What is “Clean” Content?

The owner of CleanFlicks video stores in Utah is suing some of Hollywood’s biggest movie directors, including Steven Spielberg, Robert Redford, Martin Scorcese and Steven Soderbergh, for the right to censor their movies, and then rent or sell the “cleaned up” videotapes.

CleanFlicks claims they have a First Amendment right to excise foul language, sexual content and violence from videos destined for private use. “The interest of these plaintiffs is to remove the ‘rough edges’ – the objectionable content – only for the family viewing audience,” CleanFlicks’ spokesman said. Their customers “personal sensitivities don’t allow them to view the unaltered work, but they appreciate the storyline or historical context and want to be able to view the movie, without having to listen to the ‘F’ word.”

With the advent of new technology a whole industry of do-it-yourself censorship has sprung up in America. For example, Trilogy Studios founder Breck Rice said that his company’s MovieMask software does not alter movie content, but instead masks offensive material on DVDs. “It’s like taking a Picasso home,” he said. “Other companies in our space are painting right on that masterpiece and permanently altering it. It’s been changed and it’s no longer a Picasso. We put a piece of cellophane over it; you can remove the cellophane, and it’s still the same painting.”

I’m not sure what Picasso would have thought about anti-Blue Period parents racing around museums, just ahead of their children, taping cellophane over his nudes. But the Directors Guild of America is mad enough to use the “F” word, and is countersuing CleanFlicks. “We are appalled at the proliferation of companies that bypass the copyright holder and the filmmaker and arbitrarily alter the creative expression and hard work of the many artists involved in filmmaking,” said director Steven Soderbergh, who is first vice president of the DGA. “It is unconscionable, and unethical, to take someone else’s hard work, alter it and profit from it. Would anyone even attempt to defend ripping pages out of a book, leaving the author’s name on it and then selling it?”

I guess Soderbergh never read one of Reader’s Digest’s abridged books. Or maybe he’s never watched any of the censored versions of movies that play almost constantly on network and cable TV, interrupted every five to ten minutes to sell us more sex, lies, and self-help videotapes. Whether the directors like it or not, technology will soon be available to filter out whatever the consumer wishes to. CleanFlicks Mormon customers happen to be afraid of, and upset by nudity and bad language. But Americans are filled with all sorts of fears. Afraid of terrorists? Simply edit them out of your news. Does John Ashcroft nauseate you? Slap a filter on your media input and you’ll never have to see or hear him whine again. Offended by overweight comedians? Banish John Goodman, Rosie O’Donnell, Chris Farley, and Jackie Gleason forever. Can’t stand smokers or alcoholics? Expunge them and their filthy habits.

Gone will be the days of searching for hours through the video store for something that you might like. You’ll just type in all your desires and interests and a tailor made entertainment will come streaming your way. Your TV and media viewing can become as carefully constructed as an ad in the personals for a roommate. “Seeking hot, young, professional, vegetarians, good at Bulgarian folk dances and cat grooming to solve murder-mystery on the high seas in 18th century period costumes.”

Freedom of the press used to only be for people who owned their own printing press. Now, with the advent of the internet it is possible for anyone to self-publish and have access to an audience of millions, although in practice the only way you can get millions of hits is if you’re self-publishing nude photos of Britney Spears. So, in America today, freedom of the press is for those who either own a press or have pictures of Britney Spears naked.

But that will all change soon, as those naked pictures continue to drive the demand for the various new filtering and censoring technologies. CleanFlicks got its start in 1998 by selling 1700 edited copies of Titanic. The only scene it censored was the one of Kate Winslet posing nude for an artist played by Leonardo DiCaprio. The holy grail of filtering software is a program that will automatically act as a parent would act, and shield children from graphic sex, violence, and bad language, while nagging them to sit up straight and finish doing their reports.

Instead, the opposite is just as likely to occur. As one movie censor software executive said, “Once software enters the marketplace, someone will figure out how to alter that program for other purposes. If a program can slap a blouse on Kate Winslet in Titanic, someone could also alter the technology to take her clothes off. And how would that play in Utah?”

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