The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Sanitize Me

Written by: Erik Myers, special to CC2k


Artistic Integrity be damned!

The freedom of artistic expression has become progressively compromised during the last few decades, particularly in regards to visual media. While it’s hardly unusual to see films edited for television—an admittedly public forum that impressionable viewers have immediate access to—the process of content regulation has been extended to home video, via a cottage industry of “sanitizers” offering “family-friendly” versions of films that were deemed inappropriate in their original theatrical form, or worse, through government-endorsed technology that will edit the films for you.     

While one can argue that this process of cleansing films allows for less offensive content, it is a destructive act that can compromise the artistic integrity of the work in question. While the DVD industry can embrace this method in order to sell more units, the film makers have no say in the matter, and are forced to sit back and watch their work cut apart in order to satisfy an audience that probably shouldn’t be viewing the movie in the first place.

The process of creating alternate versions of films began, typically, with conservative religious groups. In this particular case, the practice had its origins in Utah, with a number of concerned Mormons deciding to make Hollywood safe again. "A lot of people are just really tired of what's out there," says Sandra Teraci, who runs Family Flix with her husband, Richard. "They're tired of turning on the TV or renting a movie and constantly being hit by violence, profanity and nudity. A lot of people want to go back to the 1950s, before this sort of thing was routine" (Farhi, 2005).    

As a result, we find that laughable decisions are made. “Family-friendly” editions of Titanic are available to those who object to the tastelessness of Kate Winslet’s nude scene. For those who were more offended by Oscar Schindler’s extra-marital affair than by the graphic depiction of Nazi war crimes, a “clean” version of Schindler’s List is available sans the title character’s indiscretion. For those who want to see all the grittiness of a drug-induced lifestyle but aren’t quite prepared for the realities of it, an alternate version of Traffic can be purchased, minus all the drugs and underage prostitution. In effect, it’s now capable to embrace the idea of artistic censorship—and pay for it, too.     

Steven Spielberg objected to the edit of Saving Private Ryan in which the intentionally graphic D-Day opening was cut, resulting in a sequence that was equally gruesome, but on a technical level rather than an artistic one. Said footage was edited by the prolific sanitizer Ray Lines, who claims that, “You still get the full effect.” While Spielberg emphasized the necessity of the violence, Lines shot back, saying: "My response to that is, he's the god of truth? We just want to watch a movie without sex and nudity" (Asim, 2005).     

But who is the judge of such decisions? Certainly not the MPAA, who have no involvement beyond the initial theatrical rating. (For DVD “Director’s Cuts” that contain footage of a more graphic nature, the release is typically unrated rather than receiving an NC-17)  DVD sanitizers create their own rules for what is or isn’t acceptable, typically removing “nudity, curse words, blasphemous references to God and Jesus, and violent acts like the graphic sword-impalings.” In some cases, homosexuality has been targeted, such as a scene from the SpongeBob SquarePants movie (which received a PG rating), in which a male character (a starfish, no less) sings and dances while wearing fishnets and high heels. "We don't hate homosexuals," says Sandra Teraci. "We just don't think that lifestyle should be glorified. It's becoming rampant in more types of films" (Farhi, 2005). Hooray for censorship.     

The Last Samurai producer Marshall Herskovitz compares such practices to buying a book, removing a few objectionable pages or chapters, and then reselling it. "If I did that," he says, "I'd be hauled into court" (Farhi, 2005).     

Indeed, the question of copyright infringements still hangs in the air. Seeking a declaration of legality, Ray Lines—who has sanitized more than eight hundred films in the past five years—sued sixteen prominent Hollywood directors in 1999, including Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg, more for publicity and product promotion than anything else. The argument is that for every sanitized DVD they sell, the sanitizers purchase (and include) the original DVD release, marking up the product six to seven dollars in order to make a profit for themselves. According to Lines, the studios actually make more money than they otherwise would, as their work has now been purchased by viewers who normally wouldn’t pay for the product. It’s hard to argue with such erstwhile crusaders, who claim a responsibility for defending a crumbling morality and state that, "What's at stake is our families, and if our families crumble, our whole society crumbles" (Farhi, 2005).     

While this may sound like an isolated issue that only affects a small portion of the fundamentalist population, the American public seems fairly open to the idea. A recent poll, conducted in April of 2005, showed that while 51% of the population opposed the idea of sanitizing films, 44% was willing to embrace the idea.     

DVD manufacturers have taken note, and found their own method of achieving the same effect: disc players that automatically sanitize DVDs for you. George W. Bush, a conservative, God-fearing Republican, signed a bill in April of 2005 that promotes such technology, despite the outcry from Hollywood film makers. The bill was signed in private, and no statements have been made in public.     

This particular law shelters companies such as ClearPlay, who have manufactured filtering devices that scan a DVD for objectionable content, and then skips these scenes, while also automatically muting profanity.        (This law does not, however, protect companies like Family Flix who edit and sell their own sanitized DVDs.)

Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who created the provision, compares this to a parent’s ability to skip particular passages in a book. "It lets parents decide for themselves what children see and hear on television,” he argues. “Raising children may be the toughest job in the world. Parents need all the help they can get" (CBC Arts, 2005).     

So do film makers, it appears. The Hollywood community has issued cries of protest, stating that their work is being altered without consent. However, because of the very nature of the bill, companies like ClearPlay cannot be sued for copyright violation, effectively castrating the creators of the very works that are being censored.     

This raises a number of concerns, the first being the right of a film maker to have his or her work preserved without fear of surgery. The notion of editing a film for television is largely deemed an abhorrent one—hence the tendency toward lower ratings when a violent film can be watched uncut and without commercials—but seeing as the airwaves are open to the public, a certain amount of responsibility is necessary. However, home video is another realm altogether, one that’s based upon the notion of choice. Presumably, if one rents or purchases a copy of Sin City, they know what they’re in for. A film that was designed to be violent or contains material inappropriate for children (or those of a particularly stringent religion) shouldn’t be watching the film in the first place. They shouldn’t be renting it; they shouldn’t be buying it; they shouldn’t be watching it. Period. There’s no way to make this point clearer bar shouting it.     

As a result, the films shouldn’t be altered. They were designed a certain way, and to edit them is to censor artistic expression. Even if the motivation behind such impulses is correct, the methods are wrong, and compromise the very idea of freedom of speech. If a Christian finds the sight of Linda Blair masturbating with a crucifix objectionable in The Exorcist, then The Exorcist probably isn’t something they ought to be watching. However, the placement of such moments is in many cases relevant or even necessary to the film as a whole, and its removal can compromise the filmic experience. Of course, it goes without saying that this “hack and slash” version of sanitization also destroys the rythyms of the film, and while the viewer might not care, the creators certainly do.     

Then, of course, there’s the question of personal responsibility and parental control. While it’s easy to blame films like The Basketball Diaries for incidents such as Columbine and other related acts of violence, parents groups are quick to deny their own involvement with their childrens’ viewing habits. It seems like an amicable compromise to simply lift offensive subject matter from a film in order to circumvent antisocial behavior, but how is this really solving the problem? Rather than ignoring questionable content, parents should be educating their children as to the meanings behind such imagery, or else recognize that the film, as a whole, is probably unfit for younger viewers, edited or no. Besides: showing a child a copy of Friday the 13th that has had specific shots, scenes, or sequences removed isn’t going to make the subject matter any more appropriate, and the very notion of simply lifting such material means that obvious gaps in the film—or even just the choppiness of the film’s flow during such moments—will serve as an indicator that “something is missing.” One could argue that this would in fact spur a curious child to see what material has been deemed inappropriate rather than shielding them with blissful ignorance.     

It’s a sad state when artistic censorship is endorsed by the government. (In 1999, New York mayor Rudy Giuliani threatened to withhold funding from the Brooklyn Museum of Art for featuring paintings that he found objectionable, such as one that featured both the Virgin Mary and elephant dung (Asim, 2005). Obviously, cinema isn’t the only target.) It can be stated that editing films, be it by religious groups or via DVD players, is a way of controlling information and denying the artist personal freedom of expression, and the obvious counter to this is that the “problem” (if defined as such) exists on such a small scale that it really isn’t that important. After all, films are still released in theaters, free from tampering (beyond the obvious influence of the MPAA), and the DVDs are still available at Best Buy or Blockbuster. So why are alternative actions such as the aforementioned so abhorrent?     

The answer is two-fold. First, the very fact that the government is willing to shelter ClearPlay and other similar devices is one more step toward the utterly toothless world of politically correct media that has made its presence more progressively known within the past ten years. As human beings, our right is to say what we will, and to express what we will, so long as no laws or broken in the process. For our Government to advocate ways in which we might sneak around this is scary. If this is where it begins, then where does it end?     

And finally, the bottom line is that, simply put, we are a nation of idiots, incapable of understanding what we see, and equally incapable of understanding how it makes us feel. Our natural tendency is to repress. To those who can’t handle a given work, be it a film, a television show, a music CD or a novel, the obvious choice is to avoid it rather than raping it, cutting off its head, and salvaging the remains for the “good parts.” To me, such acts of artistic vandalism and violence are more repellant—and more horrifying—than anything I could see at the local multiplex.

Works Cited

Asim, Jabari. “ 'Sanitized' DVDs pit viewers against artists .”

CBC Arts. “Bill That Allows Sanitized DVDs Enters U.S. House .”

CBC Arts. “Bush Signs Bill Allowing Sanitized DVDs .”

Farhi, Paul. “Now on DVD: The Sanitizer's Cut–Filmmakers Aghast at 'Scrubbed' Feature Films .”