It Is Not a Filmmaker’s Business to Make You Comfortable, Part Two

Part One of this two-part series caused a stir. I intend for this second go-round to be more of the same … in the name of artistic freedom.

Joel Eisenberg
Sep 28, 2020 · 20 min read
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I knew I was taking a chance when I posted my favorable “Cuties” review two weeks ago. The response online ranged from sheer horror to defiant agreement. There was barely a middle ground, and the argument became very similar to that between our current political parties.

As in, if a viewer saw the film as anything other than an enticement to pedophilia, they were a liberal. If, like myself, one appreciated the film as a daring artistic work with a message against the sexualization of teens, we were complicit in any crimes resulting from it. On the other hand, for anyone who accused the film of being soft-core pornography, those on the left accused them of being QAnon supporters or far-right sycophants.

To think we were only discussing a movie, not a movement.

That review, incidentally, is linked within Part One of this article, which was focused on films featuring young teens that incited similar controversies:

For this second part of the series, I’m focusing on several films that attained their controversy for entirely different reasons.

Onward.

Portrayals of Mental Health and Expectations of Audience Violence

Innumerable films have dealt with the challenges of mental health. 1979’s “The Bell Jar,” based on the novel by Sylvia Plath — a writer who took her own life at 30 — 1997’s “Good Will Hunting,” which to my eyes and ears featured the finest-ever portrayal of a student (Matt Damon) and therapist (Robin Williams) on film, and “Sybil,” the 1976 television classic about multiple personality disorder starring Sally Field, based on the debunked expose by Flora Rheta Schrieber.

Those earnest productions aside, there are two films I will focus on here that I believe are the most provocative in this category: “Joker” and ‘A Clockwork Orange.”

Joker (2019): I am generally drawn to daring roles, which I define as those in which the actor digs deeply into his or her darker nature to derive an unhinged, soulful performance that resonates as uncomfortably true to those instincts we all share … and may well unleash if not constrained by societal expectations. Joaquin Phoenix’s Oscar-winning turn as the titular character in Todd Phillips’ masterful study is one of my very favorite of all film performances.

As to the film itself, I believe it to be — at the very least — the most provocative film yet based on a comic book. I also strongly believe it to be the most provocative film ever made about mental illness.

As I am not particularly keen to rehash information from the above comprehensive article on the matter, that I had written and posted a few months ago, take a read and let me know your thoughts.

I will, however, re-share this section here: “Joker” was set to be released on October 4, 2019 in the U.S. Many theaters added extra security, in part as a precaution to avoid another mass shooting such as that in 2012 in Aurora, Colorado, when James Eagan Holmes shot up a local theater during a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Though threats were indeed received for “Joker” screenings, undercover cops were frequently in attendance, costumes and masks were banned from many theaters, and other protective measures were taken … the expected violence did not occur.

As I write this current article, I find the controversy to be painfully similar to another film I will cover here. In 1989, at the onset of the release of “Do the Right Thing,” writer-director Spike Lee defended himself from a fear of mass audience shootings based on his film’s content.

Thankfully, it did not happen in either case.

A Clockwork Orange (1971): For the same reasons I favor Joaquin Phoenix’s star turn, Malcolm McDowell’s flamboyant yet remarkably grounded role as Alex DeLarge in Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” runs neck-and-neck with that tour de force on my favorites list.

“A Clockwork Orange,” based on Anthony Burgess’ classic novel of the same name, follows the menacing Alex and his droogs on their days and nights of ultra-violence.

As sung by Alex during a home invasion beating and rape, Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain” has not been the same since.

As with “Joker,” refer to my comprehensive article on “A Clockwork Orange,” above, for an overview of the film’s multiple controversies.

Religion

Two polarizing perspectives of Jesus Christ provided 1988 and 2004 with enough controversy for a dozen films.

Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” and Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” were widely disparaged prior to their releases for entirely different reasons.

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The Last Temptation of Christ (1988): Jesus (Willem Dafoe) gradually discovers he is the son of God. He is tempted by Satan, in the form of a young girl, who guides him from crucifixion to a life of comfort. He marries and expects a child with Mary Magdalene. When she dies, he bears children with Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus. Years later, he realizes his grave mistake and struggles to return to the cross to accomplish his work.

Based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ contentious 1955 novel of the same name, the film was a largely faithful adaptation.

Quotes

“God loves me. I know he loves me. I want him to stop! I make crosses so he’ll hate me so he’ll find another! I want to crucify every one of his messiahs.” — Jesus

“Father, will you listen to me? Are you still there? Will you listen to a selfish, unfaithful son? I fought you when you called, I resisted! I thought of no more. I didn’t want to be your son! Can you forgive me? I didn’t fight hard enough. Father, give me Your hand. I want to bring salvation! Father, take me back! Make a feast! Welcome me home! I want to be Your son! I want to pay the price! I want to be crucified and rise again! I want to be the Messiah!” — Jesus

The pre-release word on what director Martin Scorsese considered his most personal film was poisonous. The filmmaker at the time considered “The Last Temptation of Christ” among his most personal films, due to his Catholic upbringing and education, and yet the reception in religious circles was cold as ice. “Universal, the film’s distributor, was in the eye of the storm.

Upon its release, the animus continued, heightened to dangerous levels:

  • Scorsese received death threats, which forced him to travel with bodyguards.
  • On October 22, 1988, Paris’ Saint Michel’s cinema was set aflame during a showing of “The Last Temptation of Christ,” said to have been started by an integrist group, 30 members of which were arrested. A device triggered by sulphuric acid injured 13 people. Four were burned severely; the theater was damaged.
  • Radio stations had their listeners picket MCA, which at the time was the parent company of Universal Studios. Some of those protests threatened to become violent.
  • Televangelists excoriated the film to their church members, who largely swore retribution if the film continued its release.
  • Numerous theater chains subsequently refused to carry the film, also in part based on the efforts of evangelist Bill Bright, who publicly attempted to purchase the film’s negative from Universal so he could burn it.
  • The Blockbuster Video chain refused the carry the film.
  • Internationally, the film was banned in several countries.
  • In 2020, at the urging of the Singapore government, Netflix Singapore removed the film from its library.

After all these years, the film remains a polarizing work. Director Scorsese was Oscar-nominated for his efforts.

The Passion of the Christ (2004): Jesus (Jim Caviezel) is condemned to death and mercilessly tortured when he is nailed to the cross in Calvary. Based on the Passion Play, bloodthirsty Jews are responsible for his death.

The film was a smash hit, grossing over $370 million domestically and over $600 million worldwide in 2004 dollars, while being largely slammed by critics and particularly Jewish audiences for being an unrelentingly violent and anti-Semitic version of Christ’s crucifixion.

A bit of perspective: I am a Jewish writer. It is indeed difficult for me to separate Mel Gibson, a hugely talented writer and director (he co-wrote the film with Benedict Fitzgerald) whose anti-Jewish sentiment has been widely publicized, with selected content from this film. “The Passion Play,” upon which this film is based, has historically blamed Jews for the death of Jesus, which has led to pogroms and other violence against them.

Regardless, it is my consistent position that an artist needs to answer only to oneself.

By comparison, whereas I loved “Last Temptation” as I was vested in Jesus’ spiritual plight, I disliked “The Passion of Christ” as I found no value in what I considered two hours-plus of flogging. I am acknowledging that comment may not go over well with some readers, as any portrayal of Jesus’ crucifixion is not meant to make a viewer feel good. This is, however, my honest response.

Others, though, found the film a spiritual masterpiece. Regardless, the grosses don’t lie. “The Passion of the Christ” was a cathartic film for many.

The ADL (Anti-Defamation League) said the following to that point: Stunned silence followed last week’s screening of Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of The Christ’ for a gathering of Christian leaders at the Calvary Assembly in Orlando. As the lights came up, the silence was etched with stifled sobs and tears. The 3,000 Christian pastors, leaders, students and others who attended the preview of the film’s graphic portrayal of the events leading up to the Crucifixion were visibly moved by the images that brought them closer than they may ever have been to bearing witness to the Passion of Jesus.

Quite the contrary response for many religious viewers of the Scorsese film.

Quotes and Dialog Exchanges

“You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. For if you love only those who love you, what reward is there in that?” — Jesus

“Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.” — Jesus

“I ask you now… Jesus of Nazareth. Tell us, are you the Messiah, the son of the living God?” (The Jews gathered wait to hear) — Caiphas, Jewish High Priest

“I am. And you shall see the son of man sitting at the right hand of the power of God… and coming on the clouds of heaven. “— Jesus

“Blasphemy! (To the others) You have heard him. There is no need for witnesses! What is your verdict?” — Caiphus

“Death! Give him death!” (The mob beats up and spits on Jesus)— Second Elder

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Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979): Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman), a Jewish man, lives next door to Jesus Christ (Kenneth Colley) and is regularly mistaken for the messiah.

A sizable audience hit and immensely controversial at the time of its release, especially in Europe, fabled British comedy troupe Monty Python faced outrage for this one … widely considered today one of the great, most and most daring comedy films of all-time.

Over-the-top satire does not always go over well. “Life of Brian” was called “blasphemous” and worse by a number religious organizations, and in the United Kingdom 39 local authorities banned the film outright, or attempted to seal its fate with an X certificate, meaning no one under 18, with or without a guardian, could see it. In that event, though the members of Python considered their feature a criticism of religious zealotry, for all intents the film was treated no differently than a standard X-rated porno film.

Quotes

“Will you please listen? I’m not the Messiah! Do you understand? Honestly!” — Brian
“Only the true Messiah denies his divinity!” — Woman
“What? Well, what sort of chance does that give me? All right, I am the Messiah!” — Brian
“He is! He is the Messiah!” — Crowd
“Now, fuck off!” — Brian
“How shall we fuck off, oh Lord?” — Arthur
“Oh, just go away! Leave me alone!”

You get the picture.

On (Further) Matters of Sex (and Violence)

Not all of the five films featured in this section have been controversial to an extreme degree. Neither “Breaking the Waves” nor “Caligula” were particularly criticized for offense, save for the latter’s porn bonafides and renown as one of the film industry’s greatest critical and commercial bombs.

They have both been long considered uncomfortable viewing, however.

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Caligula (1979): Financed by the late Bob Guccione as the first Penthouse Magazine production, at a cost of $17.5 million in 1979 dollars, the film details the rise and fall of the Roman Emperor, as played by — making his second appearance on this list — Malcolm McDowell (who is also credited as co-writer, along with Tinto Brass and Penthouse publisher Guccione).

“Caligula” featured an epic-sized cast including such A-list thespians as Peter O’Toole portraying Tiberius, the second Roman emperor, John Gielgud as Nerva, a decorated jurist and member of Tiberius’ entourage, and Helen Mirren as Caesonia, Caligula’s fourth and final wife.

The film was a fairly straightforward, though sensational, retelling of the historical Caligula … until post-production. Following the film’s shoot, a group of Penthouse pets and adult film stars were shot in legit hardcore sex scenes that were edited into the final film.

When the film was released, word spread that such classically-trained actors were starring in what amounted to a large-scale porn flick. The box office was negligible, earning a scant $23.4 million on its $17.5 budget, and the passage of time has not been kind.

It remains little more than a 1970’s curio. And a bust.

Early On-Screen Quote

“What shall it profit a man if he should get the whole world and lose his own soul?” — Mark 8:36

The theme of the film is “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Adding anything else is a waste of space.

Last Tango in Paris (1972): A middle-aged American man (Marlon Brando), grieving the suicide of his wife, meets an engaged Parisian woman (Maria Schneider). They develop an anonymous sexual relationship where no names are shared that escalates into violence.

Director Bernardo Bertolluci’s “Last Tango in Paris” was, to that time, mainstream cinema’s most singularly raw portrayal of sex and violence. The film was heavily censored internationally — Italian censors did not pass the film at all — and in the U.S. it was handed an X-rating by the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America).

“A tool for male domination,” accused the National Organization of Women. A bomb threat canceled a Montclair, New Jersey screening. Shouts of “perverts” and other invective plagued audience members entering U.S. theaters. Walkouts were common during early screenings. And yet, the film was a smash hit, grossing nearly $100 million worldwide on a $1.25 million budget.

The film’s most controversial scene involved Paul, Brando’s character, anally raping Jeanne (Schneider) using butter as a lubricant. Years later, Schneider insisted she would not have given permission to film the scene as it was not in the script, and was talked into it while sobbing by Brando and Bertolluci. She was 19 years old at the time, and compared the indiscretion forced upon her to a true-life sexual assault.

From Wikipedia: Columnist William F. Buckley and ABC’s Harry Reasoner denounced the film as “pornography disguised as art … Film critic Pauline Kael endorsed the film, writing that Tango has altered the face of an art form. This is a movie people will be arguing about for as long as there are movies. [It is] the most powerfully erotic movie ever made, and it may turn out to be the most liberating movie ever made.”

That review was so effusive the film’s distributor, United Artists, reprinted it as a two-page spread in The New York Times.

Quotes and Dialog Exchanges

“Why were you going through my pockets?” — Paul

“To find out who you are.” — Jeanne

“To find out who you are?” — Paul

“Yes.” — Jeanne

“Well, if you look real close, you’ll see me hiding behind my zipper.” — Paul

“Go, get the butter.” — Paul

“Why do you hate women?” — Jeanne

“Because either they always pretend to know who I am, or they pretend I don’t know who they are, and that’s very boring.” — Paul

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Breaking the Waves (1996): When her beloved husband, Jan (Stellan Skarsgård), becomes immobilized in a freak work accident, Bess (Emily Watson) complies with his wish to have sex with other men so as not to waste her life.

The film takes place in the Scottish Highlands in the early 1970s, lending the proceedings an almost eerie feel. Directed by Lars von Trier and starring Emily Watson, the film was highly praised for its bravery and sensitivity, notable considering its high-wire plot, and won the Grand Prix at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival.

As mentioned, “Breaking the Waves” was not a controversial product, yet the uncomfortable nature of the unconventional story lends to its inclusion here.

Quote

“I don’t make love with them, I make love with Jan and I save him from dying.” — Bess

Two other films can easily place on this list as discussion points: 1992’s “Basic Instinct” and 2003’s “The Brown Bunny,” but they will feature in a future article, that one on perceptions of art vs. pornography. For now, I’ll acknowledge the former film was largely criticized for its misogyny, graphic violence and rough sexual situations, while the latter is best known as featuring a close-up, unedited, hardcore scene of Chloë Sevigny giving oral sex to writer-director-star Vincent Gallo.

Once again, these films may be uncomfortable for some to watch, but in both cases the filmmakers attempted to tell a legitimate story … of which any artist has a right to do.

On Racism and Our Racial History

Hollywood has never been known as a beacon for racial sensitivity. In 1989, Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” became the independent film that changed the rules about presenting black culture and acceptance, or lack thereof, like never before.

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Do the Right Thing (1989): Racial tensions explode in a Brooklyn community on the hottest day of the summer.

I recently posted a feature article on Spike Lee’s most acclaimed film. See here:

Without rehashing, “Do the Right Thing” is one of those rare movies that will remain just as resonant as it was upon its original release. Back then, in 1989, theater owners and authorities expected violence to emanate from screenings of Spike’s new Joint, and warned the moviegoing public to be vigilant if attending. Spike vocally retaliated against those fears, and he was right.

There were no incidents to speak of.

The film is largely considered one of the finest films of the 1980s, due in part to its uncompromising honesty about the era in which it was made, the loss of black lives that precipitated and inspired the film, and its bold, stylized writing and directing.

As most of us are doing today one way or the other, we have to continue to fight the power to gain what we believe is just. Whether you agree or not, this is a stirring message from a passionate filmmaker.

Quotes

The heat is at an all-time high, and racial tensions are at a boil during this provocative exchange where the individual characters below directly address the hard camera …

“It’s cheap, I got a good price for you, Mayor Koch, “How I’m doing,” chocolate-egg-cream-drinking, bagel-and-lox, B’nai B’rith Jew asshole!” — Sonny, the Korean grocer

“You Goya bean-eating, fifteen in a car, thirty in an apartment, pointed shoes, red-wearing, Menudo, mire-mire Puerto Rican cocksucker. Yeah, you!” — Officer Long (who later killed Radio Raheem, which set the riot in motion)

“You little slanty-eyed, me-no-speaky-American, own-every-fruit-and-vegetable-stand-in-New-York, bullshit, Reverend Sun Myung Moon, Summer Olympics ’88, Korean kick-boxing son of a bitch!” — Stevie, a Hispanic nieghbor

“You gold-teeth-gold-chain-wearin’, fried-chicken-and-biscuit-eatin’, monkey, ape, baboon, big thigh, fast-runnin’, high-jumpin’, spear-chuckin’, three-hundred-sixty-degree-basketball-dunkin’ titsun spade Moulan Yan. Take your fuckin’ pizza-pizza and go the fuck back to Africa.” — Pino

“Dago, wop, guinea, garlic-breath, pizza-slingin’, spaghetti-bendin’, Vic Damone, Perry Como, Luciano Pavarotti, Sole Mio, nonsingin’ motherfucker.” — Mookie, as played by Spike Lee, who formally began the riots by throwing a garbage can through the window of Sal’s Famous, the neighborhood pizza parlor, following the death of Radio Raheem.

“Hope the block is still standing.” — Da Mayor, 70s, black, the day after the riots

“We’re still standing.” — Mother Sister, black same age.

That last exchange perfectly encapsulates the message of this one-of-a-kind masterpiece.

The Birth of a Nation (1915), Blazing Saddles (1974), Gone With the Wind (1939), Song of the South (1946): I am grouping these films together for reason, as all four— while receiving varying degrees of criticism when released — have received considerably more negative response in the intervening years. An article will be forthcoming from me about today’s cancel culture and classic films in retrospect, and each of these four films, and their critical and commercial receptions, will be dissected. Nonetheless, for now, it is accurate to state of the these four, “The Birth of a Nation” was easily the most controversial from the outset.

If anything, in recent decades its reputation as a race-baiting film has drastically increased, and its interpretation of history is more than ever considered highly questionable.

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Based on white supremacist Thomas Dixon’s bestselling 1905 novel, “The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan,” D.W. Griffith’s silent “The Birth of a Nation” is said to have been a major financial success, though specific box office numbers remain a point of contention. Delving equally into the Civil War and Reconstruction, this two-part film (with an intermission) is perhaps best represented by this Woodrow Wilson’s quote from “History of the American People,” which was used as a key intertitle in the film:

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The complete film, which runs over three hours, can be seen below, courtesy of Kino Classics. Note: This film is in the public domain, and is legally shareable.

I encourage you to make your own decisions as to the historical value of this piece, but I will warn you if you have not seen it: “The Birth of a Nation” is every bit the racially insensitive film as its reputation implies. When one considers the degree of controversy the film elicited even back in 1915, it is notable today’s culture only amplifies the indignation.

The KKK were merchandised from this film for aprons and other kitchen goods. Rioting broke out in various American cities showing the film, and protests were commonplace. The NAACP condemned the film and sought to have all prints banned in appeals to various film boards. As members of U.S. film boards, who then determined issues regarding censorship and related matters, were largely white, the effort was unsuccessful.

As with today, personal political leanings also played roles in determining one’s reaction to the film.

Again, watch “The Birth of a Nation” for yourself. Consider if the controversy is overblown, or not enough.

I look forward to your comments.

Per the intent of this article, I will not delve deeply into either Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” or Victor Fleming’s “Gone With the Wind,” among the most popular films ever made.

I am including them both in a follow-up article on cancel culture, as both ran into similar controversies on the new streaming service HBO Max. The latter was initially canceled due to insensitivities regarding race, before a public outcry led the streamer to reinstate the film … with a disclaimer. “Blazing Saddles,” which is rife with racial humor, is now also preceded by “context” prior to each airing.

The question is: Are these contexts necessary? Or, are they an overreaction based on our modern-day climate?

To this list I can also add Disney’s racially-insensitive “Song of the South” (1946), though the troubled history behind its exclusion from their studio archives was not a recent affair.

Most art will not positively resonate in all eras, and a filmmaker should not concern himself or herself with that possibility. The history of film is history itself. Movies are time capsules. It is the responsibility of their makers, as I’ve said repeatedly, to express their own truths and tell the stories they believe must be told.

Even if the end-result is unseemly. Audiences will have the final say as to their value.

Conclusion

As I conclude this piece, I believe a few words about our modern day “cancel culture,” alluded to earlier as fodder for another upcoming article, is in order.

According to Dictionary.com: Cancel culture refers to the popular practice of withdrawing support for (canceling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive. Cancel culture is generally discussed as being performed on social media in the form of group shaming.

To me, the most egregious example of modern-day cancel culture regards this scene from Disney’s 1964 classic, “Mary Poppins.”

Why has this scene engendered any controversy at all? A New York Times editorial stated as Mary (Julie Andrews), Bert (Dick Van Dyke) and the Banks children (Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber) arrived onto this rooftop through a chimney, the scene is racist because they didn’t wipe the black soot off their faces. Therefore, it has been argued, the characters are in blackface.

This to me is, frankly, a ridiculous conclusion. Professor Pollack-Pelzner, the author of that piece — who incidentally is Caucasian for perspective’s sake — argued further that Mary “powders her nose and cheeks even blacker.”

Everyone is entitled to their opinion.

We agree to wholeheartedly disagree in this case and that brings us full-circle.

It is one thing to strive to create art, and another to attempt to take it down because the work does not fit a particular agenda.

Audiences vote with their dollars. Though I am as certain as I could be the filmmakers behind “Mary Poppins” were not making a racial statement with this scene, once more it was their job to tell the story they set out to tell.

The chips will fall from there. Every time.

Filmmakers, as with any artist, must always follow their muse.

Your comfort is not our business.

Thank you for reading.

Sources

Wikipedia, The Village Voice, Dictionary.com

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Joel Eisenberg

Written by

Joel Eisenberg is an award-winning author, screenwriter, and producer. The Oscar in the profile pic isn’t his but he’s scheming. WGA and Pen America member.

Writing For Your Life

Honest, practical advice on the writer’s life for both aspiring and experienced authors and screenwriters, and an uncensored forum for provocative thought.

Joel Eisenberg

Written by

Joel Eisenberg is an award-winning author, screenwriter, and producer. The Oscar in the profile pic isn’t his but he’s scheming. WGA and Pen America member.

Writing For Your Life

Honest, practical advice on the writer’s life for both aspiring and experienced authors and screenwriters, and an uncensored forum for provocative thought.

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