Controversy. It’s an increasingly overused word that’s lately become synonymous with adulterous footballers or scandalous reality shows. But this awards season ‘controversy’ has been a recurring theme.
Firstly there’s Zero Dark Thirty. Directed by The Hurt Locker’s Kathryn Bigelow, this thriller chronicles the struggles of determined CIA agent Maya (played by Jessica Chastain) in her 10 year hunt to find Osama Bin Laden. It’s only just been released on these shores but a political storm has been a-brewing since it opened in across the Atlantic in mid-December. The main point of complaint was the films depiction of torture. Some argued that the film showed water-boarding as a contributing factor in the locating and killing of the al Qaeda founder in his compound in Pakistan. Mainstream media, typically liberal leaning, sought to condemn this seemingly pro-torture cinema. Bigelow, a life-long pacifist, responded to this criticism by correctly arguing that simply showing these actions does not equate to condoning them. Whilst astute observers have questioned whether the information gleaned from the torture actually was a step towards Bin Laden.
Then there’s Django Unchained. Quentin Tarantino’s spaghetti western follows eponymous slave Django (Jamie Fox) and his quest to rescue his wife from the clutches of nefarious slave owner Candie (Leonardo Dicaprio) with the help of bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz). Controversy and Tarantino films go hand in hand, but his latest opus seems to be getting the most headlines of his career- and not for the right reasons. Aside from the usual gripes on his use of graphic violence, many have gotten angry at the films depiction of slavery and question the liberal use of the ‘N’ word throughout the film. Prominent black filmmaker Spike Lee, an open Tarantino critic, called the film ‘disrespectful’ making the fair point that ‘American slavery was not a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It was a holocaust.’ However, he also admitted to not having seen the film, so is clearly unable to judge the film accurately. Regardless Tarantino’s outburst on Chanel Four News clearly shows he has been feeling the pressure of this film.
And let’s not forget The Impossible. Juan Antonio Bayona directs Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor as a family caught in the mayhem of the 2004 Tsunami in Asian. Complaints of the films stem from the fact that the film chooses to focus on a white middle class English family, essentially ignoring the 100,000s of poor Asian people lost in the disaster.
But what do these swirling pots of controversy all mean? Is it pure coincidence that all these awards contenders have hit the wrong headlines all at once, or is something else going on?
The old saying goes ‘all press is good press’, suggesting any talk of these films will be good for box office and awards no matter in what light they are being spoken. And producers like Harvey Weinstein have turned awards campaigns into an art form to such a degree that it wouldn’t be too cynical to suggest this hysteria was, if not completely manufactured, fuelled by the studios.
However, pure artifice or not, the most important thing perhaps is that these films are doing what great films ought to- get people talking. And that’s one of the best bits about watching a film, arguing about it with your mates on the way home or in a pub afterwards. As long as a film itself isn’t completely overshadowed by its own buzz, getting interesting movies on the news and more people discussion ‘meaning’ is surely a good thing.
So the real winner from this burst of controversial faire is us- the film fans. Not only is it getting non-movie obsessors wading joining our filmic discussions, but it’s also boosting the box office of non-mainstream cinema. Hopefully this will lead to more ‘risk-taking’ or ‘edgy’ films instead of the usual lazy Hollywood output. Hurray for controversy!
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