Democrats & Liberals Archives

Drink Deeply or Not At All

Will somebody please think of the children? What about family values? What about consumer choice?

Then again, what about our constitutionally guaranteed rights to the exclusive control over distribution and alteration of artistic and documentary works?

This is the can of worms Representative Lamar Smith hopes to open up with a bill designed to end the Movie Industry’s litigation with Cleanflicks and other family filters.

Frankly, I don't have much sympathy with the Cleanflicks people. Sure, they're trying to protect families. But they're essentially stealing somebody's work and presenting it to the world with the author's name on it as if it were still the work the author's created. As a future filmmaker, I shudder at the thought of having that done to one of my movies.

And really, does it actually do what it's supposed to do, protect children and families? No, what it does is decieve them, render them ignorant, while giving them the illusion that they've seen the actual movie they rented. No, they haven't.

It was always interesting as a kid to see how movies got edited. They might edit out some violence, blank out the sound over a curse word, or even more funny sometimes, insert replacement language. The prize for creative vocal editing in my mind goes to Michael J. Fox's movie, The Hard Way. Fox's movie star character is prevented from following the hard-bitten detective played by James Woods onto the beat by means of a handcuff to the bed. Foxes, response, on learning this, is to call him an SOB. In the TV edit, he artfully calls him "you slime in a ditch!". Ah, the good old days.

Of course, such language, in the Era of NYPD Blue, would hardly raise an eyebrow. But that's beside the point. The point is, when they dubbed that line, cut the line, or edited for time or content, it was the filmmakers or studios doing so. Mostly the latter, owing to the fact that legally a movie's author is the studio, not director or screenwriter. There are exceptions, of course. Mel Gibson owns The Passion of The Christ. George Lucas owns every Star Wars movie, even the original, which he bought from 20th Century Fox.

Lamar Smith is basically asking Lucas, Gibson, and Fox to give up their rights as copyright holders to companies that did not ask their permission, nor involve them in the decision making process. They are taking the material that people like Spielberg, Gibson, and others worked to produce, and used them for their own purposes.

Removing violence, language and sexuality in a film are not neutral or necessarily positive things to do to a film. As a unproduced screenwriter and student of film, I can attest to the fact that the shape of the content affects the movie that contains it. More than that- Form and content are one thing in the end, viewed from two different angles.

Spielberg intended the violence to be of forensic quality. He uses the prologue at Normandy Beach to put the audience into the head of soldiers who fear from one moment to the next that their heads might get blown off. He stripped anti-glare coatings from the lense, did many shots with handheld cameras, set shutter angles(which affect how smooth or jittery the exposure looks) double printed frames, and used surround sound and film editing to put the people at grunt's eye level. Some critics contend that the movie becomes more cliched as it heads into the plot proper, but I say that after the first twenty-five minutes, the audience's perspective changes. Since the violence, when it does come back, is no less graphic, I would argue that Spielberg has not compromised the story by not making the rest of the movie like the first twenty-five minutes, but rather allowing the audience some rest from it. One cannot help but be haunted by the memories of what happened before. Spielberg had no need to belabor the obvious.

But what if it's no longer obvious? If the Bullet holes don't bleed, if the casualties are no longer so extreme, what becomes of a movie where a large part of the emotional impact of the film is based on the horrors of war?

But that's not the worst part. Movies are often edited for television, scenes cut out or switching offensive takes for inoffensive. That's to be expected.

The worst part is that a law like Lamar's essentially gives license to involuntary alteration by one company of another's product, another's art. As an unproduced screenwriter, I have been made keenly aware of the effect altering scenes, their structure and their content can have on a film. With Lamar's law, Once people have a license to chop into other people's work like that, they have license to alter not only the violent, sexual, or profane content of a film, but also the religious and political elements of it as well. Whole scenes or hearts of scenes may end up torn out, Altering the balance of what message the audience gets. This can turn into a vicious cycle of alienation of people from outside thought, as all films end up reviewed and altered to fit the agenda of local customers. Instead of the back and forth exchange of ideas between different, sometimes antagonistic groups, we have simple isolation and cultural stagnation.

That would be a pity. I think good ideas wash back and forth thorugh our arts along with the bad. Political parties absorb consensuses across partisan lines, groups in one social sector become interested in appeal to other sectors. The very demand for these cleaned-up movies shows it.

To fairly, wisely, and accurately understand the people who make these works, and their sensibilities, you must watch the movie they made, the version that expresses their values, whether you reject those values or not.

Let's not justify the muddying of the waters of our cultural communication in this fashion. Let's not fail to listen to what people are really saying in our race to make it comfortable
to our sensibilities.

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Posted by Stephen Daugherty at July 26, 2004 1:06 AM