The early years of William Friedkin immediately came to mind reading the comments here. For example, on The Exorcist, Friedkin had special effects genius, Marcel Vercoutere pull the harnessed Ellen Burstyn to hard, that she ended up with a slipped disc, after Burstyn complained that she was being pulled to hard previously. I feel that such behaviour on the part of Friedkin was really irresponsible, as much of what he got up to the set of that film was, such as firing real guns to get authentic shocked reactions from the actors. But the results were phenomenal and I feel that the film retains its considerable power all these years later, whereas in the hands of a less bold and brazen director, the film would have been little more than a modern day Hammer horror yarn. It doesn't justify the unethical conduct, but then I have a lot of conflicting feelings regarding morality/ethics in art, as you might have guessed!
The concept of 'Power' in 'Art' is something that interests me. There are many, many 'great' films that I greatly admire, which nevertheless are totally lacking in 'Power'. The Wizard of Oz, a 'family' film from 1939, with musical numbers and "glorious Technicolor", for me, has many 'powerful' moments; whereas something like Boogie Nights (a fine film) an 'adults only' film from 1998, now seems to lack strength, for a better word, so it cannot be a question of risque, taboo or 'controversial' content. The Wizard of Oz, for good or ill, taps into our Unconscious with bold, direct imagery and asks far more interesting, disturbing questions of the viewer than the 'exotic' documentary-esque 'world of porn' that Boogie Nights presents.
Power in works of art is an elusive element. A sentence or passage in a book, whether it be fiction or non-fiction (which are redundant terms as far as I am concerned) or a singular image in an painting, piece of sculpture/architecture or indeed in a movie can convey a message or idea that cannot be re-articulated by the subject in a concise way. Music is the medium that conveys the most power, I feel and more directly than all other mediums. The 'vital energies' of creation are most nakedly present in the music of Beethoven, though much have they either been unappreciated or bastardized in recent years. This mighty artist recognised this himself, better than anyone: "Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy, it is the wine of a new procreation, and I am Bacchus who presses out this glorious wine for men and makes them drunk with the spirit," and the Dionysian power of his music will never be equalled and is something that Cinema can never approach. In many respects, Cinema is a superficial medium, in which the high energies of creation are greatly diminished when frozen in time and space; a filmmaker could have an incredible disturbing, enlightening dream or waking vision, but when he or she tried to express that vision, it would be almost certainly have lost its initial and immediate power. The higher realms of Music are not constricted by such re-creative interims; as long as the composer follows his creative processes to conclusion and writes the notes down, then it is then simply a matter of obtaining musicians of appropriate skill and musical-emotional understanding.
Cinema is the medium with the most rules. Music has no rules and questions of ethics or morality no longer come into it, though they used to in times of pervading puritanism. In a novel, one may write of a dog being shot - an image is presented economically and without an interferance or staging. In an animated film, like The Plague Dogs (1982) Richard Adams' follow-up to Watership Down, also directed by Martin Rosen, animal cruelty is presented quite vividly and is quite disturbing. Had the film been live action, it would have caused vehement public outrage. Sam Fuller's, White Dog was also due to be released that year, but Paramount got scared and I can't blame them, even though it is a powerful and thought-provoking film and does not feature excessive trauma to the dog(s).
Monte Hellman's remarkable 1974 film, Cock Fighter is a whole other story. I think I am right in saying that all but two states in the USA allowed cock fighting at the time the film was made and the fights in film are real, bloody and provoke a variety of conflicting emotions in me, though ultimately, I feel that the film is honest, powerful and quite moving in the depiction of a man possessed with a Zen-like focus in a world devoid of rationality and wisdom. The birds are pure will in whatever they do and in the fighting, at no point do they 'quit'; they have no concept of what they are doing, though they feel the pain, which is ultimately of no value either the winner or loser, as it is with us humans - the victorious bird gains nothing from his 'win' or the opponent's 'loss'. It's a great story, though highly unconventional, but worth telling and faking the fights would have been nigh impossible with those budgets and schedules.
The animal cruelty in Dario Argento's films is a whole other matter. The pins being stuck into a live lizard and the fighting dogs (were they baited?) in Profondo Rosso do not serve the narrative, though they do add considerable visceral power to the film, but the lizard killing is something that has always bothered me. The blowing up of the lizard in Peckinpah's, The Ballad of Cable Hogue really shocked me when I first saw it on TV back in the early 90s, but seeing it again on DVD, in slow-motion, revealed that it was already dead when they squibbed it, though I'm not sure if they found a dead specimen or captured a live one and gassed it, or what. In the opening of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, though, they definitely killed real live hens, in what is a shocking scene.
Moving away from animal cruelty, alteration or destruction of vegetation for the sake of Cinema can be even more irrational. Antonioni painting the trees in The Red Desert and Blow-Up is something that one would not realise without reading about, though it has always struck me as a dubious practice to achieve something that the viewer would not appreciate. I have read numourous articles where the author seems to be impressed by these maverick techniques. The inclusion of genuine execution footage in an unknown African country in The Passenger is perplexing in addition to being shocking initially, but on subsequent viewings, its subversive power is revealed to be approriate.
The question always is: Which images are appropriate for a film? And if the filmmaker deems a violent image to be appropriate, they then have to figure out how to present it. In the digital age, the filmmaker doesn't need to trip up horses, shoot live birds, blow up real lizards or paint tree or fields or whatnot, but in them olden days of movie-making, the tricks were physical and laborious, but non-consential human cruelty, animal cruelty, destruction of nature or pollution, etc. can never be justified, frankly, but its easy to pass judgment on the ignorance of our predecessors. The bottom line for the filmmmaker is: If I cannot execute what is in the script in a humane and non-destructive manner, then I should re-write the script. If I cannot get an actor who can cope with this scene, then I either need to re-write the scene or replace the actor.
Making movies is about fakery, magic, theatrics, though realism also has its place; but if people or animals are getting hurt or nature is getting fucked over in some way then at least one person isn't doing their job right.