Thursday, December 9, 2010

KINSEY (2004): Let’s Talk About Sex

Alfred Kinsey (played as an adult by Liam Neeson) released two books during the late 1940s called Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, which contained the findings of case studies for over 18,000 men and women in the United States.  These books probably did revolutionize the ways that Americans thought about sex and many of his findings were scandalous.  The events of Kinsey involve his life from late childhood until just before the researcher’s death.
Kinsey was raised by a fanatically prudish father who tried to instill the fear of God in all of his children.  Kinsey was an introverted child who wandered the woods alone during the daytime and spent his nighttimes masturbating in bed.  He eventually rebelled against his father by pursuing his studies in the field of biology during college.  Socially awkward as a young man, he prided himself in becoming a world-renowned expert on gall wasps and because of this became professor of zoology at an Indiana university.  His first sexual experience (besides with himself) was with his wife (Laura Linney) on their wedding night, and this turned out all wrong.  The two went to a doctor and discovered that the problem involved Kinsey’s penis being too large.  Because of the doctor’s assistance, the two were then able to resume having a normal sexual relationship and have three children.
Kinsey began tutoring his students about sexuality and persuaded the university to allow him to teach a class on the subject.  He then began his famous studies and hired on a number of students to assist him.  He was determined to view human sexuality in pure clinical terms without being influenced by social morality or convention.  He had at least one homosexual encounter with one of his assistants, and this same assistant had at least one sexual encounter with Kinsey’s wife.  At first, backed by the Rockefeller Foundation, Kinsey had no problem funding his studies.  However, eventually with the onset of the McCarthy hearings much of his funding was cut off.  He was also being sued by the federal government for a customs violation as the result of sexually explicit photographs from his study being shipped across state lines.  Despite health problems, occasional marital difficulties and social ostracization, Kinsey persevered and eventually was able to release his two books.  In the end, he was a happy man both in his marriage and in the knowledge that he had helped a few people along the way.
The movie certainly does not romanticize Kinsey.  Kinsey often comes across as a humorless and pedantic bore.  It probably would surprise no one that he had some hang-ups, but this probably motivated him to pursue human sexuality as a study.  Despite his repeated message that the only constant in human behavior is variation, he could come across as being quite dogmatic with everyone that was close to him.  In this, he was much more like his father than he would ever have cared to admit.  But though the movie does try to touch upon items that might be unsavory in his character, it just as often glosses over these very same things.  A few examples of this include:
  • Though raised in a religious environment, we learn nothing about his religious beliefs in later life.
  • Though he has at least one homosexual encounter with his assistant (with the one obligatory kiss on the mouth that now has to be shown in all movies of this kind), we never learn if this happens to be only one isolated incident.
  • Though his wife had at least one sexual encounter with Kinsey’s assistant, we never learn if this happens to be only one isolated incident.
  • Though his wife once finds Kinsey in the bathroom alone with blood on the floor and though Kinsey admits that he has just mutilated himself, we never learn if this happens to be just one isolated incident.
  • After once collapsing in the hospital and admitting to being addicted to barbiturates, we never learn if he ever is able to get himself off of the drug.  (We often see Kinsey throughout the movie taking a hand full of pills and putting them in his mouth, but it would seem odd taking barbiturates in the middle of the day.)
  • Though his name comes up during the McCarthy hearings resulting in a loss of funding for his studies, it never seems like he personally suffers because of a lack of money.
  • While trying to raise funds for his studies, he responds to a question by stating he is not familiar with the arts (though he is a gifted piano player).  He seems to have an aversion to anything not strictly related to science and we never learn why.
  • When learning that funding from the Rockefeller Foundation was about to be cut-off, Kinsey makes the startling confession that his methodology was flawed but was in the process of being corrected.  If we were to give Kinsey’s findings any credence, we certainly would need more than just this admission to find out what the problem really was.   (I’m guessing that the problem with the methodology of Kinsey’s studies was that he relied totally on the findings of questionnaires that were orally given to volunteer participants.  Volunteer participants in a study concerning human sexuality are going to have different attitudes concerning sexual convention than are those who are uncomfortable in sharing their sexual histories with someone else, or with those who decline to participate because they are indifferent to the results.)
What strikes me as plausible but still odd is that Kinsey could be so completely inept in his social relations and yet be such an accomplished author and lecturer.  Even before he began his studies on sexuality, his students liked listening to his lectures on gall wasps.  In isolated social settings, he had problems communicating with just about everyone – even though he could talk to these people in a clinical setting while interviewing them.  He could never talk to his father, which is no surprise (though we do learn the reason later on why his father was such a prude).  The first time he kisses his wife he just about falls over on her.  He annoys his son by always talking about sexuality at the dinner table.  And he can’t understand why his wife might be upset with him when he confides to her that he’s had a homosexual encounter.
Kinsey’s insistence (at least in the movie) that he only views sexuality in scientific terms is of course bogus.  Perhaps he doesn’t want to give credit to the arts for helping in opening up people’s attitudes towards human sexuality.  After all, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Marcel Proust, Andre Gide and Henry Miller were writing about all sorts of sexual practices long before Kinsey’s studies were ever conducted.  Kinsey also seemed unwilling to admit that religious practices and social conventions may sometimes play a positive role in the influencing of our attitudes.  But in trying to break the bonds of sexual inhibitions by arguing that human sexuality is purely a biological act without psychological or spiritual repercussions, Kinsey actually comes across on screen as an extremely inhibited individual.  Whether this was the ultimate message Director Bill Condon was trying to bring across is doubtful.  Unfortunately, Liam Neeson as an actor comes across as clumsy as the character in which he portrays.  (Laura Linney does a much better job of acting, though we never get to see the same depth in her character.)
To call this a “provocative drama” as many critics have is somewhat correct.  I imagine that every viewer would experience discomfort in watching it because it does still deal with a subject matter that is taboo.  That we have made so little progress in fifty years is not the fault of Kinsey because Kinsey obviously was a man of courage.  However, neither his studies nor, especially, this movie are the final say on the subject of human sexuality in America.  Much that was said before Kinsey was suppressed or forgotten.  Much that was said since his time was artlessly spoken or was swallowed up by the indignant response.
January 3, 2007 
©   Robert S. Miller 2007

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