In the late ’90s, an ambitious group of companies started popping up to rent and sell modified videos and DVDs that make PG-and-higher Hollywood titles family friendly. And in so doing, they have definitively proved that dirty language and sexual content can be key to the characters, pacing and quality of a film.
The most prominent company is CleanFlicks, a Pleasant Grove, Utah-based company that aims to spread its versions of mainstream films stripped of “sex, nudity, profanity or extreme violence” to locations throughout the United States. While entities like the Director’s Guild of America challenged the companies’ interpretation of fair-use copyright law, legislation signed in April suggests that these tidied-up versions aren’t going away.
While artists aren’t infallible, they deserve to be judged based on the work they’ve done. “Sanitized” DVDs provide a degraded viewing experience that might satisfy its target audience, but misrepresents and decreases the impact of many films for high prices ($15 to $20 extra). The limitations are clear in the clean versions of two romantic comedies'Paul Thomas Anderson’s surreal, bizarre Punch-Drunk Love, and Rob Reiner’s 1989 favorite When Harry Met Sally ? .
Since CleanFlicks makes the caveat that some films are too offensive by nature to be edited, I was surprised to see Punch-Drunk Love available, since it has a major plot element involving a call to a phone-sex hotline. Turns out the film is classified as a mature title, apparently for people who know what’s going on but wish they didn’t.
When Harry Met Sally ? is very much a film of conversations and not heavily plotted, so it’s not hard to simply cut things short, robbing the film of its edge while maintaining an understandable storyline. The censors seem to have decided randomly to keep some innuendo and delete other passages. For example, Harry’s nightmare about Olympic judges assessing his sexual skills is deleted, but Sally’s sexual fantasy remains.
The success of the different editing techniques varies, but the least noticeable (on a purely technical level) takes advantage of film-editing conventions to try to make the cuts invisible. Sometimes, however, traces of words can be heard in the cuts, and scenes abruptly end or begin halfway through. If the CleanFlicks editors knew how to time things well, it would still be problematic because they only have the footage from the official film. The scenes themselves feel rushed, and the dramatic and comedic beats are missing.
The technique doesn’t work well with films that don’t use predictable shot structures. Due to Anderson’s love for long takes and tracking shots, the CleanFlicks edition of Punch-Drunk Love contains a great deal of awkward audio editing and looping. The characters keep moving their mouths after the hard-to-understand sentences end. Other obscenities are abruptly and jarringly muted out, in a process that makes the musical score sound bad. There are also a couple of glaring, nonsensical jump cuts.
The great contradiction of CleanFlicks and other video-editing companies is that, in the effort to keep it somewhat legal, they’re actually paying the studios for the original copies of the DVDs they sell and rent, hence giving producers an economic incentive to make more non-family-friendly movies. The most common response to this point is that people want to watch movies that their friends talk about, but without the filth. Problem is, it’s not the same movie. The American Film Institute’s recent list of 100 great movie lines included one from When Harry Met Sally ? , but it wasn’t in the CleanFlicks edition (“I’ll have what she’s having?).
I guess the kind of people who would want to watch a censored film from these companies aren’t really film appreciators anyway, and therefore don’t care much about things like pacing, out-of-sync dialogue and sexually suggestive logos popping up in the corner of the screen. But these people should avoid artfully made films, and keep in mind that if they want to discuss it with their friends, they’ll be discussing a different movie.