Sunday, July 7, 2013

Controversial Films 2013

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.

Bully (2012)
Dir. Lee Hirsch

This documentary feature about high school bullying became the center of a very public feud between the film’s distributors and the Motion Picture Association of America. The ratings board certified Bully with an R-rating because it contained four instances of the f-word. The Weinstein Company, which distributed the film, argued that the language was tied to the integrity of the documentary and that the R-rating would forbid the intended audience of high school students from seeing it. The dispute was picked up by the press and Bully became a flashpoint for critiques of the ratings board, particularly the MPAA’s double standard in which coarse language is treated more harshly than actual on-screen violence. This hypocrisy was highlighted by the coinciding release of The Hunger Games, a PG-13 action adventure in which children and teenagers kill each other for society’s entertainment. Defending its decision, the MPAA insisted that it had to maintain the integrity of its ratings standards while Harvey Weinstein pointed out that the board had given the Iraq War documentary Gunner’s Palace a PG-13 rating even though it contained forty-two instances of the f-word. For a time, Weinstein considered bypassing the MPAA altogether and releasing Bully to theaters unrated although the president of the National Organization of Theater Owners warned Weinstein that all mainstream theater chains would regard an unrated film like one that had been certified NC-17, meaning that no one under the age of 17 would be admitted to screenings. Despite gestures of support for the film by moviegoers, critics, celebrities, and even some politicians, Bully was eventually censored with the offending language removed and it was subsequently granted the PG-13 certification. In the aftermath, there were reports of renewed resistance to the ratings board by filmmakers and widespread concern among Hollywood executives that the ratings board had done its public image considerable harm.

The Program (1993)
Dir. David S. Ward

The Program was a drama about college football that was released to theaters in 1993. The film included a sequence, which was featured in the trailer and television commercials, in which a group of players proves their mettle by laying on a lane line in the middle of dense traffic as cars pass by at high speed. Film critic Jack Garner wrote about the scene in his review for the Gannett News Service in which he expressed fears that young viewers might try to duplicate the stunt. A few weeks after the review was published Garner’s fears were realized as some young men were killed and others were critically injured while imitating the scene. At first, Touchstone Pictures responded by offering condolences to the families but defended the film. As public pressure continued to mount, Touchstone re-edited the movie and excised the scene. It still hasn’t been restored.

Child's Play 1 - 3 (1988 - 1991)
Dir. Tom Holland, John Lafia, Jack Bender

The horror movies of the 1980s and early 90s produced a number of memorable villains including Freddy Krueger of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Jason Voorhees of Friday the 13th and Michael Myers of Halloween. Among the most popular of these characters was Chucky, the killer doll of the Child’s Play series. In the film a serial killer transfers his soul into the body of a twenty-four-inch doll and terrorizes a family.

Compared to other slasher films of this period, the original Child’s Play received generally positive reviews from critics and the Chucky character quickly gained a cult following but the film was also a source of controversy. At the time of its release, toy manufacturer Hasbro had a popular line of “My Buddy” dolls and Chucky had a remarkably similar look. It has been speculated (but never confirmed) that the similarities beween My Buddy and Chucky ended up killing (ahem) Hasbro's doll. In later interviews the filmmakers claimed that Chucky was actually inspired by the “Cabbage Patch Kids” dolls which were also popular at that time. Child’s Play also generated controversy among those who objected to the violence of the film and while it was in theatrical release a demonstration was held in front of MGM studios, with protesters arguing that the movie would inspire violence in children.

Due to the controversy, MGM relinquished its rights to the Child’s Play films. The series was picked up by Universal, which turned out a series of sequels. Child’s Play 2 and 3 were also controversial as each of the films were linked with high profile murder cases. In Australia, the 1996 shooting rampage of Martin Bryant was linked to Child’s Play 2 when press reports surfaced that a copy of the videocassette was found in his apartment. In the UK, two murders were linked to Child’s Play 3: the murder of Suzanne Capper in 1992 and the murder of three year old James Bulger in 1993. Elements of the Capper murder directly referenced the Child’s Play movies but in the Bulger case the link between the movie and the crime was fabricated by sloppy journalism. In both Australia and the UK, the publicity over the murders and their tenuous or non-existent link to the Child’s Play films were used to campaign for stricter censorship laws.

Deep Throat (1972)
Dir. Gerard Damiano

Prior to the 1970s, the adult entertainment industry did not exist as we know it today. Before Deep Throat, adult entertainment consisted of what were called loops, which were single scenes that played cyclically in private projection booths. With Deep Throat and similar features released in the early 70s, adult motion pictures became B-movies with explicit sex. With the later advent of video tape the genre devolved into mindless vignettes and become what is properly recognized as the pornography industry.

Deep Throat was not the first film of its kind nor is it particularly exceptional as a sex film but it was an important picture because of the events that happened around it. The film was released amid the sexual revolution of the 1970s and when it opened in New York City the film became a social event with public screenings drawing audiences from all levels of society, including celebrities. As the picture rose in prominence, the filmmakers of Deep Throat found themselves at the center of a legal battle over obscenity and free speech. Screenings of Deep Throat were subject to police raids, the film was banned in twenty-three states, and actor Harry Reems was indicted on charges of conspiracy to distribute obscene material across state lines. The legal prosecutions only furthered the movie’s box office success and the court battles were ultimately won by the filmmakers. The legal and cultural legacy of Deep Throat is twofold: it widened the latitude for filmmakers to explore sexuality in films of all kinds, from independent features to mainstream Hollywood movies, but it also established the foundation for the contemporary porn industry which is now a multi-billion dollar business.

After the obscenity hurdles had been overcome, the filmmakers of Deep Throat found themselves indicted by one of their own. Linda Lovelace, the star of Deep Throat, published a memoir in which she claimed to have been beaten and coerced into the porn industry by her ex-husband and manager Chuck Traynor. The former adult actress was embraced by anti-pornography activists who propped up Lovelace as a voice against misogyny. The actress found new fame in television appearances and even testified before Congress during the hearings of the Meese Commission. Lovelace’s claims have been disputed and her activism did little to actually hurt the porn industry. In later years she had less than complementary things to say about anti-porn advocates, claiming they had taken advantage of her. Before her death by car accident in 2002, Lovelace returned to the adult industry. Whether her return was a reconciliation with her past or a matter of economic necessity is unclear.

Those interested in learning more about the political and cultural legacy of Deep Throat should check out the 2005 documentary Inside Deep Throat.

Pretty Baby (1978)
Dir. Louis Malle

Pretty Baby tells the story of a twelve year old girl living in a bordello in New Orleans in the early twentieth century. The film is very well made with strong performances, terrific cinematography, and production design that features particular attention to historical detail. It is also a sensitive but bold examination of human sexuality and the way in which women’s bodies are commoditized.

The starring role of Pretty Baby was played by Brooke Shields, who was twelve years old at the time, and in several scenes the actress is fully or partially naked. This led to accusations that the film was exploitative or constituted child pornography.  (It is notable that the same year that Pretty Baby was released, Superman: The Movie featured equivalent scenes of full frontal underage male nudity, although without the sexualized context.) Pretty Baby was banned outright in several places, including some Canadian provinces, and it was edited for other markets through optical effects or by reframing the image to crop out the nudity.

Pretty Baby is a unique film and very much a product of a particular time. This film would never have been made during the Production Code era and it could only be produced after the breakthroughs of movies like Carnal Knowledge, The Last Picture Show, and even Deep Throat. But despite the freedom of the post-New Hollywood era it is virtually inconceivable that Pretty Baby would be made today given the anxieties about child exploitation voiced in the furors over recent pictures like Hound Dog and Hard Candy.

Fatal Attraction (1987)
Dir. Adrian Lyne

Fatal Attraction tells the story of a married man who has an affair with a business associate. When he tries to put a stop to it, the other woman begins to stalk his family with increasingly violent behavior. The film was an enormous success both critically and commercially, but it was a flashpoint for a cultural conflict that had been brewing throughout the 1980s. Although feminists had made great strides in the 1970s much of that success plateaued in the 1980s as American culture became more conservative. Fatal Attraction portrayed a single, sexually independent, career woman as a psychopath and the character was taken by feminist critics as an example of the conservative establishment’s contempt for modern women. Others saw the film as a reaction to the sexual liberation of the 1970s or reflecting the sexual paranoia of the AIDS crisis. Although Fatal Attraction resulted in a very public debate about how Hollywood portrays women it is a debate that has never really reached a conclusion and so the film remains a standard bearer for discussions about representations of gender in movies. The success of Fatal Attraction led to a number of pictures with similar themes such as Basic Instinct and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.

Rosemary's Baby (1968)
Dir. Roman Polanski

Rosemary’s Baby tells the story of a pregnant woman who fears that a satanic cult is planning to sacrifice her unborn child. The picture was released in the late 1960s and the responses to it exposed the new and changing attitudes about American religion at that moment in time. The reactions of two organizations in particular highlight this. Rosemary’s Baby was given a condemned rating by The National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures for what it called the perversion of Christian beliefs and for mockery of religious figures, practices, and persons. But the picture was spoken of favorably by Anton LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan, which had been established just a few years earlier. LaVey even claimed that he was a consultant on the film although that has never been definitively proven. The success that Rosemary’s Baby achieved at the box office led to a trend of occult and Satanic themed films released over the next decade, many of them controversial in their own right, including The Exorcist, The Omen, and The Devil’s Rain.

Psycho (1960)
Dir. Alfred Hitchcock

Psycho was released in 1960 when the Production Code was still in effect. Although the contemporary ratings board of the Motion Picture Association of America has its own problems and limitations, it is nowhere near as restrictive as the Production Code. Movies that didn’t get the seal of approval from the PCA did not just get a restricted rating – they didn’t play in US theaters at all. Under the Production Code, profanity, nudity, the suggestion of nudity, or the inference sexual perversion were strictly forbidden and scenes involving men and women in bed together, premarital sex, or violent brutality were frowned upon. Psycho has all of these and the production of the film, especially the infamous shower scene, had to be executed precisely in order to get the film past the censors. One of the more amusing fights that Alfred Hitchcock had with the PCA over Psycho was the inclusion of a toilet in the bathroom scenes. No studio movie under the Production Code ever showed a toilet on screen, much less allowed it to be flushed. Hitchcock got around that by making the toilet a critical part of the murder mystery.

Aside from making the cinema safe for lavatories everywhere, Psycho was a breakthrough in its exhibition. At this time it was not uncommon for viewers to enter a movie auditorium mid-screening. Hitchcock insisted that theater owners prevent anyone from entering into a showing of Psycho after it had begun in order to preserve the surprises of the story. This had the impact of stoking public interest in the picture and ultimately changing the way audiences watched movies.

Although Psycho was a box office hit the film was not greeted warmly by critics. It was much smaller in scale than Hitchcock’s previous effort, North By Northwest, and was regarded as a step down in both production value and taste. But Psycho is now considered a classic and among the greatest films ever made.

Bandit Queen (1994)
Dir. Shekhar Kapur

Bandit Queen is a biopic of Indian outlaw and politician Phoolan Devi. As dramatized in the film, Phoolan was shunned from her rural Indian village after suffering a sexual assault and after a series of misadventures she took up with bandits that targeted people in the upper strata of India’s caste system. Along with her lover, Vikram Mallah, Phoolan became the co-leader of the gang but when he was killed the other members turned against her. Phoolan was handed over to the very people they had raided and she was held prisoner for weeks and subject to physical and sexual abuse. After she escaped, Phoolan raised a new gang and returned to seek vengeance in what became known as the Behmai massacre. As word spread across India about Phoolan’s exploits, fact and myth bled together and a public image emerged of Phoolan as a hero of the lower castes and a feminist hero who avenged sexual abuse. Phoolan eventually surrendered to Indian authorities in 1983 and was imprisoned until 1994, at which point she entered politics and served in India’s parliament until her assassination in 2001.

Phoolan Devi’s early life and career as an outlaw were dramatized in the 1994 picture Bandit Queen and it was extremely controversial in its home country. The film was highly critical of Indian society, and the story is a series of misogynist and classist episodes. Depictions of sexuality in Indian cinema are highly restricted and this picture includes several brutal and prolonged scenes of sexual assault. Due to the graphic nature of the film, Bandit Queen was initially banned in India but interestingly one of the strongest opponents of Bandit Queen was Phoolan Devi herself. The reasons Devi opposed the film are not entirely clear. Her initial grievance was over the graphic depiction of her sexual assault although Phoolan’s integrity is suspect given that she dropped her complaint when the filmmakers paid her. Given Bandit Queen’s unflattering depiction of India and the culture’s problematic regard for female sexuality it may be that Phoolan was concerned that the movie would jeopardize her political ambitions. It may also be that Phoolan was simply uncomfortable with such a personal and traumatic experience turned into a motion picture.

The Triumph of the Will (1935)
Dir. Leni Riefenstahl

The Triumph of the Will is a documentary directed by Leni Riefenstahl about the 1934 Nazi Party convention in Nuremberg. The film was intended to showcase Adolf Hitler as a messianic figure and communicate the solidarity and strength of the Nazi state to the German public as well as to the international audience. It is a very well made picture and highly influential; virtually every subsequent film with fascistic themes often borrows techniques and visuals from this film, including Star Wars and Gladiator. Because Triumph of the Will paints a flattering portrait of Hitler and the Nazis it is generally regarded with disdain and held as an example of irresponsible filmmaking. To be fair to Leni Riefenstahl, in 1934 the Nazi’s crimes against humanity had not yet mushroomed into their full monstrosity and the film does not contain any explicitly anti-Semitic content. But the film’s association with the Nazis and its heroic depiction of Hitler are enough to make Triumph of the Will one of the most reviled films of all time. It has been subject to protests and bans, including in post-war Germany, and director Leni Riefenstahl’s ties to the Nazis followed her for the rest of her life.

Although Triumph of the Will is controversial now because it favorably portrays Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, it was also controversial among the leadership of the Third Reich. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels had total control over the movie industry of Nazi Germany. He fancied himself like legendary studio figures such as Jack Warner and Louis B. Mayer, and Goebbels’ determined what films were produced, how they got made, and who starred in them. Goebbels obsession with film was partly based on his belief that it was the most effective medium through which to advance the Nazi agenda. However, Goebbels’ recognized that the cinema’s most powerful rhetorical technique was suggestion. He did not authorize films directly about Hitler or the Nazis but made dramatic stories that emphasized nationalism and similar themes. He was not a fan of documentaries because they often addressed their topics too directly. 

Triumph of the Will was commissioned by Hitler, not by Goebbels, who found himself shut out of the production. This caused a rift between Goebbels and director Leni Riefenstahl, and he came to despise her. But because Riefenstahl was close to Hitler, Goebbels could do nothing about it, and Riefenstahl went on to make the two-part documentary Olympia, about the 1936 Berlin Olympics which is one of the most important sports pictures ever made.

The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl from Book Passage on

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Dir. Kathryn Bigelow

Zero Dark Thirty is a dramatization of the decade long manhunt for Osama bin Laden, culminating with the raid on the bin Laden compound in 2011. Sony Pictures marketed and distributed the film with the goal of courting the critics and ultimately the Hollywood awards circuit, hoping to duplicate the Oscar wins of The Hurt Locker in 2010. When the movie opened it was greeted with enthusiastic reviews, with several critics calling Zero Dark Thirty the best picture of 2012.

However, Zero Dark Thirty was controversial in political circles. Before it even opened some right-wing political commentators claimed that the movie was a bid to influence the 2012 presidential election. The studio and the filmmakers denied they had any partisan intentions and the release date was moved to December. Accusations were also made that the filmmakers were given improper access to classified information. Cooperation between Hollywood and Washington D.C. is not unusual but nevertheless the Senate Intelligence Committee began an inquiry although it was subsequently dropped when no wrongdoing was uncovered.

By far the most intense controversy over Zero Dark Thirty was the charge that it fallaciously made the case that the use of torture techniques by the CIA and its allies led to the discovery of bin Laden’s location. US Senators John McCain (R-AZ) Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Carl Levin (D-MI), members of the US Armed Services Committee, wrote a letter of protest to the chairman of Sony Pictures, saying “With the release of Zero Dark Thirty, the filmmakers and your production studio are perpetuating the myth that torture is effective. You have a social and moral obligation to get the facts right.” Columnists also took shots at Zero Dark Thirty, with Naomi Wolff publishing an editorial in The Guardian that compared Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow to Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl.

Zero Dark Thirty was not without its defenders. Filmmaker Michael Moore, former CIA director Leon Panetta, and a 9/11 survivors organization all voiced their support for the picture.  In an editorial in the Los Angeles Times, Kathryn Bigelow defended her movie, saying “Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time.”

The resistance to Zero Dark Thirty is partly rooted in viewing habits. Audiences have been conditioned to expect stories to present overly simplistic moral conflicts and to spoon-feed that simplicity to viewers in unchallenging, bite-sized portions. When a film like Zero Dark Thirty comes along and does not overtly spell out the moral lesson that ambiguity is taken as endorsement. Zero Dark Thirty does not endorse torture, at least not in the sense that the television series 24 did so. The film is ambiguous on the morality of torture but attentive viewers will notice that the terrorism suspects who are tortured fail to give useful information. It isn’t until those suspects are treated humanely or bribed that they provide leads. But because the torture scenes are so strong and because Zero Dark Thirty is so morally ambiguous, inattentive viewers may draw the conclusion that torture led to actionable intelligence.

The anger over Zero Dark Thirty is also an expression of liberal frustration with the Obama Administration. Although they ended the use of torture techniques, the president and his associates failed to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay and chose to not prosecute those who advocated and carried out torture policies. This, and the failure of the mainstream news media to accurately inform the public or keep torture in the public eye, has left the arts as the only place in which American audiences can reckon with what was done in our name. In the same way that the infamous Nixon-Frost interviews gave the disgraced president the trial he would never receive, art is the only remaining venue to correct the public record on torture.

But the filmmakers of Zero Dark Thirty did not set out to make a film about torture. The topic comes up in due course but the point of Zero Dark Thirty is to immerse the audience in the hunt for Osama bin Laden and capture the frustration, danger, and moral ambiguity of being on the frontlines of a covert war. The filmmakers succeed in doing that and at its best Zero Dark Thirty is a harrowing thriller. The critics and politicians who attacked Zero Dark Thirty were not angry with this film for what it was. They were upset with the film for what it wasn’t.


Wednesday, July 3, 2013

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 show airing July 7th will celebrate freedom of speech with a look at movies that have been censored, banned, or were otherwise controversial. Like previous episodes, the films selected will include movies of past and present, ranging from the familiar to the obscure, as well as a few pictures you may never have realized were controversial in the first place. And even if you tuned in last year, be sure to listen to the 2013 edition as it will include all new material.

Be sure to check this blog on Sunday morning for additional commentary, online videos, and links to sources on controversial cinema. Until then, here are links to posts from previous controversial film specials:
And here is an interview with Joshua Wheeler, Director at the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, following last year's controversy over Innocence of Muslims.