Friday, November 19, 2004

Kinsey: Hardcore Family Values

When a major Hollywood studio produces a film about a man and his understanding wife, who face difficulties in their relationship but manage to stick together through thick and thin, you’d expect social conservatives to be overjoyed.

But when the loving couple happens to be Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Kinsey, they're not pleased at all.

Even though the man died nearly half a century ago, conservatives are still smarting from his two groundbreaking studies of sexual behavior, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1954). Sociologists decry Kinsey's methods, even though contemporary researchers, with presumably superior statistics and more sophisticated methodology, frequently wind up with results identical to his. A hefty 1997 biography by James Jones (not the author of From Here to Eternity, alas) exposed the sexologist's homosexual affairs, and led the religious right to accuse the man of pedophilia and perversion.

Nobody likes Kinsey, it seems -- except perhaps for writer-director Bill Condon, whose new biopic Kinsey appears fifty years after Kinsey's study of female behavior was first published. Condon's previous film, Gods and Monsters, appropriated the style and subject matter from 1930s horror films to tell a fictional tale about the death of Frankenstein director James Whale. Kinsey is in many ways superior to that first effort: It's more stylistically varied and unpredictable, larger in scope, less obviously derivative, with a few genuinely original visual flourishes. Still, given its touchy subject, and this year’s post-election climate, it was bound to generate controversy.

Luckily, Condon is not afraid to throw down the gauntlet, delivering his (nearly) X-rated version of "family values." Until the end, when Kinsey nearly collapses beneath its own moralizing, it's one of the strangest, smartest movies of the year.

Condon presents his film not as a straightforward biography, but as a “sexual history” of the sort Kinsey himself collected on his many cross-country trips. The difference, as it turns out, is that a sexual history doesn’t follow a standard path from birth to death. We don’t see the early years or the last days of Kinsey’s life, but we do see almost everything in between. The film presents these events more or less in chronological order, starting with a repressed adolescence (with one mischievously suggestive scene involving the official Boy Scout manual) and his early career as an insect collector. It offers copious coverage of Kinsey's infamous sex course at the University of Indiana, where he shocked faculty and students alike with graphic lectures on intercourse. The film explores Kinsey's unexpected fame after the publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, but is more circumspect about his professional decline following Human Female.

As the title character, Liam Neeson is instant Oscar bait, capturing Kinsey’s oddball charm and mania for data while he suggests the man's more sinister psychological undercurrents. Laura Linney fares even better as Kinsey’s neglected wife Clara. When she confides to a friend, “I never see my husband anymore since he took up sex,” we don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Acting honors also go to Peter Sarsgaard as Clyde Martin (a bisexual researcher with whom both Alfred and Clara Kinsey had an affair), Chris O’Donnell as the morally grounded Wardell Pomeroy, Lynn Redgrave as a discontented lesbian, and Oliver Platt as a beleaguered dean. The only unconvincing performance belongs to John Lithgow, cartoonish and overwrought in the role of Kinsey’s father. Lithgow improves as the film progresses, but he’s still out of step with the rest of the cast.

Condon has considerable fun at his audience’s expense, shifting the tone from high drama to low comedy in the blink of an eye. His depiction of the Kinseys’ wedding night is hilarious -- especially considering the gauzy-romantic buildup -- but the heartbreaking aftermath rings true: This thoughtful scene makes a better argument for sex education than the diatribes and speechifying which mar the film's third act. Condon finds visual strategies and rhythms to keep us off balance -- quirkily framed compositions, unusual montages, and shots that linger for a few awkward seconds after a more typical filmmaker would have cut away. The film's highlights, however, are the grainy, black-and-white interview scenes that frame the story: With their undeniably obsessive energy, their stark mise-en-scene, and their confrontational style (literally placing the viewer in the position of interviewee), they resemble early David Lynch. (Neeson's haircut, an homage to Kinsey's own "Fuller brush" do, reminded me of Eraserhead.)

Kinsey manages to stay weird and kinky until the end, when Condon decides to portray his protagonist as a martyr of the McCarthyite culture wars. To its credit, the film makes clear that Kinsey was as much a moralist as the prudes and puritans he claimed to despise. But once it begins to sermonize on his behalf, it begins to reek of Hollywood sanctimony. By this point we know too much to accept Condon's facile morals about sex education and sexual freedom. Although it tries to redeem itself with a sappy coda (it's literally sappy, I'm afraid), Kinsey still leaves the faint aftertaste of propaganda. (But stick around for the hilarious end credits, which illustrate the Cole Porter song: "Birds do it, bees do it ....")

Finally, a word to the wise: Kinsey is quite possibly the most sexually graphic film to emerge from a major American studio since Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. It features male and female nudity, as well as slides of male and female genitalia. Most of the action is clinical or biological, not erotic, but that doesn’t mean it won’t offend mainstream audiences. Kinsey earns its R rating and then some.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Busy week

I haven't been posting much this week, because I've been polishing up some pieces on the Virginia Film Festival (including a review of the best film I saw there, Elliot Berlin's deeply moving Paper Clips), and getting ready for Thanksgiving vacation in Arkansas. I'll also try to settle a few outstanding debts with you, gentle readers, before I head into the American heartland.

Reflections on the Activist Cinema

This year, we've seen a flurry of feature-length documentaries from American leftists attempting to elect John Kerry and cash in on the success of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. They failed on the first count, of course, and from all appearances they failed on the second as well. Well, appearances can be deceiving.

I wanted to write about these films after the election, partly because they played an important role in local efforts to "get out the vote" for the Democrats, and partly because they convinced me to cast my first vote ever for a Republican presidential candidate. The evening before the election, I saw the Joseph Mealey/Michael Shoob film Bush's Brain, a sloppy screed against GOP campaign manager Karl Rove. Their contention is that Rove has a tendency to employ "dirty tricks" in his political campaigns, a thesis one can't exactly argue against: Saying that campaign managers engage in dirty politics is kind of like saying that water gets you wet. The most noteworthy thing about this film is that the filmmakers used two separate, lengthy interviews with James C. Moore, yet changed the credit slightly for each interview, so that it looked like the filmmakers had done more research and found more sources than they actually had. Sneaky business, that.

But not particularly surprising. Most of these films are rush jobs, going from drawing board to final product in under four months. Their frantic production schedules allow little time for actual investigation, which might explain why the filmmakers tend to crib from other people's notes. Bush's Brain and Hunting of the President come from books by the same name. Horns and Halos follows Fortunate Son, a thoroughly discredited book by J.H. Hatfield which alleged (among other things) that Bush was a habitual cocaine abuser in the mid-1970s. Greg Palast's Bush Family Fortunes: The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, a sort of poor man's Fahrenheit, derives its thesis from his 2003 tome The Best Democracy Money Can Buy. Michael Moore, whose own investigative journalism is hasty and slipshod, based the first act of his own Fahrenheit on Craig Unger's House of Bush, House of Saud, which attacks the Bush family's oil investments (and which, like Fortunate Son, is thoroughly discredited).

A few of these films, like Robert Greenwald's anti-Fox News program OutFoxed, focus explicitly on media matters. For OutFoxed, Greenwald would have to monitor Fox News day and night for instances of potential bias, a task he promptly outsourced to a small army of left-wing volunteers. One gets the sense that Greenwald objects not to the content of Fox News, but to its very existence.

Of course, in a larger sense all these films are deeply concerned with television, if only because they're so blatantly derived from it. The minds behind Bush's Brain use numerous excerpts from C-Span -- the one channel where Karl Rove stands in front of the televsion camera. Activist filmmakers rely heavily on C-Span broadcasts, preferring to use footage from royalty-free public cable instead of the major news networks. Granted, C-Span's cruddy picture quality can be a real eye-stabber on a motion picture screen. But since most of these productions are shot on digital video (and not the 24-fps kind, either), there's no discernible difference between original footage and pre-existing video.

I suppose the best-made of the new activist documentaries is Robert Butler's Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry. Based on Douglas Brinkley's suck-up book Tour of Duty, the film is designed to show Kerry's Vietnam record and subsequent anti-war activism in the best possible light. The film uses period television footage, shot on 16mm, showing Kerry at Vietnam Veterans Against the War demonstrations; it shows Kerry performing his infamous and much-publicized "medal toss" (though it neglects to mention that the medals he threw over the fence weren't really his). For the Vietnam sequences, Butler lifts scenes from the '70s documentary Hearts and Minds, and uses some of the Super 8 film Kerry shot in Vietnam (he often revisited the site of a battle he had just fought, to reenact it for the camera). In spite of itself, Going Upriver becomes an odd combination of vanity project and echo chamber: This is cinematic puffery about a man who engages in cinematic puffery.

The documentary-within-a-documentary effect reminds me of Capturing the Friedmans -- which aside from its distributor (Magnolia Pictures) has no connection that I know of to the new activist cinema. In Friedmans, a family accused of child molestation films its own breakdown as the trial progreses, while in Upriver, Vietnam's most visible miles gloriosus films his own exploits shortly after he carries them out (sort of) in real life. In both cases, the camera is used to make unreal experiences not only important, but real: The Scarecrow may have wished for a brain, and the Tin Man a heart, but it seems Americans like Kerry or the Friedman family would happily forego them both, if they only had a camera.

Alas, Going Upriver illustrates a primary weakness of the new activist cinema: It's only effective when it attacks something. For the most part, Butler's encomium to Kerry is a snoozeworthy affair, with talking-head interviews punctuated by Kerry's manufactured archival footage. The only place it builds up serious momentum is near the end, when it attacks John O'Neill, who once debated Kerry on the Dick Cavett Show. Upriver digs into O'Neill with relish, portraying him as a Nixon stoolie, a stammering idiot whose all-American wholesomeness was out of touch with the social realities of the early 1970s, and who simply couldn't compete with the natural charisma and shining virtue of Our Boy John. It's hard not to feel sorry for O'Neill, affirming American values in front of Dick Cavett and a studio audience that clearly hates his guts -- though I think I should also note that if you can feel sympathy for O'Neill, you're probably not among the film's target audience.

Greenwald's "Un" series (Unprecedented, Unconstitutional, Uncovered) sets the tone for these documentaries, which tend to be "Un-American," "Un-Republican," "Un-Economic," and "Un-Everything Else You Could Possibly Imagine." Even Jehane Noujaim's Control Room, ostensibly a paean to Al Jazeera's television news, degenerates into a barrage of knee-jerk anti-Americanism within the first ten minutes. It's pretty clear, when you meet these filmmakers, that they're trying to vent their leftist frustrations -- none of which coalesce into a coherent politics (or even a serviceable cinematic technique). These films don't have ideas, they have dyspepsia. If one were to ask the new activist cinema what it's rebelling against, it might respond, like Brando in The Wild One, with a curt, "Whaddaya got?"

Inasmuch as global capitalism was an especially visible "father-substitute" for the past election season, these new documentarians have been perfectly willing to latch onto it and pound away. Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me, one of the few new left-wing documentaries that seems to have had something like a standard production schedule (a year and a half, roughly, from basic concept to finished film), goes after McDonald's and only McDonald's. But other anti-capitalist documentaries, like The Corporation or The Yes Men target corporate culture in a more general sense. The Corporation is basically an extended polemic in favor of removing liability protections for stockholders (the idea being that if a corporation does something wrong, the people who hold stock in that company should be forced into pauperdom and interminable legal limbo). The Yes Men attempts to expose what it sees as the rampant amorality of corporate culture -- which seems to take the form of politeness, tolerance, even inattention toward the outlandish pranks and slanders that the "Yes Men" activists perpetrate against unsuspecting corporate "suits."

On first glance, the anti-profit stance seems, if not sensible, at least consistent. Except for Fahrenheit and Super Size Me, none of these films earned money in theatrical release. A recent article in the Washington Post suggested that they failed to attract audiences because they weren't very good to begin with. On the one hand, the Post is quite correct: None of these films are exactly "good," if we're looking at traditional criteria for the well-made movie. But most of these films are at least watchable, which is more than I can say for a lot of mainstream cinema. A few like Moore's Fahrenheit, or anything by Greenwald, seem to sail on a sea of bile and hatred, all of which can provide some unintentional entertainment value.

Still, with apologies to Greenwald, we might be tempted to call these films "Unprofitable" -- but as it turns out, we would be quite wrong. True, these films aren't aimed at mass audiences: Their interviewees and sources are too moonbatty for most people to take at face value. It's difficult to imagine swing voters putting off mainstream fare like The Incredibles to be hectored over things like "how Bush lied to drag us into Iraq" or "how Bush gets his foreign policy instructions from the Saudi regime." But you don't need a large market to turn a profit: Any market will do. Ironically, American leftists have provided an important, highly lucrative base for the anti-capitalist capitalists who produce socialist documentaries.

Even though most of these films have only been available for a few months, they've already reaped profits from DVD sales. Each feature-length documentary typically costs less to make than an average 30-second television commercial, and 527 organizations like are all too happy to foot the bills. Yet the company finds more ways to maximize its profit after the film is completed. In most cases, rather than bankroll an expensive theatrical release, the producers outsource their promotional effort to left-wing volunteer groups, who host "house parties" in which they show the film to potential "undecided voters," and promote purchases of said film among the party faithful. To my knowledge, volunteers are never reimbursed for their efforts.

Oh, the irony: Thanks to the rampant exploitation of unpaid labor, producers of left-wing documentaries manage to "make money fast" off allegedly oppressed American leftists. I suppose I should be thankful that these film folk are all good-hearted socialists, because if they weren't, they'd be lower than the lowest third-world sweatshop owners. (After all, in a sweatshop the workers get paid.) But whether they've earned it or not, the money still rolls in faster than you can say "Ka-Ching!"

As I said, these documentaries were a major reason I voted Republican this year -- and if my reaction to left-wing activist filmmaking is at all typical, America's right-wingers may want to think twice before embracing a parallel film industry of their own. Of course, they've already started on it, with anti-Michael Moore flicks such as Fahrenhype 9/11, Celsius 41.11: The Temperature at which the Brain Begins to Die, and Michael Moore Hates America. To my knowledge only Celsius has enjoyed a theatrical release; I remember that it played for a week in a small Washington, D.C. theater. (A lot of good that movie did, though: Democratic votes in the District outnumbered Republicans by a ten-to-one margin.) By and large, conservative documentaries have been even more obscure and poorly made than their left-wing counterparts, and unlike their left-liberal doppelgangers, they don't seem to have played even a minor role in the GOP's get-out-the-vote effort.

Inept and ineffectual as they are, these right-wing screeds still manage to frighten today's leftists, because they signal the end of unquestioned liberal dominance in this particular media form. Eventually, shoddy left-wing agitprop may compete with shoddy right-wing agitprop in the marketplace of ideas -- and what will happen to moviegoing audiences then?

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Bang, We're Dead

It's sweeps month on the tube, and Gay boys are dropping like flies. Steve Koval at the Washington Blade has discussed the suicide of a Gay teenager on the premiere episode of the Showtime series Huff, and now he's found another Gay suicide on the WB's insufferable Jack and Bobby.

One show Koval doesn't mention: Comedy Central's Drawn Together, billed as "the first animated reality show." Last week, a video game character came out of the closet, then killed himself -- over and over and over. (Video game characters have many "lives," you see. It's very droll when you think about it.) Blaxploitation babe (and bizarre interspecies hybrid) "Foxxy Love" delivered the show's best line: "Homosexuality is something you're born with, like red hair or a dead twin." Ah, the joys of cable.

I'm still waiting for Will and Grace to follow through on their murder-suicide pact.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Subscribe to Posts [Atom]