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PBS Home Video presents

American Experience: Kinsey (2005)

"The most important report of its kind ever attempted." - Good Housekeeping, giving its Seal of Approval to the first Kinsey Report

Stars: Alfred Kinsey, Clara Kinsey
Other Stars: Campbell Scott
Director: Barak Goodman, John Maggio

MPAA Rating: Not RatedRun Time: 01h:26m:16s
Release Date: 2005-05-17
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B- B+B+B D-


DVD Review

It's certainly overstating the case to compare Alfred Kinsey to Sigmund Freud, but there are aspects of their lives that are in fact analogous: controversial figures in their times, each is best remembered for being a pioneer in their field, and it's this expanding of the boundaries of scientific investigation that are their true legacies. In retrospect and in light of the subsequent work that they catalyzed, their own research and conclusions don't stand up to much scientific scrutiny, but it was their groundbreaking professional endeavors that literally established these fields. Freud's of course is more broad, and Kinsey's more recent; no doubt the moralists are outraged at the Pandora's box that Alfred Kinsey opened and the demons of sexual candor that he let out into the world. This PBS documentary is a pretty fair overview of Kinsey's life and work; the man himself remains mostly remote, but the changes he engendered in our public discourse about our private lives are still with us.

Likely pegged to the DVD release of Bill Condon's recent feature about Kinsey, this documentary tells his story in a pretty clinical fashion—it starts with his strict upbringing in Hoboken, where he was a sickly child with parents who were cold and remote. (It's awfully easy to construct a crude psychological profile of Kinsey—the unloved little boy hungry for the human contact that his family withheld, then making sex his life's work.) Kinsey trained as an entomologist, and became a professor of zoology at Indiana University; he shortly thereafter moved the focus of his research from bugs to humans, and found that there weren't all that many differences, actually, save for the fact that everybody was much more candid talking about the sexual proclivities of the bugs. The pre-Kinsey world of sex education was all morality, no empirical data; undergraduates at Bloomington flocked to Kinsey's courses, for it was the only place they could get candid and truthful information about sex. Of course the audacity of talking about sex publicly brought Kinsey all sorts of trouble, especially in this time of repression; but the denials of the power structure only made things like epidemics of venereal disease that much worse.

Campbell Scott narrates, as the film follows the course of professional and personal events in Kinsey's life; there's plenty of talking-head footage, too, from Kinsey's colleagues and biographers; Kinsey protégés and interview subjects (including filmmaker Kenneth Anger); novelist T.C. Boyle, whose book The Inner Circle covers much of this same ground; and, in an especially odd moment, Kinsey's two daughters, themselves interview subjects of their father—apparently they both sat down with Dad and told him chapter and verse about their sexual histories. A good amount of time of course is devoted to Kinsey's marriage to Clara—it was their disastrous wedding night that motivated much of his research, and he was candid with her about his not infrequent homosexual infidelities. And of course the film goes over the publication and subsequent firestorm over Kinsey's reports on American sexuality (his volume on men came out in 1948; on women, in 1953), and looks at some of his questionable scientific methods, which included the filming of many, many sex acts, and actively encouraging his colleagues and their spouses to sleep with one another regardless of gender and marital status.

Kinsey thought that he'd get the best results if he could interview 100% of a sample group—a bowling league, say, or a sorority—and one of the groups that he and his colleagues interviewed was the entire cast of the original Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire. The mind reels at the prospect of Dr. Kinsey sitting down and taking the sexual history of Marlon Brando. Anyway, the filmmaking here is generally unobtrusive; we see many snapshots of Kinsey, but hear and see very little moving footage of him, and when he does speak, he's reedy and unimpressive. Perhaps there wasn't much to go on, but there are occasional unwise substitutions, like a shot of loafer-clad feet shuffling along the IU campus, or a tight shot of a man's hand writing the word SEX on a chalkboard. Still, this is a reasonably well made documentary, and a good place to start if you haven't the time to read a full-scale biography, or want to see the genuine article after having spent two hours with Liam Neeson and Laura Linney. 

Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: A competent transfer that does well with the varying sources of archival footage. 

Image Transfer Grade: B+

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: Some slight hiss, but it's all audible.

Audio Transfer Grade:

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 13 cues and remote access
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Only some URLs for PBS websites.

Extras Grade: D-

Final Comments

A fair-minded and candid if rather clinical documentary look at one of the pioneers of the study of human sexuality.

Jon Danziger 2005-05-17