Friday, November 26, 2004

Jawaharlal Nehru used to be fond of saying that behind every Indian, there lay 5000 years of history and continuity. (He even made an attempt to chronicle those in his Discovery of India). Behind every one of us - inside us, even - are the efforts of all those who are dead. We are the products of history and it marches on taking us with it - as passive observationists or as quiet activists. William Condon's biopic of Alfred Kinsey is a great movie - as a movie, as a narrative, as a story of science and scientist (and I won't even begin to contrast it with the dishonesty of A Beautiful Mind) and above all things - in giving us a sense of history, of the giants, on whose shoulders, so to speak, we all stand. It is also tremendously moving and true to Kinsey himself. Like Kinsey and his scientific work, it is non-judgemental, presenting his research, his obsessions, his evangelical zeal to separate sex from morality, his indignation with "morality masquerading as fact" and also his more troubling tendencies (which included having his research assistants sleep with each other and their spouses).

All the rights we take so much for granted now - the right to use contraceptives during sex, the decrimnalization of pre-marital, extra-marital, oral sex and anal sex, the implied right to privacy that forbids authority from policing the private lives of its citizens, the debunking of all the old wives tales about masturbation, sex education in schools - are all related, in some way to the publication of the Kinsey report. The gay rights movement owes much to him - but then so do we all. (Interestingly Kinsey's book was published in 1948, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of disorders in 1973 but it was only in 2003 that sodomy laws were struck down by the Supreme Court).

Which in a roundabout way, brings me back to the movie itself. Condon, who wrote the movie from Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy's biography of Kinsey, has found the perfect form for a biopic on Kinsey - the question-and-answer interview. The movie opens with Kinsey instructing his reseach assistants on the art of interviewing the subjects for their sexual histories. As his researchers ply him with question after question and as he answers, the movie cuts back and forth between the interview and Kinsey's life. The structure, which seems clunky even as I write about it, works brilliantly in the movie. Somewhere along the way, the cutting back to the interview stops but the movie is so fluid, that I forget where exactly and we continue along a linear trajectory as Kinsey's life unfolds before us. Condon is true to Kinsey himself, he presents the man as-is, warts and all, in just the way Kinsey encouraged his assistants to document human sexual history without being judgemental. (Condon vividly shows the best-case worst-case dichotomy that I talked about before during Kinsey's chilling interview with a paedophile, Kenneth Braun, when his research assistant walks out, unable to suspend judgement, while Kinsey doggedly soldiers on with the interview.) But movie is grateful to Kinsey, grateful because he spoke out against social hypocrisy, because his criticism of morality disguised as facts is valid even today, because he was instrumental in improving life itself for all of us.

In a lovely interview that closes the movie (and which moved me to tears), Lynn Redgrave as a woman who has found happiness with another woman, tells him "You saved my life, sir" and it is hard not to agree whole-heartedly. He most certainly did.

Postscript: I realized that I hadn't written a word about the actors. Words, in this case, are pitiful to describe the superlative acting all around but I mmust say that Liam Neeson, Laura Linney and Peter Sarsgaard are all fabulous. Linney, who can shine even in an outstandingly bad movie like The Life of David Gale, is lovely; Neeson is dogged, committed, and understated; while Sarsgaard, with his reptilian face, keeps proving again and again what a great actor he is. Give them all awards, I say. :)


Vineet said...

excellent article. i was googling for nehru paedophile and i found this. lol.

Shreeharsh said...

lol. why were you googling for nehru paedophile? just curious... :-)