Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Monday, July 20, 2009
Cohen’s target in Brüno is, superficially, the absurd pursuit of fame that seems to plague American life. It’s odd, in fact, that no one has made the connection between the media’s weird obsession with the death of Michael Jackson and Cohen’s deconstruction of celebrity hollowness.Brüno was certainly a better satire than Borat and Siegel does a nice job of laying out how to understand what Cohen accomplishes in the new film. The comparisons to Jonathan Swift are a bit much, although he is right to use Swift to show that satirists often use sexual, scatological, or "dirty" humor to make their points, which puts Brüno into an artistic and historical context.
What better target, after all, if you want to satirize the American obsession with fame than Paula Abdul, one of American Idol’s judges? Arriving in Los Angeles, Brüno decides to become re-famous by interviewing famous people and has Abdul over to his fancy new house. Unfortunately, he doesn’t own any furniture. So he has some of the Mexican workmen who are fixing up his new digs get down on all fours and serve as tables and chairs.
Tasteless? You bet. And the perfect conceit to expose true spiritual vulgarity. Abdul enters and, though visibly surprised by the novel accommodations, amiably slips right into her celebrity share of entitled attention and takes a seat on the back of one of the Mexicans. She chats chirpily with Brüno, indifferent to this new low in the history of immigrant labor. It’s only when Brüno has his assistant wheel in some hors d’oeuvres on the ample naked stomach of another Mexican that Abdul decides she can’t be there, abruptly gets up and leaves. But she was there, and happily so, and it’s not clear whether she leaves out of an eruption of moral indignation or because she finds the prospect of eating off an immigrant’s naked stomach hygienically problematic. You can sit on them, but when it comes to food…
If all Brüno were was a satire on the obsession with fame and celebrity, it would not be enough to hold your attention for very long. But the desire to be famous is also a desire to satisfy your appetites with impunity, to elevate selfishness into a moral principle. The universal desire to be famous is a social problem. Brüno himself is a selfish pig.
Perhaps some straight critics can’t bring themselves to admit that a flamboyantly gay man can at the same time be morally repellent. But Brüno is not repellent because he is flamboyantly gay. He is a flamboyantly gay man who happens to be repellent.
Thursday, July 16, 2009
Rowling's use of the term "half-blood" to vividly evoke the damaging effects of racial prejudice in the life of some of her key characters must be highlighted, especially this week. This is the same week where the American people have been treated to the unseemly spectacle of conservative politicians using "racism" as a club to beat up Judge Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic American woman nominated to the United States Supreme Court. These attacks on her, as illustrated but not limited to Senator Sessions' remarks, illustrate that her questioners have no insight into their own racial formation, and deformation, in a white-dominant American society.Had the movie come out on its original release date in November 2008 (it was delayed because of the writer's strike) it's possible that these connections might not have been made, proving once again that timing in art is (nearly) everything.
I highly recommend that several of these Senators go see the Harry Potter film--and better yet, read the books where the racial prejudice by some in the wizarding community is horribly illustrated. "Generations of purebloods, wizards all--more than you can say, I don't doubt...a filthy, dirt-veined Muggle," says a Wizard racist whose negative attitudes toward racial pluralism have fatal and near fatal consequences for both Wizards and Muggles alike in the film and in the book.
Monday, July 13, 2009
An M.D. who became a phenomenal entertainment industry success, Crichton was very much science's man in Hollywood. Even with his many science-centered hits, ranging from "Jurassic Park" to "ER," he still found time to lecture to scientific institutions and compose numerous nonfiction essays sharing his views on matters ranging from science in entertainment to climate change. He was, through and through, a paradox. His plots were meticulously researched and filled with science; yet at the same time — and most memorably in "Jurassic Park" — they depicted science going out of control, running amok, so that before long the bodies begin to pile up (or get digested).This is a good example of storytelling coming into conflict and with other parts of the culture and it supports my argument for a wider appreciation of cinema, which I've tried to do with Sounds of Cinema. A critical public would be more inclined to hold films to a higher standard both aesthetically and thematically. Contemporary audiences would not stand for the racist revisionist history of Birth of a Nation (I hope) because they would recognize it as such. Similarly, a public more educated in film as well as science would reject anti-intellectual crap like The Exorcism of Emily Rose or Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.
And then toward the end of his career, Crichton produced a book that, for many in science, will live in infamy: 2004's "State of Fear," whose plot involves eco-terrorists trying to create natural disasters that will scare the public about global warming — which doesn't, in the view of the novel's heroic scientist-protagonist, even exist.
Let's take these two halves of Crichton in sequence, as both embody important lessons about science in our culture. First, science in the entertainment media. Crichton had little patience for scientists' complaints about ridiculous sci-fi plots and wild scientist stereotyping. In a 1999 lecture before the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he countered such gripes with his own perspective on why scientists will probably never be very happy with the products of Hollywood. As Crichton advised, there are at least four important rules of movies that just don't mesh with the real process of research: "(i) Movie characters must be compelled to act. (ii) Movies need villains. (iii) Movie searches are dull. (iv) Movies must move." Crichton argued that real science, with its long, drawn-out intellectual processes and frequent dead ends, simply can't be reconciled with such exigencies. "The problems lie with the limitations of film as a visual storytelling medium," he concluded. "You aren't going to beat it."
Crichton's words are worth heeding. People who care about science and want it to come off better in the mass media can't ignore his four rules of movie storytelling. They can't ask for entertainment products in which the characters do actual research (or at least not much of it). They can't ask for entertainment products that will be boring — a contradiction in terms. Rather, the goal must be to work toward finding ways of conveying information about science through film and other entertainment media without rendering them dull or unpalatable to audiences.
Sunday, July 12, 2009
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Sunday, July 5, 2009
The Passion of the Christ
This is easily the most controversial film of the decade; I would guess that more ink was spilled attacking and defending this film than any other since the turn of the century. Most of the controversy was based on accusations of anti-Semitism but I’ve never felt that these accusations were valid.
I do have issues with the film as pornographic – The Passion festishises the violence. To illustrate the point, consider a sex scene in a dramatic film. In that case the scene is part of an ongoing narrative context. That context gives the scene meaning beyond the act itself. When you pull it out of that context, then it becomes about the act. In this case, the film isolates the torture and execution of Christ, with an emphasis on gore, and gives no context about Christ’s life or his message. While it’s true that a lot of Christian viewers will bring that context with them, in evaluating the film we have to stay within the boundaries of what the film presents, and The Passion does not provide context for anything.
Disney films don’t usually suggest themselves as controversial but a few have raised debate over the years. Aladdin was protested by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee based on racism and cultural insensitivity. Aladdin and Jasmine are depicted as Western and even American; they have Western accents and their appearance downplays any Middle Eastern characteristics; Aladdin looks like a tanned Tom Cruise. But the villains of the films are all portrayed as angry Arab stereotypes.
Anger was also directed at the theatrical version of the song "Arabian Nights." The original version contained the line, “Where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face/It's barbaric, but, hey, it's home"; the line was rerecorded for subsequent video releases and for the re-released soundtrack and changed to "Where it's flat and immense and the heat is intense/It's barbaric, but, hey, it's home."
A Clockwork Orange
The film was criticized for intense violence mingled with sexuality, but the controversy was made worse by supposed copycat crimes in which gangs would recite the song “Singing in the Rain” while committing violent crimes.
Basic Instinct was the first picture to be threatened with the NC-17 rating, which had replaced the X-rating in the early 1990s. The intent of changing X to NC-17 was to allow more respectability to the rating and avoid confusion with the XXX rating adopted by hardcore pornography. The change didn’t work, partly because most major theater chains refuse to carry NC-17 films or cannot because the land leases with their communities have that stipulation. A lot of the major brick and mortar video renters and sellers like Blockbuster and Wal-Mart won’t carry NC-17 DVDs. That’s rather ironic because they will carry unrated films, which is a way around that rule. And of course unrated versions rent and sell far better than their R-rated counterparts.
Basic Instinct was eventually cut down to get an R-rating by removing about 40 seconds of footage, spread throughout the picture. It is a common practice and the ratings process has been critiqued and exposed in the documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated which, ironically, was given an NC-17 rating but can be found on DVD in an unrated version.
In addition to the rating dispute, Basic Instinct was protested by women’s groups and gay-lesbian organizations, which felt the film was misogynistic and anti-gay.
David Lynch’s film about the sexual perversion lurking beneath the surface of suburbia mixes sexuality with violence, which is always controversial, but its themes can be seen echoed in later films like American Beauty.
Cannibal Holocaust was part of a trend of Italian cannibal films from the 1970s and 80s and is one of the most widely censored films of all time, supposedly banned in as many as 50 countries. The first half of Cannibal Holocaust follows an anthropologist into the Amazon as he discovers what happened to a documentary film crew that has disappeared, and the second half shows what happened to them through the footage that they shot.
Cannibal Holocaust became an instant bombshell upon its premiere. The film features very realistic scenes of the characters being killed and even includes footage of the actors killing animals. The intent was to manipulate the line between what is real and what is not and make audiences think about news and entertainment. As it turned out, it worked too well and the director and cinematographer were arrested because of the cruelty to animals and upon the belief that the actors had actually been killed in the making of the film. As a part of their contract to help with marketing the film, the actors had agreed to lay low and so the lawyers for the filmmakers had to scramble to locate the actors and bring the cast into court to exonerate the filmmakers.
Cannibal Holocaust remains a difficult and challenging film but it is also an important one and in the age of 24-hour news networks, sensational journalism, and reality television it has actually become more relevant.
Dogma was Kevin Smith’s comedy about religion with an emphasis on Catholicism. The film was protested by The Catholic League and other religious organizations and raised such a stir that Smith actually received death threats. Disney, which owns Miramax, backed out of distributing the film, at which point Harvey Weinstein brought the project from Miramax to Lion's Gate Films.
The controversy over Fahrenheit 9/11 is fairly well known. It worked out for the film’s benefit and it became the highest grossing documentary film of all time. Like Dogma, the film was dropped from distribution by Disney via Miramax and then taken to Lions Gate Films. In this case, then Florida governor Jeb Bush threatened to take away tax breaks on Disney theme parks if they distributed the film.
The fourth Rambo film was received fairly well in the US but it caused a significant stir in Burma, where the film takes place. In the film, Rambo rescues missionaries who have been taken captive by the military dictatorship that controls that country. The film was banned in Burma but pirated copies made their way into the country and Rambo’s line “Live for nothing or die for something” became a rallying cry for the resistance fighters.
Natural Born Killers
Natural Born Killers was a notorious satire of media sensationalism and violence. The film has been criticized for becoming the very thing that it was satirizing. I think the film works more than it doesn’t and it is still a fascinating film to watch. In the opinion of director Oliver Stone, the compromised theatrical cut is actually more violent because the excesses featured in the director’s cut version make the absurdity of the film more apparent. There were a number of alleged copycat murders linked to the film and novelist and lawyer John Grisham led a civil suit against the filmmakers but the lawsuit was dismissed.
South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut
South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut is an adaptation of the Comedy Central television series. The film is a political satire and a parody of Disney films and according to the The Guinness Book of World Records, the film contains 399 curse words and 199 offensive gestures inside of its 81-minute running time.
The ratings process of South Park was rather interesting. According to filmmakers Matt Stone and Trey Parker, they submitted the film to the MPAA and received an NC-17 but instead of cutting out offensive material, they put more in and resubmitted it. The ratings board again gave them an NC-17 and Parker and Stone again put more offensive material into the film. This went back and forth until finally the MPAA apparently gave up and approved an R-rating.
The story includes Saddam Hussein as Satan’s homosexual lover and supposedly Saddam was forced to watch the film while he was in the custody of the American military. The song "Blame Canada" was nominated for an Oscar for best original song.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
The second Indiana Jones film was criticized in the US for its violence, which was darker and more intense than Raiders of the Lost Ark. Although it is not as violent as many other films mentioned on today’s show, it does contain some brutal scenes of violence against children and a human sacrifice sequence, which did not mesh well with a marketing campaign that was aimed at family audiences. The film upset a lot of viewers and led to the creation of the PG-13 rating by the MPAA.
The film was also controversial overseas. Initially the filmmakers planned to shoot in India, where the film is set, but the Indian government demanded changes to the script so the production was relocated to Sri Lanka. After its release, Temple of Doom was banned in India for some time and there were charges of racism made against the film for its portrayal of Hinduism and its white washing of British colonialism.
Fight Club was adapted from the Chuck Palahniuk novel. Although the film now enjoys a very strong cult following, it did not do exceptionally well at the box office and drew very divided reactions from critics. The Friday that the film was released theatrically in the United States, Rosie O'Donnell appeared on her TV show and revealed the twist ending and urged all of her viewers to avoid the movie. Rupert Murdoch, who controls News Corp, which owns Twentieth Century Fox, purportedly despised the project and clashed with then-studio head Bill Mechanic over putting it into production. The film's disappointing box office returns were a major reason for Mechanic's departure from the studio after its release.
Requiem for a Dream
Requiem for a Dream follows several characters descent into drug addiction. Amazingly, some people felt that the film somehow glamorized drug use, which is hard to imagine given the visceral and frankly disgusting climax of the film. The ending sequence landed Requiem for a Dream an NC-17 and director Darren Aronofsky refused to cut the film so it was released unrated. Because major rental chains will not carry NC-17 films, an R-rated version of the film was released on video.
- Entertainment Weekly: 25 Most Controversial Films of All Time
- filmsite.org: Most Controversial Films of All Time (Includes images not safe for work)
- Yahoo Movies: 5 Most Controversial Films of the Decade
- The Guardian: Torture, necrophilia, and a very naughty boy: the films that shocked us
- Alternative Reel: Top 10 Banned Films of the 20th Century
- critical-film.com: The Complete Video Nasties List
- Wikipedia: List of banned films
- Premiere: The 25 Most Dangerous Movies Ever Made
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Karl Malden, one of Hollywood's strongest and most versatile supporting actors, who won an Oscar playing his Broadway-originated role as Mitch in "A Streetcar Named Desire," died today. He was 97.
Malden starred in the 1970s TV series "The Streets of San Francisco" and was the longtime American Express traveler's-check spokesman, warning travelers to not leave home without it. He died of natural causes at his home in Brentwood, said his daughter Mila Doerner.
With his unglamorous mug -- he broke his bulbous nose twice playing sports as a teenager -- the former Indiana steel-mill worker realized early on the course his acting career would take.
"I was so incredibly lucky," Malden once told The Times. "I knew I wasn't a leading man. Take a look at this face." But, he vowed as a young man, he wasn't going to let his looks hamper his ambition to succeed as an actor.
In a movie career that flourished in the 1950s and '60s, Malden played a variety of roles in more than 50 films, including the sympathetic priest in "On the Waterfront," the resentful husband in "Baby Doll," the warden in "Birdman of Alcatraz," the outlaw-turned-sheriff in "One-Eyed Jacks," the pioneer patriarch in "How the West Was Won," Madame Rose's suitor in "Gypsy," the card dealerin "The Cincinnati Kid" and Gen. Omar Bradley in "Patton."