Friday, February 4, 2011

Controversy and Cinema

Time Out Boston has compiled a top 50 list of the most controversial movies in cinematic history. Normally, I try to shy away from the issue of lists due to their arbitrary and typically entirely subjective nature ("My Top 10 Low Budget Eurasian Mumblecore Movies of 2004-2008"). This list, however, is both informative and thought-provoking.

While the source of controversy has changed from film-to-film over the years, the response of backlash and public outcry has remained constant since the dawn of cinema. D.W. Griffith's 1915 epic Birth of a Nation told the tale of the birth of the Ku Klux Klan as an honorable and heroic event. Despite being a cinematic landmark that changed the entire landscape of the medium, the subject matter of the film causes it to still retain its controversy nearly a century later.

Fastforward a half century and we have a film, Sweet Sweetback's Badasssss Song, that also garnered a fair amount of controversy from its depiction of racially-charge violence. Sweetback is a revenge story, focusing on a black male prostitute that decides to stand up to the corrupt white police force. The audience-specific message to black urban males was so successful that Sweetback launched an entire genre of film known as blaxploitation films. As with Birth of a Nation, Sweet Sweetback's Badasssss Song captured the ethos of a segment of the population that seemed to clearly threaten the status quo.

Furthering tensions, 1971 also saw the release of the Clint Eastwood classic Dirty Harry which featured a bigoted, no-rules San Francisco cop chasing down a serial killer. The film was criticized for its "fascist" and racist tone, with Newsweek calling it "a right-wing fantasy."

While racial issues have caused controversy in cinema, the two biggest catalysts are violence and sex. Violence and sex in cinema can both be traced, in some capacity, to the roots of the cinema itself. Cinematic depictions of sex date back to 1895 with Eugène Pirou and Albert Kirchner's company Léar and their pornographic shorts. Ever since, sexual content has made its way into mainstream cinema, albeit at a more reluctant pace than European cinema.

The 1967 Swedish film I Am Curious (Yellow) was only subjected to censorship after making the trans-Atlantic journey to America where it was banned in Massachusetts for being pornographic. Five years later, Jerry Gerard's film Deep Throat starring Linda Lovelace resulted in the first instance of an actor being prosecuted by the federal government on obscenity charges.

This puritanical American spirit is still prevalent with the controversy surrounding Vincent Gallo's unsimulated sex scene in The Brown Bunny (2003). Even more recently is the film Blue Valentine (2010) in which the Weinstein Company had to fight tooth and nail with the MPAA to get an R rating versus the initial NC-17.

Violence, on the other hand, is something which seems to be entirely acceptable by the American movie-going audience, so long as it is not graphic. Needless to say, violence more and more is generating a modest amount of controversy through the heightened gore and such. Tarantino is one of the first directors that comes to mind when thinking of violence in today's cinema. His Kill Bill saga, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Inglorious Basterds films are notoriously brutal, not just in objective content, but the ambivalent sense of whimsy in which they are approached.

The days where Texas Chainsaw Massacre and other assorted slashers were the subject of controversy have wained and the focus has shifted to a more brutal subgenre of horror: torture porn. Eli Roth's Hostel and James Wan's Saw are examples of "accessible torture porn," meaning they were able to overcome the criticism and enjoy theatrical success. However, this subgenre is a dark and twisted vortex where once you leave the safety of American cinema, things can get ugly fast. Japan and France have been the most notorious producers of torture porn, with Takashi Miike's Ichi the Killer and Audition and Pascal Laugier's Martyrs. Perhaps the most interesting example would be the pseudo-snuff films from the land of Japan called Guinea Pig, which beacon-of-morality Charlie Sheen famously reported to the FBI thinking it was a genuine snuff film.

So where does this leave us? Cinema is, at the end of the day, an artform. This means that while there are people like Michael Bay and George Lucas making films for your entertainment, the foundations of cinema are a means of expression. As with many forms of art, not all expressions are going to (or are even supposed to) sit well with the audience. Despite the progress American society has made towards open-mindedness, the idea that one day nothing will be taboo is preposterous. Controversy will continue to thrive, the sources will simply shift.

1 comment:

  1. Weeeeeird. I was talking with my best friend earlier today, and the Rainier Wolfcastle Show came, up, and I specifically recalled the accusatory finger at the audience, as if I had seen this post, which I hadn't. Hmmm.