Most of us see someone get killed, have sex, curse or pop drugs in the films and shows we watch nearly every day, and we barely bat an eyelash. This is what we’ve come to expect of the media we consume. It’s no wonder it takes a truly volatile film to shock us. But it’s taken media a very long time to reach this point. Throughout history, a war has waged between filmmakers and their determination to put their vision, no matter how obscene, to the screen. Here’s a brief rundown on some of the events and films throughout history that pushed those boundaries and shocked people to their core.
1890’s – 1920’s
Since the very dawn of film, people have tried to capture shocking or lewd images for the screen, and people have protested these and ushered in censorship. One of the very first films ever shown commercially to the public was Thomas Edison’s The Kiss in 1896, an 18 second clip of a couple nuzzling and locking lips. This stirred outrage in moviegoers and the Roman Catholic Church – since kissing in public was prosecuted at the time – and the “threat to morality” was met with the first demand for censorship.
Film controversy continued to heighten in the 1910’s, with the first pornographic films introduced and a surge of pro-war propaganda as World War I commenced. D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, though a landmark of film history for its innovative storytelling, was of course met with great contempt for its racist content and glorification of the KKK. Protests and riots broke out, with many activist groups condemning the negative influence of movies, especially on the youth, and their glorification of violence and obscenities.
1930’s – 1950’s
The few decades produced some of history’s best-known films – Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, All About Eve, The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ In The Rain and so on. Studios were soon huge, though their films found a formula, and usually avoided explicit content in order to market to as wide an audience as possible. Understandably, people saw movies as escapism during wartime; with real horror happening in the world, no one needed to be reminded of it in the cinema. And yet there were still filmmakers willing to experiment and push the boundaries.
All Quiet on the Western Front used brutal scenes of soldiers being gunned down as an effective anti-war message, and was recognised by the Oscars for turning violence on its head. Conversely, the original Scarface wound up banned in several states for its graphic (for the time) shoot-outs and supposed glorification of gangsters. Sex remained suppressed in mainstream cinema as it did in public places, until the 1953 raunchy comedy The Moon is Blue dubiously used prohibited words like “virgin”, “seduce” and “mistress” and depicted mainstream characters preoccupied with sex for the first time, paving the way for open-minded attitudes in film.
1960’s – 1980’s
By the sixties, society’s morale was beginning to relax more. A number of efforts to get films censored or banned were rejected by state and federal courts, now that people were not only more care-free and open-minded; many were anti-establishment and advocates of freedom of speech, especially with the presence of the Vietnam War and its backlash. People were experimenting and artists were too, and refusing to back down when authority came knocking. In 1966 Michelangelo Antonioni chose to release Blow-Up without an MPAA seal rather than cut its nude scenes, with other directors following his lead. In response, the MPAA introduced the X-rating, forbidding anyone under 16 from entry.
Not that it really mattered, since such content in film had now become so commonplace. Drugs were shown not only without judgement, but also portrayed as fun in everything from Easy Rider to Sid and Nancy. The great Stanley Kubrick made his mark not without controversy; Lolita raised the underage issue by depicting a romance between a pubescent girl and middle-aged man, and the gleeful ultra-violence of A Clockwork Orange appalled viewers so much that Kubrick himself withdrew it from circulation. Midnight Cowboy became the first and only X-rated film to win the Best Picture Oscar, and mainstream thrillers like Straw Dogs and The Last House on the Left were now completely unafraid to use graphic rape as plot points.
1990’s – Present
With visual media now a key component to Western lifestyle, desensitisation to what once shocked audiences was only inevitable. Martin Scorcese, Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino made the blood-soaked, profanity-laden films that defined the 90’s, while the likes of Trainspotting, Requiem for a Dream, Enter the Void and others built their plot around explicit drug use. The most popular horror films belonged to the “torture-porn” subgenre; with over-the-top gory hits like Saw, Hostel and Wolf Creek were designed to empty the contents of audiences’ stomachs rather than have them cowering behind their seats. HBO’s rise saw to adult content becoming a mainstay on television too; now the most popular shows on television (namely Game of Thrones, among countless others) feature a steady stream of horrific murder, graphic sex scenes, nudity, incest and rape.
There are still films that cause a stir every few years. Though satirical, Stone and Tarantino’s Natural Born Killers supposedly inspired a number of copycat murders in real life; similarly, David Cronenberg’s Crash, about a couple who became aroused by causing car crashes, created concern over fetishising something heinous. Larry Clark’s Kids and Ken Park came under fire for their unsimulated sex scenes between teenagers, as anything with graphic sex – 9 Songs, The Brown Bunny, The Dreamers, Blue is the Warmest Colour – often does. Extreme sexual violence – Irreversible’s prolonged rape scene, Antichrist’s genital mutilation and A Serbian Film’s necrophilia – remains a walk-out prompter. And let’s not get into The Human Centipede trilogy.
Studios will always cut and tone down content to secure as large an audience as possible, while independent producers maintain artistic freedom – hence why something supposedly erotic like Fifty Shades of Grey appears so tame and shows so little in its sex scenes, while Nymphomaniac is unrelenting in actual shots of penetration. Though filmmakers have always strived to tear down the boundaries of what is possible to capture on film, it seems most audiences remain comfortable with milder content and the occasional thrill. But with the readily available internet pornography, violent video games and access to any film or TV show at the click of a button, who’s to say how long it is until extreme sensationalism has pushed to its absolute limit?
Images courtesy of Roadshow Films, David W. Griffith Corp. & Epoch Producing Corporation, Universal Pictures, Chapel Distribution & MGM