Friday, October 13, 2006

Criticizing the Controversy (Part Two)

A quick aside before we get into the next phase of this list. Obviously I've decided to split these up instead of posting them all as one great big, cumbersome analysis (and after seeing how long part one ended up being, I'm glad I made that choice), but I've decided to make one small modification to the way I'm splitting them.

Instead of the original plan -- with posts of 10, 10 and then 5, I'm going more closely follow Entertainment Weekly's breakdown, and go 10, 10, 4 and then 1, because I'm going to want to talk about the number one spot for a few reasons, but most importantly, why the number one pick shouldn't be, and why my alternative choice is so much better.

It's also worth noting that, obviously, I'm not adding any films to this list. That's not because EW's list should be taken as the final word on film controversy, but only because it's the list it'self that I'm criticizing, not attempting to make one of my own.

With those few details out of the way, let's press on to part two.

THE PLOT Riefenstahl's notorious documentary of the 1934 Nazi rally at Nuremberg elevates propaganda to seductive Wagnerian grandeur. THE CONTROVERSY While intellectuals still ponder the ethics of admiring so malevolent a masterpiece, others have had more visceral reactions. In the early '40s, director George Stevens was so disturbed by the film that he joined the Army the next day. Protests greeted Riefenstahl (who never shook her Nazi-tainted past) at a 1974 Telluride Film Festival tribute, and the Anti-Defamation League decried a 1975 screening in Atlanta as ''morally insensitive.''
THE COMMENTARY While I certainly won't debate that a documentary on a Nazi rally would -- and yes, probably should -- be controversial, I would argue that it's likely an important documentation of a piece of history that maybe we, as human beings, aren't terribly proud of, but which should be remembered at all costs. For that reason alone, this is a film that should be preserved (though it's worth noting that I say that about this film, sight unseen)

14. THE WARRIORS (1979)
THE PLOT Members of a street gang battle their way through a New York City populated by rival gangs (''Warriors, come out to plaaay!'').
THE CONTROVERSY Hill's lurid nightmare of urban warfare was widely condemned for glorifying violence. Reports of criminal incidents where the film was shown — including the stabbing of a teenager in Massachusetts — fueled the outrage, forcing Paramount to temporarily pull its print and TV advertising for the film.
THE COMMENTARY Haven't seen this one either, though I do have vague memories of seeing promotional images from it. I was likely too young to have spotted ads in newspapers when it was originally released, so it was likely on video box-covers in later years. None of which has anything to do with the supposed controversy of the film. Just interesting trivia. So let me say this: Movies don't make people criminals. They just give people with criminal tendencies specific ideas they maybe wouldn't have otherwise had.

13. THE DA VINCI CODE (2006)
THE PLOT A professor (Tom Hanks) unearths a 2,000-year-old conspiracy to cover up the marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
THE CONTROVERSY It didn't end up drawing mass pickets or boycotts, but there was much debate while the film was being made. Westminster Abbey wouldn't allow Howard to shoot inside its halls, and some 200 protesters mobbed the set in Lincolnshire, England (although Howard says most were merely ''trying to get autographs'').
THE COMMENTARY Ha ha ha ha ha ha. Wait, seriously? Okay, it's a crappy movie, a crappy adaptation of a bestselling book, whose author ripped the whole idea off from a book originally published, I think, in the 70s. The only real controversy here is how sad the book-buying public is to have shot this thing up the best-seller lists.

12. THE DEER HUNTER (1978)
THE PLOT The Vietnam War shatters the lives of three Pennsylvania steel-mill workers.
THE CONTROVERSY By the time it won the Best Picture Oscar, Deer Hunter had ignited major debate over its shocking POW-camp scenes, in which American soldiers are forced to play Russian roulette. War historians argued there was no record of such atrocities, and others called the Vietcong depiction racist. Cimino called the criticisms ''beside the point.''
THE COMMENTARY The Cimino quote that EW uses gives the director the appearance of being dismissive of the criticisms, while managing to avoid the point of the quote -- that he was not attempting to make a factual film about the Vietnam war. To me, the Russian roulette sequences could be seen as a metaphor for the terror, the randomness, and ultimately the senselessness of war in general. It's probably also worth noting that I think this a fantastic film.

11. THE MESSAGE (1977)
THE PLOT Anthony Quinn plays Mohammed's uncle in an epic telling of Islam's origins.
THE CONTROVERSY The movie rankled Muslims and sparked riots, and that was just during production. Post-release, in March 1977, Hanafi terrorists took more than 100 people hostage in Washington, D.C. — killing a reporter and shooting the city's future mayor Marion Barry in the two-day siege — demanding in part that The Message be banned. (It wasn't.) In a cruelly ironic coda, the Syrian-born Akkad died amid al-Qaeda's coordinated hotel bombings last fall in Amman, Jordan.
THE COMMENTARY This is an interesting choice, is it goes against expectations by including non-American controversy, and for that I'll tip my hat to EW. If your film inspires a hostage-taking, there's pretty much no arguing that there was some controversy surrounding it.

10. BABY DOLL (1956)
THE PLOT A Mississippi cotton-gin owner (Eli Wallach) humiliates a competitor (Karl Malden) by attempting to seduce the man's still-virgin wife (Carroll Baker).
THE CONTROVERSY Written by Tennessee Williams, the film struck Catholic leaders as lewd. (A similar flap greeted 1943's The Outlaw over Jane Russell's bust.) New York's Cardinal Spellman forbade the faithful to see it ''under pain of sin.'' Some theaters pulled it, but it eventually earned four Oscar nominations.
THE COMMENTARY You know, if nothing else, this makes an interesting list of films I may not have heard before that might be worth checking out. Cardinal Something-or-other tells his good Catholics to avoid it, even though they all know they can check the film out and then go to confession the next day. Controversy level? Lukewarm at best.

THE PLOT A disaffected American (Marlon Brando) travels to Paris, where he throws himself into an affair with a young Frenchwoman (Maria Schneider).
THE CONTROVERSY Critics and audiences were sharply divided over this X-rated erotic psychodrama. The film's stark (as in naked) depiction of loveless, animalistic carnality horrified some — and landed its director and stars in an Italian court on obscenity charges.
THE COMMENTARY Of course this would make the list, though likely on because it was Marlon Brando in the role (if it had been a random B-list actor, or a native Italian, it would have likely been long forgotten by now). Having not seen it, I'm unsure if the fact that people are still talking about it is a testament to the strength of the film, or just that people like complaining.

THE PLOT Homicidal lovers (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) cut a blood-soaked swath through America.
THE CONTROVERSY Though intended as a satire on the media, the film actually inspired several copycat killers to seek their own 15 minutes of fame, some even using imagery and dialogue from the film. Over 12 murders in the U.S. and abroad have been linked to Killers. One victim's family tried to sue Stone and Warner Bros.
THE COMMENTARY Another film I'll defend, though not to quite the same degree as The Deer Hunter. While I am a fan (and the Director's Cut sits proudly on my DVD shelf), I do think the satirical elements may have been hidden a little too well underneath the carnage. You really do have to spend a fair amount of time with the film, peeling away at its layers, to get at the core. I still think it's a core worth getting to, but the process could have been made a little easier.

THE PLOT Griffith's epic follows the travails of two families during the Civil War and Reconstruction.
THE CONTROVERSY The film's depiction of African Americans as childlike, conniving, or rabid sex fiends, and the Ku Klux Klan as heroic saviors, sparked nationwide protests by the nascent NAACP. (It also became a KKK recruiting tool.) Censorship debates and protests have dogged the film in subsequent rereleases and when it was added to the National Film Registry in 1993.
THE COMMENTARY It does seem a little odd that this film didn't crack the top 5, given both its historical significance, as well as its well-publiciized racism. Another one I haven't seen, though I'd quite like to, only because of its significance as a part of film history.

THE PLOT Jesus (Willem Dafoe) pursues his calling but, in a Satan-induced hallucination, dreams of a normal life that includes sex with Mary Magdalene.
THE CONTROVERSY Religious fundamentalists picketed and threatened boycotts weeks before its release. One group offered to buy the $6.5 million film from Universal to destroy it; some theaters, and later Blockbuster, refused to carry it. Oh, and the French rioted.
THE COMMENTARY Another one that should have at least cracked the top 10. And then some. This film should have topped the list, and I'll tell you why. But not right now.


And that brings Part Two of Criticizing the Controversy to a close. Two more installments still to come, including the exciting discussion of what's wrong with the number one spot. Look for it within the next few days.

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