Decent Films Mail > Mailbag #8

Re: ClearPlay

What do you think of the ClearPlay DVD and membership system?

The ClearPlay system differs from the approach pioneered by CleanFlix and similar services in that it does not physically edit or alter movie media such as DVDs, but uses customized filtering routines to skip designated portions of films. ClearPlay editors create the filtering routines for each film, tagging potentially objectionable material under various categories which viewers can customize according to their own preferences.

Legally, this system has been upheld as consistent with copyright law, in contrast to the CleanFlix approach, which was successfully sued for copyright violations by Hollywood filmmakers.

Artistically, it’s a grey area. Some feel that a film should be seen as the filmmakers intended or not at all. While this argument may be weakened somewhat by existing editing practices for network television and the like, such edits are usually authorized by the studio which has negotiated these rights with the filmmakers. Third-party censors producing editing viewing experiences without any agreement with the filmmakers or studios strikes some as problematic.

On one level, it could be seen as a high-tech version of hitting the mute or fast-forward button. On the other hand, hitting the mute or fast-forward button makes it clear to everyone in the room when and where the “edits” occur, so at least it’s clear where the filmmakers intended something that’s not being seen. Potentially seamless, effortless ClearPlay edits can create the impression that the filmmakers’ intent was other than it was.

This can have jarring consequences. I first saw The Scarlet and the Black fifteen or so years ago via a VHS copy rented from a local Catholic book shop. Somewhat later I saw the film again, and was startled to discover an entire scene that had been edited out of the other version, a conversation in a Vatican archive room between the protagonist and Pope Pius XII in which the Holy Father mentions the Vatican concordat with the Nazis and wonders whether this was a mistake. As an unintended consequence of the removal of this scene, a later remark from Pius XII referring back to this discussion makes no sense.

I’m not entirely sure why this scene was considered problematic, but I know I felt rather odd realizing that my original experience of the film had been somewhat falsified. Of course, I hadn’t known at the time that the movie was edited at all; if I were paying for a filter to do precisely that, that would obviously be different.

Still another question is the motive of the viewer in wanting an edited version of the film. I can see the point of view of parents wanting to watch a movie like, say, Seabiscuit with their kids, if only it weren’t for that one brief brothel scene. I would be somewhat less sympathetic to the position of an adult Catholic wanting to watch a movie like, say, United 93 without the bad language. Just because something is uncomfortable doesn’t necessarily make it bad for you, and there are dangers in the other direction of trying to adjust reality to your comfort level.

My feeling is thus that a lot depends on the particular film, the particular edits and the particular viewer. Some films (say, American Pie) are obviously so full of problematic content that no cleaned-up version is imaginable. More subtly, some films (say, Titanic) have instances of problematic content that can be easily removed, but remain problematic at their core in other ways. We shouldn’t think that just because nudity, bad language and violence have been stripped out that the movie is now safe or wholesome.

Then there are films (say, Juno) that are very worthwhile, but with potentially problematic content that is integral to the film, which should probably either be watched for what they are or not at all. Finally, there are films (say, Seabiscuit or more recently Man on Wire) that remain essentially intact even when a few problematic bits are removed, making them more accessible to wider (and in particular younger) audiences. That’s where I think the best case for a ClearPlay approach is.

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