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Our reviews of American Experience: Dinosaur Wars (published April 9th, 2011), American Experience: Hijacked (published February 22nd, 2006), American Experience: Houdini (published October 14th, 2011), American Experience: LBJ (published March 8th, 2006), American Experience: Panama Canal (published February 12th, 2011), American Experience: The Duel (published July 30th, 2011), and American Experience: Victory In The Pacific (published September 5th, 2005) are also available.
"It was compared to an atom bomb."—Biographer Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, on the publication of the Kinsey Report
When Alfred Kinsey first lectured on human sexuality at Indiana University, students wore fake wedding rings in order to qualify for the restricted course. The year was 1936, and most young people learned about sex, if they learned anything at all, through rumor and misinformation. Kinsey was determined to change all that…
Alfred Kinsey died in 1956, heartbroken and depressed following a backlash against his controversial books. He missed the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the sexual excesses of the 1970s, and the moralistic retrenchment of the 1980s. But the past year has seen a curious resurgence in Kinsey's public stature. Acclaimed author T.C. Boyle has published a novelistic account of Kinsey's inner circle. Bill Condon recently wrote and directed a high-profile biopic starring Liam Neeson. And PBS has devoted an episode of The American Experience to the most notorious celebrity scientist since Einstein.
Co-funded by Hugh Hefner (whose own career arguably would not have existed if Kinsey's work had not made talking about sex cool in the 1950s), this slickly produced documentary covers the twisting career of Alfred Kinsey in remarkable depth for its short running time. Indeed, many viewers may find it outperforms Condon's theatrical film, if only because Kinsey is less of a cryptic figure than Liam Neeson makes him.
Kinsey's father, a self-appointed minister, was oppressive and moralistic. "The household was asexual," notes a later colleague. So the young Alfred turned to science with a vengeance, almost as an act of rebellion against his father's religious strictures. He knew nothing about sex when he stumbled through the early days of his marriage. Perhaps that lack of control, that inability to quantify and understand the mystery of the body, connected with his obsessive efforts to catalog biological phenomena (namely, a prodigious collection of gall wasps). Kinsey threw himself ruthlessly into the study of human sexuality, determined to catalog everything he could record.
You cannot undervalue the impact of Kinsey's 1948 bombshell Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Heterosexual marriage was the only acceptable orientation at the time—and even then, married partners were not supposed to talk about it. Indeed, most sexual acts (and in some states all sexual acts, even between married partners!) were technically criminal acts. But that just made the research even sweeter to Kinsey. He resented authority (from his conflicts with his father), privileged the objectivity of science, and was bisexual. On all three counts, he became angrier the more he traced the hypocrisy of human sexual mores. Kinsey's larger premise was that human sexuality existed on a continuum between heterosexual and homosexual behavior, a "sliding scale" that placed most people somewhere between the two poles in their private desires.
But Kinsey's relentless efforts to codify sexuality, to divorce action from desire, took him to strange places. He filmed his staff having sex, apparently in an effort to decode the mystery of women. And toward the end, after McCarthy's witch hunts frightened his backers into withdrawing their funding, he flirted with masochism and other excesses. There is a lesson here about one of the key difficulties of scientific practice: science attempts to objectify, taxonomize. It is stasis. Desire is direction. And for Alfred Kinsey, the directions his desires led him caused a revolution in the way Americans viewed their bodies and themselves.
Kinsey gives more insight into Kinsey's psychological underpinnings than the Condon film, which goes through the motions but never seems to connect us to Kinsey's psyche. And it also gives a stronger sense of the impact of Kinsey's work, which Condon's film, by virtue of its effort to focus on the biographical details of the man's life, cannot approach clearly. Writer and director Barak Goodman provides us with a solid and balanced perspective, even addressing the flaws in Kinsey's methodology, including major conclusions on child sexuality culled from the diaries of a pedophile. Other critics criticize his lack of attention to cultural difference (his data came mostly from either white college kids or individuals on the fringes of mainstream sexual practices).
Campbell Scott, whose presence here echoes his role as would-be lothario in Roger Dodger, does not thankfully narrate in overly heavy tones. The touchy subject matter requires a certain dry humor (which many of the interview subjects display). Otherwise, viewers may likely either cringe or snicker at some of Kinsey's stranger antics. The documentary itself is presented in a crisp anamorphic print, but no subtitles or extras are included. This is unfortunate, since I expect there is plenty of archival material available publicly or through the Kinsey Institute that could fill in the gaps in Kinsey's story. And no, I am not talking about the sex movies of his staff, you pervert.
This might be overreaching a bit, but we might compare the impact of Kinsey's work to that of Charles Darwin, at least with respect to its power to change our perceptions of human culture and behavior. Since Kinsey opened the door, many others have followed his work by scientifically supporting the contention that individual sexuality and social codes of behavior have a remarkably complex relationship. Betty Friedan, Michel Foucault—the work of many cultural critics might arguably not exist without the scientific underpinnings provided by Kinsey.
But Alfred Kinsey himself was a colorful figure. He was aggressive and unrelenting, even experimenting on his own circle of friends to expand his understanding of sexual practices. Kinsey was a cause celebre, and he liked it that way. Fortunately, Kinsey succeeds in capturing both sides of this curious character—the scientist and the man.
To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, I know a good documentary when I see it. Case dismissed.
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