"What organ in the human body can expand its size 100 times?" Dr. Alfred Kinsey (Liam Neeson) asks an embarrassed co-ed in his marriage class at Indiana University in the 1930s. She indignantly refuses to answer. "I’m talking about the iris of your eye," he says, then cuts to a slide of an erect penis entering a vagina that gives the lecture hall, and the movie audience, an eyeful.
The scene sums up the way Kinsey shocked the status quo by confronting people with blunt reality, beginning with these fledgling lectures and culminating with the blockbuster studies into male and female sexual behavior that he published in 1948 and 1953. It also shows how voyeurism, showmanship, and a taste for power might have shaped his crusading, scientific idealism. Finally, it demonstrates director Bill Condon’s talent for subverting generic conventions with subtle, often reflexive symbolism. Not only is that co-ed’s iris expanding at this sudden glimpse of the forbidden and denied but a lot of other eyes might be opened too, and maybe a few minds.
One of Condon’s first subtle touches is to combine an explanation of Kinsey’s basic research method with a cogent narrative device. Kinsey took the "sexual history" of thousands of subjects for his data, and his interviewing technique was passed on to his associates in an almost hermetic way by having them interrogate himself and his wife, "Mac" (Laura Linney). This pseudo-confessional provides the entry into his life, beginning with flashbacks to a childhood and youth oppressed by illness and by a father (John Lithgow as a delightful grotesque) determined to impose on him his own haughty, intolerant, fundamentalist image. Alfred, of course, rebels, turning from religion and his father’s plans for him to become an engineer and taking up instead biology and atheism. He becomes fascinated with gall wasps, a species notable for its almost snowflake-like variety. (Kinsey is remarkable for making scientific concepts clear and comprehensible without resorting to the gimmickry of A Beautiful Mind.) He collects hundreds of thousands of specimens and writes the definitive, if unread, book on the subject. Enlightened scientist though he is, however, he remains "sex-shy." He’s a virgin when he finally weds his wife, and their catastrophic ignorance leads to one of the film’s many "eureka!" moments: why not apply scientific method to the study of sex?
Sounds simplistic and obvious to us now (though try telling that to those who first read the 1948 male volume), and at times Kinsey does evoke an almost Ed Wood–like innocence (though not ineptitude) in its tone, style, and even techniques. Condon even uses the hoary device of a US map to illustrate Kinsey & company’s cross-country tours, superimposing an overlapping montage of the faces and voices of people revealing their innermost secrets; the effect is to uncover a seething, clearly American collective unconscious.
Nonetheless, there is a lot of lecturing going on, a necessity mitigated by the sublime Neeson, who can come off as both geek and lion in the same scene. And for a film about sex, Kinsey boasts some of the year’s least erotic scenes. They range from Kinsey mounting his agonized bride like a rutting grampus on their wedding night to a prize interview subject demonstrating how he can bring himself from flaccidity to ejaculation in 10 seconds flat. Hoo-ha! Somewhat joylessly in this movie, Kinsey practiced what he preached, and he insisted that his staff do likewise. Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard) takes him at his word, seducing him in a seedy hotel after a day of querying homosexuals in Chicago. Mac, though sad, proves tolerant, especially when Clyde sleeps with her, too.
Such hubris in Cold War America does not go unpunished. As Kinsey loses it in his latter days, though, so does the movie, settling into a comfortable complacency. True, as he finally determines (and as the film has made clear all along by through its depiction of the enduring, resilient bond between Kinsey and Mac, as stirring and tender a depiction of a 35-year marriage as you’ll see on the screen), love is a greater mystery than sex, if only because it can’t be measured. But showing gauzy second-unit footage of sequoia trees doesn’t clarify matters, and neither is a cut to a pair of innocent fawns any more edifying. Would that Condon had cut instead to the archival Kinsey Institute footage of coupling porcupines that follows the end credits. Their tentative, prickly, determined mating dance embodies the persistence of love in the human animal.
Issue Date: December 31, 2004 - January 6, 2005
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