[27 April 2010]

By Cynthia Fuchs

PopMatters Film and TV Editor


“There are some movies that are beyond editing,” says Allan Erb, president of CleanFlicks. For instance, Pretty Woman: “There’s nothing you can do to that movie,” he submits, “that takes out the fact that you are talking about a female prostitute.” On the other hand, you can cut enough language, blood, and violence from Kill Bill, Vol. 1 or Goodfellas to make them into morally suitable entertainment.

As specious as this distinction may seem, it’s only the beginning of CleanFlicks’ problems, according to Andrew James and Joshua Ligair’s documentary on the “clean movement.” Cleanflix, premiering 27 April at Stranger Than Fiction, looks not only at the Mormon movie lovers who inspired the movement, but also at the businessmen who profited and the artists who protested. But even as Steven Soderbergh, Curtis Hanson, and Michael Mann joined the fight, decrying alterations to their work, the fact remains that studios do offer up their own edited versions of movies—for use by airlines and commercial television. The difference here seems to be who is contracted—and paid—for the altered product.

Cleanflix doesn’t pretend to resolve the many questions it asks. Instead, the film focuses on a particular, especially fervid period for the clean movement. Having grown up in the Mormon community, James and Ligair begin with the movement’s focus on “Marketing Morality.” Here Erb and Ray Lines, CleanFlicks’ fonder and CEO, lay out their rationale for “sanitizing” Hollywood movies. Seeing a ready-made market in the Church of Latter Day Saints, they frame their company as a service. Customers want to “follow prophetic counsel” (keep their minds clear of sinful material) but still, as one TV news report has it, feel part of “the cultural zeitgeist,” that is, to see Gladiator (apparently slavery is more palatable than prostitution) or The Matrix (minus the 26 killings).

Structured in titled sections and energetic, the documentary illustrates the differences in a couple of films (including The Big Lebowski), in order to make its point, and points out that, along with Pretty Woman, some other movies are just “un-editable” (no matter how well made, the story of Sin City, explains editor Scott Nybo, is “evil doing evil to evil”) and Brokeback Mountain (“We didn’t do that one, more on principle,” he says, ““I don’t want to say why on the record”). Neil LaBute, raised as a Mormon, sees the dilemma facing the LDS community as one of self-image: “There is enough darkness in the world, on the evening news, their own lives, whatever, that because art is something we can control, that we should then manipulate it to show only goodness.” 

Even as customers express their enthusiasm for the “good” product (“The underlying theme of the movie is still there, without all the other things I don’t want to watch”), Cleanflix turns its attention to those making money off this “righteous” business. Of these, Daniel Thompson and Robert Perry form a kind of competitive center, two dealers in Utah who find it difficult to get along. Though Perry suggests there are enough clients that they might coexist peaceably, Thompson is resistant: “To dilute the market is bad for business,” he asserts.

The dealers target customers who believe, says Philip Sherman Gordon, communications professor at Utah Valley University, that “obedience is a virtue in and of itself. They’ve been told that if they do these things, they’ll be good.” Their measures of goodness become more complicated when the clean movement comes under legal scrutiny. When they are ordered to shut down because, Michael Apted observes, “They’re marketing materials they don’t own, and they have no rights over,” clean movement proponents declare they’re following a higher law (and yes, making money too). Gordon notes, “Breaking the law [is] good for the Mormons. I like it when the embrace their otherness.”

The copyright question begins with who owns the product, but more substantially, what is the product? If the purchaser owns a material DVD, and might copy it for his or her own use, can that purchaser then sell multiple versions of that doctored product? Ray Lines premises his case on this: he owns the DVD, and he can do what he wants with it. Filmmakers (and studios, who are, after all, making most of the money off the art) hold to the notion that the DVD per se is not the property at issue. Instead, it is the content, the language, the sequence of action, and even the shape and composition of the frames. As Soderbergh puts it, “It has my name on it and it has the implication that it’s what I did.”

As the documentary follows Thompson’s efforts to stay in business—and also to make his case on camera, for he appears especially inclined to speak not only to James and Ligair, but also to local and national TV and newspaper reporters—it reveals that he is dealing with other, more complex legal and moral issues, beyond the copyright case or the effort to serve his clients. If his personal and professional stories are not precisely representative of the clean movement generally, they do seem to support Gordon’s primary concern, that “Their theory of media effects is simplistic and wrong and dangerous… It cultivates a tolerance for censorship and gets us thinking in shameful ways about sexuality.”

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