Went to see Kinsey (IMDB), the biopic about Indiana University biology professor Alfred Kinsey, last night. Kinsey was a pioneer researcher in human sexual behavior, traveling across the country and interviewing thousands of people about their sexual practices. Not surprisingly, Kinsey’s research led to tremendous controversy, with the film emphasizing that the biologist eventually lost his funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. I’d been looking forward to this film for some time, in part because of my relatively recent interest in Kinsey, whose files are still housed in the Indiana University library where I sometimes did research, but also because I really liked Bill Condon’s previous film, Gods and Monsters, which offered an unusal take on the biopic in its treatment of filmmaker James Whale.
But for some reason, Kinsey disappointed me. As David Edelstein (who liked Kinsey a lot more than I did) points out, biography films are often very difficult to do well, especially when trying to impose a three-act structure onto a human life. Edelstein does identify the film’s (and the researcher’s) important contribution to discussions of sexuality, in which Kinsey challenged the practice of promoting “morality disguised as fact.” While Kinsey’s research initially challenged the sex education courses and books of the 1930s and ’40s (including the puritanical myths that oral sex could cause sterility), Condon reminds us of the relevance of Kinsey’s phrase for the contemporary cultural moment, as J. Hoberman points out in his review of the film (Hoberman’s review has the added bonus of quoting French philosopher George Bataille).
Perhaps the reason I found Kinsey unsatisfying was the clinical distance with which it treated the subject matter of human sexuality. I realize that this distance is meant to reproduce Kinsey’s own scientific detachment, the extent to whcih he sought to remove all emotional attachments from sexual behavior (the film emphasizes and implictly criticizes the fact that he encouraged his assistants to participate in spouse-swapping). I also felt that the film abandoned Kinsey’s relationship with his children just when it became interesting. An outdoor dinner sequence in which Kinsey talks frankly with his children about their sex lives, embarrassing his son, suggests that his scientific frankness might have caused problems in his family, but we never really see his children on-screen again. Nor do we get a clear sense of Kinsey’s personality. There are some flashbacks to his childhood, in which his father was a Methodist minister who preaches ahgainst all manner of sexual activity, including brothels, and even (gasp!) zippers, but as Stephanie Zacharek of Salon notes, this Kinsey seems “more palatable and less interesting than the real thing.”
I was also a little disappointed in the presentation of the interview sequences. Rather than offering some interesting interviews with some of Kinsey’s subjects, Condon opts for a travel montage approach, showing a chorus of interviews against a map of the United States with lines criss-crossing the country suggesting Kinsey and his assistants’ extensive travels. The shot recalls classical Hollywood representations of train travel, but the chorus of voices ultimately made these experiences appear to be all the same, turning Kinsey’s highly specific research into a series of generalities and abstractions. In fact, this chorus, to my mind, works against the notion that “everyone is different” that Kinsey sought to convey through his research. I’d certainly still recommend Kinsey, but I can’t shake the perception that a far more interesting film could have been made, especially given the wealth of archival material Kinsey left behind.
By the way: Like David Edelstein, I also quite liked the casting of Tim Curry (of Rocky Horror fame) as a rival biologist who seeks to promote abstinence and traditional sexual morality. Also note that the film’s official website also has a link to the Kinsey Institute website.