Monday, 7 January 2008

Film: Kinsey

Lowdown: A scientist reveals controversial truth and pays the price for doing so.
At ground level, Kinsey the film should have bored me to death. It’s the story of a scientist conducting his research, and what could be interesting about that? Well, it turns out the answer is “a lot”. As weird as it may sound, I found myself identifying with Kinsey, the film’s hero, at a significantly higher level of identification than I am used to.
Surprisingly enough, the film Kinsey tells the story of a guy called Kinsey (Liam Neeson). Kinsey the guy is famous for researching and publishing books about the sexual habits of the American male [homo sapiens] and the American female [homo sapiens], which is indeed the subject matter of the film. However, I really do not know how loyal Kinsey the film is to what actually took place, most of which in the fifties, all of which in the USA.
We start by learning that Kinsey is the son of an oppressive priest that became a biologist despite his father’s wishes. Like Richard Dawkins after him, through biology Kinsey has found that many of the conventions and assumptions we lead our life by, most of which have originated through various religious interpretations, are quite false.
When Kinsey gets married and encounters physical problems performing sexual acts with his wife. He is shocked to find that he cannot get much help because society knows hardly a thing about the sexual habits of humans: no one has ever bothered to research it since the subject is a taboo. Kinsey moves to take matters into his own hands, starting a very successful class handling sexual education based not on religious interpretations of Bronze Age scripts but rather on observations. Using his students as research samples for research on sexual habits, he himself is surprised by his findings; as things roll onwards, Kinsey finds himself conducting federal surveys of male and female sexual habits. He publishes his findings in two famous books, and given the breakthrough level of these findings – essentially that there is a lot going on in American sexual habits that no one has ever dreamt of – he encounters controversy.
Generally speaking, Kinsey the film portrays an image of Kinsey the man that is not too different from the image we all have of other scientists who were prosecuted for telling the truth, like, say, Galileo. There are a few key differences, though. First, while Galileo and most compatriots to the controversial old scientist club measured easily verifiable and quantifiable facts, Kinsey was dealing with material which interpretation could be easily disputed by those that want to dispute them. This matter of hard sciences vs. soft sciences was obviously a big issue for Kinsey that could explain why differences two and three:
(2) The intensity in which Kinsey conducted his research. Kinsey took active part in the research he was performing. Most notably, performing same sex acts mainly (but probably not only) for research purposes, and actively researching specimen that he himself thought of as criminals (e.g., pedophiles). By doing these things Kinsey has made himself not only a researcher but also the subject of his own research, which – given the nature of the research – was quite extreme and quite controversial, even more controversial than the findings themselves. Thus the film raises important ethical question on what is allowed in the name of research and what is not: when a researcher conducting sexual experiments ends up with broken relationships that affect his family and friends, is that OK? I would say no, especially given the sample numbers Kinsey had which meant he wasn’t short on subjects. But would I say that under all circumstances? Or, is a researcher allowed to mess with unethical elements (e.g., pedophilia) in order to go into greater depths? I would agree with Kinsey and say yes to this one, because problems do not disappear if we ignore them; what we should do is maintain our own integrity. You do not become a pedophile by researching one and you don’t encourage others to become pedophiles when you research a pedophile. Still, would I be able to conclude that under all circumstances? I doubt an absolute answer can be found.
As I have said, I found my level of identification with Kinsey to be higher than normal for a film. The reasons seem obvious: Kinsey’s views were similar to mine, notably that we humans are animals that have evolved to become what we are now but are still heavily influenced by basic animal urges, notably the will to make our genes immortal. In the same way that I have been protesting in my blog against ignorance, and notably against the ignorance caused by religion, Kinsey has been doing the same (albeit way more effectively) through his research and his books. And most notably, Kinsey became unpopular the same way I am risking the wrath of friends and family when I say things which they will consider offensive; sure, Kinsey went much further than I will ever go, but the analogy remains effective. Even at the simplest level, the fact that Kinsey has a lot of similarities with Richard Dawkins whom I greatly admire goes to say a lot.
When all the dust is settled, one basic question remains: Is Kinsey the film a good movie to watch? Well, it is, but it is not perfect. The story is flowing and the acting is superb, especially on Neeson’s part, and even if he reminded me too much of Oscar Schindler too many times. John Lithgow, playing Kinsey’s father, also gives a notable supporting performance.
While the story builds momentum gradually and uses comedy sporadically to relieve viewers of the heavy loads involved with the subject matter, Kinsey is overflowing with that artificial sweetener drug that kills most American films. It gives the impression that it won’t go into the really nasty depths that Kinsey the person went to because it’s too much to bear for your average viewer, and it presents a black and white interpretation of events on the other. The end in particular is rather stupid: It seems as if the moviemakers did not want to leave us with a bitter taste in our mouths so they just settled for a dumb yet symbolic ending in which Kinsey returns to his biological roots for a short while.
Best scene: The scene where Kinsey performs homosexual acts as a part of his research is probably the scene most people will remember, followed by the scene in which he interviews a guy who turns out to be a pedophile. However, the scene I liked the most was when Neeson returns to his father, this time as a researcher, and learns about the sexual circumstances of his father in a very touching scene.
Overall: This is a 4 star film on which I will bestow 4.5 stars out of 5 stars because films doing a good job at glorifying scientists working to promote knowledge are rare.

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