Movie Recommendations #6: Carnal Knowledge


Tonight at 1:30 AM Eastern on the network Turner Classic Movies, a movie is airing called “Carnal Knowledge.” It stars Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel (yes, that Art Garfunkel). The movie is about two male friends and their friendship with each other and sex lives with the opposite sex from college to middle age. It’s a character-driven story rather than a plot-driven one, so while there’s a coherent, linear narrative, there’s no real single overarching storyline.

There are two major themes running through the movie that I think would resonate with most longtime readers of the blog. One is toxic relationships between emotional vampires and codependents, and how each have elements of the other, and how even in a single relationship people can sometimes switch roles, taking turns oscillating between being the vampire and being the victim. An example is the clip below

The second theme is one I used to write about more earlier in the life of this blog, when I was more heavily influenced by evolutionary psychology: the alpha male versus beta male dynamic, or in evolutionary psychology terms, the cads and dads theory.

Since the former has been discussed quite heavily on this blog recently, I’d like to give a refresher on the cads and dads theory. This theory states that women are more attracted to rough and rugged “cads,” or colloquially speaking “alpha males,” on a primal sexual level, but find milder and more responsible “dads,” or colloquially speaking “beta males,” to be a more responsible long-term choice because they are better providers, less likely to leave, and less likely to impregnate other women, which would lead to the diversion of resources outside of the home. (Please, don’t get into whether alpha males or beta males are a realistic construct when applied to humans, or whether or not all men can or should be squarely be divided into either category. I’m not proposing any of that; I’m just simplifying the theory as much as possible for clarity and brevity’s sake.)

This article goes into it more:

Numerous studies have found that women’s mate preferences shift according to their menstrual cycle. During peak levels of fertility, they prefer more masculine and socially dominant men. In the literature these men are known as “cads.” Indeed, they tend to be sexy, with their narrow eyes and strong jaws — but they also tend to be flashy and exploitative of others. Even worse, these masculine men often embody the Dark Triad, a personality constellation that encompasses Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and narcissism. Typically, these men offer only short-term prospects.

By contrast, during less fertile phases women are drawn to more feminine and compassionate men. These men are referred to as “dads.” They tend to be more reliable, warm, and faithful than their caddish counterparts. They also offer greater prospects for a long-term relationship.

Many modern men who discover evolutionary psychology become obsessed with this theory, because one of the premises it posits is that women, especially in the days before science allowed for paternity tests, have a strong desire to get pregnant by cads because they often provide better genes, and then to marry cads, because they are more loyal and more freely giving with their resources. That way they get the best of both worlds, hot sex and good genes for their offspring from the cad, and resources, companionship, and a stable father figure for their kids from the dad. Some proponents of this theory even posit that the cads and dads theory is responsible for much paternity fraud throughout history. The watered-down, everday version of this theory is the “nice guys” and “bad boys” theory, which I assume everyone with a pulse already understands.

In this movie, Nicholson plays the type of character one would typically view as a cad, while Garfunkel plays the type of character one would typically view as a dad. We get to see how these roles affect their interactions with women over the decades.

The movie was written by the brilliant Jules Feiffer, a great thinker, cartoonist, and essayist. You may know some  of Feiffer’s work in an extremely indirect way. The highly regarded observation about Superman and Clark Kent from Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill, Vol. 2” is pretty much directly lifted from Jules Feiffer’s out-of-print book of essays about comic books, The Great Comic Book Heroes, a book you may be able to still find at public libraries (I managed to read a copy at the NY Public Library myself. Highly recommended). If you found that speech to be thought-provoking and insightful, you should definitely watch the movie, as he makes many poignant insights into the nature of relationships throughout, and there’s a final speech from Rita Moreno to Jack Nicholson that is absolutely riveting.

The scene in question: