Larry McMurtry's public appearance in San Antonio about a dozen years ago was an exceptionally dismal event. He chose to read only death scenes from Terms of Endearment, The Last Picture Show, Lonesome Dove, and other novels. The author was of course entitled to select from his work as he pleased. I own copies of McMurtry's books, and I am entitled to make different selections, even to scribble at will on the texts. If I do not like a passage I can even rip it out. However, I have no right to rip the author off; if I tried to market copies of Lonesome Dove with death scenes omitted, I would be violating McMurtry's copyright. For the past two-and-a-half years, someone has been cutting up hundreds of movies without permission of their makers, in a practice that raises vexing questions about copyright and moral right.
CleanFlicks LLC, a company based in Pleasant Grove, Utah, is dedicated to converting movies rated PG-13, R, and NC-17 into wholesome PG entertainment. "Our mission," declares their Web site, CleanFlicks.com, "is to provide access to Hollywood entertainment free from objectionable elements, thus helping maintain high moral values." Elements they find objectionable are nudity, sexual activity, vulgar language, and violence. CleanFlicks edits these toxins out and distributes copies of the doctored films to video rental stores who license their service. In July, a similar operation, Video II, began supplying E-rated (i.e, edited) videos to 46 Albertson's stores in Utah. Neither CleanFlicks nor Video II has tried to remove the violence from Quentin Tarantino or the profanity from David Mamet, lest they be left with nothing but closing credits, listing a cast and crew not responsible for the evisceration.
CleanFlicks has already created an inventory of 435 bowdlerized titles, which it supplies to 80 stores in 18 states, including Texas. Shops in Plano and Spring provide a foothold in the Lone Star State for a movement intent on bringing raunchy moviemakers to their knees. "Our goal is to have a CleanFlicks dealer in every community," states the Web site. They accomplished that goal, after a fashion, when in August CleanFlicks launched its internet distributor, MyCleanFlicks.com, at which a finicky viewer can order sanitized DVDs for delivery by mail. No one anywhere need ever sit through smut or bloodshed again. Of course, no one, not even a theater manager, is ever obliged to watch a Showgirls or Terminator.
The CleanFlicks campaign might appear a clear-cut case of Puritans vs. Artists, one in which the Puritans include pious opportunists camouflaging themselves in sanctimony while pirating someone else's property. Yet the moral and legal issues are not so tidy. The CleanFlicks stores, like the internet service, operate as movie clubs. Participants pay a membership fee in order to gain access to laundered inventory. MyCleanFlicks.com charges $22.85 per month, which entitles subscribers to an unlimited supply of flicks, no more than two DVDs at a time. They then can claim that the altered films are communal private property. If a few of us decide to pool expenses and create our own library, we may do what we want with the books we purchase. If I choose to rip out the death scenes in Lonesome Dove before passing our copy to you, no one outside our collective, not even McMurtry, has the right to stop me. So CleanFlicks can contend that copies of the movies it modifies already belong to their viewers. "As owners of the original, unedited movies, the Co-op has the right to edit out content that is objectionable to its members," explains MyCleanFlicks.com. If I want to eliminate images of Grumpy from my personal copy of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, I surely have the right. Does that right evaporate if several of us share ownership?
Another strategy designed to ensure that no picture ever brings a blush to a maiden's cheek is being pursued by MovieSheld, a company based in Greeley, Colorado. For $240, they offer software that can filter out any of eight different categories of objectionable material, including "vain references to the deity," "sexual situations," "immodesty," and "gore." MovieMask, software marketed by Trilogy Studios, allows the amateur censor to program dozens of possible variations. Both companies can legitimately claim they are not actually altering the films, merely providing consumers with the means to skip over parts they do not like that the masking software is just an enhanced form of the fast-forward and volume controls. No one who buys a copy of War and Peace is obliged to read every word on every page. MovieMask and MovieShield are sophisticated aids to skimming. If they are also skimming profits from Hollywood producers, is it not a consumer's right to consume only part of a purchase? Mars Candy Company would not dream of taking me to court if I swallowed only the red M&Ms and tossed out all the rest.
Yet the technology that makes it possible to transform an R-rated movie into a G could also be turned in the other direction, to repackage Bambi as a stag film. What is to prevent a company, calling itself DirtyFlicks, from taking existing movies and adding profanity, nudity, sex, and violence? MovieMask has already signed a contract with a product-placement company, meaning that we could soon be seeing Oskar Schindler eating M&Ms. If that is hard to swallow, we could probably find software to filter out at least the orange M&Ms.
On August 20, the Web site for the Directors Guild of America posted information about legal action the DGA intended to pursue against CleanFlicks and other unauthorized bowdlerizers. The posting was apparently premature, because it was soon withdrawn. But on August 29, Clean Flicks of Colorado, a licensee that operates two stores in Colorado and six in Idaho, filed suit in Federal District Court in Denver against 16 prominent directors. The defendants include Robert Altman, John Landis, Sydney Pollack, Robert Redford, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, and Irwin Winkler. This was (according to Pete Webb, publicist for Clean Flicks of Colorado) a preemptive strike against the DGA, designed, he told me, to elicit a declaratory ruling on whether CleanFlicks' practices are protected by both the fair use doctrine of copyright law and the First Amendment. Movies are often edited for TV and airlines, and Webb contends his company has the right to do the same. He expects a lengthy jury trial and, whatever the verdict, an appeal. "This is just the first chapter of a screenplay," he said.
It seems a clever one, but is it worth producing? If John Dixon, president of CleanFlicks, is so squeamish about violence and profanity in Saving Private Ryan, why did he bother editing it and passing it off as Spielberg's famous film? Why not make his own? Webb admits that part of his plan is to pressure Hollywood into producing more G and PG movies in the first place. But one should not expect a depiction of D-Day to be especially decorous. War, after all, is heck. Sneak attacks by self-appointed censors are, to put it primly, feculent.