Alexander & Kinsey

Starring:
  • Brad Pitt's Character from "Snatch"
  • Mrs. Potato Head's Lips (Just Kidding. I Love You, Angelina)
  • Some Really Messed-Up Hoosiers

 

  • John Lithgow as the Meanest Methodist Preacher Ever
Directed by Oliver Petros and a Condon Ribbed for Your Misery
"Arrr, bloody 'ell. Look et al the lass's here I can fook. Bangin' away! Bangin' away. Jesus, Merr, and Jusph. I've been drinkin' way too fookin' much whiskey. Jesus help me, I'm perpetratin' every Irish stereotype imaginable. Hand me a fookin' copy of James Joyce. Jeezus, Merr, Jusph!"
Bio-Sexuality

In the months leading to Oscar season, so goes the onslaught of bio-pics and historical epics. These types of films make good Awards bait because a filmmaker can take what is essentially the same story and make it look glitzy or unique with the assist from a strong technical team. Normally, the story goes something like the mocking structure of Charles Dicken's David Copperfield: "I was born, grew up, lived a life, and died." There is nothing extraordinary about such a story: You and me and everyone else will go through the same narrative arc. That is, unless one dies as a child. But never mind. Actors may love the genre even more than a filmmaker. Not only does an actor get a living model for their work, but they also get to do things like sing famous songs, wear fancy outfits, and invade countries. It's a great form of realistic play-time. And the Oscar voter starts really paying attention if the actor can ham it up with a nice drug addiction or a handicap or some form of disease. All of this is predictable but mostly effective. The best, most recent example of a wasted opportunity is Ray. Ray turned Ray Charles' life into the same wishy-washy musician analysis we've all witnessed since The Jazz Singer. If the film had not contained the once-in-a-lifetime performance by Jamie Foxx, Ray would have gone unnoticed. But since Foxx was able to take a character and invest more energy and complexity than the script even considered, the film is now being touted on Top Ten lists everywhere and being seriously considered as a major awards contender. And for what? For Taylor Hackford's use of Aranofsky-cam during the heroin withdrawal scenes? But Ray goes to show that his genre is a great way to pushover the critical mass. But, in the past week, two largely different films from two largely different directors have found common ground and common grace with two enormously polarizing figures in history. Alexander has taken some heat from Oliver Stone-haters put off by the director's modernistic, sexually-infused approach to the great Macedonian leader. And Bill Condon's Kinsey examines a man both sainted and demonized by political forces and found a man tragically human. I wanted to review both of these films at once (even though my Alexander analysis may be a bit belated) because they both offer a unique and sophisticated approach to their subjects that is rare and refreshing in a season that will subject the audience to Beyond the Sea and Vera Drake.

Alexander

Oliver Stone - to use polite words - is a polarizing figure. While certainly not the only filmmaker to tackle controversial social and historical issues, Stone is more notorious for focusing on the "why" of a subject matter rather than the "what" or the "how". Many of his better works examine an issue or an event through a prism of pop psychology and emotion. His interest in a subject - whether it be Vietnam or serial killers or a President - is a more visceral reaction. Stone has been accused of intentionally creating slight characters in order for his vision to take the front stage . But these critics seem to miss the point. Both Born on the 4th of July (Vietnam) and Natural Born Killers (serial killers) meant for the central character(s) to be a springing board for how they were handled and how other people looked at them. From a cinematic view point, this is more honest than any filmmaker injecting certainty and homegrown subjectivity into the character. Some of the most compelling imagery from Stone's cannon may be found with Ron Kovic's appearance at the Democratic National Convention or Mickey Knox's post-Super Bowl interview from the bowels of Joliet. While those films capture social moments, his more memorable films capture the chaotic nature of history and it in a tangible format. One of his better films was 1991's paranoid epic JFK, a film that never attempted to accurately portray the assassination of Kennedy but captured an America population rattled and confused by such a violent event befalling such a revered figure. The theoretical rambling of the script was more about the feelings shared collectively than about narrative. Even better is Nixon, Stone's near-flawless mix of irreverently unconventional and historical analysis with a compelling macro-character development. Stone, along with ample help from one of the best casts in film history (Tony Hopkins, Joan Allen, et al), turned one of the most divisive and controversial figures in the 20th century and made his Presidency into a Shakespearian tragedy. Stone mixed the failure of his father, the stern Quaker attitude embellished by his mother, and the early deaths of his brothers to make Nixon a man so terrified and guilty of his own shadow that destruction was merely inevitable. In addition, Stone refuses to demonize Nixon but instead make him a helpless mortal at the whim of such powerful forces ranging from Vietnam tot Communism to domestic turmoil to governmental inequities. Nixonwas a landmark film biography and Stone's last great film. Unfortunately, that was nine years ago and Stone has subjected us to U-Turn and Any Given Sunday since. The films took small-town corruption and professional football, respectively, and made them into apocalyptic affairs. There was a fear by Stone apologists that the man had bought his own hype and focused his talents on schmoozing with Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat.

I only bring this up to explain why Stone's Alexander is an effective analysis of the man and not necessarily of the man's time or place. The latter two failures would surely doom the film but here, they are not necessarily the point. Stone views Alexander of Macedon not as the larger-than-life myth that claimed lineage with Zeus. He does view him as the first great military strategist, who was able to swoop through Egypt, Persia and the majority of Asia Minor. No, Stone views Alexander the Great as a guy who couldn't control his own dick. Alexander is a study in how leadership is largely influenced by sexual dysfunction and psychological grandeur. This may not be the most concise and thorough way to look at this subject, but the argument remains compelling and entertaining in the tradition of old Hollywood epics like Cleopatra. Alexander's tale is told in storytelling flashback by Ptolemy (Hopkins), as a way of debunking the myth about his old general. Ptolemy begins in childhood where Alexander shares a bed with his mother Olympias (Angelina Jolie). Her nature is nurturing if not suffocating and incestuous but the preciously weird mother-son moment is interrupted by King Philip (Val Kilmer), Alexander's father. He attempts to rape his own wife in front of their son. Even at an early age, Alexander has been taught that his father is a mad genius of a general who possesses the power that Alexander will one day surely inherit.This image is fried into his brain as Alexander grows up (played by Colin Farrell) who acquiesces in his mother's plot to kill his father and assume the thrown. As Alexander mobilizes his troops to invade Persia, he reminds them that they are killing the Arab despot who deprived them of a king and, more importantly, him of a father. There would be little obstacle in drawing distinctions between this motivation and George W.'s need to attack Saddam, Stone makes it clear that Oedipal rage is the one thing that should be drawn out. After Alexander and his men conquer each country, an inventory is made of the women there to pillage. In perhaps the funniest moment in a Stone film, Alexander wanders into Babylon to see a bunch of Babylonian whores sitting around...petting their lap cats!!! Much has been made by some historians that Alexander particularized brand of fascism: Conquer a territory and then embracing the culture of the survivors. His slogan was modified centuries later to read: "Let them eat cake!" While some would see this as cruel and forced diversity, Stone no doubt sees this as Farrell taking the women of these cultures and creating a genetic version of the great Alexandria franchise he so neatly crafted. This is ethnic cleansing in its most sexually depraved form. This is Alexander's plan with Roxane (Rosario Dawson), the dancer that tempts him in the bowels of Asia. He takes his "beastly beauty" (the script's words, not mine) and plunges further and further until is self-annoited down-fall in India. The narrative ends in the fashion of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance with Ptolemy determining that the myth is far more interesting than the actual history.

Such a pity since Stone's depiction of the "actual history" in Alexander is a bit of a blast. The historical films of late have been enormously popular among critics and audiences alike, but they have come across to this viewer and disingenuous and shallow. William Wallace in Braveheart led his troops into battle against the British in the name of...FREEDOOOOOOMMM! But wasn't Wallace just mad because his wife had been killed? In that case, the rage and violence was personal but the film felt that wasn't something a multiplex could not rally behind so they added some fake MO. Even Troy where Achilles' homosexuality was hidden and replaced with some unexplained (and clearly bogus) and blind loyalty to Greece. Stone takes a cue from all of those films and decides to puts the sexuality up front. Yes, Jolie is only one year older than Farrell but the decision to keep her at the age she appeared when Alexander was a child suggests a psychological portrait rather than something realistic. And Alexander's only comfort out there conquering is Hephaistion (Jared Leto), a relationship that is overtly homosexual. I mean, that relationship is so gay that one wonders if it's not Alexander...The Faabulous! But this view of Alexander in purely sexual terms is a very interesting approach and brought alive by Stone's inability to shy away from even the most absurd and ludicrous historical perspectives. One can't imagine Olympias as such a vixen drama queen, but Jolie's portrayal makes rational sense in the soap opera drama Stone creates. I mean, if Jolie and Kilmer were your parents, wouldn't you be so messed up that you wanted to invade the world as well? Plus, Farell is able to convey some of the raw and vulgar sexuality from his own personality to create a character that civilizations are all but willing to surrender. Alexander is by far brisker and more entertaining than its modern predecessors even if it must be forgiven for a convoluted time line and some battle sequences that are unintentionally murky. But the film's sense of drama and tension makes the experience alive and palpable.

For a great analysis of the controversy surrounding this film and the history of its subject, check out Filmsnob fan Christopher Hitchen's article in this week's Slate HERE.

Kinsey

While Alexander makes history kind of sexy, Kinsey makes sex so academic it's damn near historical. But that, in a sense, is what makes the film such a fascinating and thought-provoking watch. Unlike any of the provocative films of the year (The Passion, Fahrenheit 9-11, A Dirty Shame), Kinsey truly digs to the historical roots of the social and political decisiveness. Back in the 30's and 40's, Dr. Albert Kinsey (Liam Neeson) taught and researched zoology at the University of Indiana in Bloomington. If one can say anything about the University of Indiana, it's very nice environment with a great basketball program. Not necessarily the place where Kinsey's groundbreaking study on male and female sexuality would arise. But, in addition to Human Sexuality in the Male and Female's honest and graphic presentation of sex, the Red State origin of Kinsey's work makes it all the more shocking to conservative religious zealots and leftist feminist groups. If this were the work of a professor in Boston, then that would be expected. That would be, the quote Jon Stewart, like monkey's jerking off. That's just what East Coast academics do. Here, Kinsey arises from a strict Methodist background in a blandly normal part of the country who introduces issues like masturbation and orgasms into the public conscience. The incredible strength of Bill Condon's film is not simply documenting the impact of this research, but showing Kinsey as a sexually inverse Forrest Gump. Here's a man who is so smart that he has no idea that he's affecting the landscape of American culture. While Condon and Neeson certainly waste no opportunities to highlight the positive social and academic accomplishments of Kinsey, they certainly do not shy away from material that slightly demonizes him. In the end, Kinsey makes this somewhat underground myth into something human. This may be the type of humanity some people do not want to confront. But it is the type of that is completely necessary.

Kinsey uses all of the traditional staples of a bio-pic but use them in such a functional way that one hardly notices. The story is structured with Kinsey being interviewed for one of his sexual surveys, administered by members of his research staff. (Peter Sarsgaard, Timothy Hutton, and Chris O'Donnell) Kinsey takes them through his childhood with his father Alfred (John Lithgow), a Methodist minister with a real nasty take on yanking the jimmy stick. To say the least, the very curious and self-polluting Albert skips out of town and ends up teaching the intricacies of gall wasps at the University of Indiana. There he meets a student named Clara McMillen (Laura Linney) and they engage in a rather awkward courtship. After they get married and Kinsey loses his virginity, he becomes bored with the gall wasp scene. He begins to see parallels with human behavior in his studies and starts to inquire students about their sexual habits. What he discovers are people who possess no basic curiosity or awareness of their own sexuality. All of the research previously published on the subject suffers from what Kinsey calls a "confusion of science with morality." Despite the protests from IU administration and faculty (portrayed with intentional ineptitude by Oliver Platt and Tim Curry respectively), Kinsey begins to interview thousands of people from around the country in order to categorize sexual behavior. As Kinsey becomes immersed with the study of sexuality, he personally becomes detached from a general understanding and appreciation of sex. He tries to start a casual conversation about the hymen and the vulva around the family dinner table. "No wonder my friends won't come around", his daughter proclaims after her dad's notoriety spreads through the area. Once Kinsey begins filming subjects having sex and pleasuring themselves, he can't figure out why he is not given proper respect for his work. "You told people that their grandmothers masturbate. What did you expect?" Through his work, Kinsey unearths the best and the worst of human nature. Ultimately, the legacy remains in history to be trumped or vilified depending on one's perspective.

This film has received the blessed protest of the Conservative Right who - without even seeing the film in many cases - claim the film champions Kinsey who, in turn, championed child molestation and rapists who helped to reform federal and state criminal codes for the worst. What's funny is that most mainstream filmgoers wouldn't have seen Kinsey to begin with, but might now just to see what all the fuss is about. (Indeed, the funniest side note of this whole affair was a conservative attempt to boycott News Corporation Company who runs Fox Searchlight and released this film. This cooled down when conservatives realized this meant they would have to boycott Fox News and their corral of Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity. Once again, another example of Rupert Murdoch playing both sides of an issue for fun and profit. See my X-Men 2 review for a larger analysis.) And many left-leaning groups scream at the top of their lungs that Kinsey's work STILL derogates women and that his work has helped keep them down for decades. But after watching Kinsey, one can't imagine how this mild-mannered, intelligent weirdo could have the destructive impact his critics claim. But that's why this bio-pic is so significant and important in a year when the culture war has taken a front-row seat at the local multiplex. Commentators ask the questions: Where did this rift in the nation occur? When did it happen? What are the focal points for the battle? Certainly, Kinsey's spot in the Midwest and his insistence on taking such an anti-septic view of such taboo issues is a good answer to the "Where" question. The fact that Human Sexuality in the Male became a best-seller that flowed from blossoming suburb to blossoming suburb in the 1950's is a good answer to the "When" question. And the mere subject of sex is the focal point for most of the controversial issues in our time. Remember, the Supreme Court created a Constitutional right to privacy cobbled from the 1st, 3rd, and 4th Amendments in Griswold v. Connecticut, a case about the government blocking a married couple's right to obtain BIRTH CONTROL! The right to privacy was the gateway issue to so many legal disputes in the past forty years. The abortion issue really comes down to liberals and conservatives arguing over a person's ability to control their sexual urges. Gay marriage? Kinsey said that a near majority of people have had some sort of homosexual encounter. But when it gets to the voting booth, nobody is willing to vote for state-sanctioned butt sex. And have you heard about these dumb-ass covenant marriages? Legislators all over the country are dead set on making this the gay marriage of 2005. Essentially establishing fault and adding more legal bureaucracy, this is another imposition by the government on a religious and private institution that does more harm than good. Even the Catholic Church has denouced these things. But, before I get into a snip, let me go to the subject at hand. All of these hot and divisive issues came from Kinsey and his honest and frank approach to sex. This very fact was enough to set society on fire. This is kind of incredible since Neeson's portrayal of Kinsey is so low-key and academic that the internal mechanics of the character is harmless. Surely to the surprise of Kinsey critics, Kinsey makes its subject out to be an unwitting monster. Kinsey is so immersed in the science and the procedure of sex that he sometimes forgets that sex has unforeseen and sometimes foreseen emotional consequences. In perhaps the most powerful scene in film all year, Kinsey visits an unnamed businessman (William Sadler) who brags about his ability to cause orgasm with infant children. Here, Kinsey keeps looking dead-forward as though he's merely inspecting a gall wasp. There are points when morality should replace science and Kinsey's academic work is shown as being an extreme and unacceptable form of tolerance. Kinsey points out in this scene that Kinsey's critics might have a valid argument .Kinsey's science is like Frankenstein's monster: it can turn from gentle to deadly in a matter of seconds. But Condon is smart enough to contrast this scene with another interview subject: a woman (Lynn Redgrave) who ended an unhappy marriage when she realized that being a lesbian wasn't "abnormal." Somehow, these one-minute performances embody the complexities of not only the film's subject but the societal divide that has opened in the years since. Truly incredible.

What's more fascinating and relevant is Condon's presentation of Kinsey's time and place isn't treated with some period piece distance. Kinsey's subjects are somewhat humorous, but not unfamiliar. One must only look at the national storm that was created by Professor Dennis Dailey's Human Sexuality class at the University of Kansas and legislative attempts to block University funding to see how little society has evolved since Kinsey. Which is to say not much when one witnessed how Bill O'Reilly burned this mild-mannered professor on his stake for a few weeks during the spring of 2003. The film uses the typical bio-pic device of glowingly filming the historical landscape: Lots of sunlight parses through the Indiana trees to soak the lecture halls and picket fences. But the ideas and the themes feels contemporaneous. The subject is brought to life by Condon's work behind the camera and the great skill put into the performances by Neeson, Linney, Saarsgard, Lithgow, O'Donnell, Hutton, Redgrave, Sadler, et al. Each performance is award-worthy in the opposite way most actors display in these types of films. Actors in Kinsey don't act like every breathe and step is IMPORTANT to SIGNIFICANT EVENTS. They are human; tragically and flawed in human composition. The film is the best in bio-pics of the year: This movie is about why Kinsey and his work is important. And why this work is important. In a year where our societal differences were splashed all over the screen, this is the only film to show the origins. Make no mistake, Kinsey is the most important film of 2004. Period.

 
The Pitch for Alexander:
1/2  
2 Nixon + 1 and 1/2 = 3 and a Half Alexander
The Pitch for Kinsey
2 A Beautiful Mind + 2 KU Professor Dennis Dailey = 4 for Kinsey
 
 
See It For:
"Ms. Linney. Point to Where Mr. Murdoch's 'Global Reach' Touched You."