Some short while after I accepted a professorship to teach communications in Utah, a strange business opened its doors around the corner from my new home and horrified me. It was called CleanFlicks, and the service it provided was to edit out the "dirty" parts of Hollywood movies for conservative audiences who wanted to watch them but didn't want to look at naked breasts or hear the word "fuck."
The business was a commercial success, but was named in a lawsuit, along with a number of similar businesses, by a group of major Hollywood studios and the Directors Guild of America for copyright violation. CleanFlicks and the others lost their case in federal court and were forced out of business. But, one of the CleanFlicks franchise owners stubbornly re-opened his store in the same location, under a different name, Flix Club, in a defiant, publicly supported act of conservative-media activism and radical civil disobedience. The local authorities never shut him down. The otherwise law-abiding patrons in Utah County kept on renting his illegally edited films.
On it went for over a year after the court case, until one day, the owner, Daniel Thompson, was arrested for paying two 14-year-old girls for sexual favors. Alcohol and Lortab pills were also found on the premises, and the Daily Herald reported that, along with the sex acts, Thompson told the girls that Flix Club was a front for pornographic film production and distribution.
It is difficult not to make jokes and wry observations. The story is so deliciously lurid, Freudian and full of irony. Talk about the return of the repressed. Poor Daniel Thompson. Perhaps he was right all along. Watching all those dirty scenes over and over will pervert one's mind. Maybe he sacrificed his own psycho-sexual health so the rest of us could safely remain non-pedophilic monogamists. He's like Marie Curie. Or Jesus. He got perverted for our sins, and his sacrifice means we can all watch clean movies and not get depraved, like he did.
After his arrest, the same conservative customers who once went to Thompson to have him illegally edit steamy scenes out of their R-rated movies eagerly devoured explicit accounts of his X-rated escapades in their daily newspapers, continuing to enjoy their moral superiority while savoring every unseemly detail of his multiple transgressions. For the liberals in Utah, the cost of a morning paper was only 50 cents, but the pleasure in watching an anti-sex hypocrite hoisted with his own repressively prudish petard? Priceless.
But that story is unfair, incomplete and belies the vexing challenges of the CleanFlicks phenomenon. Should people be able to choose to watch movies with nudity or vulgar language removed if they want to? Different cherished freedoms are at odds over the question: The freedom of expression of artists and their control of their work are poised against the freedom of expression of audiences and their freedom to use their property freely, even if the original owner who sold it to them doesn't like the way they use it. It is also tangled up with the practice of fair use of cultural texts by other artists, such as sampling in hip-hop or parody in comedy.
Something else is at stake, too. It has to do with our collective relationships to culture, our worldviews and views of human nature. It is about the psycho/erotic/social/symbolic relationships that are intertwined with politics, big and small, from the micro-disciplinary pressures of daily community life to the macro-legitimating strategies of religious and cultural authority. Agreeing to participate as a consumer in the edited-movie business--which many, many people do--entails agreeing with and consenting to a lot of other things as well, things that are bound up with the lives of all of us, even those who think the whole CleanFlicks enterprise is utterly absurd and has nothing to do with them.
I love movies and I hate censorship, and the fact that CleanFlicks was cutting things out of movies in a misguided attempt to improve their morality, and that was where my new neighbors and students voluntarily went to rent their movies, filled me with dread.
It was like waking up in a Twilight Zone episode in which a group of well-intentioned people, thinking they were ensuring their safety or that of their children in the face of some infectious threat, sacrificed an important part of their humanity to live in an antiseptic dystopia so sterile it threatened to exterminate not just the pests they feared, but all the people, too.
I was repulsed and fascinated. I walked into the store one day and spoke with the manager. We were interrupted by a customer who had a question. The two of them proceeded to have a serious discussion about the artistic merits of some movies. The manager dispensed advice with the self-assured confidence of Roger Ebert. The customer acted like a discerning connoisseur of fine wine. The movies they talked about were crap. I couldn't stand it and had to leave.
The incident was part of the initial cultural vertigo I experienced when I first moved to Utah, a significant underscore to the first time I emptied a classroom when I showed a movie. I had taught at four different universities in three different states (Illinois, Michigan and Alaska) before moving to Utah. Always, before I showed a movie in class, I offered that if a student did not want to watch the movie, he or she did not have to. It had always been a cautious courtesy, a "just in case" sort of thing, like buckling a seat belt for a crash you never expect to have. I never had students actually take me up on it, let alone half of them before a movie had started, and the rest as the film played.
I was shocked and hurt my first semester at Utah Valley University when students walked out while I was showing University of Massachusetts professor Sut Jhally's documentary Advertising and the End of the World. It is not even an R-rated movie. It analyzes sexually suggestive ads from print and broadcast television, in part by juxtaposing them--one erotically charged ad after the other--to demonstrate the conventions of advertising, and it sent my students fleeing.
For a pop culture guy like me, who had turned my love of media into a profession and taken a job in Utah to share whatever I had to share about it, the whole CleanFlicks/R-rated movie thing was deeply disturbing and bizarre. Where was I? Mayberry, 1955? I hated the idea that some self-appointed moral guardian with a business license in Orem would take a perfectly good movie and edit out the swear words, nude scenes and whatever else he found offensive, and that people, in America, would go watch that movie instead of the original version and think something moral had happened.
I thought about it a lot--my students voluntarily getting their movies from CleanFlicks, as if that choice, that moment in which they become responsible for their own repression, would be the key somehow to unlocking their perspectives, their psyches, their experiences of the world and their senses of themselves within it.
Talking about CleanFlicks and R-rated movies became a regular ritual of perspective exchange in my introduction to media studies classes. It was a way for all of us--professor and students--to examine our assumptions about our relations to media. Inevitably, a familiar argument would play out.
"The prophet tells us not to watch R-rated movies."
"Actually," I would say, "my understanding is that the prophet suggests you generally avoid them, but also that you exercise your own judgment. I agree, because most movies suck."
"It's better just to be safe and not watch any of them."
I try and try, and fail and fail, to take their perspective. "So, what are you afraid is going to happen if you watch an R-rated movie?"
"Those images go in and you can't get them out. It affects the way you think. It will desensitize you to the real thing."
"The real thing?"
"Do you all read romance novels and watch romantic movies?"
"Does that desensitize you to romance?"
"It's not the same thing!"
And that is failure No. 1: stop trying to win an argument for a while and try to take their perspective again. I acknowledge the philosophical tradition of their reasoning. It goes back to Plato. He didn't like poetry and stories. He thought audiences were like children, their minds mesmerized by the images of poetry and their rationality captured and subdued by the emotions of drama. He thought such frivolities, which focused the mind on things other than the exercise of pure reason, were damaging to the psyche.
His student, Aristotle, rebelled and argued that people's minds were not in fact "captured" by stories and imagery, that people know the difference between "mimesis" and reality, and that challenging, complex narratives offer opportunities to exercise other aspects of the mind, like perspective-taking, moral judgment in novel situations, and the ability to proximately confront fear or terror. But even the relatively liberal Aristotle did not have an "anything goes" approach to cultural criticism. He recognized a special significance of art for the mind and thought that moral care should be practiced in its execution.
Films that make the heart race have long been feared to have special effects on the mind. I tell my own story. I was 11 years old when the book and then the movie Jaws came out. It was the first "adult" novel I ever read. It scared the crap out of me. Then the movie came out, and my friends and I went to see it two or three times together. It thrilled and terrified me. It gave me nightmares.
My family took a vacation to Florida soon after. I could hardly wait to swim in the ocean. As soon as I could, I jumped in the water and started swimming. Then I started thinking of shark attacks and getting eaten, and got scared, really scared, panicked, and swam to the shore. Then I stood on the shore, with my heart pounding, telling myself that there were no sharks. I got my courage up and ventured into the surf again. Then I became frightened of sharks and swam to shore again. Again and again.
I remember feeling afraid of sharks in the hotel's pool, swimming in the pool at night, panicking and swimming like hell to the edge, thinking a shark was bearing down on me, scrambling out of the pool, and quickly looking behind me, certain I would see a dark dorsal fin gliding through my wake. I had nightmares of being torn apart by sharks on that vacation and would wake up screaming. One night, I heard my father say he wished I had never seen that movie, and I thought, "But I love that movie!" And I did.
Eventually, I overcame those irrational shark fears. I would call it part of my cognitive and emotional maturation, learning how to mentally manage film and other media. I grant my students the need to protect children. "But we're adults," I remind them. And when they press me on it, I tell them, no, I don't think we should edit Jaws for kids to watch. I figure most kids should just wait until they are around 11 or 12 to watch it, have some nightmares and deal with them.
With examples like that, I get past my original sense that the CleanFlicks endeavor is beyond all reason. I acknowledge that the media have influences and effects. Of course. But not in a simple, "cause/effect" sort of way. People don't watch certain movies, listen to certain music or play certain video games, and then get "caused" to do particular things like shoot up their local high school, Columbine-style.
My students are genuinely worried about their mental health and the well-being of their communities. I advocate that culture should be challenging, and I remember that these students are challenged by culture. It's a challenge I don't like, just like R-rated movies and sexual references in PG-13 movies are challenges they don't like. So, I sort of go there, for a while, really trying to be sympathetic. But my sympathy doesn't stick. Before long, I'm back trying to change them, instead of understanding them.
"If you don't want to see the movie, don't see it! But, taking something out? It's crazy. You'll miss something important. The narrative will have a hole in it. How about if I remove a few parts from your car's engine? You don't want that Chinese fan belt infecting the rest of the motor with its totalitarian socialism, do you?"
One of my students once interjected, "What difference does it make to you if we watch edited movies?"
Now, that was a good question. It should not make any difference to me--no more than it makes a difference to me, a vegetarian, what someone else eats. I am not against some else's right to eat meat just because I choose not to. And I know that my soy-based porkless "bacon" isn't authentic bacon. It is not the same, and, for other people, they cannot see why I bother. Why not just eat a piece of bacon if I want something that tastes like bacon? But, that's the thing--I want something that tastes like bacon that isn't bacon. Someone else wants something that is like Pulp Fiction, but that isn't Pulp Fiction. It should not bother me, and yet, it drives me bonkers. It's not just that I refuse to watch edited movies. It's that I don't want others to watch them, either.
"The problem is, editing 'goddamn' out of a good movie blasphemes my religion," I answered. "I worship art and culture. Films are sacred. A movie, as it was produced, distributed, and collectively experienced at a certain time in history, is authentic as it is. Any edit is a shameful destruction of something worth preserving."
"Films are edited for airplanes and television," the students counter.
"I don't like that, either! Never watch a movie on an airplane or broadcast television!"
Art steals from art all the time. That's how it works. Hip-hop samples. Comedy satirizes. Every example of genre fiction--romance, Western, tragedy, whatever--is a total rip-off. Those plot lines and characters were invented by others and used a thousand times again before they were appropriated, and slightly changed, in the hands of a new "author."
In French semiotician Roland Barthes' famous essay "The Death of the Author," he describes every text as being, essentially, "a fabric of quotations." All movies, like all texts, are essentially fabrics of quotations, with no original author who came up with everything in it. Who invented this particular narrative structure? That type of plot device? This common sort of character? It goes on and on. Quentin Tarantino learned to make movies by watching other people's movies. Pulp Fiction did not emerge, sui generis, from his mind.
I tell my students I want them to watch real, authentic movies, the way they were "meant" to be seen. Yet I know the "real," "authentic," movies I love, by Tarantino, James Cameron, the Coen brothers, etc., are not pure expressions of their artistic visions. They are compromised products of a commercial industry, shaped by the interests of executives, structured by the institutions in which they operate, and contorted to the demands of the markets they serve.
Yet, I cling to my own myths of authority and authenticity--Tarantino's authority, Martin Scorsese's authority, the authorities I like and feel comfortable with, that support my worldview and my comfortable place in it--just like my students do. And my myths are just as convenient for me as theirs are for them. I want the authentic experience of the film preserved, but I don't mind watching it on DVD on my television at home. Is the film I watch at home the same as the one I watch in the theater, on a real movie screen, the way it was "meant" to be seen? No, it's not. But I don't have a problem with that. And yes, I think I watched the movie. But really, I didn't. But I think I did.
I know my stories are fictions but, somehow, I live my life convinced, deeply, that my fictions are better than theirs: my false truths less falsely true; my partial knowledge less partial. And even writing this, knowing it is not really true, I believe it to be true. I am as comfortable with my authority and my fictions as they are with theirs. I am right. And in my righteousness, I impose my "authentic" interpretations on them, my authoritative definition of what a film means and how it was meant to be seen. Suddenly, I'm their oppressor, in the absurd position of wanting to insist that they look at naked titties. "Look at them! Look at them!" I imagine shouting. Is that freedom?
The idea of "the death of the author" is really about the discovery of the audience as the source of meaning. It's all about interpretation. Movies mean what people think they mean. Whatever else it may be, this new, conservative, "viewer-freedom movement," represented by CleanFlicks, is also a type of anti-authoritarian revolution on the part of the audience, asserting their values on films over and against the corporations (or "auteurs") that produced them.
But the "death of the author" also implies that the meanings of words and images are in people, at the moment and in the context of their interpretation, while clean-movie editing is based on the idea that the meanings of words and images are in the symbols themselves, fixed and stable across time, context and audience members. Thus, some words are good--here, there, now and always--and some words are bad--here, there, now and always. That's why they call them "bad words." The theory is that certain words and images have bad meanings and create bad thoughts, regardless of their contexts. They must, otherwise, the whole enterprise, of allowing this word but excluding that word (yes to "Jesus," but no to "penis"), would be entirely absurd.
Language codes (like George Carlin's famous list of the seven dirty words you can't say on TV) don't work because language doesn't work that way. The meanings of words don't stand still long enough for us to put them into boxes with their meanings affixed like postage stamps. When a would-be verbal prison guard attempts to lock up a word, he doesn't touch its meaning. Put a word in a box and its meaning leaks right out. Can't say "sex"? Let's just call it "rock & roll." Can't say "sexy"? I'll just say, "that girl over there, she's got it." Are they going to banish the word "it"?
Above all else, CleanFlicks presents an attempt to police sexual expression and desire organized around the "clean/dirty" dichotomy. But the idea of "clean movies" and "dirty movies" is a fairy tale for children. It is as real as the Easter Bunny. There is no objective or moral science there. Words and images don't have objective or scientific meanings. They have subjective, cultural meanings. They are contextual. People, with particular values, histories, vocabularies, patterns of cultural taste, etc., interpret them, in relation to a whole range of elements, inside the texts and out.
But there is no room for interpretation in the consumption of "cleaned" films. Indeed, interpretation is over. Cleaned films are more than sanitized. They are pre-digested. Regardless of the intentions and moral rhetoric associated with the practice of editing movies, it doesn't protect us from immoral things that are dirty. It cedes moral responsibility to a video editor, who makes sexuality shameful and unspeakable.
CleanFlicks and the whole model of storefront-edited movie services may be gone, but the practice of selectively editing movies to fix their morality is here to stay. That genie is out of the bottle, thanks to new digital technologies (and the Family Movie Act) that allow automated editing of movies at the moment of playback. So this complex and contradictory viewer-freedom revolution continues in other forms, somehow managing to be both democratic and disempowering, anti-authoritarian and hyper-authoritarian, all at once--a paradox of freedom and control, anarchy and surveillance--a perfect emblem of our conflicted culture and confusing times.
This story first appeared in the Salt Lake City Weekly