Friday, May 25, 2012

DVD Review: Cleanflix

Cleanflix ***
Directed By: Andrew James & Joshua Ligairi
Written By: Andrew James, Joshua Ligairi

Note: I saw this film at the 2009 Toronto Film Festival, and just noticed it was released on DVD recently, so I thought I would post my review from that time.

A few years ago you undoubtedly heard about the lawsuits that Hollywood was filing against certain companies for editing and selling their movies to consumers. Hollywood claimed that these companies had no right to edit copyrighted material and then sell it and make a profit from it. The companies claimed that once they bought a DVD they had to right to do whatever they wanted with it. They claimed because they used a 1 for 1 system (meaning for every “clean” version of the movie they sold, they bought an original DVD) meaning that the studios were not losing any money. In fact, they were probably making more money, because now consumers who would normally never watch this R rated movie were watching them.

The companies lost the lawsuit. Their argument did not carry weight with the courts. For one thing, it is impossible to guarantee that all the companies were using the 1 for 1 system, and for another there is a bigger issue at play here that many directors did not like. These companies were altering their movies, and leaving their names on it without their permission. Viewers who watched these versions were not getting what the director intended them to get, and because some of the editing was so sloppy, it made the directors look like amateurs.

The fascinating new documentary Cleanflix looks at the rise and fall in this industry. Not surprising, the industry started in Utah – the most conservative State in America that also happens to be home to a large Mormon population. In the late 1980s, the Prophet of the Mormon Church decreed that members of the Mormon faith were not allowed to watch R rated movies. The theory being that exposure to “dirty” material such as violence, language and sex, dirtied the watchers soul. They were committing a sin just by watching the movie.

Cleanflix tries hard to present a fair and balanced view of the industry – at least in the films first two thirds (more on the last third in a minute). It interviews the people who founded these companies, and lets them tell their side of the story. Far from being the religious nut jobs you might envision, most of these people were smart business men. They saw a need that was going unfulfilled in the market, and decided to fill it themselves. The theory being that because movies were edited all the time for the airlines and for television, then they could just provide the same service on DVDs. The problem, of course, is that the studios gives permission to the airlines and TV, and even supervises the editing of the movies.

But as hard as the makers of Cleanflix tries, you can tell what side of the issue they come down on. One of the most amusing things they do in the movie is show the difference between a “clean” and the “uncut” version of the movies. Sometimes – as with a cut from The Matrix – the difference is almost non-existent – you still do get the point, even if you do not see the violence. Other times, like in a scene with a lot of swearing in Saving Private Ryan, the editing is so poorly done that the scene becomes almost incomprehensible. I didn’t really mind that the courts came down on the side of the filmmakers, and against the companies doing the editing, because that is the side I was also on. In my mind, if you do not want to see the violence, swearing and sex in a given movie, then you simply do not watch the movie. There are literally thousands of classic movies out there for you to watch that adhere to the codes that they are comfortable with, so they should simply watch them if they don’t want to see this “evil” trash. If you miss out on the conversation about a movie that everyone else saw, when then, that’s your decision. You do not have the right to alter someone else’s work. That’s just wrong.

For nearly an hour of the film, the movie looks at the industry as a whole, and it’s this part of the movie that I found fascinating. It’s when the filmmakers veer off track from that in the last third of the film that I did not like as much. In that part of the film, the filmmakers concentrate on Daniel Thompson, one of the biggest “names” in the clean films industry. He runs a few stores in Utah, and the reason why everyone knows who he is, is because he always puts himself front and center. Every time there is a story on the news about the industry, you can be sure that Thompson has wedged his way in somehow. Even after the ruling, companies were still trying to get away with producing clean versions of movies, and fly under the radar, but Thompson could never shut up long enough for them to notice. He continually brings attention to himself. When Thompson ends up being charged with soliciting sex from a 14 year old girl, the media has a field day. That this supposedly upright and moral guy is involved in child prostitution is the type of irony they feed on.

But for me, I didn’t find Thompson that interesting of a character, and certainly not deserving of having the last third of the movie revolve around him. Like the rest of the clean movie industry, he never really claims to be a moralist – he even says at one point in the movie that he doesn’t necessarily agree with how he makes his money, but since there’s money to be made doing what he does, then he’s going to make sure he’s the one making it. I think the rise and fall of this industry is fascinating enough with devoting a half of hour of the movie to this egomaniac.

But despite my problems with the film (which also include that fact that at times, it is rather clumsily put together) I was still fascinated by this movie. It is not one of the great documentaries of the year, but it is certainly one of the more fascinating ones – and a must see for movies fans.

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