Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Metaphor for a Generation

Jonathan (Jack Nicholson): Do you always answer a question with a question?
Susan (Candice Bergen): Do you always date your best friend's girlfriend?

After "Carnal Knowledge" premiered in New York City on this date in 1971, it became something of a cultural flashpoint.

I guess you have to remember what the times were like — or be told, if you are under a certain age.

It was kind of a tentative time. American society was really only beginning to re–examine itself and the attitudes that had influenced all the previous generations.

All in the Family is usually regarded as the starting point of a new kind of TV programming that, although conceived in the tradition of the sitcom, had a harder edge and was more satirical than anything that had come before.

But that show had only been on the air since January. Social satire would be the hallmark of so much of television (and everything else in the entertainment field) in the 1970s, but it was only emerging in 1971.

The tone was established, though, and all kinds of preconceived societal ideas were being exposed to ridicule so it was only natural that the movies would follow TV's lead.

Before that, prime time TV (and the movies, too, for that matter) was almost exclusively about entertainment with hillbillies, rubes, genies and witches cast in outlandish "fish out of water" situations. After that, it had more of a conscience.

"Carnal Knowledge" challenged gender roles. It didn't re–define the conversation. But it did get people talking.

To be sure, other movies in those days were doing the same thing. What "Carnal Knowledge" was doing wasn't unique, by any stretch of the imagination.

But there was clearly something about it. As a young boy, I remember hearing the men speak of it and snicker. There was nudity in it, they said. You could see just about everything that Ann–Margret had.

Even All in the Family made jokes about the movie. In one episode, I recall, Archie and Edith were shown returning from the movies, and Edith was apologizing to Archie. She told him she thought it was a religious picture — "Cardinal Knowledge."

Archie complained that there was so much activity in bed that he had to watch much of the movie with his head tilted to one side.

(I have often wished time travel was possible. I'd like to go back to those days with a video tape of "Basic Instinct" and show it to those guys who made the snide remarks. Of course, I would have to bring along a VCR, too, since such things didn't exist in 1971.

(Anyway, if those guys thought Ann–Margret showed everything she had, they should get an eyeful of Sharon Stone. But I digress.)

The images weren't as explicit as they are today so "Carnal Knowledge" often comes across as tame — if not downright boring — to the more worldly eyes of folks in the 21st century.

But why shouldn't they? "Carnal Knowledge" was the first movie to show a condom onscreen. How tame does that seem in 2011?

In 1971, a condom was the kind of thing that simply wasn't discussed outside the bedroom — at least, not in my experience — and about the only place I ever saw them was in the dispensers that were located in gas station men's rooms. But today, if your city is anything like mine, you can find businesses that cater entirely to condom buyers sitting next to fast–food joints and convenience stores.

The story focused on a couple of college buddies (Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel) and the age–old desire of men in that age group to make sexual conquests. Garfunkel becomes attached to an enticing coed (played by 25–year–old Candice Bergen) and pursues a chaste relationship with her, unaware of the fact that his friend has already bedded her — and developed something of an infatuation with her.

But Nicholson and Bergen go their separate ways. Garfunkel and Bergen eventually marry and embark on a rather dysfunctional marriage that eventually falls apart. Nicholson, meanwhile, breezes through a seemingly unending series of purely sexual — and emotionally unsatisfying — relationships until he finally marries his latest mistress, Ann–Margret, who is, as folks used to say, a "fun girl" but desperately, obsessively wishes to be married.

That marriage, too, is doomed, and Nicholson, later in the movie, presents a slideshow to Garfunkel and his newest significant other that bitterly lists the "ballbusters" in his life, going back to his earliest womanizing days. A slide of Bergen pops up, and Nicholson tries to move quickly to the next one, hoping that no one noticed, but it is too late. Garfunkel has already seen it — and put two and two together.

The old friends never discuss the fact that they shared a girl in college but Garfunkel apparently never suspected.

"Knowledge," in this story, was largely about sex — but it meant more than that.

It was set in a time frame that spanned post–World War II and the repressive 1950s into the sexually open 1960s, and it was an examination of the confusion experienced by both sexes as they moved into the 1970s and middle age.

Sometimes I see "Carnal Knowledge" as something of a generational metaphor.

In every generation, it seems to me, there is one aspect of life (at least) that is radically altered from what people were told when they were growing up and leaves them groping for answers.

For the generation that came of age in the mid–20th century (i.e., Nicholson's and Garfunkel's characters), it was gender roles and how they were affected by the social movements of that time.

For the generation that came of age in the late 20th century, perhaps, it has been making the transition to computers after learning to type on old–fashioned typewriters.

Who knows what it will be for those who have come of age (or will come of age) in the early 21st century?

"Carnal Knowledge" was regarded as a sex comedy at the time of its release. I remember a lot of talk about nudity and suggestive language, but when I saw the movie, many years later in college, it was more like a sex tragedy. At least, it seemed that way to me.

Perhaps that was what made it stand out from other movies of the time that had risque reputations.

It is tragic, is it not, to see a generation left on the ash heap of history for one reason or another.