When Jon Vickers was interviewing for his job as the first director of the new Indiana University Cinema, he was told there might be a tricky problem if he was hired.
"The comment I heard frequently was, 'You'll have to figure out what to do with the Kinsey Collection, because it's different than all the others,' " Vickers says. "There was an assumption the programmer would work with the collection, but how to do that was a question for everybody."
And, as he prepares to open the college cinematheque on Jan. 13, it still is.
The "Kinsey Collection" refers to the roughly 14,000 films and videos belonging to the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, which has offices on the school's Bloomington campus in southern Indiana. Biologist Alfred Kinsey, who started the institute in 1947 and died in 1956, and his researchers collected the films as part of his world-famous (and the institute's ongoing) research into human sexuality.
There are all sorts of films, including sex-education titles, racy vintage Hollywood fare and the erotic Brazilian art-house classic "Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands." But the largest grouping, and perhaps the most historically valuable, consists of the one-reel historic stag films made independently from the 1920s through the 1960s. The Kinsey Collection has about 2,000 of these, slightly more than its Swedish erotica and art movies.
In an age before readily available adult-movie theaters, X-rated DVDs and online porn sites, these films were shown surreptitiously at stag parties and other typically male gatherings. They had suggestive but only rarely explicit titles, such as "Silk Stocking Sirens in High Heels" and "The Nympho Nurses."
Because of their nature, the institute had been storing them in what Rachael Stoeltje, IU film archivist, calls "the Kinsey cage." It is a locked section of a film storage area — a converted bowling alley — near the central campus. (The school has recently completed moving them, however, to an updated facility.)
"Kinsey had relations with police departments all over the country," Stoeltje explains. "They would send him copies whenever they confiscated [such films]. They're all amateur, all illegally made, all with bad lighting, but real gems. They're unique because this doesn't exist anymore."
Liana Zhou, Kinsey's director of library and archives, knows of no other public collection of stag films like it. But that doesn't mean the new cinema will soon be promoting to its students that "Saturday night is Kinsey night," she says, laughing.
"We are very excited to have the venue," she says. "If I have a preference, in the beginning I would definitely be working with conferences and events, and not really [offering] regular programming."
In 2007, IU's president, Michael McRobbie, announced plans for renovation of a vacant 1941 centrally located theater, once used for stage productions, into a state-of-the-art 260-seat cinema and other performance spaces. The total estimated cost is $15 million, to be raised from university funds and gifts.
The state university created IU Cinema in part as a showcase for its own film holdings. IU's Black Film Center Archive, for example, owns 18 special collections and has a strong grouping of independently made African American films from the late 1970s and early 1980s. The large David S. Bradley Collection contains about 3,900 16-millimeter feature films spanning cinema history, including Bradley's own 1941 adaptation of "Peer Gynt" that featured a teenage Charlton Heston.
The Kinsey Collection presents a challenge to film programming that Vickers didn't face in his previous job, as managing director of the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center at the University of Notre Dame. So far he has decided it's permissible to show some non-controversial titles, especially avant-garde films by Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Jean Genet and others. To that end, Anger is coming to the cinema Feb. 11-12 for a presentation of his films.
Indiana University in general is both proud of and touchy about Kinsey's legacy. A 2004 movie about Kinsey's life — "Kinsey," starring Liam Neeson — received an Oscar nomination; the institute's offices in an older campus building have a gift area selling mugs and T-shirts and an art gallery that stages exhibitions.
On the other hand, Kinsey Institute employees make it emphatically clear that all materials are owned separately from the school and are acquired without tax dollars. Until now, the institute has been very careful to only let scholars and researchers see films privately. One rare exception — a public screening of stag films — occurred in 2003, during the 50th anniversary of the publication of Kinsey's "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female." UC Berkeley film and media professor Linda Williams presented four movies as part of a program called "Between 'White Slavery' and the 'Ethnography of Sex Workers': Women in Stag Films at the Kinsey Institute."
But Zhou does want to see a more public profile for Kinsey's stag films, partly in order to spur preservation efforts. "We will look forward to creative, tasteful programming so more students, more interested public and more faculty and scholars would know the treasures we have," Zhou says. "Then we can look for ways to preserve them — that has been a major concern."
Meanwhile, there are those on campus who think IU Cinema should go ahead and plunge into the stag films without too much fretting. Gregory Waller, chairman of the school's department of communication and culture, believes the collection is a viable part of film history.
"That there's arguably pornographic stuff being shot as soon as people pick up cameras, it's a tradition as long as the history of the cinema," he says about the collection. "It's basically been unacknowledged and unwritten, so making that visible seems to be important."