Reel controversy: Taboo themes explored in Banned Books Film Festival schedule

In Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” Jesus (Willem Dafoe) struggles with the same temptations as the rest of mankind.
In Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” Jesus (Willem Dafoe) struggles with the same temptations as the rest of mankind. Photo provided

What is our obsession with banning books? Is their content really so dangerous that the public would find its downfall in the imaginative scribblings of a writer?

The downfall of civilization hasn’t occurred yet, but that doesn’t stop the fascination with banned materials. Those will be subjects explored in this year’s Banned Books Film Festival on Sept. 20-21, featuring films including “The Kite Runner,” “1984,” and “Lolita.”

“It’s like reading about crimes that we ourselves would never commit,” said Jonathan Abel, an organizer of the banned books events and an associate professor of comparative literature at the university. “People are interested in the subject of taboo.”

The free film festival will be held in conjunction with the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week, running Sept. 21-27. This year is the festival’s third and will feature nine movies and a panel discussion of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Last Temptation of Christ.”

In past years, the film festival was conducted around themes such as “bad futures” and “workers of the world” featuring films like Stanley Kubrick’s view of crime and mind-control in a futuristic England in “A Clockwork Orange” and the corporate cubicle-spearing comedy “Office Space,” said Michael Berube, a Penn State literature professor and director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities.

This year, they tried to match the quality of the film with its inspiring banned book, he said. That way, people get a sense for the importance of the book and why such books come under fire for their political, cultural, religious and sexual themes, he said.

That’s a challenge because the controversy around some books has died down with time and a changing society.

Others, like “The Last Temptation of Christ” that explores Jesus as a sexual human being, continue to be controversial subjects for how they challenge conventional religious doctrine, he said.

However, that’s the entire point of holding events such as these and exploring art that causes controversy, Abel said. In autocratic or theocratic governments, like Iran, it’s a little easier to understand why books like Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” are banned. Such works offend the ruling class — whoever that is — and in cases such as Rushdie, a book earned the writer an official fatwa from Ayatollah Khomeini, meaning Rushdie was marked for death and the British national had to go into hiding.

Even in the United States, where we have a tradition of constitutionally guaranteed free speech and free press, there are groups that take aim at books, films and other art.

“Why the urge, not to just reject them, but to ban these works?” Berube said. “Why do we take them out of circulation?”

And that contradiction is fascinating to Americans who grapple with their own norms and biases, Abel said.

“Even those who believe in a free press have their limits,” he said. “Every society has its limits. It’s just where we draw the lines that is different.”

This year’s festival includes “Lolita,” the 1962 Stanley Kubrick film based on the 1955 novel by Vladimir Nabokov. The book was banned, or rejected for publication, in multiple countries for its themes of pedophilia and child rape, as narrated by the predator. The book’s writing has received critical acclaim, particularly because Nabokov was a Russian national with a mastery of the English language.

That may be a difficult subject for people in the Penn State community, Berube said. Former university football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was convicted in 2012 of sexual crimes against children.

“I really wonder,” Berube said of “Lolita’s” reception. “On one hand, the subject matter is horrible, but it has a really good book at its base.”