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Screening the FORBIDDEN at the HFA

Flesh and Blood: The National Society of Film Critics On Sex, Violence and Censorship at the HFA through November 1 The Boston Phoenix's Peter Keough will introduce films on Friday, Saturday and Sunday

By Nicolas R. Rapold

For one week, the HFA will challenge the limits of common decency in presenting their Flesh and Blood series--six films which over the last thirty years have achieved renown, justified or not, for their explorations of sex and violence. Not surprisingly, the series relies heavily on films from the '60s--"Blow-Up" (1966), "Vixen!" (1968), "Midnight Cowboy" (1969) and "I Am Curious (Yellow)" (1969)--but also includes 1973's "Last Tango in Paris" and 1994's "Natural! Born Killers."

Alhough the artistic merit of some of the films far outshines the grime on screen, such justification wears thin for others. In the face of the fifteenth wanton murder or fourth example of very, very free love, we just might think the filmmaker has lost his way in making his statement.

Indeed, recent controversy over film censorship only highlights the gap between those who compellingly address risque themes and those whose intentions seem more questionable. Obviously, examples of border-line trash provide easy ammunition for attacks on more laudable efforts. "Kids" reveals a darker side of teenage life with documentary-style honesty, while "Showgirls" lets us in on the oh-so-pressing issue of lap-dancing.

Yet at least one of the films in the series ("Natural Born Killers") faced opposition not simply on the basis of its artistic or educational merit but on the question of the public welfare: the old argument of monkey-see, monkey-do. But, in truth, whether, say, "Reservoir Dogs" leads to a rash of sloppy plastic surgery set to cheesy 70's music depends most immediately on the mental state of the viewer than anything else. For the careful viewer, then, the series best illustrates the potential for careful filmmakers to apply sex and violence as particularly powerful tools of cinema (most of the films won several awards), rather than gimmicks for the sake of controversy.

The only X-rated movie ever to win an Academy Award for Best Picture, John Schlesinger's "Midnight Cowboy" enjoyed considerable success despite its straightforward depiction of prostitution and homosexuality. The use of nudity and profanity, though shocking then, allows a frank portrayal of the seamier sides of city life as encountered by the story's protagonist, country boy Joe Buck (Jon Voight) looking to settle down with a rich city woman. Particularly offensive at the time were two scenes between Voight's character and homosexual johns, including a middle-aged man whom he physically assaults. But the most striking aspect of the film involves the relationship (somewhat reminiscent of Of Mice and Men) and his newfound pal in the city, a consumptive, limping Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), as each eke out life in the gutter with their eyes on the stars. The desperation of the characters' lives in the city--stealing, living in a condemned building--hits us most, while the theme of homosexuality seems considerably less controversial today.

Another film which is also relatively tame by today's standards, Michelangelo Antonioni's "Blow-Up" was shocking mainly for depicting a photographer's wanderings in the mod scene of 60's England, involving a little playful nudity and a pot party along the way. But the film best demonstrates how underlying themes can make actually controversial elements seem worse. On the surface we see him taking photos of partially nude models and tumbling about with giggling teenagers--these "loose morals," perhaps, were controversial enough. Yet the deeper theme of the manipulative power of photography upon the mind affects us far more profoundly as David Hemmings' character slides into a frenetic state of mind, examining and re-examining the photos he has taken.

More obviously explicit, "Last Tango in Paris" by now owes much of its fame to its sex scenes--still somewhat jarring today--despite a notably wrenching performance by Marlon Brando as a dejected, desperate husband. The movie was immediately banned in the home country of the Italian director, Bernardo Bertolucci, for being "obscene, indecent, and catering to the lowest instincts of libido." But because of Brando's talent and, of course, the sex, the film was a world-wide hit, despite one near-rape scene and the subjecting of the female interest (Maria Schneider) to various sexual whims. The sex scenes are all the more shocking for their lack of emotion and their primal immediacy which also surface in the frequently sexually explicit profanity. Yet the beauty and despair of certain scenes--from the opening shot of a subway roaring above a maddened Brando to his visit to his dead wife--makes one understand how the over wound coil of primitive emotion at the core of the movie would give rise to such carnality.

Although some controversial films, then, often have artistic merit and justifiable emotional intensity to shield them, "Vixen!" is a Russ Meyer special, a masterpiece of the sex-ploitation genre. As with Meyer's other films, like "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!," the main feature is one or more heroines with impossibly ample bosoms and improbable sexual appetites. Yet, like other shocking films before it, audiences voted with their wallets. The film, shot with a $76,000 budget, made a profit of $6,000,000 and brought Meyer to the attention of Twentieth-Century Fox. The film's success gave rise to legions of imitations, thereby putting a great deal more nudity and sordidness on the screen in the form of scores of low budget, low merit films.

A other borderline film, "I Am Curious (Yellow)" faced numerous hurdles in reaching the United States because of its frank portrayal of a female social activist's other activities. A film within a film structure sometimes gives the film a confused, patchwork quality and probably made it easier to dismiss as having no real merit. Undeniably, the film features sex, in various positions and locales, but not with the lascivious intent that the U.S. Court of Appeals, which labeled the film "obscene," would have us believe A certain openness marks the film, such that we see sex as just another part of the main character's life. But an unpleasant scene involving scabies treatment may indeed be going too far, and director Vilgot Sioman at times seems to be laughing at the comical nature of the film: Lena, the lead, moves in five minutes from meditating topless, to threatening someone with a shotgun, to conjugal bliss in the fields of the lord. Half the time one finds oneself crying "What is happening?" as social activism is intercut with overactive socializing too illogically to make sense.

Equally controversial, but for its violence, "Natural Born Killers" perhaps best demonstrates the thin line that filmmakers tread in trying to "send a message." Although director Oliver Stone obviously seeks to lay bare the media-crazy, hyped-up, and knocked-down society we live in, we begin to question his methods when his satire goes too far. With alarmingly fast-paced cuts, murders flicker by in the blink of an eye, only to disturb, perhaps deeply, just moments later. The cry of "That's the point!" can only go so far in defending movies that, in truth, are pounding the point--and the viewer--into the ground.

The Boston Phoenix's Peter Keough considers the series exemplary of films that "explore rather than exploit sex and violence." After-film talks will provide the opportunity for audience members to begin to untangle this certainly debatable distinction. But perhaps the question of whether the films exploit their subjects at the expense of deeper meaning is less interesting that how the works make us feel. Emotion, rather than the intellect, seems to drive both proponents of risky cinema and its detractors.

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