Forbidden Cinema: The Films They Don't Want You To See

Here are a few examples of some noteworthy problem children of cinema which pushed the buttons of studio heads.

It goes without saying public opinion of the art of the moving picture is purely subjective, dividing and unifying viewers alike regarding its validity and/or quality.  As with any story or subject committed to film, there are rules and regulations imposed by either a ratings systems or studio heads to determine a film's suitability for the public.  Cultural temperament of the time itself is influential on a film's classification for exhibition.  If a film fails commercially, at least it screened fairly among others which would make or break their financiers.  But what about films that were denied their shot at success?  Movies ready to race before being yanked from the track.  Movies deemed too controversial or difficult for studios to accept as releasable.  Movies the studio and perhaps its makers wish to forget.  Here are a few examples of some noteworthy problem children of cinema which pushed the buttons of studio heads as well as the boundaries of acceptability in modern motion pictures.

The Devils – (director: Ken Russell, 1971)

In 1971, the same year as Stanley Kubrick's “Clockwork Orange” and Sam Peckinpah's “Straw Dogs”, British provocateur Ken Russell unleashed this beast of a film, 'The Devils', on an unsuspecting studio, censors and public at large.  Loosely based on Aldous Huxley's nonfiction work 'The Devils of Loudon' about 17th century Roman Catholic priest Urbain Grandier's framed conviction of demonic possession of a convent of nuns in Loudon, France, this colorful period piece seemed like a commercially viable passion play to financier and distributor Warner Brothers at its genesis.  The sight of dozens of “possessed” nuns stripping naked and performing obscene sexual acts on Christian relics, in addition to its extreme violence exceeding well beyond Kubrick and Peckinpah's aforementioned efforts, proved too much however for the heads at Warner.  Ken Russell's rabble-rouser of a film not only invited urgent upset from the studio, who demanded the excision of two particularly controversial scenes before submission to the ratings board, but Warner has taken great steps to prevent the film from being seen again for over 40 years.  Though it was released theatrically, theaters showing it were besieged by protestors picketing screenings, and upon its US release, further cuts were made and UK prints were recalled from distribution to conform with the newly assembled US cut. 

To give an idea of just how bitter Warner is about “The Devils”, in the early 2000's, a DVD edition was being prepared by Warner shortly before it was cancelled without explanation.  Years later it briefly appeared on iTunes before being withdrawn the next day.  In 2004, Ken Russell began touring with a new cut of 'The Devils', without Warner's approval, which restored the two scenes the studio deemed unsuitable.  After Russell's untimely death in 2011, however, when the BFI approached Warner about finally allowing 'The Devils' an official video release as opposed to frequent bootlegs circulating about the internet, Warner agreed to a DVD release of the UK theatrical cut, sans Blu-ray and Russell's 2004 director's cut.  With film historian Mark Kermode's documentary, 'Hell on Earth: The Desecration and Resurrection of The Devils', which displayed the two notorious scenes restored to the 2004 cut, Warner demanded those scenes be dropped from the documentary upon inclusion with the DVD extras and in their place additional interviews with Russell were reinstated.  Warner currently has no plans to release 'The Devils' in the US, making it difficult to see without owning an import DVD player or turning to inferior bootlegs for viewing.  In one of Russell's last interviews, he said of the situation regarding the studio's antipathy to one of their most requested titles of all time, “they didn't like it then, and they don't like it now”.

Song of the South – (directors: Wilfred Jackson, Harve Foster, 1946)
"You damn racist rabbit!"
Walt Disney's 1946 impassioned labor of love, 'Song of the South', based on Joel Chandler Harris' 'Uncle Remus' short stories, would be the first film in Disney's canon to combine animation and live action together in the same space, making it a landmark in cinema history.  It tells the story of a former black slave who shares with children the tales of Br'er Rabbit and his friends, seen in animation segments.  Of the film's original songs, 'Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah' would go on to win an Academy Award and in 1989 at the Walt Disney World Resort, a waterpark ride inspired by the film, “Splash Mountain”, would be constructed to enormous success.  In spite of all the numerous accolades and pop-culture familiarity with 'Song of the South', the Disney company has officially banned their own picture from DVD distribution, forcing consumers to turn to old VHS tapes and/or a Japanese laser disc edition from the late 80s in order to see it.

Deemed politically incorrect for its glorification of slavery and inaccurate portrait of race relations of the 'Reconstruction-Era', the film invited controversy the moment production began.  The actor playing Uncle Remus, who would sing the film's most iconic song, was barred attendance from its world premiere.  Upon release, the film met with protestors picketing screenings for what was perceived as an overtly racist picture.  Though re-released theatrically over the years to commercial success, including in 1986 to promote the forthcoming 'Splash Mountain' ride, the Disney company still won't allow release of the film on home video.  Major critics like Roger Ebert, ordinarily predisposed against censorship, supported Disney's ban of 'Song of the South' in spite of acknowledging its cultural significance.  Outside of occasional clips accompanying 'Disney Sing-A-Long' videos, access to 'Song of the South' beyond paying exorbitant amounts on eBay has been relegated to bootlegging or YouTube.

Ivansxtc – (director: Bernard Rose, 2000)

"No way. We're partyin'
with Robocop!"
British 'Candyman' director Bernard Rose's transposition of Leo Tolstoy's 'The Death of Ivan Ilych' into modern day Hollywood with 'Ivansxtc' would meet controversy and censorship almost immediately as production wrapped.  Shot guerilla-style on low-grade DV, the film depicts the descent of a Hollywood agent named Ivan Beckman (Danny Huston) into drugs and sexual addiction upon learning of his inoperable lung cancer.  To conserve its thin budget, much of the crew acted in the film in addition to real actors using their own homes for locations.  The Creative Arts Agency (CAA) allowed Rose to cast a real agent as himself for realism.  On the day 'Ivansxtc' held its first screening, news broke out that former CAA agent Jay Maloney, recently fired from the agency for drug addiction, had committed suicide.  In a publicity move that would blacklist the film's US distribution, Rose declared the film was inspired by Maloney's death (the actual film doesn't mention Maloney's life or activities
anywhere) and furthered the CAA tried to prevent the film from being seen.  While there's no such thing as bad publicity, in the case of 'Ivansxtc' Rose's comments wound up offending the very agency who helped complete his film in the first place.  Although 'Ivansxtc' opened to glowing reviews (notably from Roger Ebert), it remains without a US distributor thanks to its director's association of the film with a real individual.  A shame Rose shot himself in the foot, as it sports a terrific performance by Danny Huston and, in spite of its technical limitations, some really beautiful moments predating the DV work David Lynch would lens with his final film 'Inland Empire' (which in its own way, bears a striking resemblance to Rose's Hollywood Hellscape).

 Ken Park – (director: Larry Clark, Ed Lachman 2002)

"Sorry, mom. I just can't take
any more Nickelback."
Teen lust provocateur Larry Clark, best known for 'Kids' and 'Bully', directed this art-porn drama based on a preexisting Harmony Korine screenplay (Harmony wasn't involved in the production) and shot-co directed by renowned cinematography Ed Lachman.   'Ken Park' focuses on the lives of 4 teens the title character, Ken Park, used to hang out with before committing suicide.  Much like Harmony Korine's 'Gummo', the film alternates frequently between the lives of the teens using voice-over narration and still photos to establish each character.  In true Clark/Korine fashion, everyone is highly dysfunctional, one of whom sexes his girlfriend's mom, two of whom fend off abusive parents, and the last of which abuses his grandparents when he isn't practicing autoerotic aspyhxiation with masturbation.  The film flaunts unsimulated sexual acts between the young cast members, a move that would raise more than a few eyebrows of spectators lucky enough to see the film. 

Despite its beautiful 35mm cinematography and bearing the distinction of being one of Clark's more optimistic pictures, the mixture of distribution problems, rights issues and unrelenting amounts of taboo imagery have kept the film from having a wider release.  Only a handful of festivals and an uncut DVD issued in Russia have granted 'Ken Park' a glimpse of daylight.  In the UK, an altercation occurred between Clark and UK Tartan Films distributor Hamish McAlpine when McAlpine uttered some unsavory comments about 9/11.  Clark, a fellow New Yorker, promptly punched McAlpine in the face and broke his nose, prompting Clark's brief arrest but ongoing lack of UK distribution.  In the US, Clark claimed the film's distribution Hell is due largely to the producer's inability to secure the rights to songs included on the soundtrack.  Whatever the case, those who have seen 'Ken Park' came away either shell shocked or elated.  If you're able to obtain a copy of the film, view at your own risk for the onslaught of boundary pushing from one of cinema's most controversial directors. 

White Dog – (director: Samuel Fuller, 1982)

"Michael Vick was yummy."
WWII Veteran and film artist Samuel Fuller, having directed since the late 1940s, made this 1982 American drama called 'White Dog'.  Co-written by future director Curtis Hanson, it tells the tale of a dog trainer (Paul Williams) and his attempts to retrain a stray dog rescued by a young actress (Kristy McNichol), whose previous owner trained it to attack black people.  Part parable about the nature of racism, part horror film regarding its notion of the inability to breed evil impulses out of us, the film easily trumps any commentary about the subject attempted with films like Spike Lee's 'Do the Right Thing' and Paul Haggis' 'Crash'.  It says so much about racism without even trying or browbeating the viewer with didactic episodes, and is one of the most chilling films of Fuller's already formidable ouvre.

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When the film was finished in 1982, Paramount Pictures got cold feet over fears the film would offend black people.  During production, the film was met with controversy by the Black Anti-Defamation Coalition concerned the film could spur racial violence.  While on set, Paramount ushered in two African American consultants to observe and approve the production, unbeknownst to Fuller.  Upon learning of their spying, Fuller banned both men from the set and resumed production.  When the film was completed it saw preview screenings to little interest or reaction, although the NAACP boycotted the film sight unseen.  Fearing financial losses and the backlash of a boycott, Paramount shelved in the United States indefinitely.  The move would force a defeated Fuller to move out of the US to France, never to direct an American film again.  It wasn't until 2008 when The Criterion Collection finally released 'White Dog' on DVD that people were able to see the film for what it really is: a harsh, terrifying indictment of man's most animalistic and incomprehensible forms of hatred.

The Conqueror – (director: Dick Powell, 1956)

"Did someone order some wood?"
'The Conqueror' is a 1956 historical epic produced by Howard Hughes and directed by actor Dick Powell, starring John Wayne as Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan.  It cost an unprecedented $6 million at the time and was shot in the newly developed Cinemascope format.  'The Conqueror', however, was widely panned by critics and is regarded as one of the worst films ever made.  Immediately, there's something wrongheaded about the Hollywood casting of John Wayne as a Mongol, particularly that he simply looks and sounds like John Wayne.  'The Conqueror' has a creepy attitude towards war rape, with an antithetical uplifting score playing against Genghis Khan's 'conquering'.  It's hard to fathom an audience watching this when it first came out, with all the forces of the Hollywood system on full display wildly ripping itself apart.

Its subsequent self-imposed ban would result in later years over its locations, which were downwind from a nuclear testing site.  Much of the cast and crew would develop cancer from working on the production, lending to its unwanted subtitle as 'An RKO Radioactive Picture'.  Though it turned over a reasonable profit at the box office, guilt-ridden producer Howard Hughes would go on to spend twice the film's budget on acquiring every print available in the world to bar it from being seen, reportedly watching the film nightly until his death before Universal Studios eventually repurchased it from his estate in 1979.  What remains is a curious blunder of miscalculated casting, mishandling of content, and a chilling moment of Hollywood history when safety concerns and regulations were grossly overlooked and possibly claimed the lives of those who worked on it.

The Day the Clown Cried – (director: Jerry Lewis, 1972)

"Balls. Touch. Them."
'The Day the Clown Cried' is a 1972 film directed by and starring Jerry Lewis as a clown in a Nazi concentration camp who tries to comfort a band of children as they're being lead to the gas chamber.  It remains the most infamous unseen film of all time, with its shelving blamed on everything from litigation problems to everyone from the screenwriters to its lead actor/director (who eventually admitted to imposing the ban himself).  The film has only been seen by a handful of Hollywood insiders, notably actor Harry Shearer who reportedly watched a rough cut in 1979 and referred to it as 'drastically wrong'.  Whenever Lewis is asked of the possibility of 'The Day the Clown Cried' coming out, he grows angry and scoffs at the topic, referring to it as 'a bad work.  You'll never see it and neither will anyone else.'

 Ironically, the same mixture of tender comedy and dark Nazi oppression would find success with Roberto Benigni's 'Life is Beautiful' and Peter Kassovitz' remake of 'Jakob the Liar' with Robin Williams.  At this point, one wonders what about 'The Day the Clown Cried' keeps it under lock and key, especially considering the recent snippets of behind-the-scenes footage which managed to leak out alongside copies of the screenplay, giving cinephiles a chance glimpse at what might have been.  Until further notice, 'The Day the Clown Cried' is either a potentially miscalculated disaster or a worthwhile addition to Jerry Lewis' ouvre that deserves a fair chance in the wake of recent films tackling the same subject and vibe.

The Baby of Macon – (director: Peter Greenaway, 1993)

"Mom, people are staring."
Renowned British provocateur and artist Peter Greenaway, after the tidal wave of notoriety stirred by his 1989 transgressive masterwork 'The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover', churned out   arguably his most controversial film 'The Baby of Macon'.  Inspired by the banning of a poster in the UK involving a baby with its umbilical cord still attached, Greenaway's film tells the story of a town stricken by famine and few women when a baby miraculously is born and uplifts the town.  Germane to Greenaway's work is his intentional artifice on display, with a large audience watching the events unfold on a stage play setting, thus breaking the fourth wall and involving the audience watching the film.  The Daughter (Julia Ormond) of the Mother claims the baby is her own immaculate conception and after imprisoning the mother she goes on to sell blessings from the baby to the townspeople.  To say the Daughter's actions get the best of her is an understatement, with everything from murder to an unspeakably large gang rape ensuing.

Though screened at the Cannes Film Festival and released in the UK to much controversy, it was flat out refused distribution in the US due to its content and aforementioned rape scene.  The only way to see the film is via import, with a Swedish Blu-ray easily available for purchase in spite of a lack of an official release in the states.  The film itself has divided Greenaway fans, with his trademark visual opulence set against the ghastly material, some finding it daring and transcendent while others are simply appalled by its cruelty.  Though still a prolific provocateur who would make many more films since, 'The Baby of Macon' remains the moment in Greenaway's career where the spectator's tolerance of the material at hand was called into question. 

The Profit – (director: Peter N. Alexander, 2001)

Peter N. Alexander's 'The Profit' is a 2001 feature film which satirizes the Church of Scientology and notably its lead figure, L. Ron Hubbard.  A former member of the Church for 20 years, Peter N. Alexander aimed with his film to set the record straight regarding Scientology and its practices.  He managed to complete the film in spite of intense harassment from members of the church.  Although it was shown at the Cannes Film Festival, the Church of Scientology sued its makers and successfully blocked the film from ever being distributed and seen worldwide.  Initially the move was imposed due to a lawsuit already facing the Church of Scientology involving the death of one of its members, Lisa McPherson, who was held against her will within the church's headquarters.  Bad press about the church, let alone a film attacking the church, wasn't something Scientologists wanted to happen.  Alexander's ex-wife and Scientologist Jolie Kanat also partook in the smear campaign against Alexander and efforts to bury the film.  Then it continued over the years, with Alexander's producer Bob Minton switching sides from supporting the film to abetting the Church circa 2007.

Though the film miraculously appeared on YouTube, it remains officially banned and without a distributor.  It's unusual that in the years since, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's film 'The Master' would be met with a modicum of disdain from the Church of Scientology but no litigation of any kind ensued.  If anything, that film had major stars in it and was widely seen.  Though 'The Master' does present objections to the Church of Scientology, it's also strangely sympathetic to the Church, unlike 'The Profit', which was clearly an indictment of the inner workings of Scientology by one of its former members.  Of all the films covered in this list, 'The Profit' remains the one film completely suppressed from the public eye via litigation and court order.  

-Andrew Kotwicki

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