A film review by Craig J. Koban

KINSEY jjj
½ 

2004, R, 118 mins.

Alfred Kinsey: Liam Neeson / Clara McMillen: Laura Linney / Wardell Pomeroy: Chris O'Donnell / Clyde Martin: Peter Sarsgaard / Paul Gebhard: Timothy Hutton / Alfred Seguine Kinsey: John Lithgow / Thurman Rice: Tim Curry / Herman Wells: Oliver Platt / Alan Gregg: Dylan Baker

Written and directed by Bill Condon

"We are researchers and reporters of the facts, not judges of the behaviour we describe."

   - Dr. Alfred Kinsey

 

Kinsey Double-sided posterMany people, to this very day, are extremely shy when it comes to discussing anything of a sexual nature.  Nevertheless, we are a sexually liberated society, and anyone doubting that accurate assertion definitely needs to see KINSEY, Bill Condon’s new biopic about the famous sex researcher Alfred Kinsey.  If you compare the sort of ignorance about sex that seemed to stem largely from the moral majority and religious zealotry in Kinsey’s time (nearly half a century ago), its truly amazing how far we have come when it comes to dealing with and discussing frank issues surrounding sex. 

Yes, in Alfred Kinsey’s time there where just some things that, darn it, where not spoken of at all (masturbation, oral sex, homosexual relations, and so forth).  Even more outlandish is the way contemporary “experts” of the time seemed to label certain sexual practices.  This was a time where masturbation was thought to be linked to diseases like diabetes or could even make you go blind,   that homosexuality was a cursed deviation from the norm, and that almost all couples had sex within marriage.  Kinsey lived in the dark ages of our understanding of sex, and Condon’s new film is absolutely fascinating and liberating, seeing that our very knowledge of sex was so archaic only a short while ago.  Of course, society is still priggish, but there’s no denying that Kinsey opened the door to understanding and destroying some of the absolutely ridiculous notions about human sexuality.   

Kinsey seems largely as a historical footnote to many lay people, but his impact on Western society seems larger than that.  His career started modestly, a scientist that hunted and collected over a million wasps and even published a book about them, which no one ever checked out of the library, by his own admission.  He labored in obscurity as an unassuming, yet demanding, professor at Indiana University for a better part of his early career studying insects, which is a far cry from the controversial next step his future studies would take him. 

His transition from highly acclaimed studier of insects to sex researcher could be said to be linked to his repressive childhood and, maybe, just by accident alone.  His father was a stern and obsessively moral man of the scripture and Kinsey’s later early education would reflect this.  However, Kinsey’s studies of tiny wasps led him to a then bold revelation: There are so many incalculable differences between the wasp and insect species -  could humans be any different?  Kinsey was bold enough at an ignorant time to see that humans have a specific degree of individuality that modern science (and society) simply would not believe.  Everyone else had tunnel vision to this basic and obvious observation about humanity and Kinsey is the one who opened people’s eyes and explored it.   

The true turning point for Kinsey’s research into sex, as the film very wisely focuses on, is during his very first time in bed with his new wife.  Kinsey (Liam Neeson, in a brave and daring performance) and his wife Clara (Laura Linney) are both shown as virgins before their marriage.  Well, on the first night in the sack things go, hyperbole aside, beyond disastrous and inhumanly awkward.  Both seem largely unsure of what to do and how to do it.  They subsequently go to see an expert (not many in this time) and eventually realize their problems, one of which is how physically gifted Kinsey is in one area.  It is during these times where Kinsey’s interest and fascination with the human animal began to talk hold, and he grew increasingly ambivalent with the way modern texts of the age, not to mention the hilariously backwards sex ed classes of his own University, discussed and studied sex.  C’mon, you know something is wrong when classes teach you that too much seminal discharge can kill you and that African Americans are more prone to sexual deviancy than whites.  Something, for crying out loud, had to give. 

He began to give informal sex advice on campus to many of his students, later getting the apt title of the “sex doctor”.  However, as one student correctly challenges him, how does one know, for example, that some sexual practices do not cause problems?  Surely, as the student points out, all science is based on observation and collecting data, so how could Kinsey made conclusions without any thorough and detailed studies in the matter? 

This was the spark for Kinsey’s next step, which started with teaching a frank and in-you-face class on human sexuality that was added to the school’s curriculum.  In the film’s best and most revealing scene, Kinsey is shown giving a lecture at his first class.  His style, manner, and points were frank and beyond discrete, and many of the things he said (and showed) shocked and offended many people.  However, some, like one student named Clyde (the always dependable Peter Sarsgaard), found Kinsey’s candor enlightening and liberating.  From here Kinsey decided to do something that, amazing up to that time, no scientist had decided to do - engage in a serious study of human sexual behaviour that sought out “hard evidence” and he did so by interviewing thousands of people.  To assist him with this he hires Clyde and two other students, Wardell  (Chris O'Donnell) and Paul (Timothy Hutton).   

The next few years of research, where Kinsey and company interviewed thousands, culminated in his 1948 book Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male, and if there was ever a more revealing and controversial volume published in the 20th Century than I’d like to know what it is.  The book opened up America, if not the world, to the ideas about what sex was and what it was not.  His findings shocked and fascinated America.  Everyone, his findings supported, masturbates.  Nearly a third of all men have had one homosexual experience, many couples have premarital and extramarital sex, and, yes, there is more than one sexual position that couple engage in.  Oh, he also found that out that masturbation did not cause blindness. 

Kinsey became an overnight celebrity and, for a period of a decade, one of the most famous men in the world.  Interestingly, as his book became a best seller and the public grew less and less priggish about sex, Kinsey himself opened himself up sexually.  While society became less sexually inhibited and restrained, so too did Kinsey.  He eventually had a homosexual affair with Clyde and in the spirit of honesty, admits this to his wife.  She has a problem with it at first, but later opens up and eventually engages in an affair with Clyde.  All of these affairs were open under one rule that Kinsey enforced - extramarital affairs where only about sex, and not love.  Others in Kinsey’s circle also engaged in wife swapping, which eventually led to some nasty problems. 

Kinsey’s book was greeted with a duplicitous reaction, to say it best.  Some heralded it as a revealing and frank exploration into human sexuality, whereas others labeled it as dirty smut (I guess it depends on whether or not the critic preferred Scripture over science, but I digress).  He was one of the most shocking men in the media, and his bold assertions about sexuality eventually buried him. He became the target of Congressional witch-hunters who were convinced his theories were somehow linked with the Communist conspiracy.  As a result of these inane charges, his financial backers eventually withdrew their funding which greatly impeded his further studies.  He did manage to publish his next book, Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female, which was horrendously received.  I guess that many people of the time did not want to read about how their sisters and mothers pleasure themselves and engage in same gender sexual relations.  His last book would ultimately ruin him. 

KINSEY is ultimately an incredibly engrossing look at this famous “sex doctor”, and one that is refreshingly frank with its subject matter.  Condon (who also made GODS AND MONSTERS) paints a portrait of man that is a scientist that was an expert in sexuality, to be sure, but not when it came to social interactions.  Kinsey, as played by Liam Neeson, in his truly best performance, is a man of blind and stubborn ambition who parachuted bravely into his research.  His complete objectivity with sex ultimately hurt many people, and the film does not shy away from this.  He objectified sex so much, often to the point of encouraging others to sleep with other spouses, that he had no idea that he was hurting people’s feelings, offending them, and making enemies where he did not know they existed. 

Neeson brilliantly covers this broad emotional range.  Kinsey is capable of being sensitive and kind with his subjects, but he is a man of strange ironies.  He branded society of sexual tunnel vision, yet he himself suffered from so much ignorance towards the feelings of others.  Many critics have complained that the film paints Kinsey as a flawless American hero and champion of sexual rights and practices.  Yes, Kinsey was an instrumental man who undermined the crude sexual politics of the day and opened up our eyes to the contradictions that governed these politics, but his methods were questionable and did not lead, obviously, to a harmonious office life.  Condon shows Kinsey as a man to be revered, respected, and kind of pitied and vilified simultaneously.  Most biopics lack that level of intrinsic objectivity with their subjects.  Kinsey was by no means a Saint and had a highly debatable moral vacuum, but there’s no denying that he was still an important and significant figure in the realm of American social history. 

Condon also does a brilliant job of capturing the times of Kinsey’s work, and he effortless marries all of the political, moral, and personal regression that plagued society at the time.  For a film that is just around the two-hour mark, Condon effectively covers a lot of narrative ground.  We see small segments from his childhood as well as a considerable amount of focus on his father, played very effectively by John Lithgow.  These moments with his father are crucial in developing the mindset of Kinsey, and his own repressed and angry feelings about his father’s teachings seem to manifest later in his hunger for his work.  We also see his marriage to his wife, their problems and issues, and even get glimpses of his relationship with Clyde and his developing bisexuality. 

Condon’s film is also guileless and graphic with its discussion of sex, and it prudently received the R rating.  This, in itself, is a move of enormous restraint and tact by the MPAA, considering what is shown in the film (there is one non-sexual moment of full frontal male nudity, as well as a few pictures of vaginas, erect penises, and one close picture of penetration).  However, these images are not really pornographic and  they are sort of non-exploitative, the types of images you would most likely see in a University classroom that is discussing human sexuality.  These pictures are not really eroticized works and they do serve a purpose.  When we seem them, at first, we are a bit surprised, but begin to imagine what the reaction to an incredibly less sexually educated class in the 1940’s would be?  KINSEY is an adult  film, but it’s more focused on discussion what people do and is not too worried about showing what they do. 

For as mush as I admired Kinsey, its not short of its negligible qualities.  I felt that many of the subplots involving Kinsey’s colleagues were not given very much dramatic focus.  Kinsey’s affair with Clyde is fixated on, but Clyde, as a character seems, after their affair, to be either avoided or ignored.  I also found Chris O’Donnell a bit miscast, and he does not effectively carry the aura of a sexually promiscuous sex researcher as convincingly as  Timothy Hutton does (I kept seeing Colin Ferrell in the part, go figure!).   Perhaps Condon was trying to do too much with his limited running time.  A film like this could have easily been around the three hour plus mark, and I found that Kinsey’s post HUMAN FEMALE work is hastily covered, not to mention that the Communist Congressional hearings are barely studied or dealt with in any serious light.  The resolution of the film was also disappointing, which made me yearning for more.  The film could have had better closure with its important subject matter than it did. 

Yet, KINSEY remains one of the better biopics of the year, an incessantly revealing and captivating look at a multi-faceted scientist that provides stark clarity and truthfulness of its time.  The real strength of KINSEY is the way it honestly and seriously explores and studies the noted scientist and does not overly glamorize him as a flawless pioneer.  KINSEY is a smart, entertaining, and provocative film that achieves the impossible in terms of making us both admire the man as well as questioning his nerve and ideals. 

There has been significant controversy about Kinsey and his studies which have endured to this day, and some have commented that all he did was find behaviour that was already occurring (how do you “discover” something that already exists) and that his methods of collecting data were suspect.  Yet, under most scrutiny, his findings still stand up well, and he is a crucial figure for opening our eyes during a period where it looked like they would forever be forged shut.  His work was important because it led to the decriminalization of homosexuality and revealed to the public that sex, in all its various forms, is something that is normal, and Kinsey bravely redefined the norm.  It’s startling how far we have come in such a short time in our openness about this tricky subject matter, and KINSEY, despite its few rough patches, embraces the its story with a thoughtful and watchful eye. 

 

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