KINSEY - DVD review

It's a good film on a provocative subject, handled with a blunt delicacy.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

It's ironic and not a little sad that over half a century after sex researcher Alfred Kinsey published the first of his sex studies in the United States, the ultraconservative forces that resisted the knowledge at the time are equally resisting his work today. I mean, all that we've been through, all that business of learning and growing and maturing as a people--from the Vietnam War to the Watergate scandal to the sexual revolution--and in many ways we've not moved an inch, still bogged down in foreign wars, political scandals, and sexual repression.

I don't suppose I should be too surprised, though. The world may change drastically through the ages, but human nature remains the same. The twentieth century, for example, saw the greatest advancements in science, education, and technology the world has ever known, yet it also produced the most devastating wars ever waged, with more people dying bloody deaths than ever before.

Kinsey's accomplishment was to publish what his advocates claim were the first accurate, measurable surveys of human sexual habits ever, "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male" (1948) and "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female" (1953). The studies, better known as "The Kinsey Reports," resulted in new sexual knowledge about what people actually believed and practiced, knowledge feared by Kinsey's critics. The critics claimed at the time and continue to assert that the studies were skewed, that Kinsey interviewed only those people most likely to want to talk about sex and, thus, those people most likely to have sexual views different from most other people. Worse, they warned that such knowledge, true or not, would be dangerous and lead people to the conclusion that any sexual activities people engaged in were perfectly acceptable for anybody else as well. Today, critics of Kinsey blame him for everything from the AIDS epidemic to gay marriage to the high divorce rate to the decline of Western civilization. These critics believe that people were happier living in blissful ignorance. And, interestingly, many of Kinsey's critics at the time had never read his studies, just as today many of the 2004 "Kinsey" movie's critics condemned it before they had even seen it.

The movie stars Liam Neeson, and, although it's sometimes difficult because of his previous roles to accept the man in anything but a big heroic part, he's a fine, sensitive actor and bears a slight physical resemblance to Alfred Kinsey. Credit Neeson for bringing to life as a full-blown and highly involving drama what might have otherwise seemed like a History Channel documentary. I had fully expected Neeson to be nominated for an Academy Award, but it was not to be. However, he was nominated for a Golden Globe and a Golden Satellite award, and his costar, Laura Linney as his wife in the movie, was Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actress, so there was some justice involved.

The movie recounts Kinsey's life from his mid teens to just before his death in 1956. If anything, and it's a minor point, the film probably tries to cover too much ground in too short a space (it's less than two hours long), leaving us with a series of often distinguished but all-too-brief vignettes.

Born in 1894, Kinsey always had a weak heart, leading to his relatively early death. According to the film, he was raised by a stern, demanding, and sexually repressed father, brilliantly played by John Lithgow. The father was a minister and a teacher, who blamed all of the inventions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries for leading straight to promiscuous sex and corrupting society--things from automobiles to zippers. Zippers? They made it easier and quicker for people to remove their clothes, and everybody knows what people do when they remove their clothes. The father belittles his son for not amounting to anything and belittles his wife for not having an education. Yet it is the scenes between Kinsey and his father, especially later in their lives, that are among the most riveting in the picture, and among the most moving.

After receiving a doctorate in science in 1920, Kinsey became an Associate Professor of Zoology at Indiana University, where much of the story takes place. There, his study of the gall wasp became a fascination for him, and his detailed examination of hundreds of thousands of the little creatures eventually led him to apply the same research techniques to his examination of sex. "Diversity," he discovered, "becomes life's one irreducible fact." Not only did he come to see that every gall wasp in the world was different from every other gall wasp, but that every person in the world was different, too. Armed with this conviction, and with his increasing frustrations in trying to teach a sex education class without the benefit of any textbook of factual sexual information, Kinsey determined to undertake a sex study himself, first using questionaries among his own students and later conducting thousands of personal interviews with people from every corner of the country.

Kinsey was a man who believed in statistics; such information was the only thing he could believe in. He is portrayed in the movie as an eminently practical, methodical, organized, and efficient man in everything he undertook to do. Somehow, he attracted one of his female students along the way, Clara McMillan (Laura Linney), who saw that weak heart or not, he did have a heart, and she won it. It's a sweet romance. In fact, it is through Clara, or "Mac" as he calls her (just as he was affectionately dubbed "Prok" by his students, short for "Prof K"), that Kinsey was inspired to do his sexual research in the first place. Neither he nor his wife had engaged in premarital sex, and their honeymoon night was less than fulfilling, leading him in his very pragmatic way to find out why they were having difficulties. He was not surprised to learn that every problem has a solution if enough information is at hand. At which point he was further induced to gather all the statistical information he could on the subject of sex, without regard to any conclusions that might be drawn from it.

Kinsey brought together a research team with impeccable credentials, all PhDs, to help him with his fact finding. In the movie they include Kinsey and his wife; Wardell Pomeroy (Chris O'Donnell); Clyde Martin (Peter Sarrsgard); and Paul Gebhard (Timothy Hutton). As in real life, this team engages in intimate relationships among themselves, leading to some eventual bad feelings. Kinsey understands that he has no one to blame but himself for not being able to clearly separate sex from love; lust from genuine affection. His zeal for being impartial and detached, for viewing sex as a normal extension of everyday mammalian instinct, had little room for the broader consequences of human relationships.

Much of Kinsey's studies derived from the interviews he conducted across the country, and, naturally, much of the film's appeal derives from those interviews excerpted and portrayed here. Some of them are intentionally amusing, to add color to the narrative; some of them are instructive or informational, particularly the interview with Kinsey himself (Neeson) that serves as a framework for the story; and some of them are touching, like the one with the final interview subject played by Lynn Redgrave. The most controversial, however, is probably an interview with a person the accompanying documentary calls an omniphile, presumably a person who has sex with anything that moves. Kinsey and Pomeroy meet with this fellow, who claims to have documented his sexual experiences with 22 species of animals, 9,412 people, and hundreds of children, at which point Pomeroy walks out in disgust, leaving the ever-objective Kinsey to continue impassively taking notes.

Like the character Kinsey, the movie tries not to be too preachy, but the nature of the subject matter is such that one cannot leave the story without feeling that as a society we should be more open and more tolerant of other people's behavior, so long, says Kinsey, as the behavior is by mutual consent and no one is harmed. This, of course, is what Kinsey began to preach in his later years and what got him into the most trouble. He began to rail against morality disguised as sex, and his name became synonymous with promiscuity, something he never advocated.

Today, it's hard to believe that people were as ill-informed about sex as they once were, and Kinsey set out first to teach the subject openly in the classroom and then to research the subject and publish his findings. He never thought his activities would cause the ramifications or uproar it did, but his "Kinsey Reports" became the best-selling scientific books in history and are controversial to this day.

The movie tends to get a little too objective at times, slowing down the narrative flow, and as I've said it tries to cover an awful lot of ground in a very short time; but mainly "Kinsey" remains an arresting character study and a thought-provoking treatise. Neeson and Linney are superb; the supporting characters are uniformly well represented; and the various interviews are rewarding. The movie is obviously frank in its discussion of sex, but it is never vulgar. Thank writer-director Bill Condon for a fine job.

The film is presented in a screen size very close to its original theatrical-release format of 2.35:1, enhanced for 16x9 televisions, and transferred to disc at a reasonably high bit rate. The result is a good-looking picture, aided by an image that reveals little or no added grain. The color scheme, especially at first, is a bit odd, somewhat muted, but while the colors may not always be bright, they are almost always natural. Definition is good, if slightly soft, and there are minor, almost unnoticeable line shimmers here and there.

The soundtrack's English audio is available in either Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS 5.1. In DD 5.1 there is a wide stereo spread and a good deal of rear-channel surround sound. The back speakers are used mainly for musical ambience augmentation, to be sure, but there are also sounds of the forest and sounds of voices that are conveyed nicely. Understand, this is a film largely about dialogue, so any need for the surrounds would seem unnecessary, yet there it is. Frequency extremes and dynamic contrasts are not particularly required, though, so I think we can forgive the film for any lack of seriously deep bass or superstrong sonic impact.

"Kinsey" is available in either a single-disc edition or the two-disc Special Edition reviewed here. Disc one offers up the widescreen presentation of the movie, along with an audio commentary by director Bill Condon. The director is quite informational and very sincere, plus he possesses that one quality that so many others in their commentaries do not--he knows when to stop talking. Among the director's observations is his belief that we are currently back in the 1950s in terms of sexual openness (or lack thereof) in our society, with sex researchers, he says, having almost as hard a time gathering information today as Kinsey did over fifty years ago. In addition, disc one contains thirty-two scene selections; a few coming attractions at start-up; an Inside Look at the Ridley Scott movie "Kingdom of Heaven"; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; and English and Spanish subtitles.

Disc two provides quite a large and varied assortment of extras. The first item is the documentary "The Kinsey Report: Sex on Film." It is about ninety-one minutes long, divided into seven chapters, and covers just about everything you ever wanted to know about Kinsey, his research institute, the movie, and sex, with extensive interviews with the filmmakers as well as leading sex researchers. Next is a series of twenty-one deleted scenes in anamorphic widescreen, amounting to more material, several hours' worth, than make up the actual film. In essence, it's a second film. Then, there are theatrical and teaser trailers for "Kinsey" and a theatrical trailer for another Fox release, "What the Bleep Do We Know!?" After that is a brief, two-minute gag reel; followed by a six-minute tour of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, a segment called "Sex Ed. at the Kinsey Institute." And, finally, there is an interactive sex questionnaire consisting of forty-five questions, which an introduction tells us is not intended for children. Obviously, if you have any children in your family, this survey is the first thing they'll want to check out.

Parting Thoughts:
Yes, one person can sometimes make a difference. For the most part, Kinsey's role in informing the public about sex has brought greater enlightenment and understanding to the world. But like anything new, such knowledge can also bring criticism. Is too much knowledge a dangerous thing? Maybe. But it beats ignorance any time.

The movie "Kinsey" is illuminating and well acted. It serves the dual purpose of informing and entertaining. Does it openly moralize for greater sexual freedom? Surely not, but indirectly it may encourage more folks to examine their own beliefs. It's a good film on a provocative subject, handled with a blunt delicacy. It is, understandably, rated R


Film Value