Several new films push the envelope in taste and politics

Elizabeth Weitzman [New York Daily News]

Remember the 2005 Oscar nominees? Every one of the movies up for Best Picture last spring was touted as daring and provocative, the work of directors determined to break new ground and test their limits.

Ah, innocence.

Moviegoers are facing a slate of films that will challenge them to such a degree, last year's movies will look like, well, yesterday's news. Thought two gay cowboys were shocking? Get ready for the pansexual gymnastics performed -- in full-frontal glory -- throughout John Cameron Mitchell's "Shortbus." Found the racial sparks of "Crash" a bit much? Buckle up for "Borat," which mines extreme sexism and anti-Semitism for humor. And if the political implications of "Munich" seemed unnerving, be prepared for "Death of a President."

And that's not to mention potential rabble-rousers like the comedy "Sleeping Dogs Lie" and the gender-switching indie "Zerophilia"; the documentaries "Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing," "F---," "Jesus Camp" and "Deliver Us From Evil," and the seemingly mild (on these shores, anyway) British drama "The Queen."

What's causing this uptick in onscreen instigation? Douglas Brode, author of "Sinema: Erotic Adventures in Film" and a cinema studies professor at Syracuse University, points to a growing sense of public unrest.

"After 9/11 we were all trying to stay within the bounds of good taste and we were all encouraged to self-censor," Brode says. "But as the political climate grows more divisive, people are now beginning to speak out more."

Filmmaker Paul Schrader agrees -- and as the screenwriter of "Taxi Driver" (1976) and "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988), and writer-director of "American Gigolo" (1980), he knows a thing or two about controversy.

"In troubled times like these, people look to the arts for answers, and start to welcome a challenge to the status quo," Schrader says. "And in terms of (onscreen) nudity, we're much more conservative now than we were 30 years ago. It's part of a pulling back and a national conservatism that began in the Reagan era."

The status quo takes a backseat to the Kama Sutra in the comedic "Shortbus." "When you have a conservative culture, dialogue is stimulated, and that's healthy," says Mitchell, who insists his goal is actually to make sex less shocking.

"We are a sexually obsessed society, but also a strangely prudish one," he says. "When people are scared of something, they try to quash or compartmentalize it. (With `Shortbus') I hope they'll see that they can integrate sex into their lives, rather than separating it into something that's just procreative, or dirty, or prurient."

Brode thinks Mitchell is wise to take a comic approach to such frank subject matter, suggesting that, "You can always get away with more if you use humor." Bobcat Goldthwait, who directed the upcoming "Sleeping Dogs Lie," also believes that "comedy makes every subject more palatable." So he hopes: Goldthwait's movie is about the fallout from a woman's sexual experience with, um ... her dog.

Meanwhile, British satirist Sacha Baron Cohen will be heating up all sorts of political waters via humor in November, when his comedy "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" is released.

Fans of Cohen's "Da Ali G Show" on HBO are already familiar with Borat, a bumbling Kazakh with an unfortunate tendency to view women and Jews in the most offensive manner imaginable (and state those views in unacceptable ways). Unlike Mitchell, who tried to downplay the controversial nature of his film, Cohen -- who's Jewish, by the way -- has welcomed any hullabaloo with so much enthusiasm, the outraged president of Kazakhstan (who has condemned the movie) doesn't appear to realize he's engaged in a public battle with a fictional character.

Inevitably, there will be those who are happy to join Cohen in a rousing chorus of offensive anthems. Which is why the comic has continuously amped up the character's ridiculousness; no one who parades around in a bright green body thong -- the way Cohen-as-Borat did at Cannes earlier this year -- can be taken seriously.

So the question is, how serious is his creator's intent? While European audiences were already aware that anti-Semitism is too tenacious to be ignored, Americans tend toward a smug complacency: We're too savvy for that kind of ignorance, right?

Which brings us to Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto." A few years ago Hollywood would have thought the biggest problem with a violent movie subtitled in a dead language with inexperienced actors set during the decline of Mayan civilization would be the subtitles; then Gibson made 2004's "The Passion of the Christ." But with the Oscar-winning actor-director's anti-Semitic tirade this summer after a DUI arrest, "Passion" is being looked at with increased doubt as to where Gibson's heart was. And while there may not be nothing objectionable about "Apocalypto," the issue becomes, will audiences still want to plunk down $10 to see a film by Gibson?

Brode points out that it's often the off-screen story that creates a storm. Yet Gibson himself seems determined to court controversy, recently comparing "Apocalypto's" brutality to the war in Iraq.

Given that even Gibson is using his art as a political statement, how far will this trend go? In England, audiences have been amazed at the bluntness of "The Queen," a fictionalized account of Queen Elizabeth II's cold reaction to the death of Princess Diana. But loyal monarchists have nothing on the Americans already appalled by "Death of a President," which imagines the assassination of President Bush after an antiwar demonstration (the film's titular event is done by manipulated video images).

Realistically, those who may protest "DoaP" will most likely also be the ones who won't see it. But the notion of a film even approaching such a topic would've been unthinkable a few years ago.

After, all, look at the outrage that greeted the Dixie Chicks when singer Natalie Maines publicly disparaged the president in 2003. And you can look at it, as the band's dramatic fall from grace is chronicled in the cheekily titled "Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing." That title, though, has nothing on the forthcoming documentary "F---," which examines a taboo word newspapers can't print.

In fact, documentaries have always been fertile ground for discourse, so it makes sense that this year would bring an especially defiant crop. "Deliver Us From Evil" will take on pedophilia in the priesthood, while "Jesus Camp" is already inciting debate over its depiction of children raised in evangelical Christian homes who are sent to a "Christian soldier" camp in North Dakota. And there's been a notable increase in films critical of the Iraq war, including "My Country, My Country," "The War Tapes," "The Ground Truth," "Occupation Dreamland" and "Iraq in Fragments."

This doesn't surprise Brode, who recalls, "It was impossible to make an anti-Vietnam War movie in 1966, because people weren't ready. But only two years later, everything was different."

Observing that the floodgates soon opened to the confrontational cinema of the 1970s, he predicts that these films are only "the tip of the iceberg."

Are we ready, then, for what may be coming next? Having faced outraged audiences for decades, Schrader thinks so. "There are always people who say, `Oh, you can't go there!' And then somebody does. And you know, we all survive."


© 2006, New York Daily News. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.





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