Films can be considered offensive or obscene for a variety of reasons, whether it be extreme violence, or controversial subject matter, and while most films in this vein are exploitative, a select few are evocative. Obscenity is merely a way of communicating to the audience, much like sight gags or witty dialogue, and the films on this list use this form of communication to comment on something deeper and more meaningful than its shocking imagery would normally provide.
One fascinating aspect of these films is the changing attitude of the audience over time, and how that affects the opinion of their offensiveness. For instance, a horror film could have been terrifying in the past, but relatively tame by today’s standards, and vice-versa, a past film could reflect the contemporary attitude of the time period, but offensive in the modern world.
The films described here have stood the test of time in their ability to let some, or all, aspects of their mastery shine through despite their content. Because it’s necessary to talk about the films as a whole to describe their brilliance, the assumption will be made that the films have been viewed already.
10. Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
It was controversial for its time due to its “extreme violence and sexual themes.” Alas, most of the other films on this list didn’t exist yet, but for a film to be so groundbreaking in its use of violence, and also usher in a new era of filmmaking that arguably rippled through the course of history and continues to this day, its offensiveness seems uniquely revolutionary.
The biggest movie of the decade until that point was The Sound of Music. While that film did have Nazis, it was hardly controversial. The studio system had taken risks on a number of big budget failures, and they subsequently dismantled and restructured themselves. This was only a few years removed from the emergence of the French New Wave, and all the film school nerds were paying probably a few hundred dollars a semester to watch these imported films. The studios started taking smaller risks on these people, and some of the best movies Hollywood has ever produced were made. Bonnie and Clyde was ground zero.
There had been slapstick violence, and there had been realistic violence, but never before did the two comingle in the same film, frequently shifting tone in the same scene. Coinciding with the emerging counterculture at the time, the public zeitgeist seemed to be interested in shattering boundaries, and here was a film that made watching blood splatter and people murdered in cold blood entertaining.
What elevates the film above the entertainment value, though, is the controversial final scene. It could be looked at as a cautionary tale: raise hell and you’ll get what’s coming to you. The choice to show every single bullet, every single drop of blood, and every single policeman pulling the trigger hammers it home.
Another overlooked subversion in the film is the treatment of sexuality. A majority of films up until this point in history had featured masculine sexual dynamos, and to say Warren Beatty was a notable figure in this movement is an understatement. Perhaps out of vanity (hence the song about him), here was an actor in a major motion picture unafraid to play a person with questionable sexuality.
Coming out of the decade before where pronounced gender roles were near-mandatory, this surely had to have been taboo. Geniuses are known to push boundaries and shatter preconceived notions, provided they have the audacity. Beatty occupied a realm of so much audacity that it reached a level which can only be described as brilliant.
9. Straw Dogs (1971)
Assumedly a large number of people would argue that modern Hollywood is no stranger to violence and misogyny, and Straw Dogs is certainly a clear early example, but what’s offensive to the average moviegoer in this film is actually just a layer in the complicated theme of chaos vs. order the film conveys.
Considering Sam Peckinpah’s previous track record of westerns filled with inherently violent characters, it seems fitting that he would eventually turn his attention to a pacifist, and explore what makes someone truly descend into animalistic urges, dominated by impulses and the will to survive.
In this case, it’s his own ego, as Dustin Hoffman’s character David refuses to budge on his own sense of justice, to the point where he’s willing to become violent himself, even though it’s in an effort to defend morality. Peckinpah chooses to show that selfishness as simply a trait we all inherited at birth that drives our everyday impulses, and it conjures images of savages driven to acquire goods in the wild by any violent means necessary, not because they have to, but just simply because they want to. The fact that it’s transposed to the context of a small town in 60’s England makes it all the more disturbing, but perhaps because the truth hurts.
The infamous rape scene is the subject of much dismay, but if one thinks outside the box, which seems like what Peckinpah intended, it’s arguably optimistic. The scene is undoubtedly horrible, punctuated by its hint that the victim actually enjoys the act herself after a while, but we watch the scene and judge it immediately as savage and misogynistic. Therein lies the genius: it illuminates the fact that, because we, as real human beings watching a fictional film, are capable of making that judgment, we are not the savages depicted on the screen.
8. The Birth of a Nation (1915)
Art can serve as a snapshot of the contemporary attitude the artist held at the time of its inception. Film, in particular, brings a sense of immediacy to this concept due to the photographic process. However staged it might be, at some point in history, there was a camera in a room capturing real people, feeling real feelings, existing in their own present.
What if the feelings were inherently immoral and shortsighted? Does that lessen the impact of the story itself? The Birth of a Nation is perhaps the most divisive work of art in recent history. It is simultaneously revered for its technical mastery and innovation, and reviled for its subject matter. That it champions such a dark period in American history only forces us to feel dirty ourselves for even bringing the film up in conversation.
One thing’s for sure: D.W. Griffith was a master for the ages at his craft. In fact, he arguably shaped the industry of American cinema more than anyone ever has. His eye for complex composition and blocking was so ahead of its time, it’s as if he came from the future, in technique, anyway.
Seriously, how did they even perform some of the stunts in the movie, when an industry surely only existed in a primitive form at best? There have been many theories of artists creating their magnum opus’ because they were the sole creative force firing on all cylinders, but for Griffith to create and shape an entire medium from scratch, that’s something else entirely.
Therein lies the profound moral issue, he was apparently a staunch racist. For as innovative as the techniques in the film were, they were used in depicting the Klu Klux Klan as responsible for America’s Reconstruction after the Civil War. It even features white people in “blackface,” allegedly because Griffith felt there were no good black actors at the time.
This raises a broad issue with many questions in tow. Were they aware of their own immoral view and just felt strongly about it anyway, or were they just in line with the contemporary attitude at the time? Should we take the film literally or view it simply as a work of fiction? Can we ignore the stigma attached with it and separate the art from the artist if the artists’ view is explicitly reflected in the art itself?
A scene which highlights this profound dilemma happens in the second half of the film. A man in blackface and his friends are confronted by a white man over the death of a white woman. The white man stands tall and walks with authority amongst the black men, who carry themselves in a slouch and hop around like animals. The white man captures the black man and brings him to trial amongst the Klan members. Yes, it’s as ridiculous as it sounds, but it’s also expertly photographed and effective in its point. If most audiences don’t agree with its point, does that make it any less brilliant?
7. Pink Flamingos (1972)
Ask anyone about Pink Flamingos and he or she will most likely remember the iconic final scene, but it’s arguably the tamest and most straightforward in the entire film, and that’s really saying something. For a film to be just as shocking today as it was in the early 70’s, especially considering we live in the internet age of Liveleak and other shock sites, it’s only fair that the film could be the deliberate artistic work of a mad genius.
That genius, of course, is the perennial John Waters, who outwardly claims that, in order to have bad taste, one must actually have good taste. This is related to the idea that, in order to get a 0% on a multiple choice test, one must know 100% of the answers, because simply guessing would at least result in a 25%.
The film makes inspired use of surrealism, extreme violence, drag queens, exhibitionism, fetishism (particularly of the egg variety), scatological humor, and even scatological drama. The unequivocal brilliance of the film is in the mastery of the mise-en-scène and how it fits in with the content. It’s bathed in a pastel color palette to accentuate the campiness akin to real pink flamingos, and there’s a stark contrast between the hero’s dilapidated, but charming, trailer in the middle of the woods, and the villains’ sterile, stuffy mansion.
The camera moves through the film in a way that walks the fine line between cinéma vérité and complete incompetence, and when it does look incompetent, it adds to the scene. Consider one where Connie Marble berates a prospective employee; the camera moves jerkily on the tripod, zooming in and out with seemingly no respect to traditional camera technique, but we as the audience are forced to judge this choice as bad, just as Connie herself is bad.
The acting, and especially the hyperbolic dialogue, is transcended by a talented cast who give it their drug-induced all, none more so than Divine, whose larger-than-life persona carries the film so well it’s as if the performance was Oscar-worthy. It’s said that when a genius holds himself to an exceptionally high standard, it motivates people to push their limits by proxy. In this case, change the word “high” with “low.”
6. Man Bites Dog (1992)
The mockumentary genre wasn’t anything new by the time the 90s rolled around, neither were movies about serial killers, but this film dared to do something rarely seen in the genre: go meta. The film says just as much about the nature of evil in the killer himself as it does in the camera crew making the film, and even in the viewers, who willingly follow this man’s exploits in the pursuit of entertainment. The film speaks to the moral dilemma of where the line should be drawn between observation and participation.
At first it seems we have no choice; Ben, the serial killer, is charismatic and elegant. He’s just as interested in strangling women as he is in the architectural aesthetics of low-income housing properties. He certainly warranted a camera crew following him around, but why would the camera crew not simply turn him in? Aren’t they morally obligated to stop his horrific crimes? Does that not make them just as bad as the killer himself?
Ben could be seen as a metaphor for a corrupt politician, personable and magnetic on the outside, but savage on the inside, but the film dares to make even loftier statements about the demon inside all of us, weaving in and out of our bodies, trying to lodge itself in our consciousness, and forcing us to commit unthinkable acts. This could apply to any sociopath, really; what makes them truly damaging is their ability to appeal to our emotions, not our thoughts.
The film was offensive at the time for its extreme violence no doubt, but the mockumentary style places the audience on the hot seat. Everything is shown so matter of fact that it forces the audience to make a judgment about the acts occurring, and when the camera crew is drawn under Ben’s spell, we’re forced to either jump onboard or watch from afar, maybe even look away at times, but assumedly most of us would look back, and what does that say about the viewer?
That it’s never explicitly revealed at the end who is enacting revenge on Ben and his loved ones is a profound choice that elevates the film to spiritual levels. It illuminates the idea that the karma door swings both ways. While an individual might be able to carry out horrible crimes and remain elusive by society, the spiritual world knows better, and will give that individual what’s coming to him or her. It’s as if the film dares the viewer to open the door and walk through it, but shows the consequences of doing so.