"I'm trying to rape the viewer into independence": 17 Notorious Living, Working Cinematic Provocateurs
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1 and 2. Kim Ki-Duk and Park Chan-Wook
For prickly provocation, it's hard to outdo the upstart Korean directors that have been shocking, scandalizing, and grossing-out art house audiences and festivalgoers for much of the '00s. Kim Ki-Duk got the buzz started with movies like The Isle and Bad Guy, which detailed the extremes of sexual obsession via scenes of women swallowing fishhooks or getting forced into prostitution. Around the same time, Park Chan-Wook—who'd previously helmed the slick, crowd-pleasing action-mystery Joint Security Area—made the taboo-shattering Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, which squeezes black comedy from the accidental death of a child and features a hero who gets back at black-market organ-dealers by eating their kidneys. Since their respective breakthroughs, Kim has made the far gentler Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…And Spring and 3-Iron, while Park has beefed up his "vengeance" series with the more accessible Oldboy and Sympathy For Lady Vengeance. Although given that Oldboy has been cited as inspiration for Virginia Tech shooter Cho Seung-Hui, these Koreans' controversial days may not be gone for good.
3. Uwe Boll
An inclination for combativeness is a given among notorious cinematic provocateurs, but only Uwe Boll, the thin-skinned German behind many of the worst video game adaptations of all time, has the iron cojones to literally challenge his detractors to fisticuffs in a publicity stunt worthy of P.T Barnum. After being hailed and derided as the new Ed Wood by a generation of anonymous Internet smartasses, Uwe Boll climbed into the ring and opened a can of whoop-ass on a number of his most voracious detractors in matches that will be included on the DVD of Postal, a brazenly offensive satire that explores the funny side of 9/11 and Osama Bin Laden. Afterwards, one of Boll's bruised and battered critics opined "I think he's a jerk. This might be PR, but I don't want to keep getting punched in the head." Moviegoers everywhere could relate, though continually being pummeled with laughably awful, disturbingly prolific filmmaking is a lot easier on the melon than getting punched repeatedly by a towering, enraged shlockmeister.
4. Catherine Breillat
Controversy has dogged French director Catherine Breillat since her first film, 1976's semi-autobiographical A Very Young Girl, was shelved for 25 years for its graphic depiction of a sexually precocious 15-year-old. In retrospect, it served as an excellent introduction of the typical Breillat heroine: a sexual adventurer who blurs the line between curiosity and masochism. Breillat's international breakthrough, 1999's Romance, featured the considerable assets of porn star Rocco Siffredi in real sex scenes that challenged critics and audiences to distinguish art from pornography. (Breillat would employ Siffredi's services again in 2004's Anatomy Of Hell, which included among many delights "menstrual tea" and the creative use of gardening tools in the bedroom.) Her most notorious and widely seen effort, 2001's Fat Girl, has as its centerpiece the excruciating deflowering of a virginal teen and ends with an act of violence intended to shock viewers to the core. Breillat has been yanking pin from post-feminist grenades for three decades now, and she seems to enjoy watching people scatter.
5. Vincent Gallo Vincent Gallo has directed just two features, but he's got a lifetime of braggadocio and ridiculousness to balance them on. If Buffalo 66 and The Brown Bunny weren't so damn good, he'd be just another blowhard NYC dabbler—he also paints and rocks—but it's tough to deny the power and artistry of each. (Yes, even the controversial Brown Bunny, with its graphic fellatio, is worth exploring closely.) Sure, his personal life can be pretty repugnant: His website offers his sperm for sale, but only to whites, and he also offers himself as an escort. (There's some latent anti-Semitism in there, too, just for good measure.) But it's all part of being a provocateur—until somebody comes up with the sperm money.
6. Jean-Luc Godard
The generous assortment of movies Jean-Luc Godard signed his name to in the '60s represent the greatest extended stretch of high-profile films made by an internationally famous director who was essentially just dicking around. From 1960's Breathless to 1967's Weekend, Godard enticed serious cineastes to watch as he gleefully—and occasionally maliciously—played with the conventions of filmmaking, trying to see if un-matched editing, off-beat camera angles, cut-up scores, purposefully pointless dialogue, and extended breaks for political essays could still be entertaining (or even enlightening). Godard has continued to experiment and tease over the past four decades, though of late he's more likely to garner press for his America-and-Hollywood-bashing interviews than for his movies, which barely get seen.
7. Michael Haneke
Late last year, while filming the English-language remake of his own Funny Games, Austrian director Michael Haneke told the New York Times: "I've been accused of 'raping' the audience in my films, and I admit to that freely—all movies assault the viewer in one way or another. What's different about my films is this: I'm trying to rape the viewer into independence." If you don't feel like being raped into independence, then his deeply discomforting features aren't for you. But films like The Seventh Continent (about the long, slow descent of a seemingly normal family) and Benny's Video (about a shocking act of violence and its ripples) are so starkly brilliant that they're difficult to dismiss—even if you're of the opinion that Haneke is a heavy-handed schoolmarm.
8. Werner Herzog
For 40 years, Werner Herzog has been making fiction films and documentaries, but he doesn't like to draw any sharp distinctions between the two; both fall under the aegis of "ecstatic truth," which is his way of saying that the truth in this films is filtered through his sensibility first. And that sensibility, from early provocations like Even Dwarfs Started Small and The Mystery Of Kaspar Hauser to recent work like Grizzly Man and Rescue Dawn, has always been marked by a love for mad, quixotic outsiders and a deep skepticism of man's ability to overcome forces from within and without. His legendarily arduous productions have put cast and crew through incredible ordeals to achieve verisimilitude: Aguirre, The Wrath Of God was shot entirely in the Peruvian rainforest to better reflect a conquistador's journey; Herzog had his actors hypnotized for Heart Of Glass, about an isolated 18th-century Bavarian village that sinks into collective madness; and Christian Bale lustily devoured maggots as a POW in Rescue Dawn. But Herzog's most contentious shoot was 1982's Fitzcarraldo, in which he employed indigenous Peruvians for virtually no money to drag a 320-ton steamboat up a steep incline using a primitive pulley system. And that's just for starters: His controversial misadventures are chronicled in the excellent documentary Burden Of Dreams.
9. Harmony Korine
There's a certain level of grotesquerie involved in the three films written and directed by Harmony Korine. (He also wrote Kids, directed by Larry Clark.) But there's also a beautiful cinematic eye and a weird sense of empathy to Gummo, Julien Donkey-Boy, and the new Mister Lonely. It may be tough to get past certain scenes—cat-drowning, a meal in a dirty bath—but there's something at the heart of each film that makes it more than just provocation. On that front, though, Korine is also capable of simply pushing buttons: He started a film a decade ago that involved him instigating fist fights with strangers and surreptitiously filming them beating the shit out of him. Fight Harm was never released.
10. Takashi Miike
From 1995 to 2003, Japanese gadfly Takashi Miike directed anywhere from four to seven movies a year, many of them direct-to-video releases, and any given one of them likely to disgust at least someone in the audience. In films like Audition, Dead Or Alive, Ichi The Killer, Visitor Q and, Gozu, Miike has shown a preoccupation with the bestial side of human nature, as expressed in rough sex, ritualized violence, and gallons of bodily fluids. Miike's output and his outrageousness have slowed some in recent years, though as recently as 2006, his entry into Showtime's Masters Of Horror series—an episode entitled "Imprint," focusing on abortion, prostitution, and torture—was tabled by the network for being too extreme.
11. Michael Moore
Long before 24-hour cable news turned journalism into contrarian loudmouth jerks screaming at each other, Michael Moore pioneered the art of "I'm right, you're evil" entertainment with his film Roger And Me. By the time of his massively successful Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore was making films with the expressed purpose of influencing the presidential election. Problem is, as good as Moore is at rallying the left-wing base, he's equally good at galvanizing right-wingers against everything he stands for. So while Moore's socialized medicine movie Sicko was admirable, the message might have been more persuasive for those outside the choir if it came from a guy who hadn't made his name by smugly mocking those outside the choir.
12. Gaspar Noé
Gaspar Noé's entire output at this point consists of two features, a handful of shorts, and contributions to the anthology films Destricted and 8, but even with such a small body of work, he's earned a reputation for his staggering cruelty, both to his characters and to his audiences. His first feature, I Stand Alone, centers on a blunt, miserable butcher who translates his miserable childhood into a miserable life for him and for those around him. Noé lets him work out his philosophy of hatred and contemptuous self-sufficiency in slow, excruciating detail, as though he was some grotesque flower gradually blooming into poisonous maturity. And Noé's follow-up, the justly infamous Irréversible, tells the story of a grotesque rape and an even more grotesque revenge with a backward chronology, a nauseatingly whirling camera, and a level of grunge and grit guaranteed to unsettle. He's said the film's barrage of grinding static, disorienting camera work, and insistent, pounding repetition of horrors were all intended to make viewers feel like they were losing their minds. His tactics are unnervingly effective.
13. Todd Solondz
A quintessential Nerd Wit' Attitude, Todd Solondz has earned a cult following by rubbing movie-goers' faces in misery, misanthropy, sexual perversion, and the grotesque. Though an uncompromising wallow in the depths of adolescent agony by every other standard, Solondz's 1995 breakthrough film Welcome To The Dollhouse now looks positively meek compared to the films that followed it. 1998's Happiness infamously offered a sympathetic exploration of pedophilia through the story of a loving father and husband (Dylan Baker, in a career-making role) who also happens to molest little boys. The film was dropped by its distributors but not even oceans of controversy and press could transform it into a hit. Solondz followed with the racially and sexually explosive Storytelling and Palindromes, a pitch-black, largely self-financed art film with a pregnant, 13-year-old protagonist played by eight different thespians, including Jennifer Jason Leigh and actor Will Denton. In case a plot involving abortion, teen pregnancy, killing abortion doctors, and pedophilia weren't provocative enough, Solondz begins the film by killing off his most popular character, the geeky protagonist of Welcome To The Dollhouse.
14. Oliver Stone
You want provocative? How about a movie accusing the goddamn government of perpetrating a conspiracy to kill JFK? Or an über-violent, balls-out treatise on the dangers of über-violent entertainment? Or an old-fashioned motherfucking sand-and-sandals epic depicting Alexander The Great's steamy acts of man-love passion? You want provocative? Oliver Stone has it. True, the only thing shocking about Stone's big 9/11 movie World Trade Center was how sappy it was. But for the most part, the flamboyant Vietnam vet—please ask him about Vietnam!—has made a career out of rhetorical outrageousness unencumbered by subtlety or stylistic restraint.
15. James Toback
Since writing the screenplay for 1974's The Gambler, writer-director-provocateur James Toback has subjected an increasingly small circle of moviegoers to his pet obsessions with sex, gambling, violence, retro-pop, philosophers and great writers you stopped caring about after college, organized crime, and classical music. With a complete indifference to anything outside the realm of his own ego, Toback has essentially made the same film over and over again, a combustible cocktail of high art, pop trash, gratuitous nudity, and full-frontal pretension, often graced with at least a cameo appearance by the publicity-shy shrinking violet of an auteur himself, as well as his good buddy/muse Mike Tyson. Toback has thumbed his nose at propriety and good taste for decades, but his pinnacle in provocation is undoubtedly Black And White, a wholly improvised, wildly self-indulgent free-form essay on sex and race featuring a notorious scene where Robert Downey Jr. hits on Mike Tyson while Downey's turned-on wife (a cornrows-sporting Brooke Shields) tapes it all for posterity. When Black And White was slapped with an NC-17, Toback stuck some especially spicy sex scenes on the Internet. Now that's provocatastic!
16. Lars von Trier
Danish enfant terrible Lars von Trier is just as cruel to his characters as he is to his audiences: As a feature filmmaker, he's best known for Breaking The Waves, Dogville, Dancer In The Dark, and Manderlay, four features in which women are systematically abused and broken as they desperately try to maintain a kind, giving attitude toward the people exploiting them. His central philosophy in these films, repeated over and over, seems to be that good intentions just spur evil people on to worse acts of evil, and that softness is synonymous with weakness. But even outside these notoriously emotionally wrenching films, von Trier has made a career out of provocation. His obstreperous, gnomish attitude toward filmmaking can perhaps best be seen in The Five Obstructions, where he smugly challenges one of his inspirations, Jørgen Leth, to remake his classic short "The Perfect Human" five times, under increasingly twisted, ridiculous constrictions. And of course, as one of the cofounders of the Dogme 95 movement, he established a manifesto about the conditions under which films should be made, and judged other filmmakers' "purity" by how well they followed his restrictions. It's worth noting, however, that he himself walked away from those conditions shortly after laying them down; von Trier is masterful at manipulating emotions both in life and onscreen, but he seems far more interested in pushing people down roads he finds interesting than he is in traveling them himself.
17. John Waters
After John Waters' cult sensation Pink Flamingos was released in 1972, some wondered what the self-proclaimed Baltimore "trash artist" could film that would be more shocking than lovemaking hippies squashing chickens between their bodies and transvestites eating dog shit. But what those folks missed is that with Waters, it's never just the acts themselves that are off-putting. It's his tinny style and down-is-up approach to beauty and class. In movies as diverse as the serial killer homage Female Trouble and the teen-friendly musical Hairspray, Waters lionizes the outré and makes anyone who doesn't see the world as he does feel like a hopeless square.