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Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2005
Some sex, more sex, and some extra sex
By KAORI SHOJI
As biopics go, "Kinsey" is top-notch brilliant. While other films in this genre often fail because the director is too enamored with the chosen subject and inclined to go off the deep end in fantasy/mawkishness, "Kinsey" succeeds for the exact opposite reason. It's a clinical and singularly unromantic look at a clinical and unromantic guy: Dr. Alfred Kinsey, whose 1948 best seller "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male" paved the way for America's sexual revolution. In it, he discussed the sexual act from every conceivable angle based on data he gathered from volunteer interviewees from all over the US.
The questionnaire he put to people included questions like: "Do you engage in oral sex and if so, how many times a week?" and "Have you ever had sexual relations with an animal and if so, when?" Not much room there for romance. The media of that period compared the impact of his book on American society with the atom bomb and predicted (rightly) that American sexual mores would never be the same again.
"Kinsey's" precise and tight focus comes from the fact that Dr. Kinsey himself (played with an unwavering concentration by Liam Neeson, who often appears on the point of passing out with exhaustion) was a focused scientist who, to put it quite simply, gave his life to sex. His relentless obsession cost him his health, periodically jeopardized his marriage and in the end made him a target for ridicule.
For some scientists, it's dolphins. For Dr. Kinsey, known to friends and family as "Prok, (an abbreviated form of Prof. Kinsey)" it was human sexual behavior. The fever it seemed, never palled and this film shows how he studied it, analyzed it, experimented with it and discussed it over dinner with his wife and children, twenty-four seven. In one scene, one of his teenage daughters casually remarks over hotdogs that now she had turned 17, she wanted to have sex but was a little worried that the tearing of the hymen would be a bit painful. Her father reassures her with a professorial air that with the appropriate prepping it shouldn't be painful at all, but "why not wait until next year when the hymen will have matured?" She smiles and says brightly: "OK, dad!"
It's hard to say whether director Bill Condon ("Gods and Monsters") actually likes Dr. Kinsey, as "Kinsey" is curiously devoid of emotion, but it's clear he was fascinated by the doctor, much in the way of one scientist to another. Condon's lens pins Kinsey like a specimen under a microscope -- and in the process the doctor is stripped of any mystery, allure or ambiguity. There's a pretty graphic sequence of a teenage Kinsey masturbating furiously in a sleeping bag, and later when he marries one of his graduate students Clara McMillen (Laura Linney), the details of his, er, organ size is discussed with calm candor. And besides, the doctor wasn't the type for allusions and concealments: the minute he has an affair with his assistant Clyde Martin (Peter Saarsgard) he rushes home to tell Clara all about it, and caps it off by telling her how sex with Clyde will in no way damage their relationship, nor jeopardize the deep love he has for her. He encourages her to go ahead with "sexual experiments" of her own. (And she does, with Clyde.)
And don't think that there's anything shy about the rest of the film; we get to "see it all," as another of Kinsey's assistants puts it, from closeup photographs of the genitalia in act of intercourse, to scratchy home movies depicting orgies among Kinsey, his staff and their wives, to a masturbation session by a silver-haired, 78-year old woman. In the name of science Kinsey and his research team forged ahead to a turf where virtually none had dared to tread, and then sampled all the joys they found there. In the meantime, many Americans waited until marriage to have sex and when it came to it were often clueless about it. Oral activities were considered terrible sins that would send the offender hurtling into hell and homosexuality was deemed a disgusting disease on par with syphilis.
Kinsey coaxed his interview subjects to be open and unafraid, he convinced them that as far as sex was concerned nothing was profane since nothing was sacred. Of formal sex education during that period, he slashed it to ribbons with one neat line: "Morality disguised as fact."
Kinsey himself had suffered at the hands of that masquerading morality during a stifling childhood spent under his bigoted, bible-thumping father (John Lithgow). Having drummed it into him for years that humans were dirty sinners with the church their only salvation, it seems both miraculous and only natural, that Kinsey chose biology as his calling and would later tell Clara: "Human beings are just like gall wasps, only bigger and more complicated." Along with other pioneers who helped free human intelligence from the bounds of societal and religious codes, there's no doubt Dr. Kinsey deserved so much more glory than that which he received. Having said that, however, it's difficult not to feel sorry for Clara. Her husband was a great and enlightened scientist but hey, imagine being married to the guy.