24 June, 2009

Controversy at the Cinema

Being a fan of controversy, and of watching movies, I took a look at this list of the Most Controversial Films of All-Time. Of the 83 films on the list, I have seen only (or as much as, depending on your perspective) 20 of the titles, with just as many finding their way onto my "Must Watch" list as a result of reading through this list. I thought it would be interesting to go through and analyze just what it is that tends to ruffle people's feathers. As a disclaimer, I'll only be making broad generalizations, especially considering that I haven't actually seen the majority of these films, and thus I had to judge their content based on the descriptions provided. In other words, this is just for fun.

Unsurprisingly, the most controversial subject matters are violence and sexuality - though it is worth noting that sexuality is considerably more pervasive among the titles in this list than violence alone. Depictions of perverse sexuality, as well as explicit depictions of even "normal" sexuality tend to be controversial, as well as gratuitous violence - especially when the actions of a film are "glorified", regardless of the film's stated aims (for example, an exploitation flick passed off as a documentary is likely to still raise controversy), seemingly as much a result of moral turpitude as the likelihood (at least perceived) of inciting similar behavior in the real - non-cinematic - world.

Speaking of exploitation, it's a difficult term for me to clearly define, but it tends to be controversial, as you might expect. On the one side, graphic depictions of real life obscenities (wartime torture, scientific experiments, etc.) tends to raise controversy, as does fictional material that is passed off as real - for example, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Snuff, and Cannibal Holocaust, the latter of which's director was allegedly charged for murder until the actors showed up and proved they were still alive.

Next on the list of controversial topics is blasphemy. It's no surprise that religious groups would be sensitive about depictions of their beliefs, and their gods, in the cinema. Above all, the sexualization of religious idols is particularly scandalous, such as with The Last Temptation of Christ, and Hail, Mary, which updates the immaculate conception for modern times. Satirization of religion is ripe for controversy (Dogma, anyone?), but even films that take their message seriously, such as The Passion of the Christ, and Mohammed: Messenger of God, are not invulnerable to criticism.

Additionally, stereotypes and general un-PCness are not uncommon targets, as a number of films show up on the list as a result of racism and misogyny. Although a couple titles described as propaganda make it onto the list, political themes do not seem to be quite as widespread, perhaps suggesting a general tolerance for political dissension in the free world, I would hope. Finally, drug use shows up a lot less than I expected it to, with only two specific citations that I noticed (including Requiem For A Dream) - though that might frequently be accompanied (and overshadowed) by even more explicit depictions of sexuality and violence.

Going back to take a closer look at sexuality, since it's the number one offender, let's split it up into smaller categories. I already mentioned the dangers of depicting perverse sexuality. Underage sexuality is obviously a hot topic, although it only showed up a handful of times. Violent sexuality is obviously marked, but harder to track because it melds the two quite popular themes of violence and sexuality. Homosexuality has a history of being controversial - interestingly, both for depictions that glorify as well as demonize the lifestyle. Finally, what I describe as "grotesque" sexuality is almost a surefire way to raise controversy - by "grotesque", I generally either mean incredibly perverse sexuality, as in, really creepy and wacked out fetishes, or else really graphic depictions of (even normal) sexuality, which involves imagery that reaches or even exceeds the level normally relegated to hardcore pornography.

One other thing I'd like to mention is a note about nudity. Although nudity turns up in quite a few (if not the majority) of these films, it's almost never the primary source of controversy, as it's most often paired with explicit and perverse sexuality, where the sexuality itself is more controversial than the nudity. That's not to say that graphic nudity can't also be controversial, but I think this shows an interesting trend that nudity alone is not really all that devastating. Surely, everybody complains when they see a penis in a mainstream action flick, but it doesn't seem enough to actually get the film banned anywhere, at least not in today's cinematic climate.

And that makes me wonder, how would people react to a nudist-type film, mainstream enough that people would know about it and have a chance to see it, that depicted people of all ages and body types nude, more than just as happenstance, in passing scenes, but as a primary aspect of the story? Would such a film be controversial enough to really raise some heat? Or would people accept it, realizing that there's not really anything so bad about it? Or would they just give it a snicker or two and move on to the next thing? Whatever the case, I would be curious to see more films of that sort.

But, of course, making a mainstream nudist film is difficult, because nudism is not mainstream. I do believe it's possible, however - you just have to find a way to make the film appeal to non-nudists. Of course, that's tricky, because your first instinct to attract non-nudists to a film filled with naked people is to sexualize the nudity. And while that's one approach, it really destroys the whole nudist approach, and it's no longer really a nudist film, but a simple skinflick. And besides, the goal would be to depict the nudity without gumming it up with other controversial topics, including sexuality. So the question remains, how to make a nudist film appeal to non-nudists, without sexualizing the nudity? Is that doable? I wonder.

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