Friday, September 13, 2013

On Hollywood, editing, and worldviews

I had a bit of extra time this week, so I took the opportunity to look through My List on Netflix for something to watch. I waded through the list of movies I have intended to watch, but I knew I was in the mood for something different. Finally, I happened upon my "odd documentaries" section of the list, and I found Cleanflix, a 2009 chronicle of the rise and fall of the "edited movies" industry, which was based mainly in Utah from 2000 to 2008. The idea of the industry was simple: some people want to watch movies without all of the smut - graphic violence, nudity/sexuality, foul language - so digital editing software was used to remove the affronting material and make it "family-friendly". The movie tells the tale of the inception of the first company, CleanFlicks, and then details the various commercial developments that occurred in the industry over the following decade. It focuses on one business owner in particular, Daniel Thompson, who was later found guilty of paying for services from two fourteen-year-old girls, but it attempts to give a broad picture of the various legal, ethical, and moral issues raised by the existence of the industry and their antagonistic relationship with Hollywood (particularly the Directors' Guild of America).

A large portion of the movie focuses on Mormons, who are the largest market for edited film, as one might guess from the geolocation of the majority of the stores in business. Prophet Ezra Taft Benson had reprimanded Mormons in 1986 not to watch R-rated movies, so as a result, many Mormons still refuse to watch such movies today. They were overjoyed to find a way to watch these movies without violating their church's teachings, and they are still trying to find ways for Hollywood to release the edited versions they create for airplanes (which, it seems, are becoming less edited now, which can create awkward situations when watching those four-inch-screens in front of you). The documentary is an interesting study of issues such as copyright law, creative ownership, censorship, art, and how faith interacts with entertainment.

How could they edit that?

The issues of creative direction, artistic integrity, and censorship were very interesting, as one of the core accusations of the DGA was that editing the movies violated their First Amendment right to express themselves. Now, I have no idea how a movie like The Big Lebowski - which was edited by CleanFlicks - maintains any sense of plot, much less artistic integrity, if all offensive content is removed; after all, "this is what happens when you find a stranger in the Alps" just does not have the same resonance as the source material. It's kind of mind-boggling how many of these movies could actually be edited; take a cursory look at the list of edited films mentioned in the documentary on IMDB and count how many times your jaw drops agape as you try to consider how "that" movie could be edited to be made "clean".

(Note: the YouTube comments include NSFW language, even though the clip itself does not.)

The documentary points out several times the irony and internal inconsistency inherent in the practice of the editing, which often focused more on expressions of sexuality than on violence; for example, much of the gore of Braveheart was left intact, but the single love scene was edited because of the nudity. That is consistent with the general (North) American ethos, though Americans are much less likely to be sensitive to violence and more sensitive to sexuality; this is still perhaps best cemented in my memory from a program on MuchMusic called "Too Much for Much" in the late 1990s that discussed how the animated music video "Paranoid Android" was edited differently on either side of the border (for nudity in the US and violence in Canada). 

(Note: The video is NSFW, as this is the fully unedited version.)

The letter of the law versus the spirit of the law

The list of movies that were edited was astounding, and I cannot actually imagine how a movie like Saw could actually become palatable. I can barely fathom the kind of mental gymnastics that these "clean movie" watchers would go through to allow themselves to consume all manner of material in the guise of still remaining "pure" because the actual scenes were eliminated. For these devout Mormons (and I would imagine a large number of fundamentalist Christians who availed themselves of these edited movie services as well), they could obey the letter of the law, regardless of the spirit of the law. I was fascinated by the ways in which people sought to legitimize the process, or even how they claimed that they had the right to watch clean movies, rather than the versions distributed by Hollywood. It's fascinating on a sociological and moral level how these people can justify their actions and even demand that their particular moral quandary is solved for them, regardless of the legal ramifications of those actions. 

Many of the consumers featured in CleanFlix reasonably argued that from a business standpoint that there is a market, and so it makes sense from a commercial perspective for studios and the DGA and the WGA and the SAG to meet those market demands, but the prevailing idea from the creators seems to be that doing so would dilute artistic integrity, and they are not willing to do that. I am not so sure that their argument is entirely reasonable, as the modifier "gratuitous" (as applied to violence, nudity or the phrase "sex scene") is often used to describe a lot of entertainment that is produced (and rightfully so, I would contend). At any rate, the documentary does well to chronicle the story of the producers, distributors, and consumers, and it raises some valuable questions in the process. Should the studios, DGA, WGA, and SAG approve edited versions? Does the Mormon church need to relax its policy on mature entertainment? Do people have a right to see the movie they want to regardless of the artistic vision of the creator? And so on and so forth.

A personal reflection

My difficulty in reconciling the morality espoused by the subjects of the film with the nature of the industry comes in part from personal experience. I grew up in a house in which pop culture was our lingua franca, but it existed in a paradox. I was heavily restricted in my viewing until the age of thirteen, as the Simpsons were verboten and the Flintstones were anathema due to their misogyny. (ie. My mom hated how the show treated women). At the same time, I was allowed to watch cartoons like X-Men, which featured violence and big-bosomed heroes, and my parents did not have a consistent guideline as to what I could watch; this is ultimately how I watched my first Simpsons episode "The Last Temptation of Homer", which features Bart becoming a nerd and Homer being tempted toward an extramarital affair by an attractive co-worker (one of the better episodes of the series, IMHO).

I never really gorged myself on entertainment during my teen years, and I avoided a lot of really negative stuff, but I also was not the most discerning consumer from either a moral or artistic perspective. (At one point, I loved the movie Armageddon. I was fifteen, but I still should have known better. This is why I tell my high school students that they will look back on their taste in entertainment in a decade and shudder. But I digress.) But pop culture was my language: I could relate anything to an episode of Seinfeld or The Simpsons. I was a glutton for entertainment, and it was arguably my primary focus for most activities. Then, when I was eighteen, I felt a strong conviction to forego all entertainment for a period of time. It lasted throughout most of 2002 and 2003; the only movies I saw in theatres during that time were the Lord of the Rings trilogy and an adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest. I was thorough and evangelistic in my fervor, and sometimes I was kind of a jerk about it too. In my zest to fulfill my calling, some people had a distaste from our encounters, as I seemed a little too rigid. I remember in particular one discussion about the Dave Matthews Band, when I asked questions about the moral implications of listening to their music and angered someone significantly. (Yeah, I know - DMB? Seriously? That's who I was, though.) There were some positives in that period: I had time to build friendships that have lasted a decade, I played a lot of Rook, and I really got to invest in my then-fresh dating relationship - and that's working out okay now.

After moving to a different city, I started to mellow, and I began to feel as though I could reclaim entertainment without sacrificing the lessons I had learned in that time. I even wrote about it eight years ago in a short post entitled "The pendulum swings back a little"; I include it here as a sign of how much I have changed, even though the language is still a little fundy and cringe-worthy. At any rate, I was more aware of what I was watching, how I was watching it, and why I was watching it. My time of tee-totaling had allowed me to build some critical filters that went beyond surface morality and allowed me to look deeper at the worldviews espoused in the media I consumed (and at times to disengage those filters if I so chose). Of course, one might argue that I overcompensated and went too far; that I started (and have laboriously continued) watching Dexter might be used as evidence of that fact. (An aside: why, oh why didn't I stop watching it four years ago? This final season has not been worth the investment of time. But only two episodes are left, so I'll just finish it up.)

The reality is that I am more informed and aware as a critic and consumer, both from an artistic and a "moral" perspective, and I am able to evaluate movies without having the superficial moral concerns cloud my ability to do so. I still often choose to avoid movies with gratuitous violence, in particular, and there are several genres of movies that I do not appreciate as a result of my worldview, but I am far less imperious about my need to tell others of those choices and reasoned in my explication of my viewing habits. I do find it unfortunate that the creators of much media find it necessary to include certain scenes to tell their stories, but I recognize that it is my choice to consume those particular movies or shows, and that if I do not want to see that particular content, it is my job to turn it off. Not everyone can, so they need to make the choices they need to make to be healthy; I am able, in this season of my life, to watch shows with mature content, being fully aware of that content, and to process it appropriately. This does not mean that it does not affect me - I did, after all, dream last night that I was part of the cast of Breaking Bad - simply that I am aware of its effects on me right now, and that superficial morality is not a concern for me.

Of greater import is the worldview behind the material, or the point a film or show is trying to make. Breaking Bad, to take the current cause célèbre, is arguably the most moral show on TV, as it shows consequences to actions; I do state the caveat to people who express a desire to watch it that there are some hurdles to be leapt in stomaching some of the violence of the show. I would not choose to not support a film based on whether it has violence or language or nudity, but based on the quality of its character, so to speak: what it is trying to do. If it is excessively gratuitous or nihilistic or gluttonous in its pursuit of cheap thrills - as most horror films are, for example - there is little difference between a Hollywood film and a pornographic one.

If there is an attempt to educate or inform or evaluate or espouse a cogent point of view- if there is a reason for the film to exist outside of the endorphin rushes it provides its viewers - then I am more willing to watch it, regardless of its particular worldview. This, of course, is not to say that I automatically eschew all action or horror or comedy movies, or that I automatically approve of all "thinky" movies; I am merely stating that I am more likely to watch a movie that is itself thought-provoking and that makes me consider my own perceptions of the world around me. And I would far rather be equipped - and to equip others - to make that decision on my own, rather than having someone else edit it for me.

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