Amidst the controversy of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s The Interview, our contributors have selected to write about some of the most controversial films of the past to coincide with the comedy’s UK release.
Wake in Fright
Lost for over thirty years, Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright (1971) has enjoyed a recent reappraisal following the chance discovery of the only remaining print in a Pittsburgh film vault, which was mere weeks away from destruction. Its initial descent into obscurity was catalysed by controversy surrounding its notorious kangaroo hunt scene, which incorporated real footage of animal slaughter, and by its brutal, unflinching portrayal of Outback life, incensing Australian audiences of the time.
Wake in Fright‘s most infamous searing, desolate and utterly disturbing moments hold up today. Following the weekend of a school teacher stranded in the Outback, the film is a savage and unsettling mediation on Australian masculinity, violence and the suffocating horrors of hospitality.
Unfairly lumped under the frustratingly unsubstantial Ozploitation genre, the film’s languorous cinematography and strangely poetic existentialism has more in common with Picnic at Hanging Rock than with any low-budget slashers. Nauseating, beautiful, sparse and relentlessly horrifying, Wake in Fright has certainty stood the test of time.
A Clockwork Orange
Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 A Clockwork Orange was so controversial that, following release, the director was forced to pull it from distribution in the UK after death threats targeted him and his family as a backlash against the supposed copycat behaviour attributed to the dystopian crime film. It wasn’t until Kubrick died in 1999, that the film could be seen in UK cinemas or purchased on VHS.
Based on Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel of the same title, A Clockwork Orange follows Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and his gang of droogies as they run riot through the streets of a futuristic London. Upon arrest, Alex is subjected to mind altering experimentation in a governmental attempt to reform juvenile delinquents. Despite the disturbing depictions of pavlovian experiments and authoritarian brutality, it is actually the initial scenes that sparked the most outrage.
Amongst a myriad of moments containing graphic sexual and physical violence, the infamous “Singin’ in the Rain” scene, in which the main character and his gang rape and beat a women whilst singing the popular song, is particularly horrifying. A Clockwork Orange is commonly considered the pinnacle piece of mainstream controversial filmmaking, and even upon reflection over fourty years after its release, it isn’t difficult to see why.
In the Realm of the Senses
Still censored in its country of origin, Japan, In the Realm of the Senses is an erotic masterpiece from director Nagisa Oshima. Oshima is famous of his critique of Japanese society and its political proceedings, and in this film, his intentions to test the limits of obscenity in traditional Japanese culture were wildly successful due to the controversial legacy that the 1976 film has carried with it.
Based on a true story that became a national sensation in Japan, In the Realm of the Senses depicts a destructive sexual affair between Sada Abe and Kichizo Ishida, whose entire pre-war relationship rests solely in their detrimental intercourse. The extremely graphic portrayal of unsimulated sex is not only an expression of erotic passion, but also an interrogation of overpowering sexual and romantic obsession not often seen on screen.
Even despite being a retelling of actual events, the film’s censorship in various countries has kept its controversial and graphic image intact, most likely due to its most agonising highlight.
Monty Python’s Life of Brian
Monty Python’s Life of Brian is just as well-known for its controversy as it is for its comedic value, if not more so. The film has been seen as blasphemous since its 1979 release, with the Pythons even incorporating their bad reputation into advertising campaigns in certain countries, such as the tagline “The film so funny that it was banned in Norway!” being used on the Swedish version of the poster.
The film’s focus is not on Jesus, but instead (as the title suggests) on ‘the Life of Brian’, a man born next door to Jesus who is seen as being the Messiah. For the whole film he is consistently mistaken for him, with this eventually resulting in his crucifixion in Jesus’ place. The religious satire was not taken lightly, with thirty-nine local authorities banning the showing of the film, and a large number of protests by religious groups taking place.
Despite the never-ending list of quarrels and disputes, the film has consistently been hailed as one of the greatest comedies of all time, with many of its phrases entering into the modern lexicon, though its status of sacrilege is equally unforgotten.
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov’s immaculate and disturbing masterpiece novel, is the story of middle-aged Humbert Humbert (played by Jeremy Irons in the film) and his love affair with his 12-year-old stepdaughter, Lolita (Dominique Swain). When the book was first published in 1955, it was considered by some to be obscene, and to others, a masterwork of fictional writing.
The second screen adaptation of Nabokov’s novel after Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 effort, Lolita (1997) continues to spur debate due to its racy subject matter. Critics at the time of the film’s release were cautious to praise it due to its taboo tale and themes, and the storyline continues to be made synonymous with the controversy surrounding it.
Despite the delicate topicality, the sets and performances in the film prove to be redeeming qualities. If one is able to accept what is a potentially repugnant plot and the difficult issues surrounding it, they may find Lolita need not simply be noted for its controversy, but for being a classic piece of cinema.
Bret Easton Ellis’ 1991 novel American Psycho is perhaps one of the most controversial and hotly-debated books of recent time. Inciting all manner of protests for its graphic violence and intensely dark tone, both the novel and its author have been the subject of intense criticism.
Translating the transgressive tropes of the page to the motion picture, director Mary Harron’s film version eliminated some of the extreme scenes and attached an aura of strong black humour to the story. Yet, even with this heightened sense of dark comedy, American Psycho‘s cynical, sinister and controversial nature was left unaltered, as the film remains one of the most celebrated horror stories of the 21st Century, as both entertainment and a strong character study.
Ichi the Killer
As far as mission statements go, having your opening credits rise out of a pool of the main character’s semen takes some beating when it comes to controversy, memorable imagery and pure, hell-for-leather confidence. And that’s not even the most memorable part of notorious provocateur and genre polymath Takashi Miike’s Ichi the Killer.
Based on the Hideo Yamamoto manga series, Ichi follows a masochist crime enforcer as he attempts to track down the killer of his gang boss. The eponymous murderer in question is a killing machine, and when the two meet, there’s only one direction the tale can go.
Still banned in numerous countries, and with a legitimate point to make about violence in amongst the nipple and tongue slicing, the vomit bags handed out at various film festivals may not entirely have been just for show.
Starring Monica Bellucci, Irreversible is a 2002 film by Gaspar Noé which tells the tale of a disturbing night in Paris in reverse chronological order. It is controversial for one scene in particular, which, to put it bluntly, depicts a straight eleven minutes of rape.
The subject matter itself should be enough to make this film controversial, yet, it heightens this by forcing you to watch and not leaving out a single detail. Aside from the fact one feels as though they are intruding on the scene, the film also forces a feeling of helplessness as an innocent woman is held at knifepoint. The camera lies there on the floor as you witness the atrocity, and just in case you were feeling comfortable, you get to watch the rapist brutally beat her to satisfy some sick desire within his character.
Due to the unremitting violence throughout, some critics such as Edward Guthmann have alleged that the director Noé “wants to traumatise his audience”, and because of the difficult viewing experience, this assessment may not be wholly unfounded.
The Da Vinci Code
In 2006, Dan Brown’s best seller The Da Vinci Code was adapted to film and stirred up controversy in religious circles. The Roman Catholic Church did not take the film lightly; the film’s plot suggests that they were behind a huge cover-up over thousands of years and that Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene were in fact married and had a daughter together, undermining what’s written in the bible and suggesting everything the religion stands for is a lie.
The Vatican, specifically archbishop Angelo Amato, called for the film to be boycotted due to the theological and religious ‘errors’. The Catholic organisation Opus Dei were most referenced in the film and even asked Sony to edit the picture to be “nicer” to Catholics before its release. The real issue is the disillusionment many have evidently expressed towards this film in considering its theological validity actualised rather than simply the piece of fiction that it is.
The Killer Inside Me
Michael Winterbottom’s filmography is certainly no stranger to controversy, and his 2010 film The Killer Inside Me is no different. Set in 1950’s Texas, we follow Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford (played by the excellent Casey Affleck) whose outwardly pleasant demeanour masks an inner violence and hatred.
Much of this emotion manifests itself in violence towards women. Ford’s wife and mistress are just two of his victims and are subjected to horrific beatings which are incomprehensibly justified in Ford’s mind. Joyce Lakeland, played by Jessica Alba, is subjected to a truly terrifying assault at one point, and Ford exhibits the same disturbing level-headedness there as he does when burning a homeless man with a cigarette.
Controversy was rife, and criticisms were levied that the onscreen horrors were gratuitous and had only a detrimental impact on plot. Such arguments were perhaps justified, as regard Winterbottom’s 9 Songs which included arguably unnecessarily unsimulated sex on screen; the same is often true of violence in this film.
Controversial comedy is to Sacha Baron Cohen what filmic violence is to Quentin Tarantino: magnetic. Baron Cohen adopts the persona of Admiral General Aladeen, the dictator of the fictional Republic of Wadiya in the mockumentary that simultaneously sparked outrage and ensued hilarity. You can’t help but laugh at the audacity of Baron Cohen’s provocative satire that completely takes the piss out of pretty much every political heavyweight in the world.
Baron Cohen has made his name insulting, shocking and mocking to the best of his ability as Ali G, Borat, Brüno, and Aladeen. He excels in his area of expertise by taking his eccentric characters beyond the screen, such as at the 84th Academy Awards when Baron Cohen arrived as the Admiral and subsequently spilt the “ashes” (pancake mix) of the deceased North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il over an unsuspecting Ryan Seacrest.
Banned and censored to varying extents all over the world, The Dictator poses a similar question as does The Interview: should freedom of expression in film be permitted, no matter how controversial?
Zero Dark Thirty
Kathryn Bigelow followed 2008’s outstanding The Hurt Locker with Zero Dark Thirty, another foray into the War of Terror, but from a completely different angle. Whilst the former was a fascinating examination of addiction to war and a great action movie, Zero Dark Thirty looks at the dark and mysterious world of military intelligence.
Specifically, the film follows Jessica Chastain’s Maya, based upon a real CIA operative, who relentlessly searched for Osama Bin Laden for ten years right up until the well-documented raid on Abbottabad in 2011. Controversy sprang up in relation to traumatic scenes in the film portraying the torture of terrorist suspects alleged to have taken place on ‘black sites’ in the early 2000s. The key question is whether or not the film endorsed the use of torture; certainly a quick look at the film (and the opinion of most critics) would beg an answer in the affirmative, but it is not always so clear-cut.
Uniquely, the controversy surrounding American Sniper is that the film is not controversial enough. It portrays Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) as an All American Hero, despite his memoirs reading more American Psycho than Sniper. The titular memoir on which this biopic is based details how killing was “no big deal”, and in one disturbing passage, describes how when another SEAL threatened his kill count, “all of the sudden… every stinkin’ bad guy in the city [was] running across my scope”.
The film is suitably nuanced in its treatment of PTSD and rightly so, but is dismissive of anyone without a uniform. Linguist Noam Chomsky has criticised the inaccurate use of terminology surrounding the War on Terror in the film. Director Clint Eastwood has made a non-political film out of one of the most controversial terror campaigns in living memory; a 12a rated festival of a collective look-the-other-way-ism.
It’s disturbing that people unquestioningly stood and cheered at the end of this feel good movie about a mass-murderer killing foreigners, when any counter-arguments to American Sniper‘s accused jingoism, exploitation and propagandistic qualities hold little weight when evidenced in the film’s features and contextual climate of American foreign policy.