Even if you're not a resident of Utah, you've surely heard of companies like "Clean Flicks" before. Like, for example, in the virtual pages of this very blog. It's a prickly subject among movie fans, and that's probably an understatement. Basically, several companies in Utah have taken it upon themselves to edit all the "objectionable" material out of Hollywood's hottest films, and many in the Mormon community are more than happy to throw those discs into their DVD players, secure in the knowledge that Braveheart will be less bloody, that Forrest Gump never felt a female embrace, and that Sally Albright never had a fake orgasm in a New York deli.
OK, that's the last batch of lopsided editorializing for me, because while (obviously) I am dead-set opposed to censorship in cinema, I can also empathize with a religious culture that wishes to avoid things they find objectionable. And regardless of my oh-so-open-minded belief system, the plain fact is that we're not here to talk about the Clean Flicks companies. The subject this time around is a new documentary called Cleanflix, a film that attempts to tell the whole tale from beginning to end (and mostly does a fine job of it), but also manages to wander way off-track before all is said and done.
We begin with a simple explanation: That the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a.k.a. Mormons) have been instructed by their religious leaders to avoid "R-rated fims," although I'd really love to hear with those guys think of the unexpectedly rough violence found in Prince Caspian, which is rated merely "PG" and then (I guess) not actually covered in the Sunday sermon. But there I go with the personal opinions again. (Basically, I believe it's perfectly logical to want to avoid "offensive" material for religious reasons, but by specifically noting the "R rating," isn't the church basically putting way too much faith in the infamously inconsistent MPAA ratings board?) I suppose these are the strange little grey areas that I wish the film had explored with a little more focus.
As it stands, Andrew James' and Joshua Ligairi's Cleanflix is a well-polished, cleanly produced, and adequately informative documentary film about films, but it also manages to gloss over some of the most pertinent issues: The film is more than awash in proclamations about why it's perfectly fine to edit another person's art, but when it comes time to shine the light the other way, to maybe focus on precisely why its wrong to practice any sort of censorship, the filmmakers seem a lot less interested.
Aside from some new and frankly insightful comments from former Mormon and current (R-rated) filmmaker Neil LaBute, all Cleanflix has to offer from the Hollywood perspective is a bunch of years-old clips from guys like Michael Mann, Steven Soderbergh, and Curtis Hanson. And while much of the interview material with Utah educators and journalists is interesting, why do we not hear from a few screenwriters, film critics, or cinema professors who live outside of Utah?
Still, Cleanflix chugs along telling a fairly fascinating story that ultimately boils down to art vs. religion, but then it gets sidetracked with a rather ugly subplot. One of the "Clean Flicks" distributors, you see, turns out to be a rather unsavory fellow, and the co-directors seem to take no small amount of pleasure in painting the guy as a scuzzball villain. We'd have probably drawn that exact conclusion with a considerably subtler approach, and the sudden left turn takes a lot of wind out of the film's sails.
If a documentary film makes a good "small" point, but then fails to follow up on it ... do you praise the small point or see it as a missed opportunity? For example, the film raises a very good question about halfway through: If the Hollywood studios are willing to make "sanitized" versions of R-rated films for airlines and for network television, then why should those versions remain unavailable to "religious folk" who'd prefer them? Hey, good point! So why not head on out to Hollywood and ask a few producers that exact question?
Cleanflix is a handsome effort and a solid conversation piece for movie geeks or anyone who loves to debate the art vs. religion issues. Unfortunately it doesn't dig deep enough and the filmmakers seem to believe that all of the answers to such a tricky question can be found in the backyards of Utah. Clearly that's not the case.