Friday, August 21, 2009

Carnal Knowledge (1971 - dir. Mike Nichols)

I remember an old episode of All in the Family where Edith and Archie have just returned from the movies and Archie is enraged, chastising Edith for taking him to that particular movie. Edith replies, "I'm sorry, Archie. I thought it was a religious picture...Cardinal Knowledge." This Mike Nichols masterpiece is definitely not a religious picture, although it is a profoundly human one.

Nichols' career has been extraordinary. His first four films were, in order, Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate, Catch-22, and Carnal Knowledge. Not bad. While he continues to be a fine director, he hasn't seemed to have re-captured the magic of these four films. Carnal Knowledge is uncompromising in it's brutal depiction of human sexuality and how sex differences in sexual psychology often create abusive divides between men and women. The genius of the film, in my opinion, is that the characters portrayed never descend into outright abuse (criminally defined). However, the sexual strategies depicted by Nichols' characters are experienced as abusive by the viewer as both male and female perspectives are powerfully represented in the narrative.

Sexual Strategies Theory in evolutionary psychology has allowed psychologists to understand major sex differences in human mating behavior that are cross-culturally universal. Over the past decade or two, these differences, and the evolutionary psychological work supporting them, have been widely researched and published - probably best presented in The Evolution of Desire by David Buss of The University of Texas. Research projects centered on the evolutionary psychology of human mating are far too numerous to elaborate here. However, the core of this work is artfully on display in this film. Male sexual psychology tends to be centered on sexual physicality and uncommitted sex while female desires place a higher premium on committed relationships with a partner that is likely to be able to assist in child-rearing. Of course, this is a broad generalization and there are plenty of good reasons for there to be exceptions to this general template (most of the best research on the nature of these exceptions is from evolutionary psychology). However, this foundational difference is surprisingly robust as a description of human sexual conflict.

The story follows the lives and "loves" of Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel), two college buddies. Jonathan is the quintessential aggressive lothario while Sandy claims to only be interested in a woman's intelligence and personality. What follows is the playing out of the lives of these two men, and the women in their lives, over a number of years. And what we see is just about as honest a portrayal of sexual conflict as you will ever see in cinema. Both Jonathan and Sandy, in their different ways, desire the comforts of uncommitted sex while their female counterparts, especially as realized by Bobbie (Ann-Margret), desire the commitment of a long-term relationship while, at the same time, realizing that they must not be too open about this desire. This sets up what are, perhaps, some of the most well-written scenes (by the cartoonist, Jules Feiffer) ever filmed dealing with the excruciating sexual politics of male/female relationships.

Now, affection is contempt. Everything is upside down...

The Slide Show