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Cleanflix Documentary Review Essays

In the 1980s, Mormon prophet and LDS church president Ezra Taft Benson famously counseled the young men of his church to avoid watching R-rated films:

Consider carefully the words of the prophet Alma to his errant son, Corianton, “Forsake your sins, and go no more after the lusts of your eyes.” [1]

“The lusts of your eyes.” In our day, what does that expression mean?

Movies, television programs, and video recordings that are both suggestive and lewd . . .

We counsel you, young men, not to pollute your minds with such degrading matter, for the mind through which this filth passes is never the same afterwards. Don’t see R-rated movies or vulgar videos or participate in any entertainment that is immoral, suggestive, or pornographic. [2]

Though his words were directed at young men specifically, in practice, they became applied to church members in general. So began the cultural Mormon phenomenon of shunning R-rated films, in America, at least. Mormons would be far from the only religious conservatives to take issue with the graphic content of modern-day films based on MPAA ratings. For example, in the late 90s, evangelical author and speaker John Bevere offered the following counsel to Christians:

Most believers as well as conservative Americans think nothing of viewing a typical PG-13 movie as long as it does not have excessive profanity or nudity. However, many of these movies, while they don’t have excessive profanity or nudity, are filled with disrespect, anger, hatred, violence, or implied extramarital affairs. Many believers will view such ungodly behavior without a second thought.

Yet let’s take that same PG-13-rated movie and show it to the people of this country in the 1940s. What would have been their reaction? Most would have been horrified at the contents! What has happened? The lines of conservative America have shifted, and the church’s lines have moved with them. [3]

A dilemma emerges for religious conservatives though: how can one be engaged with the larger culture one lives in whilst abstaining from such an important slice of that culture? Movies can be a huge part of how we interact with one another and the world around us. To have to turn down every conversation with a friend who says, “Have you seen The Matrix?” with, “No, I haven’t, I don’t watch R-rated films” is a very unsatisfying option for many people. Is there a way to maintain one’s ideological standards whilst staying relevant to the larger American culture?

In the late 90s, a Utah-based company named CleanFlicks [4] rose up to offer a solution to this dilemma. Though some video stores in Utah had been quietly providing edited films for some time, as had Brigham Young University’s Varsity Theater, it was CleanFlicks that mass-marketed the concept of edited, “clean” PG-13 and R-rated films for sale and rent. CleanFlicks’ goal was to “clean up” these movies so that they no longer contained obscene language, graphic violence, nudity, or sexual content. Many Latter-day Saints felt that it was not a violation of their late prophet’s counsel to watch an R-rated film that had been cleaned up. The CleanFlicks business thrived, and many copycat stores sprung up to get in on a piece of that success.

CleanFlix is an attempt at documenting the rise and fall of this industry, from its inception in the late 90s to its demise at the hands of the court systems in 2007. This commendably even-handed documentary features interviews with CleanFlicks founders Ray Lines and Allen Erb, as well as other edited movie dealers, store owners, and video editors such as Scott Nybo, Daniel Dean Thompson, and Robert Perry. Numerous unnamed customers and friends of key players are interviewed as well, many of them Latter-day Saints who passionately describe their love of these edited films and their desire to separate themselves from the “trash” found in unedited films. Though it might have been easy to poke fun at a group of adults showing angst over watching films like Kindergarten Cop, CleanFlix is always respectful of the faith and goals of its interview subjects. On the pro-edited-movies side of things, dealers such as Lines and Erb reason that the movie companies already provide edited versions of their films for foreign countries, airlines and television, to the extent of sometimes filming alternate scenes or recording alternate lines of dialogue for these versions, so why shouldn’t edited movies be accessible to the general public?

On the other side of the conflict, directors and writers such as Neil Labute, Richard Dutcher, Curtis Hanson, and Michael Mann are interviewed. Representing the general viewpoint of the Director’s Guild of America, one director passionately exclaims, “To alter these films with our names still on them is not only fraud, it’s artistic rape.” Numerous comparisons are made between the normal version of films and the CleanFlicks versions, showing just how badly these scenes are sometimes distorted through the editing process. At other times, the idiosyncrasies of the Mormon editors become clear. For example, the documentary points out that the infamously horrific “dead-leg-in-wood-chipper” scene was not removed from the CleanFlicks version of Fargo, while a rather innocuous dialogue about circumcision was. [5]

Inevitably these two sides clashed in court, and CleanFlicks lost. All edited movie dealers were ordered to liquidate their stock and close up shop. Some dealers defiantly remained open, believing they were operating under certain legal loopholes, or that the 2006 court ruling was not directed at them specifically. Eventually the courts had to issue a “second manifesto” and get serious about cracking down on those who were still marketing edited films.

Initially just one voice amongst numerous CleanFlicks store owners, Daniel Dean Thompson gradually emerges as something of a star in this film. Charismatic and publicity-happy, Thompson participated in numerous television commercials and radio spots, becoming the public face of CleanFlicks even though he had no official affiliation with Lines or Erb and only owned or managed a few stores in the Happy Valley area. After the initial court ruling against CleanFlicks, Thompson was one of those who chose to re-open his store under a different name and continue selling and renting out edited movies. Scandal and tragedy struck in 2007 when Thompson and his friend, Isaac Lifferth, were accused of paying two 14 year-old girls to perform sex acts on them. Police searched Thompson’s Orem store and found a large quantity of pornography in the back rooms. [6]

In telling this tale, CleanFlix adopts a serious and straightforward tone, preferring to let each person being interviewed tell his or her own story and make his or her own arguments. Neutral analysis and commentary is provided by two Utah Valley University professors, David Knowlton and Philip Sherwin Gordon. My only complaint about the film is that key events are sometimes relayed via a block of white text on the screen, with no vocal narration. I think the film could have benefited from a narrator for these parts. I also think the film could have afforded to be a tad more playful with its subject matter. Nevertheless, it is a well-crafted documentary which should prove interesting to anyone who is interested in film, in Mormonism, or in copyright law.

As the film unfolded this story to me, I was struck by two things. One was the obtuse indignation of the Hollywood directors, who insist that they will not make edited versions of their films for conservative religious consumers because there is “no market” for such a thing. If the rise and fall of CleanFlicks has proven anything, it’s that this is far from the case, and the directors are saying “no” to good money. I would be sympathetic to the directors’ cries of “artistic rape” were it not for the fact that so many of them produce edited versions of these films for other markets. The issue here seems to be one of consent, and we already know that the DGA “puts out” edited versions of its films for airlines and foreign countries like a drunk girl on prom night. Why, then, does it shy away from the advances of religious conservatives?

At the same time, I found myself shaking my head in disgust at what I’ll call the smarmy entitlement displayed by CleanFlicks producers and consumers. I do not fault anyone for trying the CleanFlicks venture once; that was fair game, and I commend the original founders of CleanFlicks for getting out of it when they did (i.e. after the first court ruling). It is the fact that so many Utah entrepreneurs continued marketing edited movies, even after the courts told them to stop, that rubs me wrong. Some of them did this under the quixotic belief that they were engaged in civil disobedience, sticking it to “the man” by continuing to hawk their schlocky edited films in BYU parking lots. If the producers and directors would not give them edited movies, then they would rise up and take them! Or so the reasoning goes.

Sorry, but that is not how the world works. No one has a God-given right to an edited copy of Kill Bill: Vol. 1, and Hollywood producers and directors are not obligated to give that to anyone. The creators of artistic content get to say who they will do business with and how. That they choose not to do it CleanFlicks’ way does not give anyone the right to break the law and sell illegal edited versions of their films. That they are thumbing their noses at a good chance at making money in favor of faux artistic purity also does not give anyone the right to sell illegal versions of their films.

In conclusion, I heartily recommend CleanFlix for anyone interested in thoughtful discussion of a cultural Utah phenomenon that involves “sex, violence, Mormons and movies.”

Grade: B+

(NOTE: The DVD comes with two versions of the film, a “clean” version and an unrated version. The only difference between them is that the clean version bleeps out profanity and blurs out nudity, a feature that I was grateful for, since I do have a young child in the home. Special features include deleted scenes and directors’ commentary. Available in DVD and instant video form at Amazon.com.)

Notes:

[1] Alma 39:9.

[2] Ezra Taft Benson, “To the ‘Youth of Noble Birthright,'” Ensign, May 1986, <http://www.lds.org/ensign/1986/05/to-the-youth-of-the-noble-birthright?lang=eng>.

[3] John Bevere, A Heart Ablaze (Nashville, Tenn.: Nelson Books, 1999), 85.

[4] For the purposes of this article, CleanFlicks can refer to (1) the actual CleanFlicks franchise, or (2) the entire movement of edited movie stores, whether they be Clean Films, Flix Club, Movie Mask, Cougar Video, etc. In contrast, CleanFlix refers just to the documentary under discussion, even though there was at least one store actually called “CleanFlix.”

[5] Scene available on YouTube here. Warning: it really is horrific.

[6] Note that, in the wake of the scandal, many news outlets errantly described Thompson as a founder or co-founder of CleanFlicks or the owner of the entire franchise. This was not the case. He owned or managed just a few stores in the Happy Valley area.

This entry was posted in Culture, Films by Bridget Jack Jeffries. Bookmark the permalink.

Он почувствовал болезненное жжение в боку. Мое тело мне больше не принадлежит. И все же он слышал чей-то голос, зовущий .