Movie-sanitizing technology: clean flicks or dirty tricks?

Sunday, April 24, 2005

When you slide that movie into your DVD player this weekend, will you be watching the original Hollywood production or a “sanitized” version with offensive words and images deleted?

In the past five years, a cottage industry of film sanitizers has emerged. These entrepreneurs have edited hundreds of movies and offered them for sale or rent to customers who believe too many movies have too much sex, violence and gore.

New technology and video equipment now allow these sanitizers to delete words and images, skip whole scenes, change a speaker’s dialogue, switch background or scenery, put clothes on characters and insert promotions for products. It is even possible to erase a movie’s whole soundtrack and substitute a different one.

The same technology used to clean up movies, of course, can be used to make them dirty.

All without the permission, let alone the collaboration, of the original producers of the movies.

Some examples of the sanitizers’ work: The clean version of “Schindler’s List” has 43 audio and video cuts totaling 10 minutes. “The Horse Whisperer” is missing the dance between Robert Redford and Kristin Scott Thomas, whose character is married to another man. Much of the opening battle scene in “Saving Private Ryan” has been deleted to reduce the war movie’s violence. In “The Godfather,” to mask profanity, the actors’ lips move but no sound comes forth. In “Titanic,” a digital corset covers actress Kate Winslet’s nudity.

Consistency can also be cut by the cleansing process. For instance, several battle scenes were erased from “The Patriot” starring Mel Gibson, but similar violence in “The Passion of Christ,” created and directed by Mel Gibson, has been left intact.

And nothing is so clean that it can’t be scrubbed some more. Sanitizers found and erased 30 seconds of language considered offensive in the popular PG-rated movie “Shrek.” Seven minutes, including 58 audio and video cuts, was erased from the family-friendly “Dr. Doolittle.”
Movie directors, of course, are very disturbed by these “e-rated” (for “everyone” or “edited”) movies. They claim the practice violates federal copyright law. The sanitizers say the practice is protected by the same law’s “fair use” provisions, which allow other artists to create parodies and reviewers to slam originals.

It is true that what the sanitizers are doing is not all that different from what the movie-makers do in issuing edited versions of their work for broadcast television or to show on airline flights. The directors counter that there is a huge difference: that those changes are made with the directors’ permission, in collaboration with the studios, subject to careful editing standards, and, most important, true to the original’s intent.

Naturally, both sides have filed lawsuits to vindicate their claims. And this past week, Congress sent to the White House for signing a law providing new legal protections for technology that parents can use to prevent their children from watching sex, violence or foul language in movies. Before passage, however, the bill was rewritten to remove protections for companies that sell copies of edited movies.

Certainly some of us are delighted by the idea of being able to speed past or bleep out the offensive bits that so often crop up in movies today. But delegating that duty to a stranger, who for a small fee promises to clean up the movie for us, presents risks we may want to avoid and questions we should not ignore.

Just how comfortable should we be with the idea of a third party appropriating a screenwriter’s story, a director’s vision or an actor’s art for his own agenda and our convenience? Beyond movies, would it be all right to sell or rent re-edited books, music, plays and other creative efforts?

And in sanitizing movies or any other media, how do we reconcile differing ideas of what is indecent, how much and what kind of violence is necessary, and what is essential to the creator’s intent? If we can’t reconcile those differences, are we willing to tolerate them to keep open as many modes of communication as possible?

As the tools for tailoring all communication to our individual comfort zones become more sophisticated and available, we will have the power to convert everything that comes our way to just another version of what we already know and believe. That would be most unwise.

In the end, no amount of technology can take the place of the exquisitely fine filter that is the human mind. We have the ability to delete, deconstruct and even destroy any communication that comes our way, or to turn it to our own elevation. True, from time to time, we will encounter language or ideas that offend, but we should be wary of contracting out our right and duty to choose for ourselves which communications we receive, from Hollywood or anyone else, and how we evaluate what we do receive.

The First Amendment considerations for both the movie-makers and the sanitizers aside, it is our own rights we must not only guard but exercise. That includes asking how far we carry this idea of insulating ourselves or our families from offense.

If we watch only the news that confirms our prejudices, if we read only what doesn’t challenge us, if we receive only communication that doesn’t offend us, if we tolerate only ideas that don’t provoke us, eventually there will come a point when intellectual stultification sets in and what’s left of an increasingly fractured society’s common language disappears.

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