Welcome to my blog

Houston Filmmakers and Actors: The Season of Humane, Nuanced On-Screen Sex

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

The Season of Humane, Nuanced On-Screen Sex

In Bill Condon's "Kinsey," starring Liam Neeson and Laura Linney sex is by definition unconventional.

Diego Lopez Calvin/Sony Pictures Classics
Pedro Almodóvar's "Bad Education," with Gael García Bernal.

December 12, 2004
The Season of Humane, Nuanced On-Screen Sex

There's a lot of loose talk going around these days about sexual morality. It seems that the notion that sex is a private, intimate matter - a dubious and persistent idea for at least the last three centuries of Western history - has been decisively refuted once again. With characteristic overstatement and lack of subtlety, the opinionizing class, from Sunday public-affairs blabbers to bloviating bloggers, has turned its attention to matters like Nicolette Sheridan's dropped towel and Tom Wolfe's prurient, disapproving peek at the casual promiscuity that supposedly runs rampant on American college campuses.

Predictably enough, the picture of American culture that emerges is of a polarized nation in which permissiveness and Puritanism battle over the bodies and souls of the innocent. Each side, convinced of its righteousness, demonizes the other. Depending on whom you choose to believe, we are threatened either by Internet pornographers and other peddlers of perversion, or else by prudes and hypocrites who want to drag us back to the 50's, or the Middle Ages, or some other time we can pretend was less obsessed with sex than our own.

While the battle between these opposing forces was dramatized with excruciating literal-mindedness on screen this year by John Waters in "A Dirty Shame," some other recent movies have provided refuge from the orgy of alarm and indignation that dominates public discourse on sexuality. Bill Condon's "Kinsey" and Pedro Almodóvar's "Bad Education" approach sex with more nuance than noise, reminding us that moral inquiry, sexual and otherwise, involves at least as much anxious questioning as confident prescribing, and that while sex may upset households and divide societies, its true battleground is the self.

This is not to say that either movie rises above the political turmoil currently surrounding sex, or that they have been spared the moralism of the times. "Bad Education," with a semi-explicit scene of gay male sex and a plot that includes the sexual abuse of a child by a priest, could not escape the censorious (and commercially limiting) NC-17 rating from the Motion Picture Association of America. "Kinsey," meanwhile, has revived long-simmering controversies over the life and work of its subject, whose most vocal critics hold him responsible for unleashing a flood of licentiousness and lust into the wholesome American mainstream. It would be silly to pretend that Mr. Condon and Mr. Almodóvar manage - or even try - to remain neutral in such a polarized cultural environment. But to attack - or, for that matter, to applaud - their films for taking sides would be to slight the complexities of their work and to simplify its subject. For both films insist that our habitual, binary ways of thinking about sexual politics - as a matter of for or against, gay or straight, repression or liberation - are hopelessly inadequate.

Maybe everybody knows this, and pretends otherwise. What distinguishes these two films is not only their embrace of the confusion that surrounds human sexuality, but the humane clarity they bring to that confusion. In Mr. Condon's account, Alfred C. Kinsey is a crusader against hypocrisy and superstition, a scientific warrior going into battle against what he disparagingly calls "morality disguised as fact." But the movie's wisdom comes from its ability to combine admiration for Kinsey's scientific zeal with a sense not only of his personal blind spots, but also of the limitations of scientific knowledge as means of understanding sex. Kinsey's refusal to judge any of his interview subjects may have been methodologically sound, but his detachment from the emotional consequences and moral implications of his own actions makes him, in the film, a flawed and dramatically interesting hero.

As Mr. Condon construes it, Kinsey's determination to bring sex into quantitative, empirical focus, to marry physiology and statistics, was both grandly idealistic and curiously myopic. The experiments he conducted with his research assistants and their wives have a queasy, tawdry fascination that makes their avowed scientific purpose seem like something of a pretense. And his desire to disentangle sex from its attendant feelings seems to defy both logic and experience. In a crucial scene, Kinsey's researcher Clyde Martin (whose wife's affair with a colleague Kinsey had encouraged) challenges his boss's belief that sex is something you can study in isolation. "It's the whole thing," he says. "And it can tear you wide open."

Mr. Almodóvar would in all likelihood agree. In "Bad Education," the effects of a child's violation by a priest are symbolized by an image of the boy's face ripping in half, a sundering that foreshadows the later unraveling of his personality. But Mr. Almodóvar's film is more than a melodrama of lost innocence. Like "Kinsey," it is at least in part an attempt to understand the ethical dimensions of desire. As he was in his previous film, "Talk to Her," Mr. Almodóvar shows himself to be almost infinitely tolerant of human weakness, but this is not to say that in his world anything goes. On the contrary, "Bad Education," like "Kinsey," tries to imagine sexual decency in the absence of taboos - as a matter of how we treat each other rather than of how external authorities require us to behave.

In his early career, Mr. Almodóvar was himself something of a Kinsey-like figure - a symbol of the heady and dangerous freedom that followed the end of Franco's dictatorship. Like parts of the Kinsey Report, his films of the 1980's were like a catalog of the outré and the provocative, aimed at dislocating tradition-bound ideas of propriety and normalcy. His latest work, like Mr. Condon's, provokes both feeling and thought. "Kinsey" and "Bad Education" are testaments to the artistic maturity of their directors, and tests of the maturity of their audience.


Blogger cali-ber said...

Astonshing blog. I relished in the site and you
know I will be going to it again! Surfing the internet
hepls me to find blogs that arfe just as good.
Please discover my payroll cash advance blog.

January 31, 2006 at 7:33 AM  
Blogger high-class said...

Incredible blog. I admired your site and I will be
back once again to view it! I use much of my spare
time searching for blogs like yours.
Oh please, check for the blog site with my cash advance today!

February 4, 2006 at 2:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi there, I discovered your website via Google while
looking for a related matter, your website came up, it appears to be like great.
I've bookmarked it in my google bookmarks.
Hello there, just was aware of your weblog thru Google, and located that it's really informative.

I'm going to be careful for brussels. I'll appreciate in case
you continue this in future. Lots of folks shall be benefited from your writing.

Also visit my web page cccam prio digital hd

May 6, 2013 at 8:04 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Online Casinos hits.