Thursday, November 25, 2010

Film Critique Assignment - Kinsey

"Let's talk about sex"
(Slogan from the movie Kinsey)

The code for the early scientific biopic is that its hero should be “the Idol of Production, ... the man who made things great for society...[the] visionaries who made the world better.... This figure came back ... as part of the neoclassical biopic revival of the 2000s, but with a warts-and-all or Citizen Kane-like investigatory tinge.” (Bingham 6) A warts-and-all hero is what we have in the movie, Kinsey (2004), a neoclassical scientific biopic. The early classical biographical subjects represented reform that was beyond debate: Louis Pasteur’s development of a vaccine, and Florence Nightingale’s social compassion. In contrast, Alfred Kinsey’s (Liam Neesom) scientific investigation represents reform that was debated on every level. The reason for the debate is that the subject of his work was human sexuality and society’s right to know and explore it.

The film begins in media res, an interview in black and white format. What is odd is that when the interviewee (whom we later know is Kinsey) begins to talk about his childhood, the presentation of that sequence of film switches to colour. The question could be asked, why is the present being filmed in black and white and the past in colour? The answer to that question comes, when we see that the opening sequence of the film starts in the middle of one of the scenes of Kinsey’s adult life, and that opening sequence sends us backward in time to look at his childhood. We shall return again to colour when we move forward in his life.

The opening coloured sequence shows how, as a child, Kinsey learns to study nature sitting on a log under a tree, observing a squirrel, then sketching the squirrel, then studying his notes. Two more shots of the squirrel in different positions flash by the screen and then an extreme close-up of the boy’s eyes, observing.

This is also the shape of three more segments: Kinsey observing and collecting data in a book; Kinsey watching and then sketching a female bird feeding her young; Kinsey watching and sketching a woodpecker. What makes this sequence illuminating is that the voice-over is Kinsey telling his interviewer that he was a sickly child, but that when he could get out of bed he escaped to nature, “My place of worship. My cathedral.”

In the aseptic black and white interview of Kinsey as an adult, we learn he was a sickly child (pneumonia, diphtheria) so it is easy to take the image of the childhood bed as a sick bed. But the childhood sickness also alludes to family sexual myths – the zipper that is a tool of the devil, and the telephone that allows a boy to hear the voice of a girl as he lays on his pillow. And in the childhood segment we have heard child Kinsey talk about the sickness that comes over him at night, and ask his scout master, how he can prevent nocturnal emissions which he believes will eventually cause him loss of blood and death. The opening scene sets up two important ideas about our protagonist: a child steeped in data collection and focused on questions of sexuality.

Director Bill Condon gets right to the heart of this provocative subject in the first frame of the opening sequence of Kinsey. The screen is black, a metaphor for the darkness that surrounds the subject of sexuality when Kinsey began to study it. Early twentieth century America was trapped in a repressed Victorian sensibility and there was no way that the darkness was to be lifted, that is until Kinsey took out his pen and paper and began to gather scientific information for a scientific treatise on the subject. The seemingly dry treatise turned into a best seller. Public forces seemed to gathered to ignore the book. Even the New York Times did not review it. That is, until it hit its 6th printing and people could see it was going to be a run-away hot commodity. At the time of its printing, I was a nine year old Alberta born prairie girl and only vaguely aware of its existence.

I am going to examine the opening segment that backgrounds the titles for the movie being presented. “One Man’s History” is the title the DVD gives this segment. But the title could as easily have been Everyman’s History, because according to Kinsey, there is infinite variety in the sexual practises of human beings: looking at one male variation is like looking at all.
When we begin, the voice-over on the black screen is coaching the interviewer as to how to collect scientific data about sexuality. “Don’t sit so far away ... creat[ing] a distance should be avoided.” Immediately, the audience is learning that we are going to get close to the subject at hand, really taking a look at it.

The interviewer begins practising his interviewing techniques again, holding a clipboard to show a grid of 287 squares to his to client, Alfred Kinsey, and explaining that data is coded so that privacy will be maintained.

In the Special Features section of the DVD, Bill Condon, the director, explains that he uses the multiple squares of the graph-paper grid of the interview sheet for a visual motif in the movie. Squares will reappear in room dividers, lamps, drawers of specimen cabinets, and in headstones in a graveyard. The squares stand in for the multiple boxes into which Kinsey can capture information about human sexuality. Sexuality, represented in the first shot, as a black screen about which we know nothing, now becomes a grid into which data can be collected and studied – at least 287 squares per person. This square motif is useful until the collection of data gets to such an overwhelming magnitude that Kinsey begins to lose control of his whole project, the loss of which is shown in a governmental hearing, a circle on the floor, Kinsey standing in the middle, straight lines shooting out from him into infinity, and he collapsing into its vortex.

I want to talk specifically about the square motif in another way. Let us examine the segment called “Dirty Stuff”. The movie opens with practise interview sessions, new interviewers learning their technique by practising on Kinsey. But in “Dirty Stuff” Kinsey is the interviewer, interviewing one of his most complicated subjects: Mr Brown, a man who has had relationships with multiple members of his extended family and with many children. Nonjudgemental. That was one of the key criteria Kinsey demanded of people doing the interviewing. Kinsey wanted scientific collection of data, interviews not coloured by the skittish reaction of interviewers when they heard something out of the norm. However, Kinsey’s close associate walks out, when what he is hearing is too much for him. Kinsey as well, cannot be neutral, for when he is baited by Mr. Brown he reiterates his own position that sexual acts between people have to be by mutual consent – a criteria that cannot be set, if Kinsey is truly only gathering data. “I didn’t think you were so square,” replies the interviewee which criticism is valid in the context of collecting data to which no moral judgements have been attached. Here is a box in the 287 square motif that is problematic.

Hollywood biopics pit the biographical subject against rigid bureaucracies, greedy self-interests, warped value systems and unimaginatively opposed families. (Bingham 6) This is true in the case of this neoclassical biopic, and we get to see the warts-and-all approach added. One of the rigid bureaucracies Kinsey fights is the university administration who do not want to change their method of teaching sexuality: holding classes for married students, only. Kinsey breaks some of the rules, and hectors the administration as he advocates for more freedom of sexual information for students. Later in the film, the university administration is characterized as one of the greedy self-interests, Kinsey must fight. When they are asked to provide more research funding for Kinsey, (money that has been brought to the university through his research), they deny him the funds. Third, the warped value system against which Kinsey must fight is made visible when he publishes his second book, this time about women’s sexuality. The furor created contains society’s masked fear that if women know about their own sexuality, the whole family systems will collapse.

Fighting against an unimaginative family is the fourth obstacle he must overcome and that quarrel is a life-time one. It begins in Kinsey’s youth when he comes of age, and breaks away from his father’s influence to study what is interesting to him. But the warts-and-all side of Kinsey seen when his own son asks Kinsey to be more discreet in his conversation, since his own friends are no longer allowed to visit the Kinsey home. Kinsey cannot turn the tables and imaginatively think of a way to create a space for his own son’s happiness in this regard.

Unimaginative family relationships are a problem that cuts two ways. The interview of Kinsey’s father which finally occurs at the end of the old man’s life seems to fail to make connections when yet another conflict arises between them. But it is the father who softens, agreeing to tell all; and it is the son from whose eyes the veil must fall this time. “I’m so sorry,” is all Kinsey can say ... and perhaps all that can be said.

The Kinsey biopic uses an interviewing technique that is Citizen Kanesque in origin: knowing the subject by interviewing those who knew him, thus gathering multiple sets of data and points of view. This technique appears with a variation in Kinsey. For example, while multiple points of view were gathered about one person, in Citizen Kane, in Kinsey, we have the protagonist, himself, gathering multiple points of view, about American sexuality. While we see Kinsey training his interviewers at the beginning of the film, it is not until later that we observe him doing the interviewing. First there is a fascinating montage where hundreds of talking heads are gathered and placed on a map that criss-crosses the nation, roads seemingly connecting the interviewees, the montage representing the hundreds and thousands of “interviews” Kinsey and his team collected.

Kinsey’s data collection is problematic. His critics say, too many homosexuals, too many prostitutes, too many middle class whites, too many of his personal friends. And when I read the list of those who offered to be interviewed, I had my own questions. Why does the list only contain famous males coming forward, offering to be interviewed. Wasn’t Kinsey alerted somehow to the bias that was being exposed, just in that all-male list?
Neutrality is a tough call. In the Chicago sequence when Kinsey and Clyde Martin (Peter Sargaard) first begin interviewing gays, Condon has not investigated what was one of Kinsey’s forays into an area where data on sexuality had not been categorized before. The fact is, Kinsey became interested in collecting data on public sex, homosexual behaviour in the parks and bathrooms of Chicago. A good reason for drawing attention to this part of his investigation is that for the first time, the private becomes public, by virtue of the space where it is acted out. . I can only speculate about the film not making this visible. There are always hard choices to make, and some of them are about the film director’s guess as to what public reaction will be.

As far as creating a family image, Kinsey courted respectability. His public persona was that of a family man: a charming wife, three lovely children, a professorial appointment and funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. Everything was clean and clinical. Condon’s directorial expertise shows us there was another side to Kinsey who experimented sexually with his colleagues, encouraged his wife and staff to do experiment, and mutilated his own body in the name of investigation. It was his interest in images of sex, both in collecting sexual paraphernalia, and in filming sexual arousal that got him in trouble with the Customs Office and with his funding benefactors.
One of the characteristics of the neoclassical biopic is that the protagonist remakes himself. In this film, after Kinsey comes of age, he is constantly remaking himself. He studies biology and becomes a biology professor. Then he remakes himself into an expert, collecting and publishing information on human sexuality. He wages “a lifelong war against society’s prohibition against premarital sex”. (Grundman 8) He takes on the role of social advocate. Every decade or so, Kinsey remakes himself.

Would Kinsey think he had the mystical quality of destiny that God bestows on certain people that makes them famous. (Bingham 37) I think he would be horrified with such an unscientific assumption. He called himself a scientist, interested in the variations of the gall fly. That interest taught him that “if everything differs from everything else, diversity becomes life’s one irreducible fact. Only variations are real.” Kinsey was an anomaly, his own man, willing to scientifically look at American sexual practices and attitudes, a worthy topic for a twenty-first century neo-classical biopic. Sixty-one years after I first hear about Kinsey’s book, I am glad to have reviewed a movie about his life.


  1. I remember Kinsey from my university days, coming up to fifty years ago. The guy has been talked about for a long time

  2. On this same point, Kinsey's work was alluded to the block week course I took called "Natalie Wood and the Sexual Revolution of the 1960's".

    Then I saw Kinsey's name on the list of the 100 Best Film Biographies.

    Now, in today's readings about the film, _The Notorious Bettie Page_, I read the following in my text book: "Bettie is a pioneer in the corner of postwar consumerism having to do with sex; indeed, much of what the filmmakers learned about John Willie, the pornographer who shot many of Page's bondage photos at Irving and Paula Klaw's studio, came from his correspondence with Alfred Kinsey, on file at the Kinsey Institute, as did Irving Klaw's letters to the sex researcher."

    There he is again ... the ubiquitous Kinsey.