Thursday, December 8, 2016

CARNAL KNOWLEDGE 1971

“The who, the how, the why…they dish the dirt, it never ends.”
Girl Talk   Neal Hefti/Bobby Troup  1965

“Don’t come any closer. Don’t come any nearer. My vision of you can’t get any clearer.”
Girls Talk    Elvis Costello  1979

In Mike Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge, college buddies Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel) engage in an awful lot of girl talk. Or, more to the point, a lot of awful talk about girls. 
Each weighs in on what qualities constitute the “ideal woman”; they speculate on their chances of “getting laid”; they rate women’s body parts in an effort to determine her desirability, aka worth; they rate and evaluate physical intimacies as though they are sports statistics, charting the speed of numbered bases reached (1st base, 2nd base, homerun) vs. the number of dates logged. They equate a woman’s susceptibility to their seduction ploys as evidence of her virtue: if she succumbs too easily she’s a slut, if she resists for too long, she’s a ballbuster; and they bemoan the fact that, no matter how perfect, a woman is never beautiful enough, submissive enough, or ANYTHING enough to sustain interest over an extended period of time. 
Jonathan & Sandy: Amherst College, Massachusetts - Late 1940s
The casual dehumanization serving as the sexist throughline in all of Jonathan and Sandy’s incessant girl talk is attributable, at least in part, to the callowness of youth (when introduced, both boys are virginal teens at Massachusetts’s Amherst College) and reflective of the repressed sexual mores of the American middle-class during the late-1940s (their creepy sexual banter is similar to the same kind of talk played for nostalgic/sentimental humor in Summer of '42, released the same year). However, as Carnal Knowledge follows the fault-finding Jonathan and ever-questioning Sandy through some 20 years of friendship, we come to see that neither the passage of time nor America’s evolving sexual landscape does much to alter the content, timbre, and tone of the conversations between these two perennial hard-y boys.
Older, But Not Wiser
Sandy & Jonathan: New York - Early 1960s
As each fumbles and stumbles their way through dating, marriage, “shacking up,” and parenthood—with love and tenderness making only fleeting appearances, and then, more often than not, couched in erotic desire—the overall impression we’re left with is of two men who’ve approached sexual exploration not as a journey of discovery, but as a quest to have firmly established ideas about women confirmed or disproved. Self-reflection and introspection play no part, for the male gaze is ever outward and always infallible.

Faced with the option of uncomplicated fantasy over unpredictable reality, men who grow old without benefit of growing up invariably opt for holding onto the wish for the unattainable, unsullied, idealized dreamgirl. Proving perhaps that one can acquire carnal knowledge without learning a single thing.
Jack Nicholson as Jonathan Fuerst
Ann-Margret as Bobbie Templeton
Arthur Garfunkel as Sandy
Candice Bergen as Susan
Carnal Knowledge screenwriter Jules Feiffer (Little Murders, Popeye) conceived of his dark comedy of sexual bad manners as a stage play, but director Mike Nichols told the famed cartoonist/author/playwright that he saw it instead as a film. As such, the movie has a stylistically theatrical feel to it, both in the dominance of language (the script is sharp as a razor) and the frequently used device of making it appear as though a character is breaking through the fourth wall and speaking directly to us. The cramped framing and preponderance of close-ups makes the world of Jonathan and Sandy seem strangely underpopulated, isolated, and self-centered (in the way dreams and memories often appear to us), while at the same time feeling confessional and all-too intimate.

Most distinctively, Carnal Knowledge retains a classic theatrical three-act structure that neatly divides the arrested-developmental stages of its two leads into chapters mirroring America’s shifting sexual mores. Each era designated by the significant woman in the life of Jonathan, the film’s chief chauvinist.
It's Complicated
Susan and Jonathan connect behind Sandy's back
Act I: Susan (Candice Bergen) The late 1940s  * "The Kinsey Report"  Alfred Kinsey 1948
Both Jonathan and Sandy fall hard for Susan, a neighboring student at Smith College who looks like the WASP dreamgirl: i.e., she superficially embodies the era-specific attributes deemed ideal for assuming the role of girlfriend, wife, and mother. But Susan is no passive male fantasy figure. She's postwar woman emergent. Straining against gender constraints and just as uncertain of how she is supposed to "be" in the uncharted territory of sex and relationships, Susan is intelligent, opinionated, ambitious, and conflicted. In short, an actual complex human being during an era when all that’s expected of her is ornamental perfection. Things between these three get messy in a hurry.
Carnal Knowledge explores how both men and women can feel
pressured into engaging in sexual activity 

Act II: Bobbie (Ann-Margret) Early 1960s * "The Feminine Mystique"  Betty Friedan 1963 
Jonathan is now an accountant of some sort, single, embittered by a string of unsatisfying relationships, and still searching for his “perfect woman” (the ideal whittled-down by this stage to an exacting checklist of physical specifications). Sandy, now a physician, is married to Susan and lives in a passionless suburban rut he takes great pains to justify to Jonathan. Susan, though unseen, sounds as though she has matured into precisely the kind of vaguely dissatisfied Smith-graduate-turned-suburban-housewife Betty Friedan surveyed as the basis for her groundbreaking feminist tome The Feminine Mystique
Although in the film 29-year-old Bobbie is an enticing older woman to 20-something Jonathan, in real life, Ann-Margret (who really WAS 29) was four years younger than co-star Jack Nicholson's 33. 

Into Jonathan’s life comes Bobbie, a TV commercial model who is the physical embodiment of the Playboy ideal and Jonathan’s fantasy-girl come to life. Unfortunately, since Playboy magazine fails to disclose just how one goes about living day-to-day with an individual one needs to objectify for the purpose of sexual arousal, things begin to head south for the pair rather rapidly; the pliant, none-too-bright bombshell who only wants to get married and have kids proving an easy and willing emotional punching bag for Jonathan’s aggression, scorn, and callousness.
"I wouldn't kick her out of bed!"
Jonathan's favorite expression of feminine endorsement is realized in its most literal, ironic terms with Bobbie, the  sexualized dreamgirl whose depression and willing subjugation results in her almost never getting out of bed 

That the blossoming and eventual disintegration of their relationship plays out almost exclusively within the confines of their bedroom (a playroom turned prison) underscores the realization that Jonathan's and Sandy's quest to align adolescent sexual fantasy with adult reality is a task far beyond either of their capabilities. Easily the most emotionally brutal and devastating section of the film, Act II of Carnal Knowledge lays bare the battle of the sexes in a way that spares no one. As the men approach middle age, wondering whether their teen ideals will ever be realized, it becomes obvious that neither knows any more about women than they did in their days at Amherst.
Divorced, indecisive and easily bored, Sandy finds temporary solace with Cindy (Cynthia O'Neal),
a woman whose self-assurance suits his sly passive-aggressiveness

Act III: Louise (Rita Moreno) Late '60s/'70s * "The Female Eunuch" Germaine Greer 1970 
The college buddies have grown older, but only chronologically. Sandy, sporting sideburns, shaggy moustache, and pot belly over his bell-bottomed jeans, has found a kind of restless peace in his midlife romance with a hippie young enough to be his daughter (Carol Kane). Jonathan, very successful, very alone, and something of a drinker (and looking uncannily like '80s-era Robert Evans), is reduced to regaling guests with a self-narrated slideshow titled “Ballbusters on Parade!” in which the sad spectacle of a lifetime of empty sexual conquests are trotted out and disparaged in escalatingly vulgar terms (sort of like the published autobiographies of Tony Curtis and Eddie Fisher).
As the film nears its conclusion, we’re left with a sense that Sandy’s endless searching (ever external, never within) might perhaps eventually lead to some level of fulfillment; after all, he at least concedes that there is a great deal about love he doesn’t know. But Jonathan, firm in the cynic’s resolve to mistake mislearned lessons for wisdom, thinks he has it all figured out. What he has gleaned from twenty-some years of acquired carnal knowledge is revealed in the memorized, methodically recited, misogynist monologue delivered by Louise, the prostitute the now-impotent Jonathan must regularly visit.
The Misogynist's Maxim
Able to achieve arousal under only the most compulsively controlled circumstances, Jonathan has Louise ritualistically recite a carefully prepared (pitiful) speech designed to reassure him of his male dominance. 

If, as Mike Nichols once remarked, Carnal Knowledge is about the fact that men just don’t like women very much, I’d say the only thing surprising about that statement would be anybody attempting to refute it. Certainly not in today's world where the crude, dehumanizing sentiments attributed to Jonathan (a character whose woman-hating harangues brand him shallow and contemptible) sound eerily like what America shrugged off during this recent shitstorm of an election as appropriate “locker-room talk” from “boys” well into their sixth decade running for the highest office in the land.
Has "Boys Will Be Boys" always meant "Boys Will Be Hollowed-Out Husks of Shame & Self-Loathing"?

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
My strongest memory of Carnal Knowledge when it first came out is how shrouded in secrecy it was. Beyond its provocative title and the prestige implied by the collaboration between highbrow satirist Jules Feiffer and Hollywood wunderkind Mike Nichols (his Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -The Graduate winning streak took a hit with the costly flop of Catch-22), little to nothing was known about the film’s content in advance of its release.

Nichols’ reputation for extracting unexpected performances from his actors made Carnal Knowledge’s unusual cast a prime focus of interest. For who but the man who deglamorized Elizabeth Taylor to an Academy Award win would have the nerve to assemble in one film: getting-along-in-years up-and-comer Jack Nicholson; high-pitched pop-singer Art Garfunkel; beautiful but glacially aloof “actress” Candice Bergen, and, most intriguing of all, maturing sex kitten and industry punchline Ann-Margret. 
After having a 1972 obscenity verdict overturned, Carnal Knowledge was re-released in 1974 with new poster artwork. In 2001 Mike Nichol's Closer recreated that ad's quadripartite portrait design

Carnal Knowledge was promoted with a minimalist ad campaign so calculatingly discreet—white text against a stark black background, the title in scarlet letters—it proved tantamount to wrapping the film in a plain brown wrapper. Imaginations ran wild as the public (essentially doing the studio’s work for them) envisioned a film of such sexual explicitness and candor, no advertising dare elaborate. 
I was 14 at the time and desperately wanted to see Carnal Knowledge. Imagining it to be just the kind of cerebral smut my parents would begrudgingly allow me to see (provided I name-dropped a few choice critique sources like Saturday Review or The New York Times), but no such luck. My parents had active imaginations, too, and I’m afraid I underestimated the combined effect Ann-Margret and the word “carnal” would have on their faith in my adolescent maturity. Forbidden from seeing the film, I had to content myself with borrowing a copy of Feiffer’s published screenplay from the local library. I didn't get around to actually seeing Carnal Knowledge until the 1980s.
Carnal Knowledge is not one long misandrist harangue about how terrible men can be. As J.W. Whitehead notes in the book "Mike Nichols and the Cinema of Transformation," the women are also prone to exploitation and are often subtly complicit in their objectification.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
My oft-expressed fondness for movies that give vent to brutal, blistering, peel-the-wallpaper emotional pyrotechnics, places Mike Nichols Carnal Knowledge high on a list of favorite films that include: They Shoot Horses,Don’t They?, The Day of the Locust, Reflections in a Golden Eye, Last Summer, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Maps to The Stars, Carnage, and, of course, the Nichols’ own Closer and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Arguing that the ability to lie to oneself is the greatest special effect known to man, and that nothing is more exciting or dramatically compelling as emotional conflict; these films are my action movies, my superhero flicks, my adventure sagas, and (non) CGI thrill rides.
I’m drawn to films of emotional violence because physical violence is mere kid’s stuff by comparison. Americans have always found it easier to face a gun than to face themselves. These movies, when as honest and insightful as Carnal Knowledge, are very humane in their perspective, insightful in their compassion. And like all good art, they have the potential to lend order an air of poetry to what in real life is often merely chaos and banal cruelty.
Never Trust Anyone Who Begins a Sentence with the Words "Believe Me"
In 1971, a line of dialogue branding Jonathan contemptible
and superficial. Today, likely a 3am tweet from a 70-year-old cretin.
What inspired my revisit to Carnal Knowledge is the degree to which the baby-man words and behavior of a prominent celebrity in our recent election (he is no political figure by any stretch of the imagination and his name will go unmentioned on these pages) exposed and solidified the unassailable reality that America’s misogyny (like its racism) is so systemic, deep-rooted, and essential to the perpetuation of the status quo; we as a culture actually reward men for never growing up. I agree with the assertion by Feiffer and Nichols that Carnal Knowledge is about the fact that men don't seem to like women very much; but to that I'd also add that, in the end, men clearly dislike themselves even more.
Rita Moreno as Louise
PERFORMANCES
I've met young film fans who, having grown up with the Ann-Margret of TommyThe Return of the Soldier, The Two Mrs.Grenvilles, and A Streetcar Named Desire, were more surprised by her sex-kitten past in Bye Bye Birdie and Kitten With a Whip than by her startling, career-rejuvenating turn in Carnal Knowledge.
She's is indeed outstanding and gives a very moving performance every bit deserving of her Golden Globe win and Oscar nomination; but looking at the film today, I'm more surprised that Jack Nicholson's performance escaped Academy notice. He's perhaps the oldest-looking college boy on record, but he is electric to watch and plays Jonathan with a naked complexity I can't believe many others could mine so effectively. In truth, everyone in Carnal Knowledge shines brightly, and the performances have only grown richer with the passing of time.
Carol Kane as Jennifer

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
In our heteronormative culture, we've devised names for men who hate women (misogynists), and women who hate men (misandrists); but I've yet to come across a suitable word for the parallel cultural phenomenon of  gay men who hate other gay men (the word homophobe doesn't cut it for me). I bring this up because, as a gay man, I only see Carnal Knowledge as being partially about the battle between the sexes.
Ken Russell's Tommy (1975) reunited Jack Nicholson and Ann-Margret   

When I can listen to Jonathan and Sandy talk in degrading terms about women and associate those exact same dehumanizing phrases to experiences I've had listening to gay men talk about other gay men in locker rooms, dance studios, bars, gyms, and supermarkets; I recognize toxic masculinity is not limited to straights. While definitely one of cinema's most acerbic visions of male-female sexual politics, the ragingly heterosexual Carnal Knowledge also has a lot to say to the gay male viewer about the ways our culture teaches ALL men (gay and straight, alike) that sex, masculinity, and "maleness" has to do with dominance, objectification, and a disdain for vulnerability.
But that's for another essay at another time.


BONUS MATERIAL
In 2001, Vanity Fair reunited the cast and director of Carnal Knowledge 
for this spectacular group portrait by photographer Annie Leibovitz 

In November of 1988 at the Pasadena Playhouse in California, Jules Feiffer revived his theatrical version of Carnal Knowledge

A few excerpts from a truly jaw-dropping "Ladies' self-help book" book published in 1945 (its attitudes chillingly reflective of Carnal Knowledge's first act) titled What Men Don't Like About Women by Thomas D. Horton. Clearly the Steve Harvey of his day.

YouTube: Mike Nichols talks about Carnal Knowledge: 2011 Film Society of Lincoln Center

"You want perfection."
Copyright © Ken Anderson

20 comments:

  1. You've written some very sharp lines in this one, Ken!
    Really, some top-notch observations.

    In terms of how men talk/devalue in terms of women, gays talk about fellow gay men, I'll go a step further: how women talk about other women. I wish I had a dollar for ever online comment or conversation I've observed from women, referring to Hillary Clinton as a "bitch." Now, I'm not a fan of Hillary (though I voted for her), mainly because I'm tired of life-long politicians. But really, how easily people refer to a woman that way...and even more mind-blowing how other women refer to their own sex that way.

    And though our future dick-tator is from that era, you are so right that their are toxic core beliefs regarding gender roles, race, and other forms of prejudice that are like a cancer that keeps recurring.

    I actually watched "Carnal Knowledge" last Valentine's Day with my sweetie. It is still such a grim movie, that it's exhausting. We looked at each other afterward, and burst out laughing: what were we thinking about watching this over wine and cuddles?!

    I admit I much prefer "Virginia Woolf" over "Carnal Knowledge" mainly because Woolf has much more humor and more of an arc to the story.

    Nichols had quite the cinematic eye for casting against type, didn't he? Mike took three of Hollywood's most over-the-top sexy icons--Elizabeth Taylor in "Woolf," Ann-Margret in "Carnal Knowledge," and Cher in "Silkwood," and helped them give great performances that didn't rely on their glamour.

    I always have to remind myself that Jack is renowned as a man who genuinely loves and likes women, because Nicholson is so damned good at playing misogynists! My only problem with him is that Jack is in his mid-thirties and looks a decade older, not younger! Shades of Bette Davis' Rosa Moline!

    Some great observations, Ken, look forward to re-reading this piece : )

    Rick

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    1. Hi Rick
      First off, I’m very pleased you enjoyed the piece and I thank you for the compliment. Second, I’m SO glad you brought up the whole “how women talk about women” thing because that was an important element of an early draft of this essay that didn’t make it to the final cut. All my life I’ve heard women speak of other women in terms they would hate a man to use, but internalized misogyny in women is rarely the focus of a film when it’s not serving to “promote” the phenomenon (say, like in Clare Booth Luce’s “The Women”).
      CARNAL KNOWLEDGE lightly touches on female/ female antagonism in the depiction of the non-relationship between the snobbish Cindy and Bobbie. Cindy ignores Bobbie and in one instance even refers to her as “That tub of lard.”
      Another reason why this movie is so much more than just a battle of the sexes commentary. It hits a lot of bases having to do with sex and gender in ways that are incredibly difficult to make funny, let alone poignant or thought-provoking.
      And yes, this is a TERRIBLE Valentine's Day movie (can you imagine all the couples in 1971 who blindly went to see this movie on a date? The after-movie conversations must have been doozies!)

      Really excellent point you make about Mike Nichols and his positive influence on the film careers of Taylor, Cher, and Ann-Margret. What an impressive feat!
      Thanks for the great comments, Rick!

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  2. Hi Ken,

    Wonderful critique and I don't really have much to add for this one. I watched it with interest but I can't honestly say I liked it much.

    It's a definite snapshot of a certain type of men and the women who are sometimes inexplicably drawn to them but it filled me with a distaste for all of them, except Bobbie-who I just wanted to shake and yell "You look like Ann-Margret what are you doing with this loser!"

    This is from the period when Nicholson was still doing deep work before he slipped into the lazy Just Jack persona sometime after The Crossing Guard. I've always preferred his earlier film performances, while not necessarily liking the the films. For instance I thought he was great in Five Easy Pieces but found the film nearly impenetrable. He's very close to that level here.

    I was too young when the film came out to remember what Ann-Margret's career state was before this, though I do have vague memories of the coverage of her disastrous almost career ending fall shortly after this and the TV special she did once she was partially recovered. I didn't see this for years after its release so to me she remained the redheaded she cat of Viva Las Vegas, Made in Paris, The Pleasure Seekers and the like that would run on the Late Show until a few years later when I went to see Tommy in the theatre and she became a more mature she cat!!! Ha! It was really Return of the Soldier that opened my eyes to how varied her talent was but I've loved her all along. Once I did see this I thought she was excellent but the character of Bobbie is such a Sad Sally she frustrated me more than entertained.

    I do remember being intrigued by that poster when I was younger. It was so simple with just the four faces and the title and I knew as soon as I saw the one for Closer they were trying to ape it. But the Carnal Knowledge one pulls you in with the split attention of the four, I think the Closer one is dull and off putting.

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    1. Hi Joel
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the film. My partner doesn't have a lot of patience with many of the "downer" films I enjoy so much, and I suspect he's intrigued by how the same person who can burst into tears at a sentimental episode of "Hazel" can stomach such unrelenting grimness in certain films; but the conversations we have over that very thing is what I'm reminded of when I read your comments.
      Because I DO have so much patience for this, it's illuminating to hear what the frustration points are for some, and to glean some level of understanding of how the characters and actors come across.
      I am in a similar camp with you regarding Jack Nicholson. I'm not sure when it happened, but I think "Chinatown" was my last favorite performance until he appeared in "Terms of Endearment". After that his roles and films are a look-alike blur.
      Like you, I first saw evidence of Ann-Margret's matured talent in "Tommy" and then saw her in "Carnal Knowledge" and later "The Return of the Soldier". Her excellent TV work I only came to of late. Her versatility is sometimes shocking. And She reminds me of a pod person at times. I can't believe the same woman who was so artificial on "The Pleasure Seekers" is the same one I saw in a heart-wrenching Emmy-nominated performance on one of those 100 I-can't-tell-them-apart CSI shows.
      As for your take on the character of Bobbie, I tend to find the real-life counterparts SO frustrating, ad I have the same reaction as you...you want to shake them. And ultimately they are such masochists sympathy just goes out the window. I never felt that with how Bobbie was portrayed or written, but I can easily see that response.
      I spoke to a writer friend recently about "likable" character in books and films. I once really thought I couldn't enjoy a film unless there was something likeable about someone in it. I've since come to realize I don't have to have likable so much as I am drawn to how much a character grapples with their flaws. It fascinates me.
      None of the characters in "Carnal Knowledge" are likeable per se (where pitiful comes in, I'm not sure), but it always amazes me how, when the film is over, I'm left with a KINDER of view of humanity than when I first sit down. These movies contribute to a honing of an empathy within myself. I think they allow me to address, look at, the flaws within myself and others in a way that reminds me that these characters are not "others" and beyond what I am or am capable of. Sometimes they remind me of what I struggle with or what I've triumphed over. So, as grim as a film like this can seem, to me it feels like a lesson in Humanity doesn't have to be "good" or "likeable" to be worthwhile...it merely has to have the desire to want to be better than it is right now. I like that.
      Thanks for stimulating more thought s on the film with your well-considered comments, Joel! Much appreciated.

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  3. The plight of heterosexual males, sexually dependent on females, but disdainful of them in every other way, and therefore consigned to a life of drinking from a well they think to be poisoned, never much interested queer little me. If they could allow themselves to be even a wee bit more introspective, they would all go to therapy. That would be great for all of us, on so many levels, but most of importantly, we would never have to collide with a film like CARNAL KNOWLEDGE. Oh, if they had all worked it out in therapy, they wouldn't have had to make this film.

    I saw this film when I was in college in the late 70's. By then, it's reputation for brilliance was well-established. But, gah! About 30 minutes into this movie, I wanted to poke my eyes out. I'm sure I stayed to the end because in those days I was such a serious Young Artist (TM) that I would not have left, but I was a fool. After reading Ken's essay, I looked at a few clips on YouTube and, yes, I'm sure that today I would run from the cinema by the end of the first reel. Each subsequent time I have encountered a scene from the film, it's the same: Life is too short to find time for the problems straight white men have with relationships, sexual and non-sexual. Brilliance is to be found everywhere from the artists involved, but it's not enough. My strong reaction to this film is clear evidence of the quality of the film making; focused, well-executed, with a clear point of view. But, MARY! I would rather appreciate this one from afar.

    What a great observation about Taylor, Ann-Margret and Cher. Mike Nichols also plucked Dorothy Loudon out of mid-career obscurity to star as Miss Hannigan in ANNIE. Everything that followed for her can be traced back to his selection of her. And he was right.

    As a life-long fan of Ann-Margret, I'm grateful for the opportunity the film gave her and the huge success she wrung from it. I wanted her to play Cassie when A CHORUS LINE was filmed. The only time the show made sense to me was when I saw Donna McKechnie play that role. When it's played by a woman brimming with star quality, it makes sense. She doesn't belong there. Going back to the line is probably a mistake, but one she has earned the right to make. When Cassie fits just fine in the line, there is no play. Ann-Margret may have had even too much star-quality for the role, but with her acting chops, maybe she would have worked it out. She created a great Blanche DuBois. Would she have gotten to play Blanche, if she had not established her acting bona fides with CARNAL KNOWLEDGE? Could she have so resolutely changed her image in a film that was not as desolate as this one? Probably not. I just don't want my life to have two hours more of emotional desolation.

    I have a short, personal anecdote to relate about Mike Nichols, but it's still early on the East Coast and I need a cup of coffee to help get it all sorted out.

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    1. Love the first paragraph as pertains to heterosexual males and their sometimes tedious grappling with their love/hate relationship with women. Very concise, apt, and, I think, hits to the core of the matter.
      Alas, as homosexual men raised in a white-patriarchal society have internalized these same very attitudes and flipped the script in a love/hate battle with themselves; I, as a gay man, am grateful for films like CARNAL KNOWLEDGE, for (judging by all the comments on my "Can't Stop The Music" post from gay men defending the sanctity of queer closetedness) introspection is not exactly the LGBT community's strong suit, either.

      Films deemed depressing or grim always challenge the subjective view. I've never been able to understand why anyone would subject themselves to a film by Michael Haneke. His movies seem to be such dark visions of humanity I feel like sticking my head in the oven when they are over.
      But when I watch CARNAL KNOWLEDGE, I'm charged up with ideas and insights I don't know that I'd have had without the experience. I've never been able to explain it fully, but the Mike Nichols films which form the "bad relationships" trilogy (Woolf, Closer, Carnal) are like having cultural cobwebs cleared away. They artistically illuminate and inform (for me, anyway) things that seem so insurmountably pointless and sad in real life. They confirm for me that without suffering, there can be no insight.

      However, there's no way I don't understand how you feel about the film, for, as stated, my partner largely feels the same. And your point of view comes from what you know about yourself and what you feel is worth the investment of your time, which is a decision we all have to make (a fact that always puzzles me about fans of the "Fast & Furious" franchise. I always think "who has TIME for that?!?).

      By the way, I ALWAYS forget Nichols directed ANNIE on Broadway! It still surprises me to write that out.

      Love the Ann-Margret consideration for "A Chorus Line." I remember when her name came up (along with John Travolta's, but for which role, I can't recall) when there was talk of a film version being made in the late 70s. I still like the idea of Ann-Margret as Cassie. As you say, her star quality makes sense.
      Now...like me, I'm sure everyone here is on tenterhooks awaiting the Mike Nichols anecdote!

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    2. It took a week, but here you go. Sorry for the wait.

      Back in the day, 20 years or so ago, I managed a suite of off-Broadway rehearsal/performance spaces; a rehearsal studio and two small studio theters. They were heavily used by the industry for readings, rehearsals, workshops and auditions. Mike Nichols was called in one week before the scheduled opening for an off-Broadway play called CAKE WALK, starring Linda Lavin as Lillian Hellman. They had done some auditions in one of my studios, so I had a relationship with the company.

      The company had already given up their rehearsal space and moved onto the set when Nichols was called in. He wanted major changes in the set. A weekend of preview performances were cancelled and I got called for space. The rehearsal studio was free for the weekend. They were grateful. I explained that there were performances in the small studio theater and that the Cake Walk company had to keep quiet and in the hall way during the performance. Of course, it would be explained to the company and was not a problem.

      The producers of that small show were two short, partnered to one another gay boys, each about 21 years of age, born and bred in Brooklyn. They looked it and sounded it and could step right into Saturday Night Fever, no questions asked. They had written their play, produced and directed it, and they were high on the theater. SO CUTE! So serious, too. But so buried in Brooklyn.

      Mike Nichols has a reputation for being prickly, but also lacerating with his comments. He was known for being really mean. I intercepted the two young producers when they arrived and took them aside to explain that the studio across the hall was now rented for the weekend. I explained how everyone understood that their show was NOT to be disturbed by anyone. I asked for their cooperation. Get your own actors on board. Linda Lavin. Mike Nichols. The show must go on! The whole nine yards.

      They nearly peed their pants. Mike Nichols??? OMG!

      I told them, sternly, do NOT disturb Mr. Nichols. Do NOT speak to Mr. Nichols. Nor Miss Lavin. Leave them all alone. Their show is in trouble. And at that moment Mike Nichols stepped into the lobby. The boys both went, "Ohhhh!!!!!" And bolted right to Mike Nichols. "Oh, Mr. Nichols, we're such fans of your work and we wrote the play that's opening tonight and it's such an honor to be in the space with you...." I thought I was going to be slaughtered.

      Nichols smiled, shook their hands, and said, "It's such an honor to share the space with new young playwrights. Tell me about your play." And they were off. He listened for five minutes, asked a few questions, then congratulated them, encouraged them, and wished them all the luck in the world. "The theater needs young people like you...." Then he excused himself and when they quit hyperventilating, they got on with opening their play.

      At the time, I thought I had cheated death. But really, it was a great moment for those two kids and Mike Nichols could NOT have been kinder or more generous to them.

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    3. Thanks so much for sharing that. What a terrific story! I like when reputedly difficult professionals have something in them that overrides their usual natures to know that it's very important to be kind to young people trying to come up in the business. It speaks well of him.
      That period in your life must have brought occasioned many a fascinating personality to cross your path. Thanks for relating it in such detail and so humorously.

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  4. Argyle here. I guess I was 13 when this came out. I remember it was kind of a sensation and I was fascinated but didn’t understand why. I remember looking up “carnal knowledge” in the dictionary and the part that leaped out at me must have been about unlawful carnal knowledge as a definition for rape. I was pretty shocked; it just sounded so raw and technical. That moment with the dictionary has always stayed with me.

    I may have seen (or possibly slept through) a midnight show in college in the late 70's. That was a bad habit; going to see something that I had been dying to see for years and then falling asleep in my seat after 30 minutes. I know that doesn’t sound like a serious student of film. I was always eager but often unprepared intellectually and experientially to stick with something difficult.

    I did finally watch “Carnal Knowledge” on DVD just a few years ago. I still don’t think I was ready for it. I’m sure I need to watch it again. I find that as I grow older I have less of a need to personally identify with a character (or characters) to appreciate a story. I’ve spent a long time looking for myself in films (and books) and usually not very successfully. There have been times when that was enough for me to lose interest in something, which is a big problem. Or I tended to identify with the women characters, which I was fine with, but occasionally you want something to reflect your life very literally, very closely.

    Needless to say, the men in “Carnal Knowledge” (at least on the surface) did not reflect the me I wanted to see. I still haven’t processed that and, like I said, probably need to see it again. Thinking about this, I remembered something from about the same time 1971 or so. My sisters (2 and 4 years older) were both Girl Scouts and I thought that was the greatest thing. I poured over the Girl Scout Handbook and read enviously through all the steps for getting various badges. I never made the leap over to Boy Scouts (it never occurred to me) and apparently it never really occurred to my parents. We had a neighbor family whose son was a Scout (ultimately an Eagle Scout and in a logical step years later went to the Naval Academy.) One afternoon I was invited (encouraged) to go to one of his Scout meetings at their Methodist church. It was horrible. I don’t remember being personally shunned, embarrassed, or bullied, thank God. (I’ve always had a facility with dropping into the background when I detect a threat, which is also sad.) But the “meeting” offended every standard of conduct I had to that point acquired. There was no adult present that I can recall, it was just dirty joke telling and disorganized whatever. Thinking about it now, I think I was kind of traumatized by it, by the gap between what I expected and what I experienced. Later, I took great self-righteous emotion (pleasure is the wrong word) in relating this disappointment to my parents. Now, I think I channeled every nascent notion of hypocrisy in organized religion, American culture, family life, you-name-it in that had been brewing in my early-teen consciousness. And I was on safe ground: how could my parents defend a meeting of dirty-story telling? It was not something we ever talked about again. I’m not sure if my report ever made it to the parents across the street. The mind boggles. That’s a long, strange story. I’ve always had an aversion to “guy stories.” It’s just not in my DNA - I go running in the opposite direction. So I’m not a natural audience for Sandy and Jonathan’s story. Is there one? As I said, I need to see this again. I’m sure I could get a lot out of it at this point and I am willing.

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    1. Hi Argyle
      By way of your Boy Scouts anecdote, you reveal, even without "Carnal Knowledge" being a film to your taste, a keen understanding of precisely what Feiffer & Nichols are going for. I'm not sure if you are even aware of having done so, but the level of surprised "offense" you took at being in a unsupervised male den - standing witness to how quickly it devolves into nothing more then puerile dirty jokes - a marvelous metaphor for the veneer of civility and sophistication our culture has developed to conceal these very same traits in men (all of us, not just hetersexuals).

      In reading your thoughtful comments (here and below) brought my mind to where I find my own levels of offense and why a film like "Carnal Knowledge" is so exactly my kind of movie.
      I'm always grossed out and offended by movies that glamorize or subtly endorse misogyny. Those 60s sex comedies where men and women lie and deceive each other in what appear to me as extremely cruel ways, yet we're supposed to find it charming and be happy when they have a "happy ending" and get married. Likewise, movies and TV shows like "Entourage" or "Two and a half Men" that feature men behaving badly and so-called lovable womanizers...they make my temples throb. They're dishonest and mean-spirited to me.
      But a film like "Carnal Knowledge" plays it straight and shows reprehensible behavior in a light that is comic, but not at all dishonest or endorsing. Its a film that feels both moral and valuable to me. That's where it's strength lies. A film about misogyny that is perhaps one of the least misogynist films ever made.

      people go to movies for all manner of reasons, so I'm glad there are enough light and heavy films to go around to please everyone's tastes. And indeed, if a film feels grim and unrelenting, no one need subject themselves to an unpleasant experience. You have to always respect your own tastes and attitudes.

      Me, I think i like to balance out my taste for films that are silly, camp, and downright offbeat, with moves that reflect to me some of life's uglier truths in ways that feel poetic and humane. I always feel "Carnal Knowledge" is a strong film, I don't know that I'd ever see it as grim. Not when the "hope" the film holds out for me is that someone - a couple of artists named Mike Nichols and Jules Feiffer - were able to look at something sad and ugly in our culture and take the artistic risk of asking us to look at it and dare see ourselves in the characters. I see parts of myself in Jonathan and Sandy to be sure, but I also grapple with and recognized the parts of me that are Bobbie and Susan.
      Thank you for often going through a biographical route to illuminate why a film does or doesn't work for you. I enjoy getting to know you better, and I find your insights very well considered, Argyle!

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  5. Argyle, again. Random thoughts. I have a feeling that Jules Feiffer is responsible for a lot of the grimness in CK. Whenever I have run across his cartoons, for me, there has been a deep skepticism that admittedly contrasts nicely with his sort of naive drawing style, but I’m not an expert. Mike Nichols must have kept his humor in check, maybe correctly? (There are so many moments in “The Graduate” that still absolutely crack me up after countless viewings.) Another thing to look for in a re-viewing of CK. Thinking about all of this suddenly I recalled the music. Looked it up. I guess it was Glenn Miller playing “Moonlight Serenade” which was used as a kind of ironic theme (throughout?) It’s so creamy and, at the time, that was a kind of music I sought out and was difficult to find.

    Very random thought, with apologies to Sandra Bernhard for inaccuracies, I cite, from memory, the Sue Mengers segment of “Without You I’m Nothing” from 1989:
    “Ann-Margret. Carnal Knowledge... Mike Nichols called me; he offered her nothing for Carnal Knowledge. I said, “Mike, do you want her to show up and give you the performance she gave in her last Elvis flick?”

    Thanks for bearing with me, Ken!

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    1. Just to add since you bring up the comedy of "The Graduate", for years I had heard Nichols talk of "carnal Knowledge" as being a black comedy, but in my youth, I took the film as drop dead serious drama.
      Now, in my dotage, the satirical, comic edge of the film has come into sharper focus.
      Aside from moments like Nicholson's hamfisted stab at intimacy with Candice Bergen ("Now tell me my goddam thoughts!"), I appreciate the humor in the self-delusions of both male characters. Perhaps in getting older, these kind of baby-men are less easy to take seriously and their obvious fear and weakness is clearer, but I find the humor here to be really sharp.

      Oh, and I love the Sue Mengers by way of Sandra Bernhard quote!
      Thank you, Argyle

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  6. Another fantastic article, Ken. This movie is is the first time I saw Carol Kane, she looked so otherworldly it blew me away. I'm glad she's back. And I loved the hand jobs stuff. I read an interview with Rita Moreno, she said this movie killed her career for years, and another where Joan Crawford is like "who gives a f**k about Jack Nicholson's limp d**k." She didn't care for the movie. The conversation here about gays hating gays, women hating women etc. is right on!

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    1. Hello!
      Thanks a heap! I love that you took note of Carol Kane and her otherworldly looks. Back in the 70s After Dark magazine kind of fell in love with her, and she almost appeared in every other issue in some photo spread highlighting her "Raphaelesque" looks (their favorite term for her).
      I could kiss you for that Joan Crawford quote! OMG! What classic Crawford directness! Even if it's not a direct quote, had I known about Crawford weighing in on this film at all, it would have been the header of this essay.

      The obvious humor in the hand job stuff you mention is one of those elements that makes me laugh now ("What do I do with my other hand?") that I barely took note of when I saw it the first time. I think I was just in shock at it being mentioned in a major movie.
      I hadn't heard about Rita Moreno having had career trouble from this movie, but I tell you this...I was a MAJOR fan of Moreno in "The Electric Company" children's TV program which premiered the same year "Carnal Knowledge" came oot. Had been allowed to see this movie back then, my head would have fallen off if I'd witnessed Miss "Hey, you guys!!" going down on Jack Nicholson.
      On an unrelated side-note, "The Electric Company" seems to have a pretty raunchy side to it for a kids show. I only recently discovered Skip Hinnant (who played Fargo North:Decoder on it) voiced the X-rated "Fritz the Cat"!
      I'm pleased you enjoyed the essay (yes, the whole gays hating gays, women hating women thing is a topic I'd love to write about further) and I thank you for giving me a HUGE laugh with quote a la Crawford, and the Moreno info!

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    2. Hi Ken, late reply here. Joan couldn't wait to talk about the movie, she was the one who brought it up. This flick was a BFD. Rita took a risk, as did AM, and it backfired. Small part, no makeup, harsh lighting. She got The Ritz five years later on the strength of her Tony.

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  7. Dear Ken: Hi! Can you bear a comment that's not about the movie you just wrote about (so eloquently), but rather about the comments in the comment section?

    One thread I see emerging out of the (fascinating) comments is what kind of movies appeal to us as viewers and why. You explained beautifully why movies like "Carnal Knowledge," "Closer," and others intrigue and move you. I've not seen "Carnal Knowledge" but have seen "Closer" and also "Bonjour Tristesse," the subject of your previous essay, and both of them left me cold. And now, prompted by the discussion here, I'm trying to figure out why.

    I think "Closer" for me felt like more of a theatrical exercise than a story with believable characters. And "Bonjour Tristesse" also did not come across as believable to me (the "plot" hatched by Seberg's character to break up the romance between Niven and Kerr seemed more like something Marcia and Jan Brady would come up with, rather than a plotline in a sophisticated melodrama).

    But more important, I guess I am in agreement with what some of the earlier commenters said, that I have to like at least in some fashion the characters in a movie to care about what happens to them. In "Closer" I did have some sympathy for the female characters and also Clive Owen to some extent. But what happened to Jude Law's character ended up not interesting me in the least.

    Perhaps for me it's partially a socio-economic class thing. I grew up in a family that was comfortable economically, but my dad and mom--being Depression babies--were also very sensible about money, recognizing that it must be used carefully because it can go away. And I definitely have absorbed that viewpoint. I find that I have an automatic bias against people from the "moneyed" classes. Our society seems to equate wealth with having innate interest and value as a person, hence the Kardashians, the various "real" Housewives, our President-Elect, etc. However, in my opinion, the persons just mentioned are some of the most dull and repulsive persons on our planet, and I resent that even though I don't watch them on TV or seek out information on them via the internet, I can't escape hearing about them and the banal details of their lives.

    Bringing this back to the movies: when a movie presents me with privileged characters who behave badly and then asks me to spend time contemplating them, I just can't. I would rather do anything else but! (And I agree with you that all kinds of privilege--gender, racial, etc.--are relevant here.)

    Recently, I re-watched the 1951 William Wyler version of "Carrie" with Olivier and Jones. My husband, who has seen the movie several times, told me that while he agrees it is an excellent movie, he never wants to see it again. He has gotten to the point where he cannot watch movies with upsetting or depressing subject matter (he even included Hitchcock's "Rebecca" in that category, although to me the movie is such a Gothic fairy tale that I can't take the story seriously). As I've discussed in past postings, I ordinarily don't like disturbing or depressing movies either, given the work I do for a living, but somehow some older films of that type just grab me and I watch them again and again. (Eugene O'Neill is my favorite playwright, so clearly I do make exceptions about depressing subject matter!).

    I'm starting to ramble, so I'm going to end this. But thanks once again, Ken, for your writing, and for creating a site where such fascinating discussions can flourish!

    P.S. I absolutely would love to have you write about the cruelty with which gay men can sometimes treat each other. I think a good film to serve as springboard for that essay would be "The Boys in the Band."

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    1. Hi David
      Thank you for going taking the time to explain the intricacies of what goes into a film you can/cannot relate to. Much of what you wrote goes a great deal to confirming my feelings that movies are such subjective experiences for us all, and that, since we are also social creatures who can simultaneously respond to a film in analytical ways, we often don't know exactly "Why" something doesn't appeal to us until we try to delineate our feelings and responses for ourselves.

      Like you, I think my personal circumstances and upbringing play a part in why a film like "Carnal Knowledge" gets to me. I'm somewhat shy of nature, and from childhood tended to be an observer. I'm not one to give myself over to outbursts of anger or aggression, so movies like this are my vicarious release and escape.
      Similarly, in my personal life I am (to a fault, I suspect) devoted to surrounding myself with only positive, good people. I am such a stickler for character, ethics and standards in my real life that I suspect I am drawn to people who grapple with the opposite in movies. In short, i have no patience in real life for a great many of the types of characters i find so compelling in film.

      So I find your keen ability to ferret out the sources of your tastes, preferences, and world view to be just the kind of introspection that contributes to making the films you DO choose to spend your time with more rewarding.
      I mean, my entire workday is comprised of dancing around and smiling and being this cheerleader type (though I'm known to bellow now and then), small wonder that when a day of ABBA, disco, and exhausting cheerfulness is over, I find solace in films devoted to the shadow side of the human experience.

      to a large degree you sound very much like my partner. he too has no patience with the moneyed classes, finds it much more courageous to be kind, and doesn't find cruelty particularly compelling, either in drama or real life. He also has to find something likeable in the characters he watches onscreen.
      That we sometimes feel very different about a movie we've just watched always lead to the kind of conversations you all engage in here in the comments section. There's a mutual respect for the differences of opinion with neither of us feeling one take is more "correct" than the other. What usually happens is that, in hearing the opposite view of a film, both of us come away with an awareness of perception we might not otherwise entertain.

      Your comments on "Closer" I liked a great deal, and of course anyone who lays into those waste-of-spaces known as Kardashians is a friend for life.
      Lastly, it's funny you should bring up "Carrie" (a film I own and love) because Theodore Dreiser is one of my favorite authors and I am reading one of his books now (Jenny Gerhardt). The world-view of his books (and the films made from them) are very much my taste and where some deep part of my sensitivities lie. I was reading a chapter with tears streaming down my face, and that's not unlike the reaction I've had to his film adaptations. And while i feel this way, I can thoroughly understand your husband's reaction to "Carrie".
      I think what you've done so beautifully in what you contributed here is illuminate the fact that part of learning to watch movies is understanding and accepting that HOW we react to films is only partially a reflection of what a film IS; I think on a more profound level, our responses to a movie significantly reflect WHO we are.
      As I often say (and should perhaps take myself up on), were I teaching a course in film, I'd give you an A for your insight.
      Thanks, David. And I agree- think "Boys in the Band" compared with 1971's "Some of My Best Friends Are" would make a fascinating kickoff on the social topic of gays who dislike gays.

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    2. Wow, Ken! Thanks for such a thoughtful reply!

      I too like Dreiser, although I haven't read one of his books for years. I read "Sister Carrie" in college and then plowed through "An American Tragedy" that summer. I've never read "Jennie Gerhardt," but back in the 1990s I saw the 1933 film version with Sylvia Sidney. (That movie is probably gathering dust in a vault at the moment--I haven't seen it shown anywhere since.) But to my surprise, last year the 1931 film version of "An American Tragedy" came out on DVD--it makes a most fascinating contrast with "A Place in the Sun." If you have the chance to see the 1931 "Tragedy," I'd love to hear your thoughts about it!

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  8. Thanks for picking another great one, Ken! I have to jump in and defend the character of Bobbie. Of course Ann-Margret's performance has stayed with me for years, because of how deep she drills down into Bobbie's emotional core. But I don't see Bobbie as a sad sack - rather, she is a woman who others project their lusts and prejudices upon, and how exhausting must that be for a person? To be viewed as just a body and a face, would you want to get out of bed? No, Bobbie isn't a Harvard graduate, but does that make her wants and desires for a family frivolous? And believe me, I'm not projecting onto myself, because I don't have kids and don't want them! But that doesn't negate her desire for that. In fact, Bobbie's EQ is much more developed than any of the other characters, and that may be her downfall - her hypersensitivity.

    Just my take! I just love this movie and need to watch it again - you're right, these kind of movies are some of our "Marvel Universe" films! And to your Betty Friedan nod - she spoke at one of my college convocations. Now that was one for the ages!

    Tanya

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    1. Hi Tanya
      Thank you very much, and I'm so glad you commented on the character of Bobbie. I agree with you. She's my favorite character int he film, and I don't see her as a "victim" type so much as a character Feiffer included precisely to illustrate and emphasize the dehumanizing effect of the kind of casual "victimless" misogyny and objectification our culture engages in.
      Had Feiffer/Nichols made a film that failed to show us the emotional fallout of men like Jonathan and Sandy, the film would be irresponsible.

      Her character puts a human face on the "sex object" and asks us to take a hard look at what happens when we treat human beings like things. I think you're right in gleaning that a character like Bobbie has always been the projection object of men's fantasies, resulting in a somewhat passive personality. That's indeed what woen were (are) encouraged to be.
      When we see such passivity displayed so nakedly and want to shun her character, turn away, or see her as a sad sack; I think it's reflective of something within ourselves that doesn't want to (or like to) look at vulnerability. We like to think there is power in beauty and power in sexual attraction, but many women know that its the power fo the powerless. When you attract a man because of your physical attributes, he isn't relating to YOU, he's relating to you body. And if you personality doesn't jibe with his fantasy, you're rejected.
      Jonathan wanted a 24/7 party girl, but, like you, I think Bobbie was more sensitive than that. And she paid for it. She wanted to be loved, liked and appreciated, but, like many women sexualized perhaps at early ages- the neediest ones are drawn to the men who have nothing to give.
      This is something sensitive and true in "Carnal Knowledge" that often frustrates me in discussions about the film. Her relationship with Jonathan is supposed to be brutal and unkind...otherwise what lesson or message could the film possibly have about how soul-killing sex without love can be?

      In the entire film, Bobbie is the kindest person, and it's dramatically significant that she is the most brutalized. It may not be pleasant, but to me it's an emotionally viable and authentic point of view taken by the film.

      If I taught a film class, I would always ask anyone uncomfortable with Bobbie's passivity, why their reaction would inspire frustration rather than empathy? My suspicion is that most people don't like "weakness"...but in our culture weakness is attributed to a"feminine" trait and all things feminine are reviled and thought of as not worthy. I would ask the student if that is indeed a root emotion of misogyny: the impatience and lack of tolerance for anything that is not strong.
      I would ask why our culture is more tolerant of "strong" abusers like Jonathan and less understanding of the phenomenon that when a person is taught from birth (as women still are) that they are "lesser" they often grow up believing it, and come to feel that they deserve the abuse they receive.
      Remember when Jonathan asks Bobbie in the middle of their big fight : "Why do you put up with this?" and she responds with words to the effect "You don't know what I'm used to. You're a blessing."
      This doesn't make Bobbie a victim, it makes her a woman who has been taught to see herself as men see her.

      So Tanya, I have to thank you for the opportunity allowing me to go talk further about a film I think is painful and difficult for all the right reasons. It's not grim merely to be grim- its a challenge to see, accept, understand aspects of our humanity many of us go to great lengths never to acknowledge.

      And very cool about the Betty Friedan connection! One of my proudest, very 70s memories is taking a class from Angela Davis one semester in college. Indeed, one for the ages!
      Wonderful insights, Tanya

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