Sunday, July 5, 2009

Controversial Films on Sounds of Cinema

For Independence Day weekend, Sounds of Cinema will celebrate the First Amendment with a survey of films that have been censored, protested, and banned in the United States and throughout the world. Here is a summary of the controversial films covered on Sounds of Cinema today:

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
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.

Blue Velvet
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
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.

Fahrenheit 9/11
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.

Rambo (2008)
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
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.

This is by no means a definitive list, just a survey of some notable controversial films that fit into the length of the show. In researching and assembling the list, the following online essays were extremely valuable:

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