Monday, December 8, 2014

TODAY'S NUGGET: Carnal Knowledge (1971) - What I Learned from an All Dialogue Script

[Quick Summary: In three life phases, two friends talk about sex.]

This script is the funniest, most thought provoking script I've seen about sex.  (It's really not about the sex.)

Three Things Your Should Know:

1) The writer is Jules Feiffer, a prolific, renowned illustrator, novelist, playwright, screenwriter and all around sharp political observer.*

2) Feiffer stated in an interview where this film came from:
Your attitudes to sex and intimacy in Carnal Knowledge are similar to those that we see in your strip from the ’50s onwards. You seem to have a certain rage against the sexual revolution before it even got started.
Well, the point of the film, based on my life and my observation, was that -- and I still think is permanent -- is that heterosexual men didn’t like women. They liked sex. They liked pussy. But they didn’t like the conversation afterwards. They didn’t like the commitment. They didn’t like what women expected of them. They didn’t like the fetters. They wanted their freedom. While women wanted commitment. And by freedom they usually meant freedom to be miserable. I thought this had to be documented and nobody had ever done it. And that’s why the film struck such a chord, because as in the strips where I dealt with sex in the ’50s -- and also the politics too -- but particularly the sex, I was saying things that everyone knew but no one had ever recorded. Except for, about the same time as me, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, which is why we got along so well. What Nichols and May were doing in their sketches, in the clubs, and later television was essentially what I was trying to do in the comic strip.
3)  The script is 90% dialogue. Why does it work so well here?

a - Know what you want to say. From #2 above, Feiffer was focused on men's contradictory "freedom to be miserable".

Feiffer channeled that point of view into the dialogue.

b -  Keep conflict clear. I think Feiffer stuffs the dialogue with conflict so inherently clear that narrative is unnecessary. **

c - Subtext, NOT THE TEXT, does all the heavy lifting

ex. JONATHAN: You don't know every mood of mine like you know every mood of his. [He wants to be her #1 guy.]


JONATHAN: How come?

SUSAN: I don't know.

JONATHAN: You don't tell me thoughts I never knew I had. [He's free as a bird, so why is he jealous?]

SUSAN: Does he say I do that?

He nods.

SUSAN: Then I guess I must.

JONATHAN: You do it all right. So do it with me. [The bachelor is asking for more?!]

SUSAN: I can't.

JONATHAN: Why can't you?

SUSAN: I can't with you.

JONATHAN: This has gone far enough. [He's reached his limit.]

SUSAN: I can't stand any more ultimatums, Jonathan.

JOHNATHAN: This is my last one! Tonight you tell him about us or tomorrow I tell him! Look at me, Susan. [Does he want her because she's someone else's girl?]

She looks at him.

JONATHAN: Now, tell me my goddamn thoughts!

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: This script is all dialogue, but don't be fooled.

It only works because the foundation is solid (clear POV, clear conflict, clear subtext).

Carnal Knowledge (1971)
by Jules Feiffer
Adapted from his own play

*He was a Village Voice cartoonist for 40+ years, children's book illustrator, and writer of 35 plays, novels, and screenplays.

**I think Feiffer's illustration training lends itself to screenwriting, i.e., both use few words as possible to get a message across. 

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