Saturday, July 25, 2009

Screengrab -"Don't make me insult you."

Art Garfunkel never really seemed to take acting seriously. Not that he didn't try or give his all in each role, just that his career in music was so phenomenally successful that it was obviously hard for him to make the time to appear in films. Between 1970 and 1980 he was in three feature films, two of them outright masterpieces, which is some strike rate, and one that a David Bowie, Mick Jagger or Bob Dylan could only weep enviously over. One that many actors of the era would weep enviously over. Those films were Catch 22 (Mike Nichols, 1970), Carnal Knowledge (Nichols, 1971) and Bad Timing (Nic Roeg, 1980).

Jack Nicholson, on the other hand, has possibly been in more masterpieces than any of his contemporaries, including Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino. In the same period that gave us Garfunkel's three films, he acted in fifteen films and directed two. Among those fifteen: Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson, 1970), the aforementioned Carnal Knowledge, The Last Detail (Hal Ashby, 1973), Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974), The Passenger (Michaelangelo Antonioni, 1975), One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Milos Forman, 1975) and The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980).

The film common to both lists is Mike Nichols' Carnal Knowledge. Based on an unproduced play by cartoonist and satirist Jules Feiffer (whose other screenplay credits include Alan Arkin's brilliant Little Murders (1971) and Robert Altman's Popeye (1980)), the film follows the sexual lives of Nicholson's Jonathan and Garfunkel's Sandy from their College years in the 1940s through to disgruntled middle age in late 1960s New York. The men represent two different sides of the male character - Jonathan is attractive, aggressive and intelligent, but unable to relate to women as anything other than sexual objects. Sandy - sensitive and almost passive - chiefly relates to them personally, intellectually and emotionally. Their first real experiences with a woman foreshadows all that will follow. At a College Mixer, Sandy approaches Susan (Candace Bergin) and they share a shy, uncertain conversation which suggests some personal connection has been made. During a lull in the conversation, however, she stares at Jonathan, grinning at her from across the room, and the sexual attraction is obvious. Later she will have an affair with Jonathan while Sandy remains officially her "boyfriend", and the universality of the characterisations are brilliantly questioned and restated by Feiffer's script. Jonathan only pursues Susan when he hears from Sandy that she seems willing sexually, and then turns bitter that their relationship is not based on the emotional connection she and Sandy have. He and Sandy argue about who is more sensitive and who reads more books. Susan is obviously excited by Jonathan but wants to protect the vulnerable Sandy.
This first act ends on a shot of Nicholson's sullen though somehow accepting face as Sandy and Susan (who wordlessly acknowledge the snug fit their names make together with a little wince in their first conversation) argue fondly while packing for a holiday, and constantly, thoughtlessly bounce off his silence: "Tell him, Jonathan."

Despite the sterling attempts of David Mamet, Neil Labute and many others, it remains the single most coruscating cinematic examination of modern male sexual mores. Feiffer had been trying out material in his cartoons for years, so he had a good idea of what had some mass appeal, what had the ring of truth about it. It helps that his script it so quick and funny, his people so real and fallible. In the second act, Sandy and Jonathan live very different lives in New York. Jonathan is a rakish cocksman, Sandy a married father. But we first see them lustfully eyeing a girl ice-skating in Central Park, their comments not all that different from the comments they made as virginal students. The girl will become a symbol for the ideal, unattainable, impossible woman who will drive each man mad, her image recurring at crucial points of transition throughout the film. Sandy is bored, trying to convince himself ("Theres more to life than glamour") that he is content. Jonathan is searching for the right girl, only his criteria are all physical; she needs a great rack, a good ass and nice legs. He'd marry this girl, he insists. Then he meets her in the form of Bobbie (Ann Margret), and she cures his budding impotence and moves in after an awkward conversation about whether its the right thing or not: "You're a real prick, you know that?" she ends.

Its not the right thing - they destroy one another, and the final act finds both men divorced and unhappy. A paunchy Sandy is seeing a girl half his age who he patronisingly tells Jonathan is his "Love teacher". Jonathan is horribly bitter and finally impotent. He runs a slideshow of images of the important women of his life with a commentary, branding them "King of the Ballbusters" or "Cunt", his acid cruelty making Sandy's girl cry. Their final scene together may be my favourite, however. They walk through the City at night, discussing how they feel, where they have ended up, in a sort of argument from a distance,their different positions set out without rancor or spite until the very last exchange. Sandy favours a sort of zen condescension, that of the wise man who has come through the wilderness, while Jonathan is contemptuous and sarcastic, cynical about seemingly everything. He says that Sandy always was a schmuck then summarises: “Maybe schmuckdom is what you need to stay young and open.” This, he seems to be saying, may be the key to life. And its a key he just cannot use.
But Sandy pushes a bit too hard when he defends his young girlfriend and says "If you had what I have..." and Jonathan snaps, saying "Sandy, you're my friend. Don't make me insult you." Nicholson makes the most of the moment, his easy access to his psychotic side giving the remark a cold threat which is electrifying. Sandy's reply - if there is one - is lost in the night, as the scene ends.

The next, final scene finds Jonathan visiting prostitute Louise (Rita Moreno), which seems the logical ending for a man of his beliefs and attitude to sex. And gradually we see that he pays her mainly for her performance of a monologue hymning his masculine virility and damning the women who fail to appreciate him, the whole thing acted out just so - he scolds her for a stray remark - in order to arouse him so that she can perform an unseen act of oral sex. He closes his eyes and inevitably we see the ice skater from earlier in the film, that ideal woman further away than ever.

If that sounds a grim ending and the whole thing a depressing screed on relentlessly failing relationships, well, somehow it isn't. It is at heart a black comedy. Social mores are its subject, the sad little foibles of men and women both. Feiffer's writing is razor sharp, his dialogue witty. And Nichols, perhaps never seen as the most visually exciting of directors (for all that The Graduate cribs from 1960s European Art Cinema) transforms what could be claustrophobic and theatrical into a vitally cinematic piece through the boldness of his staging and method.
He favours tight, symmetrical compositions and slow zooms, long takes allowing performances to pulse within the film. The lighting and colour pallet are lush but realistic, never distracting or ostentatious. His cinematic intelligence is evident in every scene. He knows where to place the actors within the frame so that every nuance registers with exactly the right weight, and knows too that it all works or fails based on their performances. So he lets them loose. Nicholson and Garfunkel - and Bergin and Margret, for that matter - don't let him down. Its a great film, probably his best. He returned to similar turf decades later with a film of Patrick Marber's excellent play Closer (2004), another blackly comic study of sexual politics focusing on two men and two women, which, bitter and emotionally raw as it is, and while well-acted and nicely directed, never approaches the level of casual brilliance Nichols attained with Carnal Knowledge. But then Carnal Knowledge was made during the golden age of Commercial American Art cinema, possibly the only time it could have been made in all its bitter, beautiful glory.

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Anonymous RW said...

Nice post. It's a shame Nichols's work is so rarely discussed by critics, though I think there was recently a Nichols retrospective at MoMA.

I think another thing Nichols has over Mamet and Labute is his skillful use of narrative ellipsis, timing them to a certain break in mood -- in fact, it's one of the basic structuring principles of Carnal Knowledge.

I really enjoyed your Costello post as well. Keep up the good work here.

2:49 am  
Blogger David N said...

Thank you, and yeah you're spot on about ellipsis - the end of the Jonathan/Bobbie passage here, with Garfunkel calling for an ambulance while Nicholson is screaming to himself in the next room - is absolutely unforgettable.

12:50 am  

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