Two Kinds of Censorship

May 12, 2004
A thought by James Berardinelli

So the real question is: Is Michael Moore being censored? Is Disney's refusal to allow Miramax to distribute his Farenheit 9/11 a business decision or a politically motivated attempt to stamp out criticism of the Bush administration? The real answer to that question lies not in whether Disney relents and allows the Weinsteins to put out the movie under the Miramax label (that will never happen), but whether Disney allows the U.S. distribution rights to be sold to another company.

First, a word about Moore. As I have made clear in the past, I'm not a big fan of the ultra-liberal filmmaker. The guy plays fast and loose with the facts and possesses an ego about as large as that of his conservative mirror image, Rush Limbaugh. Nevertheless, he deserves to have his voice heard, and I for one am very interested to see what new information (if any) Moore has dug up. I want to see his take on 9/11/01 and everything leading up to it. I probably won't agree with everything he says, but no one has ever accused Moore's films of being boring. I don't like having my viewing choices limited by the decisions of greedy corporate executives who make one-hundred times my annual salary.

If Disney allows the U.S. rights to Farenheit 9/11 to be sold and/or transferred to another distributor (much like what happened with Kids and Dogma), then there's no censorship. It's simply a face-saving business decision on Disney's part to avoid angering their predominently conservative support base. (The whole thing about Jeb Bush and Florida tax breaks may be a factor, but it's hardly likely to be the dominant one.)

However, if Disney tries to bury the movie (as was hinted at in an article I read today) by refusing to sell the rights to another company, then we have a censorship issue. Moore, who knows how to stir up controversy, will play this up for all it's worth. He'll file suit and take his case to the media. If necessary, he'll pirate his own movie to get it out there. The bottom line is that Farenheit 9/11 will be available - one way or another. After the film debuts in Cannes, keep an eye on Kazaa. I suspect that Moore won't care whether it becomes an object of frequent downloading.

There's a related "censorship" issue in the news. It has to do with the new RCA DVD player featuring the built-in "Clear Play" feature. Respected directors like Martin Scorsese have come out against "Clear Play," claiming that it compromises their directorial vision. Lawsuits are pending, so let me weigh in with my opinion.

First of all, let it be known that "Clear Play" uses a regular DVD and does not in any way alter the content of the disc. The system employs software to block and/or jump over "objectionable" content. While I admit that this isn't the best way to view a movie, I have a hard time understanding the directors' protests. Their feature - the one that exists on the DVD - is not being altered. Viewers are choosing not to watch the entire film, which is their right. How is this different from putting a DVD in the player and only watching select chapters? Often, when I view an action movie for the second or third time, I'll skip through the "slow" parts. This is a form of circumventing the director's vision. How is this different from what Clear Play does?

Clear Play's methods are different from the ones employed by those who illegally copy and hard-edit movies to expunge profanity, violence, sex, and nudity. That is a copyright violation and needs to be stopped. But there's a big difference between someone obtaining an altered version of a film and someone buying the full version then choosing not to watch the entire movie. Once you have a legal copy of a movie, you have the right to do with it as you like (as long as you don't violate any laws). Scorsese is concerned about Clear Play "censoring" his movies. I'm concerned by the idea that someone can come into my home and tell me how I can and cannot watch a DVD. Which is more dangerous?