeming to despise him.

After all that, soft yes. (Also, this is not the first Mike Nichols in the Canon: we have Working Girl!)

#5 DrEricFritz

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Posted 11 December 2017 - 10:08 PM

RE: The Graduate

After having some time to think about the podcast, I had not realized what a piece of shit Dustin Hoffman's character was (or what a piece of shit Dustin Hoffman is). I have not watched that film since college (late 90s/early 00s) and am unsurprised by this, but I think it should be added that The Graduate's greatest influence comes from its soundtrack. It was the biggest film to ever use an entirely pop soundtrack and that did not change much until Star Wars, which brought back symphonic scores as a viable accompaniment to a film. Sure there are always films before that may have paved the way, like Jaws, but it takes a cultural moment from a film in order for that to happen. Like the Matrix and martial arts as a part of action movie language acceptable to American audiences. (*Almost every sentence here could have the clause "in the US" added to it. European films were so often ahead of the curve in terms of their sound design and scores. At least until John Williams and Star Wars.)

On that note, the soundtrack to Carnal Knowledge is relatively sidelined. An interesting choice, but one that fits well with everything else going on. The Graduate feels important because the music is unique and can distract from the cynical message of that movie. Here, the soundtrack is just background noise and could be replaced with just about anything that fits its time period.

#6 FictionIsntReal

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Posted 12 December 2017 - 08:12 AM

A definite NO on this, and I'm somewhat irritated Lambert got me to watch this. I think The Graduate is overrated as well, but it's obviously far more canonical than this (so is Virginia Woolf, which holds up better than The Graduate) and its failings don't make this any better. Yes, the men are more obviously lousy here, but I don't think the film does all that well by its women either, who all have less screentime & dialogue. I don't think Carol Kane gets a single line! Someone above thought it was smart that Candice Bergen doesn't appear after the first segment, but to me it felt like the movie just didn't care enough about other characters and just wanted to focus on Nicholson. Nicholson can be an interesting performer playing unlikeable people, but his schtick gets tiresome quite early here. I'd rather that In the Company of Men get in, which might also be more influential despite being more recent.

#7 sycasey 2.0

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Posted 12 December 2017 - 11:43 AM

On The Graduate:

I'm thinking that this movie is now UNDERrated, just because of how many people are now falling over themselves to proclaim it "overrated." Then again, I also think that "overrated" is virtually useless as a term in artistic criticism and try to avoid using it as much as possible, so I might not be the best judge here. In any event, The Graduate is clearly more canonical than Carnal Knowledge, whatever your personal feelings may be about the former. It's a cultural touchstone in almost too many ways to count, and the later film is not.

I open with those thoughts because while listening to this podcast episode, I thought Molly's arguments for Carnal Knowledge were hurt by her drawing so many comparisons to The Graduate, when IMO this movie doesn't actually survive the comparison well. I was struck by how many of Molly's complaints about The Graduate can absolutely be applied to Carnal Knowledge: a cold directorial style, a "sensitive" male protagonist who is actually kind of a dick, general contempt for humanity, etc. All of that is in both movies. For me the difference is that The Graduate has more levels to it; you're not nearly as certain of the movie's satirical point until the very end. Until then you could very easily see Dustin Hoffman's Benjamin as the "conquering hero" coming to rescue his beloved. The "60s downer" ending brings the true emptiness into focus, but along the way you have more comedy, more jaunty pop tunes to provide breaks in the coldness. The movie takes you for a ride.

Carnal Knowledge largely makes its intentions clear from the very beginning. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying the movie is bad. I think it's very well-made and well-performed. It does have a kind of purity of mood and purpose that carries throughout the running time. But in judging its Canon worthiness, I was left feeling that Carnal Knowledge comes up a bit short of greatness because of how one-note it is, and it also doesn't seem to have had the larger cultural impact we've seen from other Nichols films. Glad I saw the movie, but it's a no.

#8 sycasey 2.0

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Posted 12 December 2017 - 11:45 AM

I also think we need a second poll about pasta salad.

I vote with Amy: pasta salad is gross.

#9 Shrew

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Posted 12 December 2017 - 01:47 PM

I’m glad Lambert brought this film to the show because it’s worth discussing, but I just don’t like it. There are moments of greatness but also of the subjective shittiness disguised as Profound Universal Statements about Human Relationships that 33 years later would gain sentience as Closer.

The problem is that each segment gets more artificial and less interesting. The college segment might be one of the most perfect short films ever made. I do think it gets how young men talk to each other, with bravado covering up for inexperience, the performance of masculinity, affected sensitivity undercut by bouts confused naiveté (“I feel about getting laid the same way I feel about college. I'm being pressured into it.”) And Bergen is fantastic, establishing a character that has a clear presence and subjectivity, even in a film utterly dominated by the male point-of-view (as such, I understand why she disappears, but the film suffers from her absence). If we were only voting on this first segment, I would canonize it in a heartbeat.

Then we jump ahead and the men are still talking like 18 year-olds. Maybe times have changed or I just don’t hang out with male friends enough anymore, but the way pornographic way Nicholson talks about women feels hollow, like a projection of how shitty men talk. Even the theatricality of the language becomes more apparent, each repetition of “bullshit artist” and “ball-buster” feeling more like a writer’s tic than natural slang. Ann-Margret saves this segment and her scenes with Nicholson bring us back to something sad and honest, but each conversation between Sandy and Jonathan is just trying to outperform the last for vileness. There is something disingenuously confessional here, like a man who keeps laments his bad behavior but never makes any effort to reform himself (like Ian Holm in Another Woman, “I accept you condemnation.”)

And then that ending. It’s bad because A) that’s not how impotence/erectile dysfunction works; B ) it’s too perfectly ironic, as if the Sandys/Jules Feiffers of the world are taking revenge on the Jonathans/Nicholsons for having more sex than them. And C), as recent events have shown, I think the Jonathans are far more likely to be locking doors behind assistants and masturbating into plants to prove to themselves how powerful they are, rather than paying hookers to tell them how powerful they are.

Admittedly, there may be an undercurrent of #notallmen to my reaction. Or maybe I just lead a sheltered life. Still, I’d recommend Eric Rohmer or Hong Sang-soo over this for films about how men treat women. Though I admit I'm harder pressed to think of a good alternative about how men talk to men about women.

#10 Sarah Nicks

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Posted 12 December 2017 - 06:01 PM

Carnal Knowledge is not a perfect film but it is the perfect film to watch and discuss at this literal moment in history - thanks to Molly for this and ugh, men.

Also, unrelated ... is there a fan site for the Canon where all the films that have been voted in are listed? Where does the Canon archive live apart from this Earwolf forum thread?

#11 Johnny Pomatto

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Posted 12 December 2017 - 10:33 PM

The last time I saw CARNAL KNOWLEDGE was more than 20 years ago. I was enough past puberty to marvel at Ann Margaret's wardrobe, but besides that hadn't much carnal knowledge of my own. I remember being somewhat uncomfortable with all the sexually frank dialogue. I don't think I even had yet made friends who had experienced any sexual acts, so literal locker-room talk and anticipation of desired conquests were familiar to me. While I had seen plenty of sex scenes in movies by that point in my life, I hadn't seen many that were so uncomfortable and sad as these. I also misinterpreted some of them at my young age. When Art Garfunkel is with Candice Bergen against the tree, I remember thinking that although she initially was uncomfortable with his hand on her breast, he showed a real and honest sensitivity that made her see him in a new light, and that was all it took for her to fall a little more in love with him so that she suddenly wanted his hands on her. (I'm proud to say that I never practiced this tactic to the degree Art does in the film.) Other scenes made me feel incredible shame, such as Art pathetically pleading with Bergen for sex, while the early scenes with Nicholson and Margaret I found quite erotic. I looked forward to the days when I might not have to shower alone.

Watching the film again last night, I can't say that I saw the film itself in an entirely new way, but it was fascinating to compare my own reactions and reflective experiences now that I've become what some would consider to be an adult. I don't think we need the current social and political climate to add a new layer to the film. I think we would recognize this portrait of bad behavior in most eras. For a film comprised of vignettes, I think it's very effective. Part of me thought that Nicholson's climactic slideshow diminishes the weight of the relationships we saw, because there's little evidence to suggest that they were any more impactful as the other girls in the carousel, a repetitive and depressing cycle. But it doesn't make the highlights that we see any less relevant really. I do agree that this holds up far better than I expected it to, having appreciated but not enjoying it all that much on seeing it young in life. It's quite a different experience today, and I got a lot out of the process. I think there are better Nichols and Nicholson films, but I think that this has more to say as a cinematic fable than some of those superior films. I'm a much bigger Edward Albee fan than I am of Jules Feiffer, but I think I would sooner put this into The Canon than I would "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" And I think I will. I'll give a soft YES to CARNAL KNOWLEDGE. I don't know how quickly I would want to experience it again, but I appreciated the opportunity to revisit it this time, enough to believe that others out there should see it at least once.

#12 bluesheep4

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Posted 13 December 2017 - 12:17 PM

Well first off I'd never seen this film, and probably wouldn't have, if it wasn't for this podcast so thank you!

Now, digging into it, I think this film is semi-important in the history of film, like the first seen condom on film, and really just embodying the postcode spirit, dealing w/ sex and things etc., so in that sense, I think there's a spot in the canon for it. BUT I really didn't feel all of the same things about it as you guys did, like the commentary on men and women's supposed roles in life, or that it had a lot to say about Sandy and Jonathan, who are both just schmucks. I don't think I'm articulating my thoughts very well, but I don't think this movie is as smart as you made it out to be. I do agree that The Graduate is overstated slightly, but it has more of a spot in the canon than this film, and I think Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf? could fill this spot too.

I didn't dislike it, but I don't think it needs to be in the canon. It's a good movie, and people can see it, but really don't need to.

#13 Threshold

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Posted 11 April 2018 - 05:16 AM

I thought this was a terrific film showing the shallow petty lives MRA/chauvinists lead. The final scenes with Jack Nicholson putting a slideshow of all the girls he has gone out with- with increasing vile and hatred is instantly iconic.

Modern rom-com/dramas have whipped the dead "Actually men are shitty" horse too much, but tracing it's origins back to here is really terrific. Instant yes. Shame I didn't vote on it at the time.