The Revenge of the Audience
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 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. There is no need to debate their meanings. Cleaned films are more than sanitized. They are pre-digested. Regardless of the good 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.
Dr. Phil Gordon (pictured at left) is associate professor of communication at Utah Valley University and was a featured subject in the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival documentary film Cleanflix (CleanflixTheMovie.com)