Hollywood vs. “families”?

I happen to be in the middle of researching a story on the arrival in Canada of video services that edit films to make them more “family friendly” — and lo and behold, there just happens to be an editoral on the subject in today’s Wall Street Journal.

I am, as often happens, of two minds on this particular topic.

In general, I oppose the impulse to make all films “family friendly,” and I agree with Pop Culture Wars author Bill Romanowski and others when they say that this impulse has historically stunted the maturity of American cinema. I am all in favour of helping those who watch movies to grow up — to go from the milk to the meat, as it were. I also believe that audiences need to learn how to “receive” works of art as the original artists intended them to be received, and I am concerned that hacking films up into “family friendly” versions is just another way of catering to the individualistic self-gratification that is so typical of our age.

But, at the same time, now that home video is upon us, I can’t say there is any reason people shouldn’t have the freedom to watch the videos they have bought in any way that they want to watch them. We already have alternative audio tracks and up to three versions of a film on a single DVD. I videotaped movies off of TV when I was 12 years old and deleted scenes that I did not want my 4-year-old brother or 3-year-old sister to see. My wife often fast-forwards through movies that start to bore or annoy her. And films are already edited all the time for TV or for exhibition on buses and airplanes. Flexibility is the order of the day, and one of the consequences of the democratization of media technologies is the fact that, not only can people say whatever they want to say, but they can also hear whatever they want to hear.

And then there is the fact that copyright laws are so out of control. On that basis alone, I am inclined to say, “Stick it to the studios!”

Really, it’s intriguing to realize how the first American copyright laws gave exclusive rights to intellectual property for only 14 years, or possibly 28 years if someone successfully applied for an extension. If that were still the order of the day, then we would be in a position to restore the original Star Wars to its proper, original form in just a few months, and there would be nothing George Lucas could do to stop us! (Which reminds me, I still have never gotten around to seeing The Phantom Edit…) As it is, though, major multinational corporations now “own” films that have been part of our cultural memory for decades, and they are free to meddle with them as they see fit, and they continue to reap all the money for the work that was put into them by people who died years ago. Say what you will, but that’s just ridiculous.

But now I’m off on another tangent…

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  • Welcome to the thin grey line. It’s admittedly arguable how much “bad” subtitling or dubbing can radically affect not only a viewer’s perception of a film, but also the actual meaning of the film itself. But at least in such cases, the resulting flexiblity of viewing options has not resulted in the kind of censorship that editing films for “family friendliness” usually produces. More importantly, the intent behind editing films for “family friendliness” seems to be precisely censorship – i.e. the intention is certainly there to alter not only the viewer’s perception of the film, but usually the film’s meaning as well. I have spent considerable time in societies where official, often severe censorship of public entertainment in any form is the accepted norm – and am very familiar with the given reasons for engaging in such censorship. The basic premise appeared to be not only the shielding of children/adults to untoward influences, but also the “social education” of the nation’s citizens by the judicious ommision of any element deemed unsuitable to the order of the day. When such unsuitable elements include pecks on the cheek and brief kissing (no tongue) between a consensual heterosexual couple (not even sex, construed as “fornication” by some), that high moral censorship ground begins to erode ju-ust a little. So I say: big NO to family friendly editing, unless it is the filmmaker’s choice to re-edit the work. (As, I suppose, was the case with “The Passion of the Christ” lite.) I suppose you could say it is the creator’s perogative to remake their creation, unless legal issues intervene. I contend that people can choose to watch a thing, or not, without having that choice made for them, especially if given sufficient information about the film’s contents beforehand (e.g. on the back of your typical film rental casing). Filmmakers don’t always intend their work for a “G” audience. The slippery censorship slope should be avoided as much as possible.

  • Hi Grace, thanks for posting.

    I totally agree that censorship by the state or by the larger community is almost always a bad thing. For that matter, I also oppose the self-imposed censorship of the American film industry, whereby the MPAA forces directors to cut their films so that they will not receive NC-17 or even R ratings.

    But the “family friendly” video business seems like an entirely different thing to me. I don’t think I did anything wrong when I was 12 years old and I edited out those bits of certain films that I did not want my 4- or 3-year-old siblings to see. And I don’t think the average consumer would be wrong to edit any film that he or she happened to buy. It seems to me that many “family friendly” companies are simply offering to do the work on the consumers’ behalf — kind of like hiring an accountant to do my taxes even though I could do my taxes on my own if I just put the time and effort into it.

    The thing that would bother me, if I were such a consumer, is that I don’t know that I could trust these companies to have the same “family friendly” standards that I do. They might be more lax or more restrictive than I would be.

    So I am particularly impressed to hear that the ClearPlay method is not to edit the actual discs themselves, but to allow the consumer to set different filters separately — so if you can tolerate a certain level of bad language and you cannot tolerate violence of any sort but you can tolerate sexuality in all its various cinematic forms, then you can set each of these filters separately! As the FAQ says, “You can also customize your filter preferences by adjusting 14 different filter settings (that gives you 16,384 potential user configurations!).”

    With a system like that, I don’t think we are talking about anything remotely resembling government censorship at all. This is definitely about increasing the consumer’s options!

    Oh, and BTW, I was actually a bit offended that Mel Gibson “recut” his film just to pander to the handful of people who hadn’t seen it yet. Given how much fuss he had made about his artistic integrity when the original film came out, it seemed like a bad compromise.

    And hey, just as people can make machines that bring films closer to the G rating, perhaps we will one day see machines that bring films closer to the NC-17!