Carnal Knowledge (Nichols, 1971)

There’s a link to a further write-up at the end.

Mike Nichols’ 1971 film about sexual freedom, curiosity, irresponsibility and despondence is still relevant today.  That it features a young (34 at the time) Jack Nicholson makes it seem, in hindsight, as much Hollywood commentary as fictional narrative.

Nicholson plays Jonathan who, along with Sandy (the ever-innocent and lustfully confused – see Bad Timing – Art Garfunkel) has trysts, affairs and relationships with a variety of women including Ann-Margaret and Candice Bergen from college in the 1950s through the 1960s, and into the early 1970s.

Featuring an underrated script by Jules Feiffer, Carnal Knowledge is sharp and still relevant.  The third act, where Jonathan tries to cheat on his girlfriend with Sandy’s, instead leading to an appropriately under-dramatized suicide, is pretty disheartening.

Check out the clip below.  This is the end of the film (no real spoilers from a plot standpoint), where Jonathan goes to see Louise (Rita Moreno).  He’s unable to get an erection, so they play-act in order to help him out.  It becomes apparent right away that they’ve done this exact same thing before.  Watch, in particular, starting around 0:22 and then continuing on, as Louise talks.

Notice the wallpaper behind her.  We see her at first start to kneel down, and where the wallpaper and the painted wall meet becomes visible behind her.  But from then – with the odd sitar playing on the soundtrack – the wallpaper seems to move slowly and without end, as though she’s still moving downward.  This is a great technique.  For one, it’s unique.  More importantly, it’s hypnotic (read: the type of hypnosis that Jonathan needs in order to be able to have sex; read: he’s sexually desensitized).  It suddenly moves the space – and actually the film – from a place and time full of ordinary locations and interactions, to something much more surreal, pointing to the idea that Jonathan’s sexual identity is not only significantly changed from the innocence he held when we first encounter him, but also from the free-wheeling 1960s into the Nixon 70s, from dating and marriage to pure cynicism, as it were.

Also worth noting is the significantly changing set and costume design that Nichols employs throughout the years.  The three images below represent, in order, Jonathan’s experience at college, in his 30s as a bachelor, and then presumably in his 40s as a hardened alcoholic.

If there’s one thing to look at in particular, it’s how the images get literally whiter.  The first image, at a house party where we find Jonathan in the background, frame right, and Sandy and Susan (Bergen) frame left, is warm.  The walls are brown.  The light from the floor lamp is yellow.  It feels almost cozy (despite the wide open framing).

The second image is a bit more dominated by white, but still not to the extreme as the last one.  The light is slightly more neutral, but the set design and props – bedsheets, photo on table – are all light and white.

The last one, of course, represents the extreme.  Everything is white, even the light hitting the curtains in the background.  Notice how Jonathan’s outfit has evolved from warm and even friendly (the brown/red combo), to neutral (white shirt, brown pants), to heavily contrasty (the white/black combo).  Sandy still maintains some color (and dignity) in the end.

Of course you can look at this evolution as simply the concurrent movement from the 50s to the 70s and from college to career, but the elements within the frame suggest a subtle emphasis of character (de)evolution as well.

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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