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Controversial Films 2019

Independence Day 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.

The Man With the Golden Arm (1955)
Dir. Otto Preminger

The Man with the Golden Arm was adapted from Nelson Algren’s 1949 novel which was the first winner of the National Book Award. The film version tells the story of a drug addicted backroom card game dealer who is released from prison and relapses into drug abuse. At the time The Man with the Golden Arm was produced, all Hollywood studio films were required to adhere to Motion Picture Association of America’s repressive Production Code which explicitly forbade depictions of drug abuse. Films that did not achieve a seal of approval from the Production Code Administration did not play in theaters and filmmakers sought the administration’s approval through all stages of production. Producer Bob Roberts first attempted to adapt The Man with the Golden Arm in the early 1950s but the filmmaker was unable to come up with a script that satisfied the censors. According to the AFI, Production Code Administration director Joseph Breen said that the story was “unacceptable under the provisions of the Production Code” and Roberts was warned that a film version of The Man with the Golden Arm would be condemned by the Legion of Decency, the U.S. Treasury Department, and the Bureau of Narcotics as well as “state and municipal censor boards.” Roberts’ version never went forward.

Filmmaker Otto Preminger got the rights to The Man with the Golden Arm and began working on adapting it for United Artists with Frank Sinatra cast in the lead role. Preminger had recently achieved success with The Moon is Blue and Carmen Jones. Those films had their own fights with the PCA and Preminger knew how to use controversy to his advantage. Preminger wanted to use The Man with the Golden Arm to address drug addiction, which had never before been the subject of a major Hollywood picture. His film somewhat softened the material from Algren’s novel so the story was not quite as hopeless but it was still far more blunt than any other film at the time. The narcotic in Preminger’s movie is never named. In the book it’s morphine but in the film the drug appears to be heroin.

Leadership at the PCA office had since changed and it was now lead by Geoffrey Shurlock. The new PCA director was bound to enforce the code as written but, according to Jerold Simmons, Shurlock felt the Code’s absolute ban of the depiction of narcotics was outdated and unrealistic and he was interested in helping Otto Preminger get The Man with the Golden Arm produced as a way of amending the Code. The film went into production without a PCA approved script but with the expectation that Shurlock would help reform the Code when The Man with the Golden Arm came up for consideration. However, Harry Anslinger, the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, publically expressed his opposition to The Man with the Golden Arm and especially the Hollywood ending that made the story more hopeful. When the film came before the PCA, the board of directors of the MPAA slammed United Artists for the studio’s perceived undermining of the Code and denied The Man with the Golden Arm a seal of approval.

United Artists stood by Otto Preminger’s film and released it without the PCA seal for which the MPAA fined United Artists $25,000. The studio resigned from the MPAA although United Artists would rejoin the organization a few years later. The Legion of Decency awarded The Man with the Golden Arm a “B” rating which meant that the film was “morally objectionable in part for all” but this was the first time that the Legion did not give a “condemned” rating to a film not passed by the PCA. That break between the PCA and the Legion was a significant blow to the stature of the Code and theaters that might have otherwise passed on a non-PCA approved title booked the movie. This further diluted the authority of the Code. Local censors in Maryland, Georgia, and Wisconsin threatened to censor the film but the uncut version of The Man with the Golden Arm played everywhere except Spain where it was banned. The film did impressive business at the box office probably due in no small part to the publicity over the controversy.

As a post-script, after the critical and box office success of The Man with the Golden Arm the PCA amended the Code to allow for depictions of drug use. The movie was resubmitted for approval in 1961 so that it could play for television broadcast. The movie passed without any cuts.

The Brown Bunny (2003)
Dir. Vincent Gallo

The Brown Bunny is an arthouse film written and directed by Vincent Gallo. The story is a road trip narrative about a motorcyclist, played by Gallo, who travels across the country and reminisces about his relationship with a former girlfriend, played by Chloe Sevigny. The movie was infamous for a scene in which Sevigny’s character performs an unstimulated sex act. When the movie was released, a promotional billboard depicting the sex scene was posted on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood. Some locals complained about the advert but Gallo defended the imagery, saying that it was no more provocative than the Calvin Klein and Gucci ads that frequented billboards in the same area. The billboard was removed after just a few days despite the ad space being purchased for a month.

An early cut of The Brown Bunny, running 119 minutes, premiered at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. The movie had a disastrous reception. The Cannes audience, which is known for being vocal during screenings, booed and jeered the film or simply walked out. Critics assembled by Screen International gave The Brown Bunny the lowest rating in the history of their annual voting. One of The Brown Bunny’s most vocal critics was Roger Ebert who proclaimed it to be “the worst film in the history of the festival.”  Gallo responded by calling Ebert a “fat pig with the physique of a slave trader” to which Ebert said, “Someday I will be thin, but Vincent Gallo will always be the director of The Brown Bunny.” However, between the Cannes screening and the film’s official release, Gallo re-edited the film and removed twenty-six minutes of footage (although the sex scene remained.). Ebert reviewed the ninety-three minute cut and awarded it three stars saying that Gallo had “transformed” The Brown Bunny and that the “film’s form and purpose now emerge from the miasma of the original cut.” Fifteen years after the Cannes screening, Gallo made it known that he still hadn’t let go of Ebert’s original criticism of The Brown Bunny, insisting that Ebert had sabotaged the movie’s reputation.

American History X (1999)
Dir. Tony Kaye

American History X was the story of a reformed white supremacist starring Edward Norton in one of his early roles and directed by Tony Kaye who at that time was an up and coming filmmaker. Norton and Kaye had different views of what American History X ought to be and Norton’s performance was not to Kaye’s liking. The relationship between Norton, Kaye and New Line Cinema broke down during post production. Norton and the studio executives gave Kaye notes on how to alter the film. Kaye would have none of it and New Line took American History X away from the director and banned him from the editing process. Kaye responded by filing a lawsuit against New Line Cinema and when that didn’t work he attempted to take his name off the picture but was unable to do so because of Directors Guild rules. Kaye then began trash talking American History X to anyone who would listen including journalists and advertisers and film festivals. In the end, the studio released its version of American History X and the movie was a hit with critics and audiences. Edward Norton earned an Oscar nomination for his performance. Kaye’s campaign against Norton and New Line Cinema all but destroyed his career and in 2002 Kaye wrote a lengthy mea culpa in which he expressed regret for his behavior. 

American History X has had a strange afterlife that puts Tony Kaye’s fight for the movie in a new light. The story is unequivocally anti-racist. However, some white supremacists read the film as actually endorsing their beliefs. Film critic Lindsay Ellis made this point, noting how the imagery of American History X, and especially of Edward Norton’s character, contravenes the message of the narrative. The dramatic black and white images (which strangely echo the fascist aesthetic of Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia) make Norton’s character look powerful and even heroic. Among those making that point is Kaye himself, who told The Hollywood Reporter, “the way the movie was edited . . . lionized a neo-Nazi. It’s saying: ‘You can do this heinous stuff, show a movie star’s smile and it’s all OK.’” Kaye says he is still petitioning to create a director’s cut of American History X.

Dogma (1999)
Dir. Kevin Smith

Filmmaker Kevin Smith’s body of work is distinguished by its combination of glib and foul mouthed humor combined with sincerity. Movies like Clerks and Chasing Amy and Zack and Miri Make a Porno are full of colorful characters who are generally quite likable but whose stories deal with authentic human experiences like love, middle aged discontent, and parenthood. Smith’s 1999 movie Dogma applied the filmmaker’s style to faith and in particular Catholicism. Smith came from a Catholic background and he channeled his experiences and feelings about religion into the film.

Dogma was the story of two angels (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) who had been deposed from heaven centuries ago but discover a loophole in Catholic theology that will allow them to return. If they accomplish this, the angels will subvert God’s will and inadvertently undo all existence. A counselor at an abortion clinic (Linda Fiorentino) is recruited to stop them and along the way she encounters supernatural characters who make this disillusioned Catholic reconsider her own complex feelings about faith.

Religious-themed movies are actually quite popular with a certain movie going crowd but only if the film fits within certain parameters. Dogma did not fit in that box. It was earnest about matters of faith but Dogma was also irreverent toward religious authority and had plenty of silly, vulgar, and scatological humor. A copy of the script was acquired by the Catholic League, a lay organization (not affiliated with the Catholic Church) that purports to defend the Catholics from bigotry. The Catholic League launched a campaign against Dogma, publishing a booklet about the movie that was circulated to dioceses across America. The protest against Dogma gained traction and Kevin Smith was inundated with 300,000 pieces of hate mail and death threats and he was escorted by body guards to the film’s screening at the Cannes Film Festival. Smith expressed exasperation with the controversy as no one protesting the film had actually seen it. 

Dogma was produced by Miramax, which at that time was owned by Disney. The Catholic League took particular aim at Disney whose executives were uncomfortable being associated with the film and its tenor. The decision was made to sell Dogma’s distribution rights to Lionsgate, which at the time was an up-and-coming studio. According to Kevin Smith, the Catholic League lost interest in Dogma once Disney was unassociated with the film. Dogma was still released and protesters did show up at theaters. One demonstration was held in Eatontown, New Jersey at Kevin Smith’s local cinema. Smith decided to crash the protest and picketed the movie alongside local Catholic demonstrators. 1500 protesters were anticipated but the total headcount was estimated at about fifteen. 

Ms. 45(1981)
Dir. Abel Ferrera

In the 1970s and 80s a whole subgenre of rape-revenge movies emerged including titles such as House on the Edge of the Park, Death Wish, and I Spit on Your Grave. The reasons for the influx of these films at that particular time are complicated and a matter of debate. Cinema of the 1970s had been liberated from the restrictions of the Production Code and filmmakers reveled in the new freedoms, exploring the limits of sexuality and violence on screen. This occurred against a background of liberalized attitudes toward sexuality, second wave feminism that had raised awareness of violence against women, and rising crime rates in America’s major cities. However, the rape-revenge genre was generally ill-received. Many of these films were regard to be in bad taste while others were accused of exploiting imagery of women being brutalized. And in some cases, such as the Death Wish sequels, those criticisms were valid.

Ms. 45 is the story of a mute young woman who is sexually assaulted twice in the same day. She gets herself a handgun and begins shooting would-be attackers. But as her vigilante activities continue, this woman’s grip on sanity continues to slip and she becomes less and less discerning as to whether the men in her sights intended any harm. Directed by New York filmmaker Abel Ferrera with significant contributions by lead actress Zoë Tamerlis, Ms. 45 was more complex than the average rape-revenge flick. The movie was made with style and intelligence and Ms. 45 combined brutal intensity with a nuanced understanding of violence and trauma.  The sexual assaults of the movie are part of a larger web of harassment and misogyny that lead this woman to vigilantism and eventually madness. 

Like many rape-revenge films from the late 1970s and early 80s, Ms. 45 ran into trouble with the censors. The film was banned in Finland, Norway, Sweden, and New Zealand and it fell afoul of the video nasties panic in the United Kingdom. Various distributors in different territories recut the film to appease local censors and it wasn’t until 2013 that a definitive cut of Ms. 45 was widely available.  In recent years Ms. 45 has enjoyed a critical reappraisal. It’s now regarded as a feminist piece, one that is worth rediscovering in the #metoo era. 

Crash (1996)
Dir. David Cronenberg

David Cronenberg’s 1996 film Crash (not to be confused with Paul Haggis’ 2004 film of the same name) was adapted from J.G. Ballard’s book. The story follows several people in a fictional subculture where automobile collisions are a source of sexual arousal. The intent of the movie was to dramatize the link between desire and risk as well as technology’s place in human sexuality. Crash is unusual and uncomfortable to view, particularly for the way in which it combines violence with sexuality. However, the violence was confined to auto collisions. As the British Board of Film Classification observed, the “sexual content of the film was unremarkable in classification terms and the violence was no stronger than could be found in many other features (comprising car crashes rather than one-on-one personal violence).”

When Crash premiered at the Cannes Film Festival it divided audiences. Roger Ebert gave the film a three-and-a-half star review and Martin Scorsese named Crash one of the ten best movies of the 1990s whereas Nigel Reynolds called it “morally vacuous, nasty, violent and little more than an excuse to string together one scene after another of sexual intercourse.” British newspapers the Daily Mail and the Evening Standard launched a campaign against Crash when it opened in UK theaters, demanding that the film be banned. BBFC examiners determined that the movie did not violate the UK’s obscenity laws and Crash was released uncut to UK theaters with an18 certificate. According to the BBFC, this outraged the Daily Mail and Evening Standard who resorted to “publishing the photographs and personal details of the BBFC’s examiners and ridiculing them as unrepresentative ‘liberals’ who had refused to ban an offensive and dangerous film.”

Crash nearly didn’t make it into US theaters at all. The movie was distributed by Fine Line Features which was owned by Ted Turner. According to Wired, Turner “was so personally disturbed by Crash that he tried to have it blocked” from playing in US theaters and “Turner only backed down ‘when a reporter called him on it’ during a public appearance.” In response, Crash actress Holly Hunter said “I think it’s a very chilling arena for Ted Turner to be entering when he’s speculating about what could be morally reprehensible for the American public.” Crash did ultimately play in US theaters but most American moviegoers were unable to it. The theatrical version was rated NC-17 by the Motion Picture Association of America and most major theater chains will not book NC-17 movies. In its widest release, Crash played in just 339 theaters nationwide and it was a box office failure. Blockbuster Video, which had nearly a monopoly on the home video market in the late 1990s, refused to stock NC-17 films and David Cronenberg was contractually obligated to create an R-rated cut for the rental chain. This version was about ten minutes shorter than the NC-17 cut.

Years later, Paul Haggis wrote and directed an unrelated movie with the title Crash. That film was a major mainstream success and won the Academy Award for Best Picture. David Cronenberg was upset with the title of Haggis’ film and said so publicly, claiming that Haggis was disrespectful not only to the filmmaker but also to novelist J.G. Ballard and his book.

Song of the South (1946)
Dir. Harve Foster and Wilfred Jackson

Song of the South was Disney’s adaptation of Joel Chandler Harris’ “Uncle Remus” stories. Taking place in Georgia during the Reconstruction era, Uncle Remus (James Baskett) tells folk tales to young Johnny (Bobby Driscoll) to impart important life lessons to the boy. 

Song of the South was considered offensive for its white-washing of the Jim Crow era and for its racial stereotypes. At the time of its release in 1946, the NAACP spoke out against Song of the South and protests were staged outside theaters showing the film. Disney did itself no favors when it held the premiere of Song of South in Atlanta which was segregated at the time and the film’s African American stars could not attend. With each rerelease, Song of the South became increasingly anachronistic and after a brief theatrical run in 1986 Disney announced that it had retired the picture and had no plans to rerelease it in theaters or on home video.

However, Song of the South is a technically and historically significant piece of filmmaking. It mixes live action with hand-drawn animation almost two decades before Mary Poppins and the film won a pair of Oscars including Best Original Song for “Zip-A-Dee-Do-Dah,” which is now the theme song to the Splash Mountain ride at Disneyland. Furthermore, Song of the South is a cultural artifact. Its racist caricatures were unfortunate but not unusual in Disney films or in American entertainment as a whole and erasing that record creates cultural amnesia without actually addressing the sources and repercussions of those images. As Aramide A. Tinubu points out, “by refusing to address its own racist legacy (which extended well beyond the 1940s), Disney is only adding to the problem.”

Disney’s decision to withhold Song of the South remains in force and the company has doubled down on its efforts to clean up its history. The House of Mouse made clear that Song of the South will not appear on the Disney+ streaming service but also announced that the minstrel crows would be cut from the streaming version of 1941’s Dumbo and the casting couch joke from Toy Story 2 was removed from the most recent disc release.

Halloween II (1981)
Dir. Rick Rosenthal

In the early 1980s the horror genre was overtaken by the slasher film – stories of teenagers who are picked off by masked killers armed with edged weapons. These films were tremendously popular with audiences and were immensely profitable for Hollywood studios but slasher films also drew condemnation from media watchdog groups and film critics. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert used their syndicated television program to launch a campaign against Friday the 13th and parental groups successfully lobbied Tri-Star Pictures to pull Silent Night, Deadly Night from theaters. These detractors were given renewed ammunition by murders committed in 1982 by Richard Delmer Boyer in Fullerton, California. In the trial, Boyer claimed that he suffered from hallucinations brought on by viewing 1981’s Halloween II, which he had watched while under the influence of various substances. The film was an exhibit at the trial. Halloween II was screened for the jury and a psychiatrist compared scenes in the movie with Boyer’s recollection of the killings. Boyer was found guilty and sentenced to death while the incident became known as the “Halloween II Murders.”

Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Dir. Sergei Eisenstein

Sergei Eisenstein was one of the most important filmmakers in the history of Russian cinema. His work was revolutionary in its politics but also in its style and Eisenstein was a master of using camera angles and editing in a way that stirred the viewer’s emotions and communicated ideas without spelling them out on the screen. Eisenstein made a name for himself with 1925’s Battleship Potemkin. The movie dramatized the 1905 mutiny aboard a Russian warship which was one of the early events leading to the Russian Revolution that overthrew the Tsars and instated Communism.

This film didn’t simply come about out of Eisenstein’s sense of patriotism or personal politics. Battleship Potemkin was commissioned by the Soviet Union’s Central Committee to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the revolution and it was originally intended to be a sprawling project that covered the breadth of the revolution as it was experienced by various characters across Russia. When that proved impossible to achieve in the time allotted, Eisenstein focused on the events aboard the Potemkin and crafted a story that sits alongside Triumph of the Will and Why We Fight among the most effective pieces of political propaganda. But unlike Leni Riefenshal and Frank Capra’s documentaries, Battleship Potemkin was a drama and the movie succeeded in using the elements of cinematic storytelling to provoke viewers’ emotions and lead audiences toward the desired ideological conclusion.

The history Battleship Potemkin has been distinguished by censors trying to dampen the movie’s impact or ban it outright. The Russian film industry of the 1920s was ill equipped to distribute the film internationally and so Battleship Potemkin was sold to the German film company Prometheus. The sale included the rights to edit the film which was necessary to get Battleship Potemkin exhibited at all. According to Bruce Bennett, German military and law enforcement authorities were afraid Battleship Potemkin might encourage the spread of communism and wanted the movie banned. It did eventually screen in Germany but with significant edits. The censored Prometheus cut became the basis for the versions distributed throughout the world which were then further edited by other censors. French police burned copies of Battleship Potemkin and the movie was banned at various times in Finland, Italy, Sweden, and Portugal. The United Kingdom banned Battleship Potemkin until after the death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and according to Tom Mathews the movie was banned in Pennsylvania for allegedly “[giving] American sailors a blueprint as to how to conduct a mutiny.”

After World War II, Battleship Potemkin was re-edited by Russian filmmakers working from the Prometheus cut. The intention was to create the definitive version but the resulting cut included significant omissions and changes to the intertitles and frame rate. This version was the least faithful edit of Battleship Potemkin but it was also the most widely circulated edition. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, film scholars searched the world’s film collections for missing material and in 2005, eighty years after its Russian premiere, Battleship Potemkin was finally screened as originally intended by Eisenstein.

The original score for Battleship Potemkin was composed by Edmund Meisel. However, this score was largely abandoned in subsequent edits and replaced with selections from the work of composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Meisel’s score was re-recorded for the 2005 restoration. However, Eisenstein allegedly wanted the score for Battleship Potemkin to be rewritten every twenty years to keep the film relevant to contemporary audiences and musicians have composed their own musical accompaniments. This includes a 2004 score by Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe of the Pet Shop Boys, a 2007 soundtrack by Del Rey & The Sun Kings with the Dresden Symphonic Orchestra, and a 2011 score by Michael Nyman.

The most famous scene in Battleship Potemkin is the “Odessa Steps” sequence in which Tsarist troops massacre a crowd of citizens celebrating the Potemkin mutiny. The Odessa Steps scene has been imitated and parodied in movies as diverse as The Godfather, Bananas, Brazil, and The Naked Gun 33⅓.

Sources

  • Bennett, Bruce. “A Revolution on Screen.” Liner notes to the Kino International Blu-ray release of Battleship Potemkin.
  • Barker, Martin, Jane Arthurs and Ramaswami Herindranath. “The Crash Controversy: Reviewing the Press.” The Cult Film Reader. Ed. Ernest Mathijs & Xavier Mendik. New York: Open University Press, 2008. Pages 456 – 74.
  • Evening With Kevin Smith, An. DVD. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2002.
  • Mathews, Tom. Censored: The Story of Film Censorship in Britain. Chatto & Windus: 2002.
  • Most Controversial Films of All Time by Tim Dirks at AMC Filmsite 
  • Movie-Censorship.com  
  • Simmons, Jerold. “Challenging the Production Code: The Man with the Golden Arm.” Journal of Popular Film and Television. 2005: Volume 33, Issue 1. Pages 39 – 48.

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