Despite some evidence to the contrary in her re-view of Bill Condon’s Kinsey, Megan Bertelsen would like readers to note that she did actually like the film as a film.
Kinsey’s Speedy Mustache Ride to Moral Oblivion
I approached re-viewing Bill Condon’s 2004 biopic on Alfred Kinsey, Jr with a fair amount of excitement. And a rum and coke. Well, two. One for Timothy Curry’s performance as a simpering servant of prurience and prudery and one for Timothy Hutton’s anachronistic but fabulously louche portrayal of an ambulatory porn-star mustache.
Kinsey is a meandering tale based loosely upon the life of the zoologist turned patron saint of sexuality studies (particularly for those who deem Freud a driveling douchebag whose impact upon the study of eroticism and human interaction has been immeasurably detrimental to the field’s potential). Kinsey’s body of work still represents the most comprehensive study of sexuality in the U.S. ever undertaken—but Kinsey isn’t particularly concerned with that.
Instead, the film hangs its hat inoffensively on an expiating the sins of the father theme. Ultimately, it’s a flick which reduces a fascinating sociocultural phenomenon and opportunity to interrogate the ideological underpinnings of research methodology to a bland morality tale concerned with a tragic hero’s doomed recapitulation of his father’s sins by reenacting his father’s obsession with sexual behavior and its impact upon society. I’m definitely not saying that I hoped the film would indulge of the fantasy of scientist as cipher, boldly dredging Truth from the dark depths of the unknown. This narrative frame/origin story was present—and equally depressing in its dull simplicity.
Rather, I was interested in what the film afforded at its best moments. The film is intercut with black and white sequences in which the Kinseys are having their own sexual histories taken. These sequences constitute a micronarrative which simultaneously binds Alfred Kinsey into his work, pulls upon the legitimacy of documentarism, and cuts the bodies of interviewees into mouths, eyes, errant tics at the corner of the lips, before undermining the ostensible naturalism by demonstrating that Kinsey and his wife are training their research assistants in interview techniques. These sequences could have been used as a frame for a far more interesting film.
Unfortunately, they are instead subordinated to a predictable biopic narrative in which Kinsey tragically duplicates his father’s life out of a lack of engagement with emotional realities. That’s not to say it doesn’t make a few lunges at being a more interesting film. The film just never quite breaks free of the affective structures which characterize its genre.
When I saw promotional material for Kinsey, my ever-optimistic brain substituted “Kinsey Report” for “Kinsey.” I fantasized about an exploration of methodology, contemporary norms, anything, really, drawing on the resources of film as a form to present and contextualize Kinsey’s body of work and its legacy for sex nerds like me. AWhere the Buffalo Roam for sexology.
And, really, I knew this was absurd—like expecting a Hunter S. Thompson film to focus more on his coverage of racialized housing segregation or the criminalization of poverty than on drugs.
2004 Me, starry-eyed sociology buff and sex-obsessive flat out ignored that small, cautionary voice. I’d sighed over the limited theatrical release of the film, then increasingly twitchily awaited the DVD release. I was anxious, but my expectations were not unreasonable. I knew the dangers of building up a serious anticipatory charge over a film. After all, I had come of age in dark days for geeky folk: in those grim months between the release of The Phantom Menace and Highlander: Endgame.
I was prepared to be generous. However, Kinsey had so enraged me so much upon my initial viewing that I’d been unable to finish it.
Normally, I’d no more leave a movie unfinished than I would a book. So, as I re-watchedKinsey, I was most interested in figuring out why I would leave a fairly decent flick unwatched for a decade? Re-watching confirmed that the acting and dialogue more than compensate for the uninspired, unobtrusively competent Oscar-bait cinematography. Laura Linney and Liam Neeson as Clara Mackmillan and Alfred Kinsey manage to pull off not only the most convincingly awkward sex scene I’ve ever seen, but also what I consider the rarest of on-screen feats: an interesting romance. Oh, certainly, there’s a dull courtship bit to sit through, but it’s not insufferably twee, and they pick up steam subsequently.
Beyond this, the film features Veronica Cartwright, John Lithgow, Timothy freaking Curry, and sex as attention-grabbing, if vastly underutilized, resources. As the film progressed, however, I was increasingly reminded that 2014 Me is no better at watching biopics than 2004 Me had been.
When Kinsey came out, I absolutely did not do biopics. I harbored a monumental disinterest in the narrative pruning of lives which biographical work almost necessarily entails—and, really, a bristling disdain for the tedious reconstruction of figures who had done interesting things as intelligible characters for assumed viewers who lacked the empathic capacity to see a person as real or interesting until they had been presented as similar to the people assumed to constitute a viewing audience.
Now, as then, it’s not a lack of facticity or comprehensive presentation that bothers the flat-out-fuck out of me. Rather, it’s the attempt to compress a figure to an ostensibly comprehensive characterization, a grand explanation for everything they may have been and done. A negation of everything that doesn’t fit the structure—a denial of the lived experience, save as can be articulated through a narrative arc structured by the pompously unwieldy pretensions of documentarian legitimacy which stave off any acknowledgement that such undertaking must be deemed, to some extent, fictional.
But really, fuck the academi-speak. This re-view immediately allowed me to confirm that while I find biopics interesting as a concept, they will apparently never be my cup of entertainment tea. But, I went in prepared this time. Between booze and lowered expectations, I hoped calm, forgiving, 2014 me would be able to watch the film with, at the very least, a different sort of irritation than 2004 Me.
I couldn’t help but note, this time around, that Kinsey is a film at war with itself. It gathers up all sorts of aesthetic capital and errant moralizing, then throws it indiscriminately at the viewer’s head as though hoping something, anything, will stick. This can be done effectively—it just isn’t in this instance. I hadn’t noticed this flailing in any conscious way the first time around, and even in re-view, it made me more sad about lost cinematic opportunities than angry over its awkwardness.
This profusion did, however, draw my attention even more strongly to the abysmal narrative which reduced an interesting subject to a clear cause and effect chain grounded in intergenerational strife and…*sigh.* I nearly stopped the film again at the point I had when it originally came out, and for the same reasons.
Specifically, the nadir of the biopic’s mandatory “protagonist plummets into the depths” component featured Laura Linney entering a bathroom to find a distraught and distracted Liam Neeson sitting on the edge of a bathtub, blood dripping from beneath his terry cloth robe. Neeson’s response to Linney’s demands to know where the blood is coming from ended the film for 2004 Me.
He looked up, vague, huge, sheep eyes shining with Oscar-fodder agony—and with just enough befuddled alienation to suggest declining capacity for autonomy (as conventionally understood). He stated he’d pierced his foreskin in an attempt to understand why it afforded pleasure for one of his research subjects. But that there’d been no pleasure.
This could have been presented within the context of other experimentation. Really, in a thousand other ways. Instead, it represented rock bottom. A fall. A fundamental deviation from the “normal” with which the film is preoccupied. It reeked of the narrative need for any excessive deviance from social norms to be punished. The need to frame outliers as tragic heroes. As doomed—not by material conditions, but by their own built-in flaws.
The clumsy pathologization of eroticism, framed by the way Kinsey and his research team had increasingly been portrayed as debauched and unethical or incompetent was an easy out for the film. After all, why delve into the ways in which socialization and economic actualities inflect and compromise research when one can simply default to condemning eroticism as a gateway to decline?
Thank goodness I stopped watching when I did. Had I persisted through the film’s final sequence, 2004 Me would probably have gone on a flat-out rampage. Not content to follow the tired deviance-ends-in tragedy formula which characterizes the way in which so many cultural artifacts address people and behavior on the margins, the film closes on Kinsey embracing sustained heteronormative domesticity as fundamentally natural, beautiful, and the cure for his emotional ills. I don’t even. Just. Argh.
Early in the film, Neeson informs Timothy Hutton, who plays a member of his research team, that Hutton needs to shave his (fairly impressive) mustache. That facial hair represents deceit and obfuscation. The hidden. The corrupt. He points out that the villain of a film always has a mustache. Hilariously, the villains in Kinsey do all, at one point or another, sport a mustache, whereas Kinsey’s allies are clean shaven. As a background conceit this is funny, if a little self-consciously clever. It’s unfortunate that the overall narrative structure of the film is confined by the same moral conflations as the film’s central running gag.
–Poster: “Lets talk about sex”—precious little of this beyond that which is used for titillation and distancing. So much material, wasted.
–Don’t make judgments=Don’t allow a judgment to show
–Timothy Curry, Timothy Curry for fuck’s sake, as the villain, embodiment of prurience and hindbound assaults on capital-S-Science(!)
–Framing Kinsey’s work as a preoccupation/obsession almost entirely in terms of a mirror for his father (Lithgow) is an easy out.
Actually, I would have happily watched an entire film featuring John Lithgow describing technological advance as society’s descent into lust-addled damnation. The film peaked for me when he characterized the zipper as, “Speedy access to moral oblivion.”
–Film is deeply invested in the linkage between embodied life and the environment as realm of sociality. Legitimizing sexual behaviors by framing them as natural, by virtue…weird shifting between emphasis on diversity and alterity and normalcy.
–Why on earth did the screenwriter think this film needed a villain?! Let alone three??? Casting Timothy Curry as Kinsey’s nemesis? Too motherfucking easy. Lone black actor used to establish Curry’s villainy (as manifest in closet jokes, classism and racism)
–Preoccupation with penis size, thickness of hymen, blah blah blah