Sunday, July 2, 2017

Controversial Films 2017

Independence Day weekend brings with it Sounds of Cinema's annual controversial films special. The episode celebrates freedom of speech with a look at movies that have been censored, banned, or were otherwise controversial. Note that this is not intended to be a complete list of controversial titles, just a selection of relevant pictures that are of interest. 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.

Django Unchained (2012)
Dir. Quentin Tarantino

The films of Quentin Tarantino have consistently raised some level of controversy. The ultra-violence of Reservoir Dogs, the cavalier use of the n-word in Jackie Brown, and the creative revision of history in Inglourious Basterds have made Tarantino a regular target of critics and commentators. But the film that elicited the most passionate debate was Django Unchained. The film tells the story of a freed slave who becomes a bounty hunter and quests to free his wife from a vicious plantation owner.

Django Unchained began to generate controversy before it even opened when filmmaker Spike Lee, who had criticized Tarantino in the past, said the film was disrespectful to the memory of those who suffered through slavery. On Twitter Lee wrote, “American Slavery was not a Sergio Leone Spaghetti western. It was a Holocaust. My ancestors are slaves. Stolen from Africa. I will honor them.” A few commentators followed Lee, criticizing Tarantino for the use of the n-word, which is spoken in the movie over 100 times. Others harped on the historical inaccuracies or felt that Django Unchained failed in its satirical aspirations and exploited the history of slavery for the sake of staging bloody gunfights.

Like many of Tarantino’s movies, Django Unchained borrows from the history of exploitation and grindhouse cinema but this film took the unusual step of commenting on the history of the Western genre and put many racial and political conventions on their heads. This isn’t really a movie about the history of American slavery but about the history of slavery as depicted in Hollywood films. At every turn, Django Unchained subverts the villainous portrayal of African American men seen in films like 1915’s Birth of a Nation while questioning the cultural myth of the genteel antebellum American South as portrayed in movies like Gone with the Wind. This understanding of the film was effectively enunciated by Adam Serwer in Mother Jones, who wrote that Django Unchained is “a two-hour-plus lecture on racism in American film, an extended f--- you to DW Griffith and John Ford, John Wayne, and Clint Eastwood.”

Nekromantik (1987) & Nekromantik 2 (1991)
Dir. Jörg Buttgereit

One of the strangest filmmakers to come out of Germany—or anywhere else for that matter—was Jörg Buttgereit. He grew up in West Germany and Buttgereit was frustrated by state-enforced censorship. He deliberately set out to create movies that would violate boundaries of good taste. 1987’s Nekromantik concerned a married couple who decide to spice up their love life by bringing a corpse into the bedroom. Eventually the wife leaves her husband for the corpse, sending him into a tailspin of despair. As the premise suggests, Nekromantik is very gross. But it’s also earnest and plays out as a mordant melodrama of a relationship coming apart. The film has been banned in several countries and territories including Nova Scotia, Finland, Iceland, and Norway. The British Board of Film Classification didn’t certify Nekromantik until 2014. Due to its content and its scandalous reputation, Nekromantik became a cult title.

Note: The following trailer is probably not safe for work.

Jörg Buttgereit made a sequel in 1991. Nekromantik 2 follows up with the wife from the first film and her frustrated attempts to maintain a romantic relationship with a partner who is still alive. Where the original Nekromantik was an underground film, the sequel opened with some notoriety and it was banned in Germany. Munich police raided a screening of Nekromantik 2 as well as the offices of the film’s producer. The authorities intended to destroy the film negative and Buttgereit was put on trial for glorifying violence. According to Buttgereit, German law enforcement prosecuted Nekromantik 2 by overextending a statute intended to outlaw Nazi propaganda. During the trial, Buttgerieit and the movie were saved by a film historian who claimed that Nekromantik 2 was really about the decay in East Germany and therefore had artistic merit.

Jörg Buttgereit recently adapted the Nekromanik films into comic books which extended the story with a new sequel: “Son of Nekromantik.”

Note: The following trailer is probably not safe for work.

Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Dir. Ang Lee

Based on a short story by Annie Proulx, Brokeback Mountain was a drama about the love affair between two homosexual cowboys. Predictably, groups that oppose homosexuality precipitated a backlash against the film. Brokeback Mountain was pulled from exhibition by a Utah theater chain and protests were held outside of show houses in Auburn, California and Panama City, Florida. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops originally classified Brokeback Mountain an L for “limited adult audience” and conceded that the film was "a serious contemplation of loneliness and connection." However, the USCCB reclassified Brokeback Mountain as “morally offensive” after homosexually hostile groups criticized the review.

Despite the protests, the reaction to Brokeback Mountain was generally positive. The film was released just as mainstream acceptance of homosexuality reached a tipping point and the popular reaction to Brokeback Mountain illustrated how cultural mores had shifted. Among the best examples of this was Wal-Mart. The retailer had a family friendly image and it refused to sell music CDs with Parental Advisory stickers on them. George Carlin’s book When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? was banned from Wal-Mart’s shelves as were skin magazines like Maxim and gay publications such as The Advocate. Hoping to enlist Wal-Mart as an ally, the American Family Association launched a campaign to dissuade the retailer from stocking Brokeback Mountain when it was released on DVD. A decade earlier Wal-Mart might have acquiesced but it ignored the campaign and sold the movie anyway.

Prior to Brokeback Mountain, gay cinema had generally been considered a niche arthouse subject but the film was a commercial and critical success and Brokeback Mountain earned the most nominations at the 2006 Academy Awards. Its recognition was a source of criticism from anti-gay groups but when Brokeback Mountain was passed over for Best Picture in favor of Crash, the movie’s fans considered this a great injustice and a result of homophobia within Hollywood. (Brokeback Mountain author Annie Proulx wrote a bitter editorial about it and W. David Lichty drafted an equally tart retort.) The anger over Brokeback Mountain’s loss was somewhat assuaged by the subsequent Best Picture win of Milk in 2009.  

Internationally, Brokeback Mountain had a mixed reaction. The movie was directed by Chinese filmmaker Ang Lee but it was banned in his home country. Brokeback Mountain was also banned in the Bahamas and the United Arab Emirates. One of the strangest reactions to Brokeback Mountain came in Italy when it was shown on state television in 2008. The movie was re-edited in a way that removed the homosexual romance, transforming Brokeback Mountain from a gay love story and into a film about a platonic male friendship.

Carnal Knowledge (1971)
Dir. Mike Nichols

Several movies of the late 1960s and early 70s addressed the shifts in public morality during what’s now called the sexual revolution. Movies like Shampoo, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, and The Last Picture Show explored the new boundaries of cinema. Among the most important of these titles was Mike Nichols’ 1971 film Carnal Knowledge. The picture stars Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel and follows their characters’ romantic and sexual exploits over several decades. The two men have opposing but problematic views of women; Garfunkel’s character idolizes women to a fault while Nicholson’s character views them as sex objects. The movie takes on topics of lust, power, and misogyny in a way that is still relevant and upsetting more than four decades later. As a product of the sexual revolution, Carnal Knowledge was reflective rather than celebratory of the new freedoms; as Bruce Eder puts it, Carnal Knowledge was “the rude awakening following sexual awakening.” The movie was so identified with the changing morality of the 1970s that the television show The Wonder Years built an episode around the movie in which the underage characters sneak into a screening. 

For its time, Carnal Knowledge was extraordinarily frank about sexuality. This movie allegedly has the first appearance of a condom in a motion picture and the dialogue includes many blunt exchanges. For some, the movie went too far. According to Sean Axmaker at TCM, Carnal Knowledge was banned for a time in Italy and some newspapers refused to run advertisements for it. A print of Carnal Knowledge was seized by police from a cinema in Athens, Georgia and the theater owner was arrested and convicted of distributing obscene material. The trial went all the way to the United States Supreme Court who acquitted the theater owner and struck down the George obscenity law.

The Da Vinci Code (2006)
Dr. Ron Howard

The Da Vinci Code was based on the popular novel by Dan Brown. The story is basically a murder mystery but it incorporates elements of history, religion, and art, specifically the work of Leonardo Da Vinci. The film posits, among other things, that Mary Magdalene was married to Jesus Christ and birthed his children and over the centuries the Catholic Church has engaged in a conspiracy to conceal the truth.

Despite its worldwide success, the book was contentious and had attracted criticism from religious figures and scholars and when The Da Vinci Code was adapted into a motion picture the controversy escalated. The intensification was partly due to the high profile names attached to the movie including director Ron Howard and actors Tom Hanks and Ian McKellen but it was also an implicit acknowledgement of the power of movies in popular culture. As the film’s release neared, The Da Vinci Code attracted significant pushback from Catholic leaders. The church declared the film morally offensive and Archbishop Angelo Amato, secretary for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, suggested that Catholics around the world should boycott the film and organize protests against it. Elsewhere, The Da Vinci Code was banned in several Asian and Middle Eastern countries.

The sequel Angels and Demons was released in 2009 with most of the major cast and crew returning. Because of the controversy over The Da Vinci Code, the filmmakers were banned from shooting inside any Catholic buildings in Rome. However, it was later revealed that the filmmakers sent cameramen posing as tourists into churches and other Vatican-owned property to take photographs and shoot video footage that were used to recreate those spaces for the production.

Ghostbusters (2016)
Dr. Paul Feig

Ghostbusters was one of the seminal titles of the 1980s, inspiring merchandise, Halloween costumes, a spinoff cartoon, and a middling sequel that was released in 1989. After years of rumors and false starts, Sony Pictures made the decision to reboot the franchise with director Paul Feig and a new cast of all female characters.

From the outset, reaction to the Ghostbusters reboot was overwhelmingly negative. Sexist knuckle draggers mobilized against the picture in much the same way they had in the Gamergate controversy. When the first preview of the Ghostbusters reboot was released online it became the most disliked movie trailer in YouTube’s history and the Internet Movie Database was flooded with negative reviews before the film even opened.

However, there is more to unpack in the Ghostbusters controversy. There certainly were sexist trolls who piled onto this movie simply because the lead actors were female. But the trailer was not very good and it was criticized on its cinematic merits by people such as filmmaker Kevin Smith, online commentator Comic Book Girl 19, and 2016 Ghostbusters star Melissa McCarthy who called the trailer “very confusing.” Also opposing the remake was a contingent of nostalgia-driven fans who saw it as a crass exploitation of a classic movie. Unfortunately, a lot of the reporting about the Ghostbusters controversy lumped the sexist remarks together with reasonable critiques. This was best exemplified when James Rolfe, better known as the Angry Video Game Nerd, issued a Youtube video in which he refused to review or even watch the new film. Rolfe’s reasoning was flawed and self-indulgent but it was not sexist. That nuance was lost on Rolfe’s detractors who wrongfully defamed him as a misogynist.

Almost as odious as the online sexism was the way Sony molded its Ghostbusters marketing campaign around it. Instead of repairing the damage done by the trailer, reassuring the fan base, and selling the movie on its own merits, the studio tried to turn the Ghostbusters reboot into a political cause. Sony’s pitch inspired editorials that suggested feminist viewers had an obligation to see the movie to help fix Hollywood sexism. The critics at Red Letter Media allege that Sony manipulated the comments section of the movie’s trailer and deleted relevant critiques of the clip but retained the sexist ones in order to further this narrative. Whether deliberately or as an unintended side effect, the combined efforts of internet trolls and Sony’s marketing department poisoned the entire discussion around Ghostbusters and created an environment in which anyone who said anything negative about the film was labeled a misogynist.

When it was finally released, Ghostbusters underperformed at the box office (relative to its budget) and sequel plans have apparently been scrapped. It’s hard to say if the sexist response impacted the box office results. The film was entertaining but unremarkable. Then again, the box office is less an indicator of the quality of a film and more a verdict on the effectiveness of the marketing campaign. As Matthew Rozsa points out, the dispute over Ghostbusters politicized the film. For an audience that was already exhausted by the tawdry presidential election of 2016, the politicization of Ghostbusters may have soured them on the idea of seeing it.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990)
Dr. John McNaughton

Throughout the 1980s, the slasher film was an extremely popular and profitable genre. Movies like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street played very successfully in theaters and video store shelves were flooded with a lot of forgettable direct-to-video titles. In the midst of this trend, first time director John McNaughton made Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Unlike the campy horror titles that were popular at that time, Henry was a serious look at the life of a psychopath loosely based on real life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. The movie was shot in a grim documentary style and featured first-rate performances by the cast, including the screen debut of actor Michael Rooker as Henry. When McNaughton showed the movie to his financers they were disappointed. They had expected the teenage gore fests that everyone else was churning out at the time and they didn’t know what to do with the picture and so Henry was shelved for three years. In 1989 Henry was screened at several film festivals and got glowing reviews from several high profile critics and was then set for release.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer ran into a snag when it was submitted to the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings board. In order to open in mainstream theaters the film had to get an R-rating but it was given an X. The X was a commercial death sentence. When the rating system was originally devised in the 1960s, the X rating was simply intended to identify movies that were only appropriate for adult audiences. But the X rating was coopted by the pornographic film industry and most theaters would not play X-rated movies nor would newspapers or television stations run advertisements for them. Typically, the MPAA would identify problematic sequences or shots and filmmakers would find a way to edit their film to achieve an R-rating but in the case of Henry there was no editing to be done. The MPAA claimed that Henry had an unacceptable moral tone and there was nothing that could be cut to change the movie. When word of the film’s struggle with the ratings board went public, the MPAA found itself on the receiving end of a lot of criticism. As a result, the MPAA changed the X to the NC-17. The intent was to rehabilitate the “adults only” rating but distributors and exhibitors continued to treat NC-17 rated films the same as those rated X and so the switch did little to actually correct the problem.

Mondo Cane (1962)
Dir. Paolo Cavara, Gualtiero Jacopetti, and Franco Prosperi

Mondo Cane was an Italian travelogue documentary released in 1962. At the time it was made, mainstream audiences were primarily exposed to people and cultures of faraway lands through newsreel footage which was generally polite and highlighted whatever that country’s government or chamber of commerce wanted outsiders to see. Filmmakers Paolo Cavara, Gualtiero Jacopetti, and Franco Prosperi intended Mondo Cane as counterprogramming to the typical travelogue movie. Their film showcased the exotic, weird, scandalous, and violent aspects of nature and world culture. It portrayed women in a lurid way and featured copious amounts of nudity as well as animal violence such as footage of a matador being gored in a bullfight. While much of this footage was genuine, some of it was alleged to be manipulated or fabricated, such as a sequence involving a sea turtle stranded on its back with no explanation of how it got that way. Mondo Cane, which translates as “a dog’s world,” juxtaposed advanced and developing cultures and suggested that human beings were barbaric creatures regardless of their industrial or economic sophistication.  

Mondo Cane received mixed reviews. Some critics hailed the film while others found it exploitative and dishonest. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times called Mondo Cane “an extraordinarily candid factual film” while Pauline Kael called Jacopetti and Prosperi "perhaps the most devious and irresponsible filmmakers who have ever lived." The movie was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival but it was initially rejected by the British Board of Film Classification, which required fourteen minutes of cuts. That polarized reception is indicative of the genius of Jacopetti and Prosperi. Mondo Cane weaved sleazy exploitation with the style of an arthouse production. Strange and in some cases revolting visuals were filmed and edited with showmanship and suggested irony. The acerbic narration contrasted with the beautiful music score to create the impression of legitimacy and profundity even if that impression was just an illusion.

Mondo Cane was an international hit and one of the most important titles of the post-war era. The film inspired an entire genre of documentaries that would be known as mondo or shockumentary films. Jacopetti and Prosperi would make Mondo Cane 2, Women of the World, Africa Addio, and Goodbye, Uncle Tom with each film more scandalous than the last. Meanwhile, other filmmakers got in on the act with rip offs and imitators that were more lurid, more violent, and more unscrupulous about fabricating their footage. The devolution of the mondo genre culminated in the early 1980s with the advent of videotape and the release of The Faces of Death. The repercussions of Mondo Cane are still with us. Much of so-called reality television like The Bachelor and The Real Housewives and Cops and Girls Gone Wild rely upon the same appeals of Mondo Cane and frequently employ the same dishonest and unethical techniques pioneered by Jacopetti and Prosperi. 

The music of Mondo Cane was composed by Riz Ortolani and included the song “More.” This piece became a huge hit and was rerecorded by such artists as Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, and Judy Garland.

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987)
Dir. Todd Haynes

Karen Carpenter and her brother Richard formed the singing duo The Carpenters who were popular throughout the 1970s with hit songs like “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “(They Long to Be) Close to You.” In 1983, Karen Carpenter died of heart failure brought on by anorexia. Her life has since been the subject of several dramatic films, most notably 1987’s Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Superstar was an experimental short film in which Karen Carpenter and her companions were portrayed by Barbie dolls. The film was directed by Todd Haynes who would go on to have a successful career helming movies like Velvet Goldmine, I’m Not There, and Carol. According to the Denver Film Society, Richard Carpenter was irate over Superstar’s insinuation that he was gay and Carpenter filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against the filmmakers for their unauthorized use of The Carpenters music. Richard Carpenter won the lawsuit and Superstar was—and still is—legally prohibited from being sold or commercially exhibited. However, the film has been shown at the Museum of Art and Design, bootleg versions are widely available, and Superstar has become among the most popular cult films

An authorized live action biopic of Karen Carpenter’s life, simply titled The Karen Carpenter Story, was made for television and broadcast on CBS in 1989. Richard Carpenter was credited as a producer on the project and he even wrote some original music for it but Carpenter later spoke poorly of the film. In the liner notes to The Carpenters: Gold – 35th Anniversary Edition CD set, he referred to 1989’s The Karen Carpenter Story as “approximately 90 minutes of creative license that give biopics, in general, a dubious name.”

The Tin Drum (1979)
Dir. Volker Schlöndorff

The Tin Drum was an adaptation of the novel by Günter Grass. The story is a work of magical realism set during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Three-year-old Oskar is revolted by the adult world and he decides to stop growing. Clinging to his tin drum, Oskar remains in the body of a child even while his mind continues to mature. He lives through World War II and has romantic relationships with several grown women. The Tin Drum is a study of the Polish experience during World War II and the way fascism infected the culture. The film’s unusual premise suggests that our attempts to hold onto our innocence are ultimately foiled.

The Tin Drum was well received, winning the Palm d’Or at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival and the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the 1980 Academy Awards. The film’s decorations did not spare it from censorship and controversy. At issue were several sequences in which Oskar, played by child actor David Bennent, was shown in sexual situations with adult women. This led to The Tin Drum being accused of child pornography and it was cut for its initial release in the United Kingdom and it was banned in Ontario, Canada. 

The highest profile dispute over The Tin Drum came eighteen years after the film was released. Prompted by the community organization Oklahomans for Children and Families, the Oklahoma City police department seized copies of The Tin Drum from local video stores and public libraries. The authorities did not have a warrant, putting them in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States’ Constitution. The officers also obtained the rental history of The Tin Drum in order to track down circulating copies. This violated the Video Privacy Protection Act, a federal law passed in 1988 that protects consumer video rental records. As it happened, one of the copies of The Tin Drum was checked out to an employee of the American Civil Liberties Union. After police officers confiscated the tape from his home, the ACLU employee filed a lawsuit against the city and the police department for illegal search and seizure. Similar lawsuits were also brought by the Oklahoma City Metropolitan Library System and the Video Software Dealers’ Association. A federal judge reviewed The Tin Drum and found that it did not violate obscenity laws and the movie returned to the shelves. During the controversy, copies of The Tin Drum were sold in other states with a sticker proclaiming that the movie was “Banned in Oklahoma” and The Tin Drum became the most rented foreign film in Oklahoma video stores.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)
Dir. George P. Cosmatos

The character of John Rambo was introduced in 1982’s First Blood. Based on David Morell’s novel and starring Sylvester Stallone, First Blood was about a troubled Vietnam veteran who gets in trouble with the law. The movie’s success led to a sequel released in 1985. Where First Blood was a modestly scaled thriller, Rambo: First Blood Part II was a larger than life action extravaganza in which the character was sent to Vietnam on a secret mission in search of American prisoners of war. The sequel was a blockbuster success which naturally led to merchandising opportunities including toys and other products aimed at children. As was common in those days, the toy line was associated with a syndicated cartoon, Rambo: The Force of Freedom. However, the cartoon had more in common with other animated programs popular at that time like G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero than it did with the live action Rambo movies. The marketing of a violent, R-rated action franchise to children led to protest. Peace group the War Resisters League picketed outside a stockholder’s meeting of toy manufacturer Coleco Industries. The protest was part of a broader effort against war toys. Film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert dedicated an entire episode of their television program to the controversy. Although they had given a positive review to Rambo: First Blood Part II, Siskel and Ebert were critical of the marketing of war toys to children.

  • 50 Most Controversial Films at Sky Movies
  • 50 Most Controversial Movies Ever by David Fear, Joshua Rothkopf, and Keith Uhlich at Time Out New York
  • The 101 Most Controversial Films of All Time at Listal
  • "Banned in Oklahoma." The Tin Drum. Criterion Collection, 2004. DVD. 
  • The Godfathers of Mondo. Dir. David Gregory. Blue Underground, 2003. DVD. 
  • Kerekes, David and David Slater. Killing for Culture: From Edision to ISIS: A New History of Death on Film. Headpress: 2016.
  • Kimber, Shaun. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Palgrave, 2011. Controversies Series.
  • Most Controversial Films of All Time by Tim Dirks at AMC Filmsite
  • "Portrait: The Making of Henry." Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Dark Sky Films, 2009. Blu-Ray. 
  • Warf, Barney and Thomas Chapman. “Cathedrals of Consumption: A Political Phenomenology of Wal-Mart.” Wal-Mart World: The World’s Biggest Corporation in the Global Economy. Ed. Stanley D. Brunn. Routledge, 2006.

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