Cinema of Controversy

Controversial MoviesAuteur/provocateur Lars von Trier has apparently topped himself with his film Nymphomaniac. Produced as one 5 2/3-hour film, then edited into two separate efforts, Nymphomaniac: Vol. I and Nymphomaniac: Vol. II, the project  has been stirring controversy since it began playing at film festivals last fall—and with good reason.

Von Trier, the Danish filmmaker behind AntiChrist, Dogville, Dancer in the Dark , Breaking the Waves and Europa,  traces the sexual odyssey of the heroine Joe (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) as she recounts a lifetime of erotic adventure to a dispassionate man (Stellan Skaarsgard) after he finds her hurt and nearly unconscious.

During her early years of experimentation, Joe is played by 20-something actress Stacy Martin. The film is divided into different segments and includes a montage of men’s penises. The sexual encounters are fairly explicit, for the most part, and scenes in which known actors are used have been digitally altered with the body parts of others. Among the name performers in the film are Christian Slater, Shia LeBouf, Uma Thurman, Willem Dafoe, Udo Kier, Saskia Reeves and Connie Nielsen.

The movies and controversy go hand-in-hand. Whether they’ve dealt with intimate sex, jolting violence, anti-social behavior, religious blasphemy or excessive drug use, movies have, after all, been the frequent target of censors and pundits since the silent era.

Here’s a look at some of the most controversial films in history, with which the Nymphomaniac films have already begun to keep company:

List of Controversial MoviesThe Birth Of A Nation (1915)

Director D.W. Griffith was one of the pioneers of early cinema, who introduced many important narrative and editing techniques to the storytelling process. Griffith’s attempt to make the greatest film ever showcased not merely his incredible mastery as a filmmaker, but also detestable personal politics which led to censure, protests and even riots. Birth tells of two families during and the Civil War–one from the North and one from the South. The problem lies in Griffith’s positive portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan and other insensitive racist ideas that continue to cloud his name as a brilliant director nearly sixty years after his death.

Triumph Of The Will (1934)

Leni Riefenstahl’s account of the Nazi Party Convention of 1934 in Nuremburg may be an acclaimed piece of filmmaking, but it’s also the movie that helped sell the evil of Hitler to the public through the film’s bold presentation. Der Fuhrer was presented as a mighty figure among legions depicted as being caught up in frenzy. Was Reifenstahl just capturing the event as it played out or did she put the movie together to win more people over to the Nazi cause? The debate continues.

Stromboli (1950)

Real-life scandal permeated the theatrical release of this drama about a Czech woman who marries an Italian fisherman to get out of a German internment camp during World War II. Hullabaloo swirled so around married lead actress Ingrid Bergman’s affair with married Neorealist director Roberto Rossellini that RKO head Howard Hughes clipped a nice part of the film and the American public consciously ignored its theatrical showings, leading to commercial disaster. In stock now is the English language, full-length version.

The Man With The Golden Arm (1955)

No stranger to controversy, producer-director Otto Preminger caught flak for exploring touchy subjects in Anatomy Of A Murder and The Moon Is Blue. Here, he unsparingly (for the time) took on drug addiction, positing Frank Sinatra as an ex-con card dealer out of prison who has difficulty trying to kick his heroin habit.

Bonnie And Clyde (1967)

Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were the infamous gangsters who robbed banks for a living. Arthur Penn’s handling of their bloody battles with police and their bullet-ridden, slow-motion demise is what got everyone in a tizzy–at least enough to make the film a huge hit.

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

In ‘69, everybody was talking about the first and only “X”-rated movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. John Schlesinger’s opus offered drug use, homosexual sex, and prostitution to the screen in the guise of a buddy movie about a sickly New York con artist (Dustin Hoffman) and a Texan male hustler (Jon Voight).

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Stanley Kubrick’s bleak and darkly comic look at a futuristic society where gangs roam the streets of England looking to kick some rear offered a little too much of “the old ultra-violence” for many, so much, in fact, that it wasn’t  shown in Great Britain for decades. Malcolm McDowell’s Alex and his cronies figured in scenes that sent shock waves through the cinema (including a disturbing rape sequence choreographed to “Singin’ In The Rain) and initially earned the picture an “X” rating.

Straw Dogs (1971)

Director Sam Peckinpah had already incited a hullabaloo over his slo-mo gun battles in 1969’s The Wild Bunch, but here he took things a step further. Dustin Hoffman is the meek math expert defending life and wife Susan George against local thugs while visiting her small hometown in England. Critics called the film “fascist” and “irresponsible,”  especially in its explicit rape sequence, but audiences came and Peckinpah’s legend as the screen’s master blaster of carnage grew.

Last Tango In Paris (1973)

Marlon Brando! In a sex film!? Well, yes and no. When one of America’s top performers decided to perform in a movie that would be rated “X,” People went whacko. But there was more to the film than just sex. Director Bernardo Bertolucci’s movie about the steamy liaison between Brando’s ugly and recently widowed American and a young French woman has its share of fairly explicit moments, but it also offered a serious examination of Brando’s coming to terms with his grief through this doomed affair.

Caligula (1979)

Penthouse Magazine honcho Bob Guccione bankrolled (and directed much of) this expensive, lushly mounted and sordid saga of the debauched Roman emperor and his corrupt, sex-and-violence-saturated reign of power. Enlisting noted novelist Gore Vidal to script the project and European sexploiter Tinto Brass to direct, the film made waves because it offered such acclaimed performers as Malcolm McDowell, Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud, and Helen Mirren, along with Penthouse Pets romping naked as extras.

life_of_brian_dvdMonty Python’s Life Of Brian (1979)

Those kooky British comics always look on the bright side of life, as evidenced in this spoof of religious biopics that was called blasphemous by many. In this story, Brian is born in a stable next to Jesus and is continually mistaken as the messiah. Protestors appeared at theaters en masse upon its original release, and the film received a reissue in 2004 on the heels of Mel Gibson’s The Passion Of The Christ.

Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (1984)

What’s Steven Spielberg doing in his follow-up to Raiders Of The Lost Ark, showing a heart being pulled out of somebody’s chest and other feats of unsettling violence? Apparently, getting a “PG” rating. The second Indy Jones opus was the straw that broke the MPAA’s back, inspiring them to conceive the stricter “PG-13” rating, the red light between kids and teens.

The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988)

Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Nikos Kazantzaki’s novel drew enormous attention for its depiction of Jesus (Willem Dafoe) as a self-doubting messiah with human foibles. The rendering of the crucifixion stoked the most controversy, as the dying Nazarene fantasized about having chosen an ordinary life, including a consummated marriage to Mary Magdalene. Scorsese’s sensitive handling of the treatment drew raves, but fundamentalist protestors lined up at theaters to show their disapproval of the long-in-the-making film’s release.

Henry & June (1990)

The sexual proclivities of writer Henry Miller (Fred Ward), wife June (Uma Thurman) and writer Anais Nin (Maria de Medeiros) formed the heated basis for Phil Kaufman’s real-life drama. Too hot for an “R,” but sure to ghettoized with porno with an “X” rating, the film was the first awarded an “NC-17” by the MPAA.

Natural Born Killers (1994)

No stranger to controversy, director Oliver Stone turned heads with his study of Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis), killers on the run from the law, whose brutal serial murders made them media darlings. Working from a script originally penned by Quentin Tarantino, Stone used an attention-getting style to underline a parade of unspeakable violence, distressing human activity, and perverse humor that inspired a copycat killing and led Warner to sell off its video rights.

The Basketball Diaries (1995)

Jim Carroll’s autobiographical novel about life in a Catholic high school where taking drugs is the students’ favorite pastime received a relatively quiet reception in its theatrical release, despite early career performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Wahlberg. It was years later, after the violence of the Columbine Tragedy, shootings in Kentucky and an incident in Great Britain, that the overlooked film got noticed, as the teen killers cited the movie’s dream sequence as an inspiration for their actions. The film was pulled from video stores around the world, but has since resurfaced on DVD.

Kids (1995)

Working with screenwriter Harmony Korine, acclaimed still photographer Larry Clark made his feature film debut with this look at a group of irresponsible young teens in New York City who have unprotected sex, take drugs and care little of the consequences of their what-the-hell lifestyle. Noted for introducing actresses Chloe Sevigny and Rosario Dawson to the screen, the project was slapped with an “NC-17” rating, forcing Disney-controlled Miramax to sell the film to another distributor.

The Passion Of The Christ (2004)

Everyone thought Mel Gibson had lost it, directing and producing a $30 million, numbingly violent film about Christ’s crucifixion in Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew and bankrolling it with his own cash. But the action hero proved everybody wrong as the film went on to gross $370 million in the U.S. alone, stoking the flames of much religious debate, church bus trips to theaters, and accusations of anti-Semitism in Gibson’s depiction of Jewish figures in the film and the “Passion Play” concept in its wake.

Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)

Filmmaking provocateur Michael Moore tackled George W. Bush and his family head-on in this unmerciful movie that can either be called a documentary or a treatise on character destruction, depending on your point of view. Moore connects the dotted lines between the Bush family friends from Saudi Arabia and the funding of 9/11 terrorists, and then explores the impact of the war in Iraq with emotional interviews, outlandish stunts, newsreel footage and his own brand of in-your-face investigative reporting.