Film

MISSIONARY POSITIONS

One eccentric pioneers American sexology, another invents Peter Pan

Brian D. Johnson November 22 2004
Film

MISSIONARY POSITIONS

One eccentric pioneers American sexology, another invents Peter Pan

Brian D. Johnson November 22 2004

MISSIONARY POSITIONS

Film

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

One eccentric pioneers American sexology, another invents Peter Pan

BEFORE THE PILL, before AIDS, before free love, safe sex, gay pride, Cosmo orgasm advice, tantric workshops and tangerine-flavoured condoms...in the Beginning was Kinsey. The Sexual Revolution is usually dated from the ’60s, but the Big Bang that sparked it all happened back in 1948, when Indiana University professor Alfred Kinsey published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. An academic tome that became an instant bestseller, it started all this public chatter about sex, turning our most intimate activity into pop discourse. (Now, of course, people can’t shut up about it.) Interviewing some 18,000

Americans about their sex lives in the course of his career, Kinsey shattered taboos about premarital intercourse, extramarital intercourse, masturbation and homosexuality. His studies revealed that all were far more common than had been assumed. Accepted ideas ofwhat’s “normal” disintegrated as a notion of sexual democracy took root in North America. And it seems only fitting that, at the dawn of the consumer age, this new sense of sexual entitlement was achieved through that promiscuous form of American suffrage: the poll.

After the recent presidential election, with the Republicans turning the tide back to moral conservatism, Kinsey’s eccentric quest—as depicted in a compelling new movie—seems more relevant than ever. In a culture where avid fascination with sex now slides like quicksilver between the pornographic and puritanical, we see Kinsey dissecting eras with the dispassionate voyeurism of a zoologist (his original profession). He pioneered sexology in America, but with his second volume, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953), Kinsey became a media pariah and the target of a congressional witch hunt: drawing confessions of masturbation, infidelity and lesbianism from America’s mothers and daughters was going too far. He lost funding and, in 1956, his weak heart battered by stress, died at age 62.

As portrayed in Kinsey, the tragic arc of his life serves as an incandescent prologue to the Sexual Revolution to come. There’s the same thrill of discovery and infatuation, the smashing of taboos, the utopian vision of sexual freedom as an unwritten constitutional right—then the inevitable backlash. Kinsey claimed only to be documenting sexual deviation. But as an obsessive collector of carnal detail, holding a mirror up to America’s secret life, he was also testing that shifting line between reportage and pornography.

Now, of course, every kink is a proud subgenre with its own website and cable channel. And if Kinsey were alive today, he might be tempted to study sexual behaviour in the movies, which continue to tap fresh taboos. In P.S., Laura Linney seduces a young man who she sees as a surrogate for her dead high school sweetheart. In Birth, Nicole Kidman takes a bath with a 10-year-old boy she believes is her dead husband. In Jerry Ciccoritti’s Canadian psychodrama, Blood, a junkie begs her brother to take part in a threesome for money. And, pushing the envelope of art house twaddle, French feminista Catherine Breillat pioneers garden rake penetration in Anatomy of Hell.

Of course, none of these films pretend to be just about sex. Art always wants to be about something else. But Kinsey really is about sex—and the emotional consequences of the largely male compulsion to observe and measure eros with experimental sangfroid. Written and directed with stunning sensitivity and wit by Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters), the movie introduces Kinsey (Liam Neeson) as the sickly son of a fireand-brimstone preacher (John Lithgow). Finding solace in nature, he defies his dad to pursue a career in biology. With a passion that consumes him for two decades, Kinsey becomes a world expert on the gall wasp, collecting over five million specimens of a tiny insect with big wings that can’t fly (symbolism like this you can’t make up). What amazes him is that no two gall wasps are alike, a miracle of diversity that he carries into his sex research— there’s no such thing as “normal,” just degrees of “rare” and “common.”

Kinsey stumbles into his new vocation

after married students ask him for sexual advice. He ends up teaching a sex education class, an explicit alternative to a “hygiene course” taught by a prig who urges abstinence (Tim Curry).

And what begins as a class questionnaire snowballs into a vast survey conducted by a team of interviewers. Kinsey’s conclusion: “America is awash with sexual activity, only a small portion of it sanctioned by society.”

The scientist’s mission is set against the story of his lifelong romance with a former student, Clara McMillen (Laura Linney). On their wedding night, both are awkward virgins. But by the time Kinsey’s sex study is in full swing, so is his marriage. The team of researchers he’s recruited to interview people about their sexual histories turns into a kind of cultish free-love lab. There’s a wonderfully clumsy, tender scene in which a bisexual team member, Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard), seduces Kinsey by asking him where he fits on his own 0-6 scale of homosexual tendencies. Soon Kinsey and his wife are toying with open marriage, and all the heartbreak that entails. As a woman in love with an impossible man, Linney brings a mercurial wit to the role of Clara. And Neeson’s gently heroic portrayal of Kinsey has an emotional bravery that should make him a leading Oscar contender.

Kinsey gives the scientist his due as a champion of erotic enlightenment, but also portrays him as a bit of a freak, a workaholic hooked on barbiturates who persists in viewing man as just another mammal—and

barely flinches when interviewing a monster who boasts of having sex with hundreds of children and 22 animal species. But, with suprising tenderness, Kinsey bridges the abyss between sex and love, leaving us with a lump in our throat—and a watchword from its subject that seems as apt now as 50 years ago: “The forces of chastity are massing once again.”

Finding Neverland is another biopic about an eccentric genius whose behaviour attracted some controversy. It tells the story of Peter Pan playwright J. M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) who neglects his wife (Radha Mitchell) to dote on four young boys and their recently widowed mother (Kate Winslet). This is juicy material, but Finding Neverland is too intent on hagiography to exploit it. After the torrid Monster’s Ball (2001), director Marc Forster has gone to the other extreme. Played as an asexual saint by Depp, Barrie is too beatific, and bland, to be true. There’s some magic as Barrie defies skeptics with the audacious staging of Peter Pan, and the film ends with heart-rending sentiment. But it relies on stock characters—from Barrie’s crusty producer (Dustin Hoffman) to the boys’ imperious grandmother (Julie Christie). And while Depp is always a pleasure to watch— here his charm is warmed by a soft Scottish burr—he’s trapped in a timid script. As he plays pirate games with the kids, you get nostalgic for the rock ’n’ roll mischief he brought to Pirates of the Caribbean. Neverland was never meant to be this innocuous.