A Whole New Meaning to ‘Additional Footage’

Very few topics get me ranting like censorship, so I was in quite a tizzy thanks to this article in the New York Times. You have to register (for free) to read it, so here’s the lead-in paragraph:

After months of watching a gradual proliferation of companies offering sanitized versions of Hollywood hits to sensitive or politically conservative consumers, movie studios and filmmakers have decided it is time to get a handle on this phenomenon.

In short, companies such as MovieMask and CleanFlicks are producing sanitized movies for a sensitive audience. They are censoring works of art and the movie studios are permitting them to do so. Why? Money. These censorware companies and the studios recognize the massive market of conservative Americans who are desperate to bowdlerize what they and their children are watching. The censorware companies sell DVDs or software at a premium price and the studios put movies in the hands of viewers that overwise wouldn’t watch them.

How does it work? The approaches vary, from creating custom edited videos to DVDs with digitally added clothing to ‘software that can be downloaded onto home computers that allows the consumer to watch more than three dozen possible versions of a movie, including the original one shown in theaters.’ The following is an example I found on the Web. In the original version of this scene from Titanic (shown on the left…I didn’t blur her chest, which rather detracts from the point), Kate Winslet is lying nude on the couch while Leo draws her. In the ‘revised’ version from MovieMask, she’s chastely wearing a blouse.

Now Titanic ain’t exactly Citizen Kane, but this is wrong on so many levels. It’s called artistic vision, folks, and it’s not to be taried with. Artists have very few rights in our culture, but presenting their art the way they intended is one of them.

Because I believe that any unauthorized change to a work of art is unforgivable, I’m reticent to address specific cases, but I can’t resist. In this case, this is a critical scene in the film’s romantic sub-plot. When Winslet’s character, Rose, exposes herself hear to Jack, it is a statement of the changes in her that he has engendered. It is Rose’s pronouncement of independence. Now it’s just a scene about the heroine getting drawn. Furthermore, the historical details of costume and scenography received exacting detail in this film. Which historian picked out Winslet’s digital ensemble? Video artist #2 or #3?

MovieMask (‘You’re gonna love it!’ says product endorser Marie Osmond) and its brethren offer sanitized versions of, among others, Fight Club, Saving Private Ryan, Schlinder’s List and Training Day. In all of these films, the violence is crucial to the artwork’s theme. Not just plot or setting,but theme–the films’ central messages. The idea of violence as therapy is at the centre of Fight Club. The first twenty-six minutes of Saving Private Ryan represent one of the most moving and powerful depictions of war in cinematic history. To cleanse them of violence is to strip them of their power. To edit Schlinder’s List, deeply disrepects the trials of the Jewish people. Without drugs, violence and foul language, Training Day is Turner & Hooch with goatees.

Much of the market for this product comes from Christians in the United States. Why do I say this? It’s espoused on Christian sites like this, CleanFlicks is based in Utah and the Moral Majority has a rich history of censorship. Why do these people want to see these films in the first place, if they’re morally dubious? So they can chat about Matt Damon around the water cooler? Tough luck. You either opt in to our culture of violence and sex or you opt out.

But that’s not true…if you’re only opposed to violence, go see My Big Fat Greek Wedding. If you’re opposed to sex and foul lanugage, you’re pretty safe watching The Bourne Identity or Panic Room. If you’re opposed to both, try The Man Who Wasn’t There or Star Wars or Shrek. Unless you’re particularly conservative, you’ve got lots of options. Exercise discretion. I do it, my mother does it and so can you. Alternately, you can suffer alone on your moral high-ground.

But that’s not true, either. There’s a massive multi-million dollar industry in Christian musicfilms and books. You can consume art for a lifetime and not hear a secular note, view a Hollywood frame or read an aetheist page. In fact, from what I can tell, the per-capita expenditure on Christian art among Christians is way above the secular average. All the more power to them.

This relates to an earlier entry on technogical solutions to social issues. Kenneth Paulson agrees with me, and sums things up nicely when he says ‘Making the hard decisions about what our children see and hear has to be the job of parents. Software is no substitute.’

Ultimately, this type of censorship is worse than banning art outright. This way, people have the impression that they’ve seen a film (why stop there? Shall we cover up Michaelangelo’s David’s naughty bits?) when they’ve seen a toothless abberation, a mere shadow of the actual artwork. To the users of MovieMask’s and CleanFlicks’s and a dozen others’ services, do everybody a favour: either watch original films that you’re comfortable with or, better yet, just throw out your TV.

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