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Plot Details: This Review Reveals Minor Details About the Plot.

Keeping Perspective

Carnal Knowledge

Plot Overview

“Carnal Knowledge” uses a distinctive trope. There are but seven characters in it, all intimates with one or more of the others (although there are obscure pairings some­times seen in the back­ground.) The settings are sparse to the point of no pictures on the walls so as not to distract the audience from the intimate conver­sations about love, romance and sex. The scenes are of one, two, or at most three of them talking about it. It was enough to make an audience of 1971 blush, and I dare­say one today.

It starts circa 1948 a time when soldiers returned from war to attend college, although it could seem like any college setting. There are two inter­ludes in the story where a spinning female ice skater represents the passage of about a decade of the earth revolving around the Sun. The opening scene—if it can be called that—is audio-only of a couple student arm­chair philosophers discussing a conundrum of choice of a romantic partner, which would be very difficult to decide. Glenn Miller's “Moon­light Serenade” plays softly in the back­ground.

When we have light we see Jonathan Fuerst (Jack Nicholson) renounce interest (“I give her to you”) in a co-ed Susan (Candice Bergen) who walks past him and his bud at a mixer of Smith and Amherst Colleges. Sandy (Art Garfunkel) makes a shy approach.

This is a decade in which men and women might approach each other, they need no formal intro­duction. Jonathan and Sandy are college room­mates; they sleep on opposite sides of a dorm room. They are on the fringes of these times, on opposite sides of them. Sandy is too shy to initiate a conver­sation with a woman, while Jonathan is sexually precocious. One is behind the times, the other ahead of them. All three are virgins for the time being, but Jonathan pressures Sandy who pressures Susan to “do it” (“I feel the same way about getting laid as going to college. I'm being pressured into it.”) Jonathan, not to be out­done, has sex with one “Myrtle.”

Susan is centered, at least at first. She uses her college days as a time to date around, to do comparison shopping. She tempers her sexual experiences: two kisses on the second date, three on the third, etc. She sees how she relates to a man emotion­ally and intel­lec­tually before taking the plunge into marriage where it is presumed she will surrender her virginity. She is keeping enough carnal distance between her­self and her beaus to make a considered choice (“our eyes should be open”) of life partner. BUT she gets hurried along.

A decade later Sandy having had sex in the dating phase has married some­one precipit­ously—having had sex with her clouded his judgment—, and he is now bored with his sex life in marriage. With a little more restraint earlier, he would have recog­nized a lack of sexual compati­bility and waited for some­one more suit­able. They get divorced and now he is seeing Cindy (Cynthia O'Neal) who is the boss in the bed­room (and in every other room.) Jonathan (“It's not as easy getting laid as it used to be”) has taken up with sex kitten Bobbie (Ann-Margret) who is his perfect body type. He gets his potency back with her, so long as she's not making more money (as a TV ad model) than he is. She manipulates him (“wanna get married”) into marriage. The women are normal for their times, both getting what they want, even if it's marriage and child in the case of Bobbie whose biological clock has kicked in.

In the next decade (1971?) Sandy has taken up with a hippie chick (of 18) Jennifer (Carol Kane) to rediscover his sexual libido that got over­looked during the free sex days of the sixties. Jonathan is getting serviced by a sex surro­gate (Rita Moreno), the only one he can per­form with so long as she stays on script. The connections between premarital sex and its future ramifications are not so much spelled out as played out.


Since there is no explanation offered on-screen of what went terribly wrong (“I've been misled”), it behooves us to look at Proverbs. (Prov. 5:15) “Drink waters out of thine own cistern, and running waters out of thine own well.” It says also, (Prov. 20:5) “Counsel in the heart of man is like deep water; but a man of under­standing will draw it out.” Jonathan dating Susan on the sly wanted to have the same intel­lectual relations with her as did Sandy; he wanted her to probe his thoughts, but it didn't work that way. Pairings are a function of the individuals involved.

(Prov. 5:16-17) “Let thy fountains be dispersed abroad, and rivers of waters in the streets. Let them be only thine own, and not strangers' with thee.” Jonathan was more inter­ested in mixing it up (“You wouldn't want to swap some­time, would you?”)

(Prov. 5:18-19) “Let thy fountain be blessed: and rejoice with the wife of thy youth. Let her be as the loving hind and pleasant roe; let her breasts satisfy thee at all times; and be thou ravished always with her love.” Sandy seemed willing to settle for mediocrity (“Maybe it's just not meant to be enjoy­able with women you love”) when the scriptural norm is for marriage to be gay, i.e. “rejoice with thy wife”.

(Prov. 5:20-21) “And why wilt thou, my son, be ravished with a strange woman, and embrace the bosom of a stranger? For the ways of man are before the eyes of the LORD, and he pondereth all his goings.” Jonathan for­sook the well-endowed Bobbie, (Prov. 5:19a) “Let her be as the loving hind and pleasant roe,” (“It's up, it's in the air”) to seek solace in a sex surrogate. Why would he want to do that?

(Prov. 5:22-23) “His own iniquities shall take the wicked himself, and he shall be holden with the cords of his sins. He shall die with­out instruc­tion; and in the great­ness of his folly he shall go astray.” Basic­ally, Jonathan, whose advice Sandy was so keen on following at the first, ended up a pathetic prisoner of his own sins, on a down­ward path with­out instruction.

Production Values

“Carnal Knowledge” (1971) was directed by Mike Nichols. It was written by cartoonist Jules Feiffer. It stars Jack Nicholson, Art Garfunkel, Candice Bergen, and Ann-Margret. Ann-Margret made an impressive Bobbie. Garfunkel and Bergen didn't do so well. Nicholson was great, especially considering what little he had to work with script­wise.

The color cinematography and direction intentionally left us exposed to the dialogue with which men especially are not comfort­able. It's rated 'R', and the Supreme Court weighed in saying it wasn't obscene, but if you didn't know any better, you might perceive it as such.

Review Conclusion w/ Christian Recommendation

I found “Carnal Knowledge” disturbing for its frankness, but it did convey a terrible lesson for those of fast and loose morals. No frills on this one, it hits you with too much gritty information. Don't look to be entertained so much as to receive a reality check. I'm giving it a ‘B’ mostly on account of its technical excellence.

Movie Ratings

Action factor: No action, no adventure. Suitability For Children: Not Suitable for Children of Any Age. Special effects: Wake up and smell the technology. Video Occasion: Good for a Rainy Day. Suspense: Not suspenseful at all. Overall product rating: Four stars out of five.