In perusing this year’s biggest movie controversies, we found ourselves discussing matters a good deal less trivial than last year. Make no mistake, there are some tempest-in-teapot situations here: ratings woes, questions of reappropriation and hagiography, and (god help us all) frame rates. But we also grappled with issues of artistic responsibility and racial representation, and with the ongoing question of the very health of the form itself. Join us after the jump for a stroll through the year’s memorable movie controversies, won’t you?
Innocence of Muslims
The year’s most controversial motion picture screened exactly one time, on June 23, at the Vine Theater in Hollywood. The film’s writer/producer, “Sam Bacile” (the non de plume of Mark Basseley Youssef, aka Nakoula Basseley Nakoula), rented out the theater for the single screening of his film — then carrying the even-more provocative title The Innocence of Bin Laden — and it ran for an audience of about ten people. In the pre-Internet age, that might’ve been the end of the strikingly inept motion picture; instead, “Bacile” uploaded 14 minutes of video clips and trailers to YouTube in July, which we subsequently dubbed into Arabic and aired on Egyptian television. Protests and violent demonstrations across the globe followed suit. For his part, “Bacile”/Youssef/Nakoula — already on probation following a 2010 conviction for bank and credit card fraud — was sentenced to a year in jail on four charges, including lying to his probation officer and (yep) using fake names.
Zero Dark Thirty and Torture
You gotta give Kathryn Bigelow’s movie this much: it’s an equal opportunity faux-offender. Early in the year, right-wing critics were up in arms — first over the filmmakers’ alleged access to “inside information” by the Obama administration, then claiming that the film would serve as some sort of de facto campaign ad, reminding voters of the administration’s triumph on election eve. (Never mind that the movie wasn’t coming out until well after November 6th.) Then, as Zero Dark Thirty began to unspool in media and guild screenings earlier this month, it was hit from the left. The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald led the charge, his headline labeling “torture-glorifying” a film that, eight paragraphs in, he admitted to not having seen. (That didn’t stop him from comparing Bigelow to Leni Reifenstahl.) Andrew Sullivan initially joined in, though (to his credit), he did see the film and set the record straight, correctly breaking down the complex moral and legal ambiguities of this challenging and brilliant film where, as Pauline Kael wrote of Bonnie and Clyde lo those many years ago, audiences “are made to feel but are not told how to feel.” Greenwald finally bothered to see it as well, but instead dug in further, this time comparing Bigelow to a Klansman. Not much for nuance, that one. And then Senators McCain, Feinstein, and Levin decided to get in on it too, which was totally cool; it’s not like they had anything else to focus on.
The Hobbit: Three Times as Long, with Twice as Many Frames
If you’re Peter Jackson, and you’ve followed up the triumph of the Lord of the Rings trilogy with a mediocre second remake of King Kong and a tepidly-received adaptation of The Lovely Bones, what do you do? You go back to the well. So it wasn’t surprising when he threw Guillermo Del Toro overboard (Leno-style, some might say) and took over the adaptation of Tolkien’s The Hobbit they’d been collaborating on; what was surprising was Jackson’s decision to turn the comparatively slender novel (310 pages) into first two films, and then three. (For comparison’s sake, the three LOTR films encompassed over 1500 pages of Tolkien’s text.) As a result, well, one could say the picture drags a bit. (Actually, The Onion said it better than we ever could.) And Jackson made another peculiar decision early on, choosing to shoot the film in a 48 frames-per-second frame rate that renders images more clear, smooth, and lifelike — and thus all wrong for a fantasy world (and one filled with elaborate make-up effects and intricate costumes). Skeptical critics compared the final product to home movies, soap operas, reality shows, Teletubbies, and behind-the-scenes “making of” featurettes. Not that audience seemed to care (this time, anyway); the film grossed $84.6 million in its opening weekend, making it the highest December opening in movie history.
Cloud Atlas and “Yellowface”
Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski’s sprawling film adaptation of David Mitchell’s 2004 book is, sure, flawed and problematic; it is also a bold, risky, and ultimately rewarding attempt to tell a giant story that encompasses something like the entirety of the human experience. In order to do so, the filmmakers hit on the idea of telling the book’s six separate narratives with the same cast, each playing multiple roles — and thus furthering the themes of interconnectivity within said human experience. But that meant some cross-cultural casting, and the resultant sight of, for example, Jim Sturgess as a Korean hero. The Media Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) swung into action, claiming the film employed “badly done yellowface.” In a way, it’s an objection similar to the grumbling over the torture sequences in Zero Dark Thirty — objecting to the fact that something exists, rather than making any attempt to understand it within the context of the larger work.
It was, as we’ve mentioned, a big year for Hitchcock, with the release of a giant (and awesome) box set of Hitch’s masterpieces on Blu-ray, and two competing biopic treatments: HBO’s The Girl (with Toby Jones as Hitch and Sienna Miller as two-time leading lady ‘Tippi’ Hedrin) and Fox Searchlight’s Hitchcock (with Anthony Hopkins in the title role and Helen Mirren as wife Alma Reville). And that’s where the trouble started. The Girl was unveiled first, and was slammed immediately by Hitchcock fans and critics in general — and for good reason. While Jones and Miller are top-notch, the rather skeezy film focused on the unsubstantiated accusations of Hedrin and frequently disputed research of biographer Donald Spoto. But the questionable content was only half the problem (and we’ve liked plenty of biopics with imperfect pedigrees); more disturbing was the film’s sleazy tone, the pleasure it seemed to get from taking Hitch down a notch, and painting him as a dirty-talking pig. Compared to that film, Hitchcock seemed like a breath of frothy fresh air — which is why the snarling critical response to it was so puzzling. The New York Times’ Manhola Dargis charged it with taking Norman Bates-style “extravagant liberties with the dead”; HitFix’s Drew McWeeny dubbed it “biography by way of bullshit.” More than thirty years after his death, Mr. Hitchcock is still a challenge, apparently, and a puzzle.
Music and The Artist
“I WANT TO REPORT A RAPE,” wrote Hitchcock’s Vertigo leading lady back in January, but she wasn’t contributing to Hedrin/Spoto chorus. No, she was talking about music in movie. “I FEEL AS IF MY BODY — OR, AT LEAST, MY BODY OF WORK — HAS BEEN VIOLATED BY THE MOVIE, ‘THE ARTIST.’” Yes, Ms. Novak apparently felt that the appropriation of excerpts from Vertigo’s score into the soundtrack of the eventual Academy Award winner was somehow analogous to a sexual assault. Later, she clarified that, yes, that’s exactly what she meant: “When I said it was like a rape, that was how it felt to me. I had experienced in my youth being raped, and so I identified with a real act that had been done to me. I didn’t use that word lightly. I had been raped as a child. It was a rape I never told about, so when I experienced this one, I felt the need to express it.” Um, okay. We’re just gonna back away from this one slowly, and without comment.
Bully and the MPAA
Harvey Weinstein has had a long and rather contentious relationship with the MPAA over movie ratings; he previously sparred with the organization over such films as Clerks, Blue Valentine, and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! This spring, he entered another long (and public) battle with the group, this time over the rating of the Weinstein Company-distributed documentary Bully, which was slapped with an R rating solely for adult language (all from the mouths of teens, of course). Weinstein argued that by keeping teens from seeing the anti-bullying doc, the MPAA was keeping away exactly the audience that most needed to see it, and pleaded, threatened, and (if you want to look at it a certain way) publicly bullied them into downgrading the film to a PG-13. Some applauded Weinstein for again going to bat against the powerful and often unreasonable organization; others wondered if the whole thing was just eternal showman Harvey rustling up more publicity. After all, it wasn’t like bullying teens were all that likely to go to the movie by themselves anyway (if they could find it — its widest release was to 263 theaters), and, as South Park’s Kyle asked in an episode taking on the controversy, “If this video needs to be seen by everyone, why don’t you put it on the Internet for free?”
2016: Obama’s America
Back in 2004, Michael Moore released the proudly partisan anti-Bush documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 the summer before its subject was up for re-election, and it got the country talking — it grossed $119 million, becoming the highest-grossing doc of all time, and its smashing success caused concern that it could contribute to a Bush defeat at the polls. (No such luck.) This summer felt like a replay, albeit on a smaller scale; the independently-produced anti-Obama effort 2016: Obama’s America quietly made a rather shocking $33 million, making it the highest-grossing political doc since Fahrenheit. And as with that film, there were plenty of questions about the film’s honesty and effectiveness. Conservative fans of the film, for their part, howled that the “in the tank” Mainstream Media™ were ignoring this indie smash. For his part, co-director/star Dinesh D’Souza found his family values bona fides called into question by a sketchy personal life; he later proved himself nearly as clueless about Hollywood’s politics as Washington’s when he fumed, after 2016 failed to make the Oscar “long list” of possible Best Documentary nominees, that “by ignoring 2016, the top-performing box-office hit of 2012, and pretending that films like Searching for Sugar Man and This Is Not a Film are more deserving of an Oscar, our friends in Hollywood have removed any doubt average Americans may have had that liberal political ideology, not excellence, is the true standard of what receives awards.” Yes, Dinesh, the top-performing box office hits are usually the ones that get the Oscars, as the producers of last year’s Best Picture winner Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part 2 can tell you.
Samuel L. Jackson vs. A.O. Scott
Seeing’s how The Avengers is (so far) the highest-grossing movie of 2012, and considering how many genuinely bad movies he’s fronted, you would think Samuel L. Jackson might have a thicker skin when it comes to bad reviews. And what’s weird about the May Twitter dust-up between Jackson and New York Times film critic A.O. Scott over his Avengers review is that it wasn’t even all that negative; he wasn’t wild about the action sequences, preferring the scenes where its “assembled heroes have the opportunity to brag, banter, flirt and bicker.” (We liked it more than Scott, but we’d pretty much agree.) Jackson, however, wasn’t pleased; he tweeted “#Avengers fans,NY Times critic AO Scott needs a new job! Let’s help him find one! One he can ACTUALLY do!” It was an oddly personal attack, making the always questionable presumption that if a critic doesn’t like a hit, they’re doing something wrong (rather than engaging with the work and working through their own response to it). But there was a lot of soul searching for movie scribes this year…
Film Is Dead. No It Isn’t. Yes It Is.
As long as there’s been an active cinema, it seems, people have been forebodingly declaring it dead (Godard: “I await the end of cinema with optimism”), but every few months, the argument is trotted out for another round. Last spring, Vanity Fair’s James Wolcott decided to have another go at the apples-and-oranges “TV is better than movies” argument; everyone threw in their two cents (including us) on the rather silly debate, which ultimately depends on your willingness to disregard the hundreds of hours of bad television that airs every day and just focus on how awesome Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones are (just as you must ignore Transformers movies and talk about Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln). A few months later, Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir recycled one of Wolcott’s more specious arguments — that recent Best Picture winners are already forgotten, as though the Academy’s Best Picture is ever the year’s Best Picture — to kick off his lament for the state of current cinema, “Is Movie Culture Dead?” David Thomson and David Denby asked the question themselves in The New Republic; the latter, eternal doomsayer that he is, devoted an entire book to his Cassandra-ing. To the credit of “movie culture,” objections and arguments were quick and persuasive (your own film editor even got into the act) — to such a degree that, ultimately, the best testament to the fact that film (and film culture) are alive and kicking were the speed and forcefulness of it’s Holy Grail-style “I’m not dead yet!” objections.
Those are the movie controversies that got us talking this year — what about you? Let us know in the comments!