Controversial Films (Part One)

Clansmen, Commies, Catholics and Climaxes

“What am I, Gandalf of Arabia?”

All movies are propaganda in the sense that they try to persuade the audience to believe that what’s on the screen is “real”.  It’s always an illusion.  Even if you are filming a news event, your choice of what to point the camera at, which lenses to use, and how to edit the footage, creates a story.  There’s no such thing as objective filmmaking, even if the content is entirely truthful.  Someone still chooses which facts to put in, which to leave out, and what order and emphasis to give them.

The real story behind this “movie” called Innocence of Muslims, which might only be a half-finished trailer, is still developing.  Every day since the story broke there’s been a reversal or update of earlier versions. Violent protests over the trailer’s Arabic-dubbed appearance on YouTube may have been used as cover for an assassination already planned against the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, a career diplomat who was a well-liked, sympathetic representative of American interests.  I believe those diverted into arguments over the limits of Freedom of Speech have probably been misled.

It’s not exactly difficult to rile up a crowd of young, poor and desperate Muslims in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere.  Insulting as it is, the film simply isn’t impressive enough to cause riots all by itself.  It’s being used as an excuse.  They know what Hollywood movies look like, and this piece of green-screened, fake-bearded amateur drama isn’t even close.  It’s just another example in what some of them see as a long history of abuse, disrespect and insensitivity directed at them from rich foreigners.  It doesn’t justify violence (does anything?), but I can understand their anger.

Well, I read and think and form opinions, but I’m not an investigative journalist.  I’m more qualified as a film historian.  There have always been movies that got people angry.  Some caused censorship standards to change, or the controversies helped sell more tickets.  Here are some previous classic examples, in chronological order:

Birth of a Nation (1915) This earliest example defines the problem in dealing with controversial films.  It’s a grand, sweeping, technically innovative epic adapted from racist novels based on lies about historical events during the Civil War and Reconstruction.  How do you separate the value of the stunning photography and editing from the hateful basis of the script?  The way I was taught in school was to examine the techniques employed by the director/co-writer D.W. Griffith separately from the idea content.  This method became useful in analyzing and understanding later propaganda landmarks including Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935).

Griffith used a plethora of methods including panoramic long shots, iris effects, still-shots, night photography, moving camera, and battle scenes with hundreds of extras carefully edited to look like thousands. There were also new artistic techniques like creating tension for dramatic climaxes through rhythmic cuts. The film was over three hours in length and had its own original orchestral music score.  In a time when ordinary ticket prices were no more than a quarter in the largest big city venues, Birth of a Nation required $2.00 for admission.  It broke all box office records.

Of course ordinary audiences don’t analyze films academically when watching in a theater.  They react to what’s onscreen.  Therefore, black audiences were upset by the insults and lies from the beginning, as were most critics and historians, while other white audiences ignored the inaccuracies, impressed by the spectacle.  Supporters of the film cried “Freedom of Speech”, and the KKK used the movie as a recruiting tool!  I certainly can’t think of any other big budget movie featuring the Klan riding to the rescue like the Calvary in later westerns.  By the time Gone With the Wind was made 24 years later, all references to the KKK were excised from this distorted mythology of Southern history.

Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Unlike Griffith, who had been taught by his sister in a one-room schoolhouse, Sergei Eisenstein was college-educated in architecture and engineering, a military veteran, and a well-traveled theatre director before he began making films.  He invented terms like montage and was internationally respected for his influential writings on film theory. Battleship Potemkin was his second feature, a dramatization revolving around a 1905 mutiny by sailors against severe mistreatment by their officers.  It’s kind of a Russian “Mutiny on the Bounty”, but it also effectively argues the necessity of overthrowing the ruling classes by revolution.

The movie was a great critical success at home and abroad, but not particularly successful at attracting large audiences, which disappointed Eisenstein.  Though it’s easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys, general viewers were shocked by the violence, graphic for its time.  Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels admired Potemkin’s impact, however, and it was shown to prospective directors to illustrate how to construct convincing arguments using film.

Every film student knows the Odessa Steps sequence from Potemkin.  When the citizens of Odessa hear about the mutiny on the ship they turn out in support of the rebellious sailors.  The Tsar’s soldiers, in white uniforms, march on the unarmed people like a mass of heartless robots, and massacre them.  It’s an incredible scene that has been referenced and parodied in films ever since.  And it never happened.  There was military suppression of the protests, and individual shootings occurred throughout the city, but Eisenstein put it all together into a picture of repression and injustice so convincing that many now assume it was based on actual events.  The movie was banned in West Germany, France and other countries.  In Britain it was banned until 1954, then X-rated until 1978.

L’Age d’Or (1930)  

This second film by Luis Bunuel began in collaboration with Salvador Dali, but his mastery of cinema technique had improved since the production of their short Un Chien Andalou, and they parted over creative differences.  It’s basically a string of vicious, satirical and surreal situations illustrating why a young couple can’t consummate their love for each other in a normal fashion.  The church, bourgeois values and societal expectations drive them into anti-social, fetishistic and violent behavior.  Because it was easier to understand than the earlier film, this one provoked riots from right-wing groups, who threw ink at the screen.  The Catholic Church excommunicated Bunuel, and the film was withdrawn from general release until 1979.  I found it wickedly funny the first time I saw it in 1973, but Bunuel always was ahead of his time.

Ecstasy (1933)

Although a number of exploitation and pornographic films had been produced by this time, Gustav Machaty’s Czech film “Extase” was the first mainstream movie to portray both an onscreen sexual relationship, and a female orgasm.  Nineteen year-old Hedwig Kiesler, later known in Hollywood as Hedy Lamarr, starred as a young girl frustrated in an unconsummated marriage to an older man.  She divorces him, then has a short affair with a handsome road worker and finds satisfaction.  It’s quite pretty and poetic, a film of female empowerment made when American actors playing spouses couldn’t even be shown in the same bed together.  It played a few art houses in 1936, but Ecstasy was also one of first films condemned by the Legion of Decency.



Filed under Cinema, Emotions

7 responses to “Controversial Films (Part One)

  1. Running from Hell with El

    Well-done!! Looking forward to reading more on the history of film and propaganda.

  2. Excellent – waiting for part 2 😀

  3. Like others, I’m eager to read more. I really had not thought of this current controversy in an historic context. Thank you for providing that perspective.

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