What defines a filmmaker as ‘controversial’? Certainly there are several directors that coast off the slogan that “no press is bad press” and do their best to stir the pot for shallow or promotional reasons (e.g. Tom Six), but to be a true ‘provocateur’ there needs to be substance behind the button pushing.
Other elements can come into to play (e.g. D.W. Griffith’s pro-KKK mentality), but the majority criteria for this article focuses on filmmakers that stand as unflappable personalities with uncompromisable visions, ones that don’t sit well with standard movie conventions. With that philosophy, it has them enter a place where that body of work that can’t be loved by all of the media or all viewers.
10. Pier Paolo Pasolini
After a haphazard youth living through the fascist regime of World War II Italy, Pier Paolo Pasolini grew into a visible anti-establishment poet, who also was openly homosexual and shared strong Communist beliefs – all elements that made him a controversial persona in a sensitive time in the country’s history.
Still, it wasn’t until the man became a film director that he truly made waves on a major scale. His debut film “Accattone” (1961) was set in Rome’s grimy slums, filled with the dark underbelly of Italy’s postwar criminals and survivors; the film caused a stir with its unfiltered portrayal of life in a time when the country was attempting to turn its economic tides and sell a positive outlook.
Later, Pasolini’s short movie “La Ricotta” had the government try him for “offences toward the state and church” – it appeared even this early into his career, a target was on the man’s back. He had garnered an aura of a man who was willing to overturn and examine Italian society via visual metaphor, hyperrealism, or by elaborating literary adaptations with a fearlessness that other filmmakers would buckle under. Sadly, this flamboyant rep followed him until his tragic and brutal murder in 1975, a crime that remains still not fully solved.
Most Controversial Movie: “Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom” (1975) is a rough-edged shocker oddly coupled with whip-crack intelligence – it’s a film that has lost none of its power (or controversy) to this day. Pasolini’s final film before his death, the movie deals with the dicey issues of a rich feudal system and its fascist-like grip on Italian society during the Franco regime.
Adapted and reimagined from Marquis de Sade’s tomb of sleaze, the story features a group of wealthy folk abducting 12 teenage boys and girls and subjecting them to torture or rape, and ultimately murder; it’s all an elaborate and loaded metaphor, but it doesn’t make it an easier movie to watch despite the intellect behind it.
Understandably, the movie caused quite a stir, exposing a scab that the country’s government wished to forget; its rough content also had it banned outright in several countries, with only the sentence being overturned in places like Australia in recent times. It’s a grim last note to leave on Pasolini’s fascinating if controversial existence, yet strangely enough this gut punch of a movie has remained his most remembered and celebrated movie for a erratic career.
9. Larry Clark
Larry Clark had garnered a major pedigree as photographer over the course of two decades by documenting a rough and tumble existence as a drug-addled youth. He made the natural transition to filmmaking in the mid-90s with “Kids” (1995), a film that laid down his precedent for an unfiltered and shocking brand of cinema to which he lay claim.
Focused around young New York teens living a haphazard delinquent existence amidst a whirlwind of sex, drugs and violence, its grainy documentary style and unprofessional actors only helped add to the grim believability of a movie that divided audiences and shook up the cinema world.
Several more similar films followed (“Bully,” “Wassup Rockers”) with Clark placing a stamp on a specific type of cinema that unveiled an ugly underbelly of youth culture to which most viewers want to play ignorant. Yet Clark has also come under fire for being an exploiter of his young actors, with the public split regarding whether his films are all shock and not much substance.
Whatever the stance, it doesn’t help that the man himself is a tough and abrasive person, one who has admittedly struggled with drug addiction, not to mention has been know for a heated, and at times, physically abrasive temper.
Most Controversial Movie: Clark’s filmography is certainly ripe for picking when it comes this category, but due to the insane fallout “Ken Park” (2002) created, it easily take the spot here. Focused on Clark’s usual penchant for tough living youths, the film also featured unsimulated sex scenes featuring underage teens.
It was unable to land distribution in the US after an unfavourable festival screening and it was outright banned in Australia, even threatening instigators of an unauthorised screening with jail time. Also, its UK distribution was pulled due to an argument that got physical between Clark and his distributor, which ended with the director punching and strangling said associate.
8. Oliver Stone
Having lived a life as erratic and colourful as his boisterous film career, Oliver Stone grew up in a privileged New York existence before volunteering as a soldier during the Vietnam War. Returning home and being disillusioned with the state of America, he cut his teeth as a successful screenwriter, tackling important subjects by writing the (now considered) seminal remake of “Scarface” (1983), and winning an Oscar for “Midnight Express” (1978).
Stone stepped up to directing with some forgettable genre movies before leaning on his own life experiences with “Platoon” (1986) and “Wall Street” (1987), which sent him straight to the A-list. With his new found pedigree and brain filled with distinct and blunt options on everything from who really killed President Kennedy (“JFK”) to the spiralling madness behind rock star fame (“The Doors”), Stone soon etched a name out as a man with an opinion that left critics and audiences polarised.
In recent years, his bite might’ve softened slightly (e.g. his 9/11 movie “World Trade Center” completely exercised any conspiracy theory hubbub to focus on the human drama instead), yet last year’s “Snowden” still proved he wasn’t afraid to pick up a ‘hot potato’ subject and give it a thorough examination underneath a opinionated microscope.
Most Controversial Movie: Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” (1994) was the most controversial film of the 90s, let alone his career. Based on a pre-fame screenplay by Quentin Tarantino that played as homage to Grindhouse’s obsession with killer couples on the road, when Stone stepped on board as director, the shockingly violent movie also took on an entirely different angle – it added dark satire to the mix, focusing on the media obsession with sensationalism for higher ratings.
Stone’s thesis that the horrendous killers (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) obtained a purity and honesty that was lacking in a shallow society was a tough pill to swallow for most – especially in said ultra-PC decade. The movie and Stone were crucified in the press as a go-to-scapegoat in the years to follow (e.g. the ‘Columbine Massacre’ was NBK’s fault etc.).
7. Ken Russell
Ken Russell was solely responsible for shaking up the British film industry throughout the 70s. Amidst a flood of social message ‘kitchen sink’ movies during the time, this individual thinker made hybrid movies that felt like Antonioni and Cronenberg’s illegitimate love children.
From the Oscar winning “Women in Love” (1969) to his bridge-burning US debut “Altered States” (1980), Russell had created a strong and bulletproof run of provoking and boundary-pushing classics that sadly (due to his boisterous reputation and tough attitude) had the quality and creative freedom considerably dwindle before his death in 2011.
His visual finesse and thematic fearlessness were features that earned him a loyal following, yet his obsessive disdain for religion and the Church in general sent him into several problems over the years, and had him written off as shallow sensualist amongst several critics, where sex and violence were unnecessarily thrown at audiences for his juvenile satisfaction.
That verdict could easily fall on his later lesser work, yet in his golden period Russell’s passionate filmmaking matched with a subtle intelligence really can’t be written off as adolescent fluff, regardless of the uneasy themes and formats it so heartily explores.
Most Controversial Movie: By far the most uproar Russell created is with the movie that many call his masterpiece “The Devils” (1971) – a movie where even reading the synopsis will get most churchgoers red-faced. It’s an angry and gripping experience that pulls no punches in exploring its grim and devastating tale that shocks the most with Russell’s trademark hallucinatory imagery and raw metaphors, coupled with career bests from Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave.
Naturally, of course the film caused a proverbial crap storm on release – even after substantial cuts were made by Russell and the studio itself, it was still released with an X rating in the UK, and was completely banned in Italy (with the Government even threatening jail time to Reed and Redgrave if they entered the country). Only in recent times has a partially restored cut enjoyed a release on DVD. Over the years more minutes of missing footage were found, yet the studio refused to pay for a proper restoration due to the adamant controversy that still follows the picture to this day.
6. Leni Riefenstahl
In terms of gaining a controversial reputation, no matter which field of career you’re in, being a Nazi sympathiser easily sits at the top of the heap when it comes to unfavourable perceptions. Well, so is the story of one of film’s first major female directors, Leni Riefenstahl.
Having become a prominent German film actress during the 1920s, Riefenstahl stepped up to directing in the 30s when several prolific film directors in said industry had started to flee to Hollywood because of the country’s growing unrest. The woman stayed in steed and began to development a working relationship with Adolf Hitler himself, becoming his most celebrated propaganda director.
She created “Triumph of the Will” (1935) a ode to, well, the Nazi party and Hitler himself, yet filmed in such epic and groundbreaking style that regardless of its disturbing purpose and undercurrent, film scholars still hold it as a technically revolutionary movie. This reputation was only further cemented with her “Olympia” (1938) double bill, her groundbreaking documentation of the 1936 Summer Olympics which began to give her an international reputation.
Yet, once the ugly undercurrent of actual doings of the Nazi party began to emerge internationally in the late 1930s, Riefenstahl’s name was tarnished and so was her momentum. Scholars have remained split over her reputation ever since – some laying claim to the technical innovation her work did for the medium, and some unable to ignore the politics behind the films.
Most Controversial Movie: Yes, this is an easy choice – “Triumph of the Will,” no further explanation necessary really.