Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Cleanflix [movie review]

* North American theatrical release date TBA
* Screened September 13th at the AMC 7 theatre
Cleanflix looks at the controversial practice by various companies in Utah over the past decade of editing and censoring objectionable material out of Hollywood movies, with the sanitized versions then being rented and sold to a predominantly Mormon population. Co-directors Andrew James and Joshua Ligairi, Mormons themselves, examine the moral questions at the centre of the debate, one which has raged among cinephiles for years now. Who has the right to distort an artist's work without authorization? What specifically constitutes "offensive material"? Why doesn't Hollywood cater to a market thirsty for sanitized versions of the latest popular movies? These are all questions the film looks at, providing a fairly thorough and balanced look at the issue from both the Utah side and from Hollywood's perspective. Clips of regular movie scenes and then the censored versions pop up throughout the movie, all of them eliciting laughter from the audience as the latter versions play out as ridiculously sanitized snippets, frequently with only a tenuous grasp on the context of the story the film is supposed to be telling. The documentary would have benefited by more original interviews from Hollywood directors - a number of the clips from people like Steven Soderbergh and Michael Mann appear to be archival footage, but apparently most in the film industry were reluctant to reopen the discussion (a group of 16 directors successfully sued the film editing companies in 2006, effectively shutting down the entire business). Director Neil LaBute, who left the Mormon church, was willing to talk however, and provides interesting insight for the filmmakers.
One of the most puzzling and amusing aspects of the whole issue is that the Mormon clientele have been instructed by their religious leaders to avoid R-rated fare because of its moral destructiveness, yet they seem to have no issue watching that same "immoral" material after it's had a few trims and edits. And some of the video store owners and distributors are also accused by others within the industry of cutting corners and dealing in shady business practices (and worse). Then consider the fact that the entire censored movie subindustry violated international copyright laws. Apparently, the religious moral high ground these Mormons are perched upon also comes with a powerful set of blinders, too.
Cleanflix takes an odd left turn for the last portion of the movie, as it moves from the central theme to then focusing on one of the principals from the story, a man named Daniel Thompson (pictured in the movie poster). Thompson owned a Clean Flicks store that rented and sold the censored movies and continued to do so even after Hollywood shut down his distributor (he just switched to another distributor and hung his hat on a vague legal loophole that deemed the edited movies permissible if intended for use in an educational context). Eventually, Thompson had to shutter his store, but not before garnering heaps of press for his supposedly "noble" fight. Clearly, Thompson has never met a camera he didn't love and coupled with the character assassination delivered by his business rivals, plus the fact he generally just comes across as an oily snake, well, he sets himself up for all sorts of backlash and viewer ridicule when it's revealed that he and a friend solicited sex from a couple of 14-year-old girls inside his store. Another allegation of underage porn being distributed at his store is leveled. The manner in which the matter is brought up is too jarring, though. Someone being interviewed about Thompson just seems to throw the accusations out there, but they're not really dealt with until a little later on in the movie, instead, just being left there to twist in the wind. It seemed a very odd choice by the directors to introduce such a serious subplot in this carefree manner.
The big question of why Hollywood itself doesn't exploit the current vacuum from the censored movie market is never answered in Cleanflix. The question was posed to the directors in the question and answer session following the screening and they say they could never get an answer. Considering that movies are already edited for airlines and TV broadcast, it does seem strange that the movie industry hasn't tapped into what surely would be a huge revenue stream.
The main theme of the movie and the Daniel Thompson sidetrack are each fascinating to watch and though the two are connected it makes for somewhat of a disjointed viewing experience. Perhaps both would have been better served by a focus on one or the other.
* I must also add that the punk song used over both the opening and closing credits (I never did catch its name or who performed it) was possibly the most wretched, grating song I've ever heard.
Rating: 8/10


  1. The reason Hollywood hasn't tapped into the "sanitized" versions market is because it surely wouldn't be such a huge revenue stream. You, yourself described how the edits practically destroyed any plot and story continuity the films might have had. The simple fact is, even the religious aren't interested in watching movies that don't make any sense. The portion of the marketplace that would want to rent these films is remarkably small. The only reason the businesses were successful in Utah was the inordinate amount of unhealthy influence the Mormon church has over the personal lives of its members.

    The simple truth of Hollywood is this: if it sells, they'll make it. The fact that they aren't making it tells us it doens't sell. QED.

  2. You make some excellent points, but I still think there's a market out there for edited films. Perhaps, in hindsight, "huge" would be an overstatement in terms of the possible revenue, but the religious right in America (not including Mormons) is pretty sizeable and if the movies were edited in a manner that at least made sense (as many of the edits shown in 'Cleanflix' did not) then I think a certain group would opt for that.

    Personally, you couldn't pay me to watch a TV show or movie that's been edited. I quickly looked at an episode of 'The Sopranos' when A & E started airing it and I couldn't watch more than a few minutes. Same thing for when 'Sex And The City' started airing in syndication.

  3. Well, there is a market, of course. That's why businesses like that exist in the first place. It just isn't big enough for Hollywood. Consider, if the studios were to release official edited versions, they could only do so with the consent of the film makers themselves. How many film makers would agree to allow the editing to be done in the first place, and how much would they charge for the legal rights to do it? The market would have to be huge for it to be a financially viable *legal* enterprise. The only reason the companies referred to in this film were making money was because they were doing it illegally.

    I think we over-estimate the size of the religious right because of how much political clout they have in the USA. We're really talking about a group that comprises less than 15% of the general population of America; and the groups that are fundamentalist and evangelical enough to be concerned about watching unedited Hollywood movies is a small minority of that. Not to mention the fact that, of those really extremist groups, a significant number would refuse to watch a "Hollywood" movie regardless of how it had been edited.

  4. A couple of the directors interviewed were extremely peeved that their work had been tampered with and mentioned editing the movies themselves, but even then, would their cuts be enough to satisfy the conservative market base? Doubtful.

    I didn't know the religious right was that small - very interesting. They certainly do seem to have more political influence than their numbers would suggest.

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Paul. Much appreciated!

  5. James has another take on the film at Toronto Screen Shots and gave it a similar rating.

  6. I read his review and enjoyed it.


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