Long after the war in Iraq becomes just another blip in the series of never-ending wars that seems to characterize human civilization, another war of our times will take on the perspective of history and loom large–the American Culture Wars. On one side stand the progressive, pro-choice, anti-capital-punishment, gay sympathetic, secular, pro-gun control, keep-church-and-state separate folks. On the other are the conservative, anti-abortion, pro-capital-punishment, anti-gay, anti-gun control folks who believe government to be an appropriate enforcer of religious values.
The United States, after all, has deep historical roots in the Puritanical outlook–strict adherence to a stern morality based on a conservative Christian point of view. (But the founding fathers made the separation of church and state a fundamental constitutional principle, in part at least because those very Puritans were themselves victims of religious persecution in Europe.)
An opening salvo in the Culture Wars, leading to a major breach in the fortress of Puritan America, was the publication of Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Malein 1948. Bill Condon’s intelligent new film biography, Kinsey, traces Kinsey’s personal history while also addressing some of the scientific and social issues that his work ignited. A sensitive and deeply felt portrayal of the complex and controversial central character easily makes Liam Neeson (Gangs of New York, The Haunting) a candidate for an Academy Award.
Kinsey was the son of a hell-fire-and-brimstone Methodist minister (John Lithgow) who condemned even the invention of the zipper for "providing easy access to moral oblivion." Condescending and disapproving, Rev. Kinsey offered his son only disdain and contempt for his work. Sex, of course, not only for the Kinseys but for all America, was a taboo subject at that time, loaded with superstition, tainted by ignorance and fear, never discussed–even within the intimacy of the family. Kinsey and his bride (Laura Linney in another perceptive and witty performance) both went to their marriage bed virgins.
The film follows Kinsey’s career from entomologist to sexologist, establishing his motivations, the development of his research techniques and the response that his work engendered. It doesn’t neglect the problematical side of Kinsey, his seeming ability to separate sex from love leading him to encourage sexual freedom among his research staff, even when it led to emotional hurt for some. A series of interviews with the subjects of Kinsey’s studies both deepens the perspective on the implications of Kinsey’s work and humanizes the scientific aspects. One remarkable interview even tests the limits of Kinsey’s tolerance of varied sexual behaviors.
Condon (Gods and Monsters) puts Kinsey in the form of the traditional biopic, a mostly chronological presentation that utilizes rather old fashioned film techniques; it’s reminiscent of mid-20th century film biographies–the period in which Kinsey burst into the consciousness of the nation and the world. What makes Kinsey brilliantly subversive is the injection of a cool, candidly warts-and-all, nonjudgmental viewpoint of a still controversial subject into the format of the vanilla, uncritical, warts-glossed-over, adulatory encomiums of another era.