CleanFlix and Clean Flicks: A Look At Edited Films

CleanFlix and Clean Flicks: A Look At Edited Films July 27, 2010

Once upon a time, my wife and I watched a TV movie on a basic cable channel — the TV-edited version of a movie that was originally rated R in theaters.  It was okay, but the interesting part was what we didn’t see.

After our viewing, I perused some of the fan blogs and critic’s reviews, and found that a large amount of online discussion centered around the (apparent) full-frontal nude scene of one of the lead actresses.  That nude scene was not in the TV-edited version we saw, of course, but my wife and I discussed it the rest of the evening and couldn’t figure out for the life of us where that nude scene would have been in the edited version we saw.  Usually, it’s obvious where content has been cut for TV, but in this case we couldn’t come up with any scene — beginning, middle, or end — where nudity from this actress’s character would have made any sense in the context of the film.

I can’t decide if that was a poor job of editing, or a superb one — what better definition of “gratuitousness” is there if viewers not only do not notice it is missing, but can’t figure out where it was supposed to go even after hearing it was missing…

The primary principle behind editing movies for content is typified by the above story:  most PSV (profanity/sex/violence) content in movies today seems to be less than necessary — even superfluous — to a film’s plot, tone, or mood.  Love, romance — even ‘erotic’ elements — can be visualized without sex or nudity.  Conflict — including battle scenes — can be visualized without bloodshed.  And just about any emotion or meaning can be verbalized without profanity.

However, even if PSV material is the problem, are edited films with the PSV material removed the answer?  Not necessarily…

The justification for editing films is easy to understand:  after all, if viewers can usually derive 95% of the film’s intended meaning and emotional impact without the superfluous PSV content, then why NOT edit it?   Not even necessarily as a replacement for the original, just as an alternative — viewers who wish to view the original film are still free to do so, but those who are more sensitive to PSV content (and who recognize that the film may indeed lose some artistic power and they’re okay with that) can choose the edited version instead.

Nevertheless, editing movies for content has been a controversial idea from the very beginning.  Directors grumbled as movies were edited for TV and airplane broadcasts for years, although often participated in the process by filming alternate scenes as TV replacements for original scenes.  However, when companies such as CleanFlix (based in Orem, Utah) started producing edited DVDs as a legitimate business model, objections (and lawsuits) were raised.

Even if those lawsuits have little to no merit, I believe there are some real objections to edited films, such that even those who support “clean” films (like many LDS) may want to reconsider the idea.  Let’s look at a few of these issues:

Artistic Purity

As a Latter-Day Saint with standards, I prefer clean movies.  But as a fan of movies, and of art, I also respect (and inherently want to see) what the writer/director truly intended.  If a film is truly dark, ugly, and violent, perhaps it should be seen in its full dark, ugly, and violent form…or simply not seen at all.  The reality is there are enough alternate movies choices in any genre to provide alternatives to any “objectionable” film, if viewers are willing to look.   If someone is sensitive to violence in film, for example, perhaps the answer is to view non-violent films instead, not violent films with the violence taken out.  After all, wouldn’t you expect the former to have a greater chance of being a more coherent and artistically complete experience than the latter, anyway?

Let’s compare edited films to a “sanitized” version of Playboy magazine — printed with black bars over the naughty parts, or perhaps pictureless altogether.  If such a magazine existed, who would be its target audience?  If you are reading Playboy, you are interested in nudity — Playboy’s raison d’être.  If you’re not interested in nudity, why would you bother with a “clean” version of Playboy in the first place?  You have numerous other alternatives for magazines with content you are interested in that was designed without nudity at the beginning.

Admittedly, confusing this issue is the fact that most movies are inherently artistically diluted in the first place.  With a novel, writers have a more-or-less direct connection to their readers — each reader is able to read exactly what the author wanted to print.  However, movies have more layers of participation, each one mixing in an artistic vision that may differ from the original screenwriter.  Other screenwriters are frequently called in to take a pass or two through the script, the director will almost always insert his/her own vision into the material, and the editing room can have a big impact on how the finished product turns out.  Even studio execs can request and make changes based on feedback from test screenings without the approval of the director or writer.

While viewers may or may not be seeing the original artistic vision when they see a film in the first place, editing films still adds one more subjective filter of personal interpretation on top of all of the above:  someone has to decide what counts as “objectionable content” and what doesn’t, and you — the viewer — are subject to their interpretation.  What if you disagree what is objectionable and what isn’t?  Finding the “purer” films without that objectionable material in the first place may be one answer to cutting down on subjective influences, and seeing what the original filmmakers truly intended.

Supporting the “Enemy”

If you are a conscientious movie viewer who genuinely feels there is too much “smut” in movies today and want to support clean films, supporting edited films is actually counter-productive to the cause.  Buying a R-rated DVD, or buying an edited DVD from someone who had to buy an R-rated DVD to edit it in the first place looks exactly the same on the movie studio’s income report.  If the intent is to encourage the creation of clean films through consumer financial pressure, buying edited films ironically has the opposite effect.

Even if the studios knew that X percentage of revenue on a film was coming from consumers of the edited version — showing in principle some rejection of the original product and at least limited demand for the clean one — that still does not provide them any direct incentive to create cleaner, original products in the first place.  As it stands, they can sit back and let those third-party organizations do the dirty work (pun intended) to create those clean products and earn them money without needing to lift a finger.  And studios can assume (correctly) that a fair amount of those clean customers would end up purchasing or viewing the original product if the clean version didn’t exist (rather than boycott the material entirely).

The fact that the studio makes the same money on the clean versions undercuts their complaint that movie-editing services hurt their business, naturally, but also undercuts the idea that supporting edited films supports cleaner films financially.  Like subscribing to that “clean” version of Playboy, you may try to convince yourself that you are finding value in an ostensibly clean product without getting bogged down in the “smut”, but your money is going into the pockets of the creators of that “smut” just the same, giving them greater incentive to maintain the status quo.  Isn’t that the opposite of what we want?

The Appearance of Evil

Imagine a stake high counselor coming to a ward and giving a talk on avoiding debt.  Within the talk, he says, “An article in the September Playboy magazine reports that levels of personal debt have increased…” Do you suppose that would cause a few raised eyebrows within the congregation?

Should he think to himself, “Of course, I only read the *clean* version of Playboy.  If anyone assumes otherwise without asking or finding out the truth, that’s *their* fault…”, and then not give it another thought?   Should perhaps he speak defensively about it (“An article in the September Playboy — oh, I’m referring to the sanitized version of Playboy, of course.  Obviously I wouldn’t read the real version…”) so as to head off any misunderstandings?  Or perhaps the wiser course of action would be to avoid that situation entirely — surely there are other sources for statistics on debt in America to use in an LDS setting without the baggage of the Playboy name?

Likewise, if someone is on a date and starts throwing out quotes from Pulp Fiction, or Sin City, isn’t it likely their date will assume they’ve just learned something about that person’s standards in movies?  (“So, he/she watches THAT kind of movie, huh?”)

Which, if that *is* their standard for movies is one thing, but for those who watch edited versions of R-rated films, do they have the luxury of assuming other people will give them the benefit of the doubt before jumping to conclusions?   Short of speaking defensively (“I was watching Goodfellas — the TV-edited version of Goodfellas, mind you…”) — which just sounds awkward and self-righteous anyway — movie-goers may find that watching edited movies undercut the standards they were intending to support in the first place by sending entirely the wrong impression.

There are legitimate complaints about LDS cultural emphasis on avoiding “the appearance of evil”, especially when it is equated with “actual” evil.  However, many of the principle’s detractors seem to assume someone can take a can of Coors Light, fill it with orange juice, and then take it around in public thinking, “If anyone *assumes* something without finding out the truth, that’s *their* fault…” without any repercussion.  That’s not how it works…

Like it or not, none of us have the luxury of determining exactly how people react to and interpret the things we do and say.  Even though misunderstandings (and “taking offense”) can technically be someone else’s fault, most people find it wise to minimize the opportunities for offense and misunderstanding as much as possible.  Film watchers with high standards for film may find that trying to be “in” the R-rated world without being “of” the R-rated world isn’t worth the trouble among people who won’t know (or care about) the difference.

Keeping Movies in Perspective

Oftentimes, the incentive for finding edited films is just to feel included — to join the “club” of people who are talking about something that’s popular in society.

At BYU in the late ’90s, for example, the hot movie was The Matrix. It was the movie that anyone who was anyone was watching, and supposedly a ‘light’ R-rated movie anyway.  It was natural that many LDS wanted to be part of the ‘club’, and for those who were still inclined to stay away from The Matrix due to the rating or content, an edited version held an undeniable appeal — allowing them to be part of the ‘club’ (mostly) without worrying about restricted content.

The queston is: why worry about being part of the ‘club’ at all?  How important is it — even as a movie fan — to keep up with all the popular films?  “Hot” movies come and go with regularity, and for those here in 2010 who never saw The Matrix or its sequels, does anyone care?  Does it matter if you never saw The Dark Knight?  Or Transformers 3?  Or even — if you happened to find the content inappropriate or offensive for some reason — Toy Story 3?   A friend of mine doesn’t watch even PG-13 movies and thus skipped the Lord of the Rings trilogy entirely — which may have been a big deal socially from 2001 to 2004, but does any one care now?

After a few months no one is going to care that you weren’t part of the ‘club’, and perhaps movies in general are not important enough to get involved with edited films when considering the other issues they present if the primary incentive is simply to participate in what amounts to a passing social fad.

The Future of Edited Films

Edited films are still going to be around.  Even though CleanFlix has proven to be legally problematic, newer forms of editing films like ClearPlay will likely have staying power.  (ClearPlay is legal because the player does the editing, without needing an altered DVD) 

However, the question remains whether edited films are part of the solution to movie content today, or part of the problem.  My wife and I never really bought in to the edited movies available in the BYU area (and dumped TV altogether a few years back) for the reasons listed above.  Runaway PSV content is still a concern for many LDS, although the best solution seems to be supporting films that meet one’s standards rather than trying to shave off the corners of a square peg to try to fit it into a round hole.

[Cross-posted at LDS Cinema Online]

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