by Jason Pyles
Full Disclosure: Before reviewing “Cleanflix,” I should note that I was (and still am) associated with some of the organizations, events and subjects of this film.
For those who are not aware, Utah has a high concentration of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — aka Mormons — a conservative, Christian religion. (Instead of using the word “Mormon,” which is an archaic and imprecise nickname, I’ll proceed by using the designation “Latter-day Saint.”)
Most Latter-day Saints don’t watch R-rated movies, because they have been counseled by their church leaders to avoid entertainment containing profanity, nudity, depictions of sexuality and excessive violence.
Nevertheless, Latter-day Saints love movies like everybody else, generally speaking, so the edited movie business began, and it burst into various chains of video rental stores — the most prominent being CleanFlicks. These businesses “sanitized” R-rated and PG-13 movies by eliminating the type of so-called objectionable material listed above. Therefore, with such explicit tidbits removed, many Latter-day Saints feel it is then permissible to consume the entertainment, regardless of its original rating.
Admittedly, there are other conservative moviegoers elsewhere in the country — and other such businesses exist — but the Utah-based subject of this documentary is the CleanFlicks chain and a few of its major players.
The film “Cleanflix” — whose homonymous title is spelled differently due to copyright issues — explains the cultural background mentioned above, examines various viewpoints in the debate over sanitizing films, and follows the remarkable events in the life of one store owner, Daniel Thompson, who quickly surfaces to become the film’s focal point.
Thompson turns out to be an unforgettable main character for this documentary. In fact, his memorability approaches that of other great doc figures, such as Timothy Treadwell (“Grizzly Man”) or Mark Borchardt (“American Movie”).
As “Cleanflix” begins, it seems as though it will enumerate the various arguments for and against sanitizing movies, as they pertain to moral and theoretical concerns. But the filmmakers address these issues peripherally, as their story progresses. For the heart of “Cleanflix,” documentarists Andrew James and Josh Ligairi examine the way various sanitizing businesses chose to defy the titans of Hollywood — in a David and Goliath-type of stand-off — which all culminates with Thompson’s story.
While depicting the course of these surprising events, enough important questions are raised that “Cleanflix” is not only entertaining, it is also stirring. Regardless of where you stand on edited movies, this documentary has the substantive wherewithal to provoke further thought and consideration from the viewer. The only prerequisite is a general interest in the art of movies.
Now I recognize the restraints of focus, depth and duration when making a marketable feature film. After all, not every documentary can (or should) be a six-hour Frederick Wiseman production like “Near Death” (1989), or a four-hour one, like “Belfast, Maine” (1999).
So inevitably, with such complicated subject matter, there are aspects of the CleanFlicks saga that I would have liked to have seen this 88-minute film somehow explore, such as the viewer’s right to consume or perceive art the way he or she wants to enjoy it; the vacuum of adult-themed films for conservative adults and how that vacuum fuels phenomena like CleanFlicks; and how CleanFlicks users justify the “perils” that must surely befall the “spiritual well-being” of the sanitizer, who has intensive exposure to the objectionable sounds and images. But these are just wish-list aspects of the film that wasn’t made.
If I were to critique the film that was made, I would have liked to have seen a greater diversity of opinion: For example, in order to discuss the character of one subject, his conspicuously hyperbolic ex-girlfriend is interviewed. (I hope no one judges me on the accounts of my ex-girlfriends.)
Even so, the strongest praise I can give “Cleanflix” is to acknowledge that it actually influenced my opinion on the matter of edited movies. Because of this film (and my podcasting co-host, Andy Howell), I now understand the Directors Guild of America’s position better, and that the court ruling itself — which I won’t reveal here — pertains to the act of duplicating copyrighted films, rather than editing them. Meanwhile, the artistic and moral battles continue, while the legal one smolders.
Ironically, “Cleanflix” itself shows a variety of contrasting examples of offending, original content versus the sanitized rendition of the same footage. Indeed, these instances of comparing and contrasting will surely offend those on both sides of the fence, at least, to some degree: “Pro-sanitizers” won’t appreciate the objectionable material depicted in the original clips (which would undoubtedly earn this unrated film an R-rating), while “anti-sanitizers” will wince at the incongruent, revised clips of the chopped-up films.
At one point, the filmmakers half-jokingly told me they were considering making a “CleanFlicksed” version of “Cleanflix,” which you must admit, is delightfully ouroboros-like.
Addendum: My podcast, Considering the Sequels, features a bonus episode — here — where my co-hosts and I have an in-depth discussion about “Cleanflix” with its directors, Andrew James and Josh Ligairi.
Directed by Andrew James and Josh Ligairi. Featuring Neil LaBute, Daniel Thompson, Ray Lines. Genre: Documentary. Runtime: 88 min. MPAA: Not rated (but would be rated R). No. 3.