Controversial classics: Is time the only measure of a film's value?

TV Editor Amy Brown discusses whether time is the only measure for a classic

Amy K Brown
17th February 2020
Movies that have ever been deemed controversial are normally attempting to push some kind of boundary, whether that be social, political, creative or otherwise.

Of course, sometimes it’s just because directors want to see what they can get away with. Some films are stamped controversial because the explicit nature is just there for show, or rather to shock. Shock factor has often been seen as a lazy tactic in film. There is something to be said, though, about movies that came out and were deemed too controversial at the time. A lot of these films are now universally loved today for the lines that they crossed. So it begs the question, is time the main factor in whether a film is truly good? 

A Clockwork Orange director Stanley Kubrick (with camera) pulled his movie from cinema's following links to real-life crimes. Image:IMDB

Stanley Kubrick is immediately on the mind when discussing controversial content. The Shining (1980), adapted from the Stephen King novel, was originally criticised for its slow pacing and explicit portrayals of violence. It was also slammed for its deviations from the book, even by Stephen King himself. A critic at Variety even said: “Kubrick has teamed with jumpy Jack Nicholson to destroy all that was so terrifying about Stephen King's bestseller." It was the only one of Kubrick’s films to receive no attention from the Oscars or Golden Globes. It took until the late 90s and into the 2000’s for The Shining to be more positively regarded. It now stands out for paving the way for the modern horror genre and appears on many lists of the best horror movies in history. A film that was originally criticised for not being scary enough, is now widely perceived as one of the most terrifying in its genre. It is popular enough now to beg an adaptation of the sequel Doctor Sleep (2019) which just hit our screens recently with great critical reception, even from King himself. The Shining is a great example of a movie that needed time to be understood, even if I still see its flaws. 

Kubrick’s 1971 adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange is also an example of this idea, although to a lesser degree than The Shining. This dystopian movie, riddled with explicit violence and assault was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture in the year it was released. Despite its immediate positive critical response, it was still banned in certain locations, and even spurred copycat violence in the UK. As a result, for almost three decades, it was very hard to see A Clockwork Orange because of its censorship. It took until 1999, the year of Kubrick’s death, for it to be re-released. This movie is considered a cult classic now and even though it was widely loved from the beginning, it still took time for it to be accepted. Despite its controversy, it is commended for being thought-provoking and pushing artistic boundaries. 

Tim Curry as the Transylvanian-transvestite Dr. Frank-N-Furter in the controversial classic musical farse The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). Image:IMDB

A final example is the musical feature film The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). This movie was an unapologetic expression of sexuality and gender, a gem in the counterculture of the 70s. It was a brilliant mix of genres with an equally brilliant soundtrack. Critics did originally slam the film, and of course the explicit portrayal of fluid sexuality and gender identity had it being interrogated by many. Today, it is considered a landmark in queer cinema, even if it’s representation isn’t perfect to our modern audience. It still marked a change in the way that boundaries could be crossed. Rocky Horror still has a cult following now, 45 years after it’s original release. It has been remade, performed on stages and sung for decades and has certainly earned its place as a classic. It suggests a thought of whether people who watched Rocky Horror back in the day believed it would one day be so beloved. Arguably, time was the main contributor to this weird and wonderful musical leaving its cultural mark. 

So maybe time really is the true teller in whether a film is good. Does it have the longevity to earn its title as a classic? Maybe it is something we can continue to bear in mind, next time a new movie is slammed by critics for one reason or another. It might be stuck on the bedroom walls of the next generation of movie fans. Only time will tell.

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AUTHOR: Amy K Brown
Head of Culture. @akathrynbrwn on Twitter.

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