Film Studies: Too much sex at the cinema? There isn't nearly enough!

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Meeting writer-director Bill Condon in San Francisco recently, I felt bound to say that I hoped his new picture, Kinsey, would get into some serious trouble in America. God knows, it's about time, and we have surely earned it.

Meeting writer-director Bill Condon in San Francisco recently, I felt bound to say that I hoped his new picture, Kinsey, would get into some serious trouble in America. God knows, it's about time, and we have surely earned it. In a season of biopics, Kinsey is, among other things, far and away the most interesting treatment of the odd mixture of fact and legend that this genre needs to be. You can't help but pick up lots of valuable information about life as you follow its modest storyline. More than many fiction film-makers, Condon understands the opportunity (and the responsibility) to provide material normally labelled "documentary". He knows there should be no such thing as a "period" film without some attempt to convey the history.

Thus, there's a rather appealing balance in the experience of watching the film. It was at Indiana University, in the time of McCarthyism, that Kinsey did his methodical yet inflammatory research in the Forties and Fifties (Indiana is now a very red, very conservative state). Now, in the same year as the nation's gift of undefined "political capital" to George W Bush and the mighty success of The Passion of the Christ, Kinsey arrives with its firm yet gentle insistence that we start talking about sex.

As the years go by, I remain unconvinced that there has ever been a more fascinating subject in the movies than sex. Indeed, sometimes I wonder if the whole, large purpose of the movies was not a very benign form of education in which the large, hitherto illiterate and untamed population of the world was made ready for the huge adventure of sex by choice (as opposed to brutal intercourse with the nearest body). In the Romantic movement, in the late 18th and 19th centuries, essentially middle-class people were prepared for making romantic choices in their lives, and attempting to find sexual ecstasy (in America this comes under "happiness", as in the pursuit of), in a way that had previously been kept for aristocrats, gods and kings: through art, literature and philosophy. But in the 20th century - and this may be a horror to ruling classes quite as alarming as Communism - that opportunity extends to ordinary people.

What is it? they may have wondered. What is sex by choice? How do you do it? What comprises attraction? What is sex appeal? To all those questions, the movies were the common means of answer. Yes, of course this is a sweeping proposition; but suppose that in the world before Freud people were much afraid of sex by choice - in that the choice and the actions, being voluntary, were deeply incriminating and guilt-inducing. Then I think it's easier to see the movies as a peepshow, a fantasy guide to "how to do it". That the essential reliance on voyeurism at the movies militates against the act itself only shows how far in modern times the essential erogenous zone has become the head.

In recent years, sex has bowed its heads in most English-speaking films, as the actors made a dutiful gesture towards cunnilingus and fellatio. The coyness of this pretending has been deeply depressing, as if the film-making imagination had actually lost interest in sex. Or is it that the public, ourselves - having had 50 or so largely unfettered years' access to sex - are wondering, "Is that all there is?" Last year, two very sexual films - In the Cut and The Human Stain - were passed over by critics and audiences alike. The Human Stain had some daring strokes of casting that could be perceived as mistakes. But In the Cut remains for me one of the most vividly naked films of recent years, and one of the best expositions of a woman's sense of sexuality. Still, it was as if those things were invisible on the screen.

Yet something may be stirring, and nothing is more likely to reinvigorate sex in the movies than the broad sweep of confidence and the new pall of Godliness that has overtaken the West. I saw no film last year more startling, original or beautiful than Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs, which still seems capable of being banned. If you understand me, I hope this may happen: nothing stimulates an audience more than telling them that they cannot see a film. I don't mean to suggest that everyone should see 9 Songs. Children and the elderly whose prime is past would be too disturbed by it. But the film's structure (the interplay of songs and flagrant or unimpeded sex acts - ones in which the actors assume no professional vanity or caution) is breathtaking. I think it's a more important and far more modern film than Last Tango in Paris. And a far more reliable turn-on. Which is no small thing. Prophets of social doom who say that 9 Songs will encourage sex are exactly right, and it is high time movies got back to that great duty.

Kinsey is not as radical or as beautiful. But it is available (it opens in March in the UK) and it proposes a challenge that usually horrifies the exponents of abstinence: not just that people do have sex in a vast variety of ways such as only people can devise, but that they like to talk about it. The selling line of Kinsey in the US is "Let's talk about sex", just as the Kinseys' survey work was based on intimate questionnaires that they offered to anyone and everyone they could find. It is a marvellous thing about their America that so many people answered so earnestly. They were promised confidentiality, of course, but these days I'm not sure that a cast-iron guarantee and a free washer-drier would result in honesty. People act for surveys now.

Kinsey is wise, tender and intelligent, a totally admirable film, illumined by splendid performances by Liam Neeson and Laura Linney as the pioneering couple whose own sex life was often hobbled by the very inhibitions they sought to break down. Already there are signs of difficulty. Some have been uneasy about advertising the film. Some localities may not show it. Don't forget in all of this, that the hinterland, not far from Indiana, is a place where the teaching of "alternatives' to evolution is again gaining ground. If you have not noticed it, America is more than ever a country where scientific or provable fact is yielding to fantasy (also known as ideology). In that respect, of course, it begins to resemble the lurid portrait of its favourite monster: Islam!

The nicest thing about Kinsey is the way it is pitched back in time - as if to say to us, look how quaint a country this was when people were likely to be condemned for mentioning (let alone celebrating, or enjoying) the facts of life. So, again, I hope Kinsey gets in trouble. No amount of stupid furore will disguise or unbalance the amiable, calm sensuality it believes in and which is celebrated in a brief, radiant scene with Lynn Redgrave, arguably the greatest thing she has done on the big screen. I've no idea why Britain is expected to wait until March for this glowing gem.