I saw a film!
Carnal Knowledge (1971)
Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkle along with Candice Bergman, Ann-Margret, Rita Moreno, and briefly Carol Kane.
The premise of this downer of a film is the pursuit and decay of romantic love. We follow Nicholson as Johnny and Art as Sandy as they navigate some college social situations, age, marriage, and finally some post-marriage frustrations as they reach middle age.
The story is complicated as Nicholson’s Johnny is extremely difficult despite being attached to one of the era’s best known blonde bombshells Ann-Margret with her amazing chest. Which, for a long while is about all our protagonist Johnny seems to want in a woman. Not really a surprise, it seems that most men are a bit boob (bewbs!) obsessed (and many women too). The boys discuss sex and love in very mechanical terms that also resemble much of what I’ve experienced from boys (and been largely disappointed by their griping) throughout my life. Most of it is bullshit, and most of it is so plain as to be not just passionless but ugly.
The ladies don’t get much say in this one-sided drama which could have been played funnier. I would argue that most of us are a kind of combination of the two sides of the love coin. We crave a certain physical ideal (both personal and heavily influenced by our culture), but also don’t want to be dealing with a too challenging individual just for the beauty. In this case though, Ann isn’t a “ball-buster” really, but Johnny seems utterly at a loss with her. Unhappy all the time, and we won’t know why really, even at the end when his fetishistic needs are hinted about. This film could have been different if it were in fact about a man realizing and coming to terms with being gay. But without that big gut punch the desires just seem vague and his frustration unattractive. Especially when he’s giving a slide show of all his past loves and candidly speaks about them in the rawest and most abrasive of terms. It’s hard to care about his love-life, or lack thereof when in fact he is so handicapped as a person. Of course, this isn’t a Blue Velvet situation, so worse ugliness comes to mind pretty quickly. Nicholson’s Johnny is just foul-tempered, not particularly dangerous.
This story is worth telling, but I could have done with less difficult personalities. After all what painless recourse to we have when the romantic desire kinda runs its course with our partners? What usually happens is ferocious fighting, miserable break-ups, and cheating. I’m sure there are a few examples of folks who manage to keep a flame burning, and a sweetness for each other, but it’s possibly as tricky a combination as as the amino acids and electricity that eventually produced life. As we all know!
As long as there have been humans this has been our legacy. As long as there has been entertainment this has been central to it. There’s a socio-economic layer to it as well. Wealthy people can, of course, indulge their desires more than poor people can by affording consequences and by simply paying for what it is that’s wanted from professionals (at least in Amsterdam (which is available to wealthy folks!)).
There’s a terrific Mike Birbiglia joke about having never seen a married couple and thinking, Wow, Give Me some of what they got! Do we laugh or laugh til we cry?
Carnal Knowledge doesn’t answers our questions, nor does it make us feel much sympathy for our more difficult protagonist, it would have been better if Nicholson had played a more sympathetic character because I believe very good people have difficult lives hemmed into unsatisfying relationships. Some of us feel the limitations and lack of options more than others. A very funny NPR piece on marriage longevity years ago mainly discovered that longevity relied on low expectations. Low expectations are not the thing most of us plan our lives around!
Candace Bergman is only in the first part of this film but she’s delightful, and mostly doesn’t have to deal with anything too distraught.
I think Woody Allen has done these themes better, but this is still interesting from a discomfort being learning scenario.