ReelThoughts: April 23, 2007

"Cut It Out"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


For those involved in the motion picture industry, the process of editing commercial DVDs for content then offering them for sale in that edited format is anathema. There are a number of companies that offer this "service": CleanFilms, CleanFlicks, Clean DVD Edited Movies, and Family Safe Movies (to name a few). There are legal issues concerning the degree to which these companies violate copyright laws, not all of which have been resolved. The DGA and MPAA have taken a firm stance against the practice.

For those who aren't aware of what these companies do, here's a primer. They obtain a DVD, break the copy protection code, and make an edited version. The clean copy removes profanity, nudity, sex, and graphic and/or extreme violence. Most of the edited movies are PG and PG-13, although there are some "soft R" titles that have been subjected to the process. The goal is to make the final version the equivalent of a G-rated picture - or, in other words, something safe for family viewing.

When I first head about this practice, my knee-jerk reaction was one of outrage. After a lengthy period of reflection, however, I'm no longer sure. There are a lot of issues involved, the first and foremost of which is the bastardization of a director's vision. Nevertheless, in the movie business, that's almost a regular occurrence. Many theatrical versions are compromised (hence, all the "director's cuts" to appear on DVD). Then there are the "edited for TV" and "edited for airline" editions. Frankly, there's little difference between the practice of snipping and cutting for those forums than there is with DVDs except the former is studio sanctioned while the latter is not.

One way I approached this is to consider how I would feel if someone edited a copy of one of my reviews to eliminate profanity (occasionally used but not often), descriptions of sexuality, and threats of violence against filmmakers who have wasted my time by making a bad movie, and posted it at a site called "CleanReelViews.net." In principle, I don't think I would be offended as long as it was clearly noted that the review had been edited and that the original could be found at ReelViews.net. Any kind of editing, though, is a tricky matter since it could inadvertently change the intent and meaning of the review. That's a concern. There are also financial issues that I won't get into in detail. Suffice it to say that if someone is reading my review elsewhere, they're not reading it at my site and that means a loss of revenue.

Directors, the designated authors of films, have distinct opinions about the process of clean editing. Some of them, especially the auteurs, feel violated by it. Others take a more neutral stance, unwilling to outright condemn it because it fills a niche. Some filmmakers would prefer that a sanitized version of their movie be seen rather than the film not be seen at all. On the other hand, there are those who believe that changing a single frame of their final cut is not only illegal but immoral and unethical.

To what extent does the clean editing process change a movie? In most cases, very little. The majority of films that go to the editing room are already "mostly clean" - high-profile PG and PG-13 movies where the cuts do not impact plot development. It's different with R-rated movies, however. In most cases, it's impossible to clean up such a film without doing damage. A bigger question is why someone would want to. I can understand parents desiring to watch clean versions of PG or PG-13 movies with their kids, but R movies are intended to be viewed by adults. I can't make a case for clean edits of R or NC-17 movies. It makes no sense. If the directors had intended for their films to be seen by teenagers, they would have muted the elements enough to achieve a PG-13.

If I was forced to take a position, I would come out against clean edits. It's always dangerous when a middleman interferes with what is supposed to be a creative work. What if someone had edited the Venus de Milo by forcing her to wear a top? However, I find it difficult to work up a self-righteous froth when it comes to those who do this, especially when their motives are legitimate. There's also a lot of hypocrisy in the movie industry. It takes gall for the strong arm of the studios (the MPAA) to come out against this practice when no one is more guilty of meddling with a director's vision than the studios themselves.

The ethics of clean editing are a lot like those of piracy. Too many people see the issues as black and white without realizing that 90% of them exist in the gray in-between.


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