Thursday, July 26, 2012

Batman on Sounds of Cinema

Holy special episode, Batman!

On Sunday, July 29th, Sounds of Cinema will feature reviews of all of the live action Batman films from 1966's Batman: The Movie to 2012's The Dark Knight Rises and include music from each film. Aside from evaluating the merits of each film I will also discuss how each incarnation of Batman has reflected and impacted the cinematic styles of the time in which they were made. In just under half a century, the same character has been played by five different actors in eight motion pictures directed by four different filmmakers. That has made the Batman series very malleable and the films demonstrate a wide variety of approaches to the same text.

Sounds of Cinema airs Sunday mornings at 9am on 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona, Minnesota and at 11am on 89.7 KMSU FM in Mankato, Minnesota. Both stations can be heard via live streaming at their respective websites.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

More Politics in Science Fiction and Fantasy

Following yesterday's blog post about the politics of The Dark Knight trilogy, here is a look at some other science fiction, fantasy, and horror films that use metaphors and fantastical scenarios to confront the political and cultural issues of their time:

Night of the Living Dead
Each of George Romero's Living Dead films incorporate and address the politics of the time. The original is very much a film of the late 1960s reflecting the instability of society.

Land of the Dead
Under appreciated by many, Romero's fourth film used the zombie story to comment upon the George W. Bush era although its observations about greed and social stratification are more wide reaching than that.

28 Weeks Later
This sequel to 28 Days Later was a barely disguised metaphor for Iraq. Watch this film back-to-back with Green Zone and the link becomes obvious. Interestingly the film co-stars Jeremy Renner, who went on to star in the in Iraq War drama The Hurt Locker.

The Planet of the Apes
This series has commentary on race, class, and gender running through it. The original was co-written by Rod Serling, who used his Twilight Zone television series to a similar effect.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes
The violent riot in which apes strike back at human (and predominantly white) slave owners was staged and shot to recall the 1965 Watts Riots.

They Live
John Carpenter's flawed but entertaining alien invasion story was a disguised criticism of the Reagan-era.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers
The original version was a reflection of Red Scare politics. The 1978 remake repurposed the premise as a criticism of suburban consumerist culture.

The Hills Have Eyes
Wes Craven's original 1977 film was a frightening reflection of America's experience in Vietnam. The sequel to the remake, released in 2007, attempted to do the same for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, although the metaphor and the film fell flat.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
In the original Star Trek series the Klingons were a stand-in for Soviet Russia. When the Cold War came to an end, the Star Trek series reflected this.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Politics of 'The Dark Knight Rises'

Before the shooting incident at a Colorado theater, The Dark Knight Rises found itself gaining political traction of another sort when talk radio host Rush Limbaugh claimed the film’s villain, Bane, was a swipe at Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney whose venture capital firm Bain Capital has been a source of criticism by the Obama reelection effort. Limbaugh commented:
This evil villain in the new Batman movie is named Bane. And there's now a discussion out there as to whether or not this is purposeful and whether or not it will influence voters . . . This movie, the audience is gonna be huge. A lot of people are gonna see the movie, and it's a lot of brain-dead people, entertainment, the pop culture crowd, and they're gonna hear Bane in the movie and they're gonna associate Bain.
Limbaugh was not the only one to fear the political influence of The Dark Knight Rises. In an op-ed for The Daily Beast, Harrison Schultz attempted to head off any potential parallels between Bane’s revolution and the activities of Occupy Wall Street:
If we are to talk about this film as if it has any connection to reality, which we should not, because it does not, then I would argue that this film is about revenge more than revolution, and the two are not at all the same thing. Revolution is not the violent overthrow of privileged classes by exploited classes. Revolution is not a violent revolt as it is depicted in The Dark Knight Rises. Rather, it is a social healing process and the resolution of violence between opposed social strata if it is successful.
Part of what is interesting here is the acknowledgement by men with very different political perspectives that pop culture matters and that it shapes public opinions about issues that are apparently unrelated to the content of the film. Limbaugh’s predictions are mostly laughable, at least in the way that they insinuate a coordinated effort to slander Mitt Romney, since the Bane character was created in the 1990s and the script for The Dark Knight Rises was finished by early 2011. But Harrison’s comments are off the mark as well, and not just because his definition of “revolution” has less connection with reality than your average superhero flick. There is an undeniable political subtext to The Dark Knight Rises and to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy that has very much to do with reality.

This cycle of Batman films, which started with Batman Begins in 2005, continued with The Dark Knight in 2008, and ended with last week’s release of The Dark Knight Rises, has been a barometer of the times in which the films were made. Batman Begins was released when the United States was in the midst of the Iraq War and the War on Terror and one of the major thrusts of the film was the difference between justice and revenge, with the key conflict occurring between Batman and the League of Shadows; the former wants to redeem the city of Gotham from crime and corruption while the latter wants to unilaterally destroy it. It may be too much to say that the filmmakers of Batman Begins were actively commenting upon the politics of the moment but at the very least we can observe the way those politics crept into the story.

In The Dark Knight the political subtext was more visible. Organized crime lords of Gotham find themselves facing the combined efforts of Batman, Police Commissioner Gordon, and District Attorney Harvey Dent, and the mob turns to anarchic super villain The Joker for help. In this follow up, the themes of Batman Begins were amplified in ways that made the influence of the War on Terror even more visible: The Joker is referred to as a terrorist and Batman operates outside the boundaries of law, using techniques like including kidnapping, wiretapping, and torture in an attempt to foil his arch villain. When The Dark Knight was released, rightwing commentators claimed that the film vindicated Bush-era tactics like rendition and warrantless wiretapping. This reading of the film conveniently ignores the tragedy of Harvey Dent, who is corrupted into becoming the very thing he fights. This is not to say The Dark Knight was made with partisan goals in mind but that the film reflects a greater complexity to these issues. Again, the filmmakers may not have deliberately tried to make a definitive point about the post-9/11 world, but the anxieties and imagery of this period did shape what ended up on the screen.

With the release of The Dark Knight Rises the themes established and developed throughout the previous pictures are brought to an endgame as super villain Bane leads a revolution that turns Gotham City into what one character compares to “a failed state.” Harrison is right that Bane’s revolution is not a metaphor for Occupy Wall Street, at least not specifically. As he points out in his op-ed, co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan has acknowledged that one of the inspirations for The Dark Knight Rises is Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, which is set in the aftermath of the French Revolution. However that should not diminish the fact that the imagery of Rises also recalls news footage of Occupy demonstrations as well as other events across the globe such as the ongoing war in Afghanistan, the civil war in post-liberation Iraq, and the protests of The Arab Spring. In fact, the character of Bane proves not only to be a powerful warrior but also an adept politician, publically promising liberation while privately working toward genocide, making him a symbol of the pernicious ways revolutions are co-opted. Here again the filmmakers have created a character and a conflict in which contemporary issues are distilled and dramatized.

And this is what The Dark Knight Rises gets at, why it is a relevant work of art, and has everything to do with reality. Audiences are not going to see The Hurt Locker or Green Zone but they will line up around the block for the newest Christopher Nolan Batman adventure. Part of that is to do with the fact that these are very well made films and they are entertaining. But, for at least some of the audience, the attraction of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is also that it is a way for viewers to confront their anxieties through the safety of a metaphor. The Dark Knight Rises may not be about Occupy Wall Street specifically but it is about revolution and Occupy activists should take note about what it has to say, lest they wake up one day and find their movement has been taken over by a Bane (or Bain) like character.

Monday, July 16, 2012

On Tosh and Rape Jokes

As you may have heard, comedian Daniel Tosh recently caused an uproar when he made rape jokes during a stand-up performance. He has since apologized but the incident has become fodder for discussion about whether rape jokes can ever be funny.

MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry show brought on comedians Lizz Winstead, Elon James White, Jamie Kilstein, and Joy Reid to discuss the incident and the concept of rape jokes more broadly:

Part 1

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Part 2

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Toward the end of the second segment, Kilstein (who often uses overtly political subjects as a part of his routine) comments that "Comedy is a subversive art. We probably became comedians because we were picked on because we were nerds and you use it as this defense mechanism to take down the bullies, to take down the bigger guy. And suddenly the bullies are invading our nerd-space and they are using our tool instead of doing what they usually do which is being creepy toward women and be better looking than us." I made a similar observation a few months ago in a commentary about trends in the comedy genre. In that piece I wrote:
Like the horror genre, comedy has a counter cultural disposition. It challenges the audience by pointing out the absurdities of life. Writers like Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, and Joseph Heller wrote about the issues of their day but put a comic spin on starvation, racism, and war. Stand up performers like Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Richard Pryor pointed out the absurdities of daily life and language by making audiences laugh about it. Films like Dr. Strangelove, Life of Brian, and Thank You For Smoking made a joke of nuclear war, religious fanaticism, and political corruption. Granted, these are edgier examples and plenty of comedy is much tamer. But the point is that a lot of great comedy is anti-establishment or at least challenges and ridicules the stupidity of society.

That is not true anymore, at least not in the comedies that Hollywood has put increasing focus on. The genre has been overtaken by the “bros,” a particularly wretched class of human being whose sense of self-worth is defined by a narrow conception of masculinity. The masculinity of the “bro” is outwardly confident but inwardly fragile, and he constantly puts on an assertive front while fretting over his failure to live up to an impossible masculine standard, and derides women or homosexuals to compensate. The “bro’s” role models are found on reality television shows like Jersey Shore and The Bachelor and his patron saint is Donald Trump, the master of the inflated ego. A pawn of consumer culture, the “bro” is completely absorbed in the mindless acquisition of status symbols like cars and designer clothes, and women are just another accessory. He is characterized above all by an undeserved sense of entitlement, expecting everyone to recognize his mastery for no reason in particular. It is this attitude that has defined comedy over the past few years.
With this said, let me head off a common rebuttal: I am not advocating political correctness or censorship. No subject should be barred from discussion or ridicule; as Abbie Hoffman once said, sacred cows make the best hamburgers. But comedians and others should not be allowed to cower behind freedom of speech when they say something stupid. Those who truly believe in freedom of speech, not only as a legal principal but also as a cultural value, understand that it is not the same as freedom from criticism. The marketplace of ideas flourishes when ideas are freely expressed but in the process competing ideas may be discarded or reprimanded. As Lizz Winstead notes at the end of the first segment and at the start of the second, comedians and entertainers ought to express themselves honestly and if they truly believe what they say, defend their position against criticism. But let's not confuse the right to speak with the value of what is said.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Media Consolidation and the Illusion of Choice

Here is a graphic posted on that illustrates the effect of media consolidation:

Media Consolidation Infographic
Source: Frugal dad

There are political and economic consequences and implications to consider but for now focus on this: in the wake of such sweeping consolidation is it any wonder that movie theaters  are crammed with prequels, sequels, remakes, and reboots? Oversized media corporations have equivalently oversized appetites for profits. In fact, because they are so big they require regular blockbuster successes in order to survive and it is having a deleterious impact on American cinema. Studios have been creatively stagnant by recycling stories, characters, and formulas that have proven box office success but at the risk of diluting those properties and at the cost of ignoring original content. They have also managed to block out competition from independent and international cinema in major theater chains, booking the latest blockbuster on multiple screens at the local cineplex. Hollywood has also colluded with (or strong-armed) theater owners to inflate the ticket price with gimmicks like 3-D even while consumers have largely rejected the format. Meanwhile, studios frequently repackage older films for the home video market with special editions and extended cuts, even when those additions or enhancements actually detract from the original film or distort the intentions of the filmmaker.

For now these pursuits have worked. Glancing at the list of the highest grossing films of all time, fourteen of the top twenty pictures (and seventy-three of the top one hundred) were released since 2000. But with both production and marketing costs spiraling out of control, this model just isn’t sustainable. When blockbuster movies hit (The Avengers) they are very profitable but when they miss (Battleship, John Carter) they can be disastrous. If the film industry remains as consolidated as it is and as cannibalistic of its own successes as it has been, there may be a summer season in the not too distant future in which audiences simply refuse to go to the theater, at least not in the numbers that studios and theater owners require, and that could bring the whole system crashing down on itself.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Controversial Films 2012

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema was the annual Independence Day program in which I celebrate free speech by taking a look at banned, censored, and controversial films. Note that this is not intended to be a complete list of controversial films, just a selection of noteworthy pictures that have rattled the cage. For more information on controversial films, see the links at the bottom. You can also check out the blog post for last year's episode.

Dirty Harry (1971)
Dir. Don Siegel

Most films that are controversial for their violence usually cause scandal because of copycat murders or because the actions of the villains in the story are more extreme than the audience is willing to accept. Dirty Harry is a bit different. The film features a character that is psychotic, sadistic, has no regard for laws or legal institutions but he is the good guy.  Dirty Harry was released at a time in which violent crime rates in major cities were very high and according to star Clint Eastwood the film was intended to take a stand for victim’s rights. Although Dirty Harry in many ways draws on the traditions of Westerns, in which justice is restored at the barrel of a gun, the film was viewed as a vindication of police state tactics and film critic Pauline Kael called it a fascist work of art.

The Birth of a Nation (1915)
Dir. D.W. Griffith

Birth of a Nation is one of the prime examples of a film that is praiseworthy for its cinematic accomplishments and yet entirely detestable for its content. Based on the novel The Clansmen by Thomas Dixon, Birth of a Nation aims to tell the history of the United States during the Civil War and Reconstruction periods. In the film, African Americans are depicted as stupid and vicious thugs who prey on white women and members of the Ku Klux Klan are cast as noble defenders of justice. At the time of its release in 1915, Birth of Nation caused widespread public outcry and it was condemned by the NAACP. Those objections were vindicated as the KKK used Birth of a Nation as a recruitment tool and saw a brief surge in its membership. Some screenings of Birth of a Nation were disrupted by riots which lead community leaders in several major cities to ban the film. Despite the public outcry, Birth of a Nation was a tremendous box office success. Nearly a century later, Birth of a Nation remains controversial, with art house and academic screenings picketed and protested.

Despite the controversy and ugliness of the film’s racial politics and its blatant disregard for historical facts, Birth of a Nation is one of the most important films in the history of American cinema. Director D.W. Griffith broke new ground in cinematic storytelling with the film’s style and epic scope. Birth of a Nation opened new possibilities for what a motion picture could do and established the visual and storytelling vocabulary for Hollywood’s mega-productions. Its influence can be observed in later films from Lawrence of Arabia to The Lord of the Rings.

Birth of a Nation is also important for business reasons. The investors who funded Birth of a Nation included Louis B. Mayer and Jesse L. Lasky and the film's success gave those men the financial foundation to form their own studios: Mayer started the company which eventually became MGM and Lasky started the company which eventually became Paramount Pictures. In essence, Birth of a Nation played an important role in laying the groundwork for the studio system and for much of Hollywood. 

The tension between Birth of a Nation’s undeniable cinematic and historical significance and the film’s horrific content is only likely to grow with time. But although the racism of the film is infuriating, the picture is important to preserve and study. Art is often a time capsule of our hopes, values, prejudices, and fears. What Birth of a Nation reveals about our past, both racially and cinematically, is not always comfortable to view but it does provide a way of understanding who we were, where we are, and what we might hope to become.

Precious (2009)
Dir. Lee Daniels

Precious is a film about an African American teenager who enrolls in an alternative school in an effort to turn her life around. The picture is extremely stark with its title character a perpetual victim of her parents. Precious’ mother, played by Mo’Nique, verbally assaults her daughter in every scene they share. Precious is also the victim of incest and she begins the film pregnant by her absentee father. When the film was released, Precious was the catalyst for a media discussion about representations of African Americans in film. Erin Aubry Kaplan of described Precious as  “a challenge [to African American audiences] to drop our own emotional armor and embrace a real-life story we have been minimizing for a long time — that of a big, black, sullen-faced, illiterate girl who lives in the depths of the ghetto and in all likelihood will stay there.” However, others saw Precious as reinforcing ugly stereotypes of the African American community. Armond White of The New York Press wrote, “Not since The Birth of a Nation has a mainstream movie demeaned the idea of black American life as much as Precious. Full of brazenly racist clichés (Precious steals and eats an entire bucket of fried chicken), it is a sociological horror show.”

The reaction to Precious was heightened by the simultaneous release of The Blind Side, a much more friendly drama based on the true story of Michael Oher, who was a homeless African American teenager taken in by a well-off white family. The Blind Side also drew a polarized response and was taken by some as pandering and condescending while others saw it as a vindication of kindness and love. The Blind Side was drawn into the discussion about Precious and the two pictures contrasting take on race and differences in tone were construed as competing visions of how race ought to be dealt with in cinema. Incidentally, both Precious and The Blind Side would be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. Neither would win the top prize (which went to The Hurt Locker) although Sandra Bullock won Best Actress for The Blind Side while Mo’Nique was named Best Supporting Actress for Precious.

Time will tell whether either of these films will shape future conceptions of race in cinema. Precious was more critically lauded while The Blind Side was more financially successful and in Hollywood the latter tends to win out. In retrospect, both the criticisms and the praise of Precious and The Blind Side have some truth to them (although not in equal measure) and perhaps the whole media construed argument between them is a false dilemma.  Hollywood needs to provide us with more compelling and challenging stories about race and at the very least Precious takes the lead on that front.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)
Dir. J. Lee Thompson

The Planet of the Apes series was known for its political subtext. All of the pictures in the original series deal with race and class issues and over the course of the films the visibility of that subtext waxes and wanes. In the fourth picture, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the racial metaphors took a bolder and more violent turn. The story takes place in an authoritarian future in which humans have turned apes into slaves. Caesar, a chimpanzee who has acquired the power of speech, leads his fellow simians in a violent revolt. The riot scenes were staged and shot to deliberately recall news footage of the 1965Watts Riots and the original cut of Conquest featured a lot blood and gore. The film is climaxed by Caesar making a triumphant victory speech and in the original version the film ends on a militant call for revolution. When executives at 20th Century Fox screened the film they demanded changes so that it would secure a PG rating and retain the lucrative family audience. Among the changes, Caesar’s final speech was altered in post-production with actor Roddy McDowall recording some additional dialogue that ended the film on a more pacifistic note. The original version of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes has finally been restored for the Blu-ray edition.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)
Dir. Larry Charles

Borat was controversial for a number of reasons including sexual gags, accusations of racism and homophobia, and the use of ambush interviews. Several of the people interviewed or pranked in the picture attempted to sue the filmmakers for defamation, including a group of fraternity brothers who were filmed making sexist and racist comments. Those cases were dismissed.

Much of the outrage over Borat came from Kazakhstan, where the fictional title character is supposed to be from. Kazakhstani officials took great offense to the character and theater chains in the country refused to screen it. Actor Sacha Baron Cohen used the controversy to his advantage and gave a press conference as the Borat character in front of the Kazakhstan embassy in Washington D.C. during an official visit by Kazakhstan's president. Since the initial controversy, several prominent Kazakhstani writers gave Borat positive reviews and suggested that the film had done more to raise the international profile of the country than anything the government had done.

Six years after the release of the film, Borat continued to pay off comic dividends. At the 2012 Arab Shooting Championship held in Kuwait, the Kazakhstani team won a gold medal and during the award ceremony the tournament organizers unwittingly played the fictional national anthem that runs during the end credits of the film.

Citizen Kane (1941)
Dir. Orson Welles

Citizen Kane tells the life story of a fictional newspaper tycoon who was a thinly veiled and unflattering stand-in for real life newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. At that time, Hearst was one of the richest people in America and he was the owner of newspapers, magazines, and other media outlets across the country which gave him tremendous political power. He used those assets to his advantage and his papers were the originators of so-called “yellow journalism,” in which exaggerated or fabricated stories were used to smear political enemies. As it became clear that Citizen Kane was really about Hearst, the publisher used his influence to suppress the film through intimidation, blackmail, newspaper smears, and FBI investigations. Hearst successfully pressured theaters to boycott Citizen Kane and ordered his publications to refuse advertising for other RKO productions. The mudslinging worked and when Citizen Kane was released it was both a critical and commercial disaster. The career of director Orson Welles was effectively ruined although Hearst’s efforts to destroy the film validated Citizen Kane’s characterization and the persona of Charles Foster Kane eventually stuck to William Randolph Hearst, permanently coloring his public image as a bitter, vicious, and cynical old man. Several decades later, Citizen Kane recovered its reputation and is now cited as one of the greatest films ever made.

Great White a.k.a. The Last Shark (1981)
Dir. Enzo G. Castellari

Although films may be pulled from circulation for any reason, the decision to pull a film out of availability usually rests with the distributor or copyright holder. Very few films are legally banned in the United States, meaning that it is against the law to commercially distribute or exhibit them. One picture that is legally banned, even today, is the Italian picture Great White, also known as The Last Shark. Originally released in 1981, the film is extraordinarily similar to Jaws and was even titled as a Jaws sequel when it was released in some international markets. When Universal found out about it, the studio successfully got an injunction and prevented Great White from being distributed in North America. The ban remains in place although bootlegs are widely available.

As an interesting post-script, in the mid-1990s a shark film titled Cruel Jaws began circulating. Cruel Jaws was directed by Bruno Mattei, who was sometimes referred to as the Italian Ed Wood for his notoriously cheap productions.  Like Great White, Cruel Jaws was marketed as being a part of Universal’s Jaws series. However, all the shark footage of Cruel Jaws was taken without permission from Jaws, Jaws 2, Jaws 3-D, and Great White. Unsurprisingly, Cruel Jaws has never been officially released in the United States.

Kids (1995)
Dir. Larry Clark

Kids was the debut film of director Larry Clark and it remains his pièce de résistance. The picture follows a group of teenagers on the streets of New York, focusing on a young woman who discovers that she has contracted HIV and a young man who is obsessed with deflowering as many virgins as he can. In the course of a day, the teens and their friends drink alcohol, get high, shoplift, fight, and have unprotected sex. Although it was scripted, Kids is shot in a documentary style with naturalistic performances by actors who were unknown at that time. As a result, Kids has a gritty and realistic feel to it, which makes it all the more uncomfortable to watch. When it was released, Kids divided critics. Film Comment magazine hailed Kids as one of the most important pictures of 1995 while Rita Kempley of the Washington Post said the film was “virtually child pornography.” Kids was given an NC-17 rating by the Motion Picture Association of America and was released to theaters without a rating.

Looking at the film almost two decades later, Kids is flawed it is also a bold and important film. The picture is gritty and uncompromising but it is also a little aimless and it is not clear what the picture has to say about contemporary life that wasn’t already said in movies like Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver or novels like Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero. Aside from launching the careers of actors Rosario Dawson and Chloë Sevigny, Kids remains important as a period piece; this is a document of a particular place and time for teenage culture but also for movies. Like Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Kevin Smith’s Clerks, Larry Clark’s Kids was part of the explosion of independent films that shook up the Hollywood establishment in the 1990s. It’s hard to imagine this film being picked up by a major distributor or even getting made now although the influence of Kids can be seen (although sifted through a corporate colander) in reality television shows like Jersey Shore and movies like Project X.

The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)
Dir. Milos Forman

The People vs. Larry Flynt is a biopic about the publisher of Hustler magazine, dramatizing the establishment of the publication and Flynt’s legal battles against obscenity charges, culminating in the Supreme Court case Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell. The film was generally well received by critics and it was recognized by the Hollywood awards circuit, including an Oscar nomination for Woody Harrelson as Best Actor in the title role. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a film about a pornographer got under the skin of some cultural critics but what was curious about the ensuing debate is that it did not really occur between traditional right and left voices. As the debate over the merits of The People vs. Larry Flynt took shape it was really one facet of the American left against another: anti-pornography feminists like the National Organization for Women versus free speech advocates like the American Civil Liberties Union.  The People vs. Larry Flynt was criticized for making a hero out of a pornographer and for minimizing or ignoring Hustler magazine’s actual content; it was argued that the filmmakers made an absent minded defense of free speech with no reference to the content of that speech. Feminist writer Gloria Steinem and Larry Flynt’s estranged daughter Tonya Flynt Vega began a media tour to denounce the film and it was speculated that their protests cost the film at the box office.

Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1975)
Dir. Pier Passolini

Although there are a lot of films that are controversial or shocking there are very few that achieve both the revulsion and admiration of Pier Passolini’s Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom. Salò is adapted from Marquis de Sade’s unfinished novel The 120 Days of Sodom, in which a group of clergymen abuse young people in an attempt to work their way through every possible form of sexual debauchery. For the film, Passolini updated the setting to 1940s Fascist Italy, changed the perpetrators from clergy to politicians, and set the action in the town of Salò, which was known as the capital for the fascist government. The film features lots of grotesque imagery including sexual violence, mutilation, and coprophagia.

Film critics continue to debate the merits of Salò. For those who defend it, the rationale most often given is that the film is a parable about capitalism. Director Passolini had been enamored by the leftist and anti-capitalist uprisings of the 1960s and the films he made immediately preceding Salò such as Decameron and The Arabian Nights were partly about the possibility of youth creating a new and better culture. But by the early 1970s Pasolini had begun to despair that the dream was over and that the youth movement had been coopted by consumerist values. The torture of the young people by the fascists of Salò is a metaphor for the triumph of capitalism and the total domination of individuals by political and economic elites. One of the main examples of that is a scene in which a young man defiantly raises a closed fist to the fascists before being executed. But as some of Salò’s detractors point out, the film’s visceral horrors are so overwhelming that it is difficult to get around them and navigate to any underlying thematic point. The themes of Salò will be even more difficult for a non-Italian audience to deduce since they are unlikely to understand it in context or comprehend the references to Italian history.

Salò was named by horror writer Stanley Wiater as the most disturbing film of all time and it is certainly a candidate for that title. The fact that the film is still able to get such a reaction almost forty years after its release is extraordinary given that the Universal Monsters of the 1930s and 40s were regarded as silly by viewers who saw them a generation later, or considering how Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees became a joke by the end of the 1980s. Even horror pictures released around the same time as Salò such as The Exorcist and Jaws, aren’t considered nearly as frightening today as they were in 1970s. But Salò has retained its power if only because of its uncompromising nihilism.

Soldier Blue (1970)
Dir. Ralph Nelson

In the late 1960s and throughout the1970s, filmmakers were challenging the accepted boundaries of sexuality and violence with pictures like The Wild Bunch, Last House on the Left, Dirty Harry, and A Clockwork Orange. Soldier Blue is an important footnote in that trend. This revisionist western is a dramatization of the 1864 massacre of Cheyenne Indians at Sand Creek by the United States armed forces and it climaxes with American cavalrymen mutilating, raping, and killing Native Americans, including women and children. In its original uncut form the scene is about as brutal and intense as the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan.

Soldier Blue was controversial for its violence but the film’s depiction of the Sand Creek massacre took on another layer of meaning for its original viewers. The picture was released during the Vietnam War and critics claimed a connection between the events depicted in the film and the news reports of the My Lai massacre, in which American soldiers indiscriminately slaughtered the population of a Vietnamese village. Whether the filmmakers intended to make a parallel between the two events is unclear. However, the filmmakers’ earnestness has been questioned since Soldier Blue does have a fairly simplistic view of the conflict between the Cheyenne and the American government and the marketing materials emphasized the savagery of the violence, leading some critics to characterize the film as exploitative.

The intended cut of Soldier Blue was rarely seen until recently. The film was originally released in 1970 with an R-rating from the MPAA and it did not perform very at the American box office, although it did play well outside the United States. Soldier Blue was re-released in 1974 with most of the violence eliminated in order to secure a PG classification. The PG cut was the version made available on home video for many years and only recently has the original version been restored.

V for Vendetta (2005)
Dir. James McTeigue

V for Vendetta was an adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel, which features a superhero out to overthrow a tyrannical government while wearing a Guy Fawkes mask. When the film was released, a number of critics and columnists debated the meaning of the film. Most of the debate centered on whether V should be considered a terrorist or a hero, as he kills government officials and destroys government buildings. In one scene, V sends bombs through the subway system and this imagery was doubly sensitive because a year earlier Islamic terrorists had bombed British subway cars.  Although V for Vendetta takes place in a futuristic Great Britain, some U.S. pundits saw the film as anti-American propaganda and a demonization of conservative values. In 2011 V for Vendetta found itself in the news again during the Egyptian demonstrations that brought down the government of Hosni Mubarak. Protesters incorporated the Fawks mask from the film in their signs and other visual media and the slogan from V for Vendetta was adapted into "Remember, remember the 25 of January." The Fawks mask has since become a favored prop for various protest moments including Anonymous, the hacking group that routinely fights corporations, government agencies, and other institutions. Among their targets have been the Motion Picture Association of American and the Recording Industry Association of America, which lobby for copyright law on behalf of major media companies. Ironically, media giant Time Warner owns the copyright on V for Vendetta, including the Guy Fawks image, and earns royalties on the sales of all licensed masks.


Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Controversial Films on Sounds of Cinema

Independence Day is approaching and that means it is time for Sounds of Cinema's annual episode on controversial films. The episode airing July 8th will feature a look at movies that have been censored, banned, or were otherwise controversial. Like previous episodes, the films selected will range from familiar titles to pictures you may never have realized were controversial in the first place. And following the lead of last year's show, the 2012 edition of this episode will include all new material so be sure to tune in.