CleanFlix [Documentary]: Review & Analysis

In the 1980s, Mormon prophet and LDS church president Ezra Taft Benson famously counseled the young men of his church to avoid watching R-rated films:

Consider carefully the words of the prophet Alma to his errant son, Corianton, “Forsake your sins, and go no more after the lusts of your eyes.” [1]

“The lusts of your eyes.” In our day, what does that expression mean?

Movies, television programs, and video recordings that are both suggestive and lewd . . .

We counsel you, young men, not to pollute your minds with such degrading matter, for the mind through which this filth passes is never the same afterwards. Don’t see R-rated movies or vulgar videos or participate in any entertainment that is immoral, suggestive, or pornographic. [2]

Though his words were directed at young men specifically, in practice, they became applied to church members in general. So began the cultural Mormon phenomenon of shunning R-rated films, in America, at least. Mormons would be far from the only religious conservatives to take issue with the graphic content of modern-day films based on MPAA ratings. For example, in the late 90s, evangelical author and speaker John Bevere offered the following counsel to Christians:

Most believers as well as conservative Americans think nothing of viewing a typical PG-13 movie as long as it does not have excessive profanity or nudity. However, many of these movies, while they don’t have excessive profanity or nudity, are filled with disrespect, anger, hatred, violence, or implied extramarital affairs. Many believers will view such ungodly behavior without a second thought.

Yet let’s take that same PG-13-rated movie and show it to the people of this country in the 1940s. What would have been their reaction? Most would have been horrified at the contents! What has happened? The lines of conservative America have shifted, and the church’s lines have moved with them. [3]

A dilemma emerges for religious conservatives though: how can one be engaged with the larger culture one lives in whilst abstaining from such an important slice of that culture? Movies can be a huge part of how we interact with one another and the world around us. To have to turn down every conversation with a friend who says, “Have you seen The Matrix?” with, “No, I haven’t, I don’t watch R-rated films” is a very unsatisfying option for many people. Is there a way to maintain one’s ideological standards whilst staying relevant to the larger American culture?

In the late 90s, a Utah-based company named CleanFlicks [4] rose up to offer a solution to this dilemma. Though some video stores in Utah had been quietly providing edited films for some time, as had Brigham Young University’s Varsity Theater, it was CleanFlicks that mass-marketed the concept of edited, “clean” PG-13 and R-rated films for sale and rent. CleanFlicks’ goal was to “clean up” these movies so that they no longer contained obscene language, graphic violence, nudity, or sexual content. Many Latter-day Saints felt that it was not a violation of their late prophet’s counsel to watch an R-rated film that had been cleaned up. The CleanFlicks business thrived, and many copycat stores sprung up to get in on a piece of that success.

CleanFlix is an attempt at documenting the rise and fall of this industry, from its inception in the late 90s to its demise at the hands of the court systems in 2007. This commendably even-handed documentary features interviews with CleanFlicks founders Ray Lines and Allen Erb, as well as other edited movie dealers, store owners, and video editors such as Scott Nybo, Daniel Dean Thompson, and Robert Perry. Numerous unnamed customers and friends of key players are interviewed as well, many of them Latter-day Saints who passionately describe their love of these edited films and their desire to separate themselves from the “trash” found in unedited films. Though it might have been easy to poke fun at a group of adults showing angst over watching films like Kindergarten Cop, CleanFlix is always respectful of the faith and goals of its interview subjects. On the pro-edited-movies side of things, dealers such as Lines and Erb reason that the movie companies already provide edited versions of their films for foreign countries, airlines and television, to the extent of sometimes filming alternate scenes or recording alternate lines of dialogue for these versions, so why shouldn’t edited movies be accessible to the general public?

On the other side of the conflict, directors and writers such as Neil Labute, Richard Dutcher, Curtis Hanson, and Michael Mann are interviewed. Representing the general viewpoint of the Director’s Guild of America, one director passionately exclaims, “To alter these films with our names still on them is not only fraud, it’s artistic rape.” Numerous comparisons are made between the normal version of films and the CleanFlicks versions, showing just how badly these scenes are sometimes distorted through the editing process. At other times, the idiosyncrasies of the Mormon editors become clear. For example, the documentary points out that the infamously horrific “dead-leg-in-wood-chipper” scene was not removed from the CleanFlicks version of Fargo, while a rather innocuous dialogue about circumcision was. [5]

Inevitably these two sides clashed in court, and CleanFlicks lost. All edited movie dealers were ordered to liquidate their stock and close up shop. Some dealers defiantly remained open, believing they were operating under certain legal loopholes, or that the 1890 manifesto 2006 court ruling was not directed at them specifically. Eventually the courts had to issue a “second manifesto” and get serious about cracking down on those who were still marketing edited films.

Initially just one voice amongst numerous CleanFlicks store owners, Daniel Dean Thompson gradually emerges as something of a star in this film. Charismatic and publicity-happy, Thompson participated in numerous television commercials and radio spots, becoming the public face of CleanFlicks even though he had no official affiliation with Lines or Erb and only owned or managed a few stores in the Happy Valley area. After the initial court ruling against CleanFlicks, Thompson was one of those who chose to re-open his store under a different name and continue selling and renting out edited movies. Scandal and tragedy struck in 2007 when Thompson and his friend, Isaac Lifferth, were accused of paying two 14 year-old girls to perform sex acts on them. Police searched Thompson’s Orem store and found a large quantity of pornography in the back rooms. [6]

In telling this tale, CleanFlix adopts a serious and straightforward tone, preferring to let each person being interviewed tell his or her own story and make his or her own arguments. Neutral analysis and commentary is provided by two Utah Valley University professors, David Knowlton and Philip Sherwin Gordon. My only complaint about the film is that key events are sometimes relayed via a block of white text on the screen, with no vocal narration. I think the film could have benefited from a narrator for these parts. I also think the film could have afforded to be a tad more playful with its subject matter. Nevertheless, it is a well-crafted documentary which should prove interesting to anyone who is interested in film, in Mormonism, or in copyright law.

As the film unfolded this story to me, I was struck by two things. One was the obtuse indignation of the Hollywood directors, who insist that they will not make edited versions of their films for conservative religious consumers because there is “no market” for such a thing. If the rise and fall of CleanFlicks has proven anything, it’s that this is far from the case, and the directors are saying “no” to good money. I would be sympathetic to the directors’ cries of “artistic rape” were it not for the fact that so many of them produce edited versions of these films for other markets. The issue here seems to be one of consent, and we already know that the DGA “puts out” edited versions of its films for airlines and foreign countries like a drunk girl on prom night. Why, then, does it shy away from the advances of religious conservatives?

At the same time, I found myself shaking my head in disgust at what I’ll call the smarmy entitlement displayed by CleanFlicks producers and consumers. I do not fault anyone for trying the CleanFlicks venture once; that was fair game, and I commend the original founders of CleanFlicks for getting out of it when they did (i.e. after the first court ruling). It is the fact that so many Utah entrepreneurs continued marketing edited movies, even after the courts told them to stop, that rubs me wrong. Some of them did this under the quixotic belief that they were engaged in civil disobedience, sticking it to “the man” by continuing to hawk their schlocky edited films in BYU parking lots. If the producers and directors would not give them edited movies, then they would rise up and take them! Or so the reasoning goes.

Sorry, but that is not how the world works. No one has a God-given right to an edited copy of Kill Bill: Vol. 1, and Hollywood producers and directors are not obligated to give that to anyone. The creators of artistic content get to say who they will do business with and how. That they choose not to do it CleanFlicks’ way does not give anyone the right to break the law and sell illegal edited versions of their films. That they are thumbing their noses at a good chance at making money in favor of faux artistic purity also does not give anyone the right to sell illegal versions of their films.

In conclusion, I heartily recommend CleanFlix for anyone interested in thoughtful discussion of a cultural Utah phenomenon that involves “sex, violence, Mormons and movies.”

Grade: B+

(NOTE: The DVD comes with two versions of the film, a “clean” version and an unrated version. The only difference between them is that the clean version bleeps out profanity and blurs out nudity, a feature that I was grateful for, since I do have a young child in the home. Special features include deleted scenes and directors’ commentary. Available in DVD and instant video form at Amazon.com.)

Notes:

[1] Alma 39:9.

[2] Ezra Taft Benson, “To the ‘Youth of Noble Birthright,'” Ensign, May 1986, <http://www.lds.org/ensign/1986/05/to-the-youth-of-the-noble-birthright?lang=eng>.

[3] John Bevere, A Heart Ablaze (Nashville, Tenn.: Nelson Books, 1999), 85.

[4] For the purposes of this article, CleanFlicks can refer to (1) the actual CleanFlicks franchise, or (2) the entire movement of edited movie stores, whether they be Clean Films, Flix Club, Movie Mask, Cougar Video, etc. In contrast, CleanFlix refers just to the documentary under discussion, even though there was at least one store actually called “CleanFlix.”

[5] Scene available on YouTube here. Warning: it really is horrific.

[6] Note that, in the wake of the scandal, many news outlets errantly described Thompson as a founder or co-founder of CleanFlicks or the owner of the entire franchise. This was not the case. He owned or managed just a few stores in the Happy Valley area.

Comments

CleanFlix [Documentary]: Review & Analysis — 11 Comments

  1. It seems to me that for people to avoid rated R movies might have the unintended affect of being out of touch with the broader culture. It’s one thing to not be ‘of the world’ but this seems to make Mormons ‘isolated from the world’.

  2. During my time at BYU (’92-’99), the counsel not to watch rated R movies was starting to be taken increasingly seriously by the faculty. I recall one professor in Comparative Literature offered an excellent film course in which he assigned rated R films, which, of course, were real works of art, not popcorn movies. Some students, who voluntarily signed up for the course, started to complain about the fact that he was having students watch movies that the prophet had counseled against. At the time, I had begun to feel that the whole movie prohibition was pretty silly, given the fact that not every rated R film is created equal, and the standards that set the ratings are fairly arbitrary, so I was happy to see him pushing back a little. I must add that I did not take the course, nor was I privy to all of the details, so it may be that I am getting some of this wrong.

    Anyhow, eventually this professor decided to follow the prophet’s counsel. This was a phenomenon that I saw time and again. A BYU professor would chafe at what seemed to be a burdensome or irrational ecclesiastical demand, only to submit or leave. At about the same time, there was a controversy over the university’s art museum editing the Rodin exhibit. Evidently, some citizens of Provo got up in arms over the artistic nudity on public display, and they were registering their complaints with local government officials and the university over it, leading to classic works of art being removed.

    My wife (then girlfriend) and I went to see the edited results. It was clear that male nudity was what had been deemed offensive, for the lovely form of woman was still on public display. A sculpture of John the Baptist had been removed because, evidently, showing a prophet’s male genitals was disrespectful to the priesthood. As a student in the Humanities, I found the whole thing lamentable, and I have not changed my mind about that. I attended a meeting of members of the faculty with BYU administrators and museum representatives to discuss their disagreement over the editing of the exhibit. I recall the gentle but morally powerful presence of Eugene England, who was very much a leader among the faculty voicing discontent over the editing of the exhibit. It was not long thereafter that he left BYU.

    It was clear that the discussion was primarily about letting the faculty and students blow off steam, but that nothing about the decision would be revisited. As a student, I felt like the whole meeting was absurd, inasmuch as it was obvious that the faculty were being treated like children in the matter.

    Overall, I would say that the Merrill Bateman years at BYU are well summarized by that last sentence. As a longtime student of the university, who taught courses as a graduate student, I heard a fair amount of discontent coming from the faculty concerning these matters and other issues of a more administrative and financial nature. One wonders whether it was in fact the spirit of these times that set up the conditions that ultimately paved the way for the dismemberment of FARMS. Centralization and institutional control were at a premium in those times. Independent voices were being quashed or co-opted in various ways.

    For me, the interesting story here is one of the powerful combination of ecclesiastical pronouncement and the popular response to it. At BYU it was often students or parents who put pressure on the university, its administrators, and its faculty to conform to their sometimes unforgiving interpretation of LDS leaders’ pronouncements. Of course, that interpretation was not unfounded; the faculty could be seen as fudging in isolated cases. I just found that I usually agreed with the faculty. I did not think that a ban on R-rated films made much sense. I thought the double-standard for dealing with nudity was ridiculous, and that editing artistic nudity as found in the Rodin exhibit represented a kind of hyper-moralistic hysteria.

    Now I appreciate better the fact that such standards are probably best treated like the Word of Wisdom by those who try to live by the counsel of LDS leaders. The standard itself is bound to be arbitrary to a certain degree, because no rule will cover every circumstance perfectly. One can adhere to the letter of these things in order to practice strict obedience (an exercise that is not all that bad for taming the ego) or make one’s own choices that seek to realize the spirit of the law. (“Is this film rated R because it is lewd or because we don’t want children to see bodies mangled on the battlefield?”)

    What happens too often is strife between people who approach such matters differently. Iron-rodders view Liahonas as libertines, while Liahonas see Iron-rodders as missing the higher spiritual point of things, or as simply being fascists. What I would love to see is everyone exercising a greater deal of charity and less willingness to give free rein to the “unruly member” (the tongue) in chastising each other. Even now in the blogosphere, a professor at BYU has posted a list defining the minimal standards for claiming to be Mormon, because, I suppose, he doesn’t believe that the Church is pruning the vineyard closely enough. On the other had you have angry folks who lampoon and criticize every last thing the LDS Church does or stands for. Sometimes, I wish people would just chill out and give each other a break.

    While this may seem like an odd response to this film review, I think a lot of the same psychological forces are at play. Unfortunately for the Cleanflix folks, the law was not on their side, however enterprising their ambitions or wholesome their intentions were. And, although I do not sympathize with the attitudes the directors appear to have demonstrated, they do have the right to control their intellectual and artistic property according to the law. The Cleanflix business was most definitely in keeping with the spirit of the times in Happy Valley.

  3. Great write-up, I’ll definitely be checking this out. I actually knew one of the guys that ended up doing time for underage sex from back in the day and I remember the media narrative at the time was a bit off so it will be interesting to see how it plays out in this documentary.

    When it comes to the copyright laws concerning music and movies I come down on the side of the Utah entrepreneurs. It’s not so much that I feel entitled to a certain product as it is I don’t think they should be able to control how I use a product that I have already purchased (when you bought a Clean Flicks movie, it came with an original DVD along with a burned copy of it minus the naughty bits). If I bought a replica statue of Michelangelo’s David and then took off his schwanz with a Dremel am I guilty of a crime other than really bad taste?

  4. I think if you’re trying to watch an edited version of Kill Bill, you’re probably watching the wrong movie to begin with.

  5. There is still at least one Utah-based company, ClearPlay, that’s in the business of editing films. The company sells its own DVD player that edits films on the fly (based on a filter purchased by subscription). Because no duplicate of the film is produced, there’s no copyright problem. I’d be curious to know how many subscribers the company has and to what extent it customer base is non-LDS. (I know nobody who uses it.) The company markets itself internationally, in the Middle East among other places, so I suspect that a significant part of its user base is Muslim.

    I haven’t heard much mention of the R “prohibition” recently in a church context, although one of my children attending BYU-Idaho tells me that many students there won’t attend R-rated films (not available in town in any case, as the theater there won’t show them).

    I remember a few years ago when my ward had an unhappy bishop after a couple people mentioned during a testimony meaning how their testimonies of the Atonement were strengthened by watching “The Passion of the Christ.” That created some hard feelings for a while.

  6. #2 Patrick ~ The culture debate and how to be “in the world” but not “of it” is definitely something that tends to be ever-present on the evangelical mind. Maybe less so the Mormon mind, but this was an attempt by some Mormons to be engaged with the “cultural zeitgeist” that is modern cinema.

    Or maybe Mormons just wanted to indulge in good movies without the “smut.” ;)

    #3 Trevor ~ I appreciate that you took the time to share your story at length. I felt that this review was long enough as it was, so I couldn’t work in my own story, but I’m someone who has been all over the spectrum on what I will and will not watch. Growing up, my parents let me watch just about anything I wanted. The People Under the Stairs at age 9? Yup, that was me. I quickly became de-sensitized to all kinds of sex, language, and violence in film. At age 17, I read John Bevere’s book and “rebelled” against my upbringing, pledging not to watch PG-13 or R-rated movies, and that was my state of mind when I arrived on the BYU campus a few years later. Yes, that’s right, I had one-up’ed Provo Mormons on cinematic righteousness. /evangelicalmuscleflex

    Things began to change for me as a student at BYU. For one thing, I sort of came to regard my fellow students as hypocrites. Many Mormon students there stalwartly refused to watch what I would call “soft R” films like The Matrix or masterpieces like Schindler’s List, but they would watch any raunchy PG-13-rated fare that came along. I walked in one day to the sight of my roommates watching Zoolander, with Ben Stiller’s exaggerated erection waggling around under a sheet, and thought, “You won’t watch The Matrix, but you’ll watch this?” It seemed to me that many Mormons kept the letter of the law, but not the spirit of it.

    The other problem was CleanFlicks itself. DH and I had a membership there once we became engaged, since DH refused to watch R-rated films at the time, so I became very familiar with their products, and some of their edits were truly terrible. I remember going home to Washington state to visit my folks, where I had the chance to see their copy of Terminator 3. I liked it well enough to want to show it to my husband, so I rented the CleanFlicks copy upon my return to Provo. They took out the dumbest stuff, like the scene where Claire Danes is woken up in the middle of the night by a phone call, requiring her to make an emergency trip to her veterinary clinic. She was wearing a tasteful nightgown, and there was no sex going on, but I guess they took it out because she was sleeping in the same bed as her fiance. Apparently Mormons need to be shielded from even the existence of pre-marital sex. Later, in her confrontation with John Connor, she asks how much of a certain medicine he took. He asks why, and she replies, “Because this is the stuff we use to chemically neuter dogs.” That line was removed as well. That’s right, snappy dialogue about chemically neutering dogs is also too much for Mormons to handle.

    I realized that it was probably a bad idea to be letting someone else impose their ideals of what is and is not acceptable in a movie, because I really didn’t need to be protected from jokes about chemically neutering dogs (and wondered what else I was missing that I would have been okay with), so I gradually transitioned into watching PG-13 and R films again, often finding myself shocked at how much I had missed in these films by watching the CleanFlicks version. They did not preserve the artistic integrity of these films. Not by a long shot.

    Now I watch films based on reviews about the film’s purpose and quality, not boob and swear word counts. Some of my most profound cinematic experiences have been with rated-R films. I watched my first NC-17 film a few weeks ago, Steve McQueen’s Shame. Of all the emotions I felt in watching it, shame was not one of them.

    #4 Mephibosheth ~ I’m glad to see you here, and glad you enjoyed the write-up. There really is a narrow line between what is okay (editing your own copy of a film) and what the courts have ruled as illegal (selling edited films). I get where the pro-CleanFlicks people are coming from.

    Though, in fairness to the studios, some CleanFlicks stores were not maintaining a 1:1 ratio on movies copied and sold. What I mean is, they weren’t buying one film from the studios for every copy they edited and sold; they would buy one DVD and make 20 edited copies to sell. That’s just plain’ ol’ theft. (The documentary covers this.)

    #5 Seth ~ The edited version of Kill Bill was crap. “What in the hell is Uma Thurman doing in a truck called ‘Pussy Wagon’?” I asked myself. They deleted the entire hospital-coma-rape scene, so the audience has no idea how she got that truck.

    #6 Eric ~ Good to see you here as well. ClearPlay is discussed on the documentary.

  7. Ok then, that is stealing. Those laws do make sense to me. But the ones that outlaw the legit operations where they’re essentially selling an editing service go too far. I wouldn’t feel bad breaking those laws, just like I never had any pangs of conscience when I removed the DRM from MP3s I purchased so I could listen to them on more than x number of computers/players/etc.

  8. Jack’s experience is like my own. My LDS parents were more strict than hers but would show us Rated-Rojo movies that they pre-screened. And I was sometimes judged by my Mormon peers for having seen True Lies or Crimson Tide even though they wouldn’t think anything about seeing something like Austin Powers. As I got older my standards became a little stricter than before. I did the CleanFlicks thing, and even had the ClearPlay DVD player that Eric mentions. It’s better but has the same pitfalls as CleanFlicks did; i.e., the editing was sometimes inexplicable and/or made certain scenes incomprehensible (at least with ClearPlay you can customize the settings to allow certain levels of language, violence, etc. whereas with CleanFlicks it was their edited version or nothing).

    Ultimately I came to the same conclusion that you should probably be your own judge rather then rendering judgement to the MPAA or anonymous editor. For a while I used ScreenIt.com which a website where they count the number of F-bombs and whatnot in a movie. It costs money to see the info for new releases, but I recently discovered the same kind of info is available for free on IMDB.com.

  9. Thanks Bridgett, enjoyed your overview of the film. I knew nothing about the film, but will try and find a copy to watch. Your overview reminded me a bit of the documentary on the Michael Moore-Sean Hannity-2004 Election imbroglio at UVSC (I’m a proud Wolverine alumnus), where you have a Mormon themed local controversy that goes national. For anyone who has not seen this documentary film, I definitely would recommend. It’s called “This Divided State.”
    I lived in Provo over most of time covered in the Cleanflicks film, and recall much of this saga. I’ve never rented a movie from Cleanflicks, but did see a rate R movie or two at the Varsity Theater during its heyday. I saw Jerry Maguire there; I waited in a long line that extended outside the Wilkinson Center just to get tickets. :) I’m no longer a movie-goer like I was when I was a teenager—the Movies 8 on the boarder of Provo-Orem was pretty much my second home. I lost interest in movies after my mission when I became serious about school and Mormon history. Nevertheless, I have almost every word of every High School Musical song memorized, and own every Pixar click ever made. :)
    I’m not sympathetic to either party represented in this film as reviewed by Bridgett, nor do I believe that avoiding watching R-rated movies isolates Mormons from the world. Additionally, I do not think the rated-R prohibition has stopped BYU or UVSC Mormons from attending or renting Rated R movies. My experience living in Utah Valley for 27+ years leads to an opposite conclusion—Mormons of all varieties watch plenty of Rated R movies. Just my two cents.

  10. Just want to say what a great even-tempered review and even better follow-up responses and commentary. Thank you for the discussion! Cheers, Geoff