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Friday, May 06, 2005

Arbitrary but fun value judgments:  III

Mike Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge is the creepiest movie in the world.

Now, perhaps there are films that have more creepiness in them frame by frame, like, say, Father of the Bride.  But the parameters of this Friday’s arbitrary but fun value judgment are confined to critically acclaimed films—“serious” films, if you can stand that term—and not, say, The Cell or Hollow Man.  And what do I mean by “creepy”?  Glad you asked.  I mean something very much like “icky” (I know, I know, all this barbaric postmodern jargon), except deeper, more corrosive, harder to wash off the next day.

Here’s the back story.  Recently, Janet and I and another academic couple were talking shop, and I mentioned Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—not as some kind of wry metacommentary on the conversation itself, mind you, but for the minor point that Martha lambastes George for (among other things) not having the ambition to become department chair.  I find this highly amusing.  Anyway, that started Janet on Carnal Knowledge, which not only creeped her out when we first saw it eight or nine years ago, but which sparked one of those Interpretive Conflicts (Spousal Version) over whether the movie was misogynist.  (Eventually I settled on something like, “I think you’re wrong not to credit the film as a critique, but then again, I can’t say that Jules Feiffer’s script is kind to its female characters, either.”) So all four of us planned to rent Carnal Knowledge and see it again.

This time the creepiness lasted for days.  I did see a bunch of things I’d missed the first time around—the brilliance of the editing as Candace Bergen dances with Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel, the tennis scene in which all the tennis-playing is off camera, the extreme close-ups, the stripping away of almost everything in the world except these few characters—all of which left me with a nasty sense of claustrophobia as well as creepiness.  (I’m sure I’m thinking of all those incredibly tight shots because I saw The Passion of Joan of Arc this week.) But Art Garfunkel at dinner with Jack Nicholson, tugging on his cigar as he muses over the inadequacy of his sex life with Candace Bergen?  Ann-Margaret’s descent into abjection and immobility?  Garfunkel’s defense of his love for the barely-postpubescent Carol Kane?  Everything about Nicholson’s character from start to finish?  Creepy, creepy, creepy.

I’m sure there are similarly good/ serious/ creepy films out there, so (as usual) suggest ‘em.  I have one question, though.  Look at what happened to the principals: Ann-Margaret was plunged into depression for years because of her role in this film.  Art Garfunkel disappeared and was next seen on a milk carton somewhere in Central Park.  Jack Nicholson basically became his character, Jonathan Fuerst (and sometimes even plays older or parodic versions of him, as well).  And Mike Nichols, after opening with Virginia Woolf, The Graduate, and Catch-22 (not bad for a start), followed this with Day of the Dolphin and then . . . nothing, really, until he resurfaced in the mid-1980s as a director of bland, airplane-movie things like Heartburn and Regarding Henry.  Only Candace Bergen seems to have been left untouched by the movie’s soul-destroying creepiness, and I imagine that’s because her character escaped early, and is nowhere to be found in the second half of the film (except for that still in Jonathan’s “Ballbusters on Parade”).  I think that’s the sign of a powerfully creepy movie—its effects last for years, decades.  God only knows what happened to the gaffer and the key grip on this one.  But does anyone out there know just what happened to Nichols in the 1970s?

Have a good uncreepy weekend. 

Posted by Michael on 05/06 at 11:59 AM
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