Documakers Andrew James and Joshua Ligari offer a bit more snark than insight in “Cleanflix,” their once-over-lightly account of controversies stirred when a few Utah vidstore operators began to digitally “cleanse” Hollywood fare for a largely (but not exclusively) Mormon clientele. Pic is undeniably amusing when focused on extreme measures by self-appointed censors, but there’s only a token effort made to seriously examine central questions: Do filmmakers maintain total and permanent control of their output? Or can someone who purchases a DVD alter its content (or pay to have it altered) for private viewing? Expect moderate fest and tube playoff.
The vidstore entrepreneurs make no apologies for their “film-sanitizing service.” Indeed, they appear unabashedly proud as they demonstrate how they “dress” a bare-breasted Kate Winslet in “Titanic,” or remove R-rated naughty bits from “The Big Lebowski.” Even so, they admit, some pics are beyond salvation: “Pretty Woman,” an editor explains, can’t be salvaged because the entire plot pivots on a hooker’s upward mobility.
Grateful Utahians, mindful of warnings against licentious cinema by Mormon church elders, express appreciation for the opportunity to watch popular pics without being exposed to sex, nudity and foul language. (Violence also is trimmed, on request, though this doesn’t seem to be as major a concern.) But members of the Directors Guild of America, repped by Michael Apted, Steven Soderbergh and others, are outraged and, ultimately, litigious.
It makes little difference to the aggrieved that, at least initially, customers buy DVDs and then, claiming fair use, submit the discs for digital tweaking. Film industry leaders are increasingly upset as Utah-based retailers make their homogenized products — including many illegal dupes — available to customers throughout North America.
James and Ligairi stop short of demonizing the enterprising censors, some of whom pose a provocative argument — i.e., customers should have access to edited versions of pics like those shown on airplanes and commercial TV — that no one on the opposing side ever adequately addresses. One of the more prominent vidstore operators actually comes across as likable and sincere, which only serves to make final-reel revelations about his allegedly unsavory behavior all the more unsettling.
Still, there’s no mistaking the disapproving if not jeering tone that prevails throughout “Cleanflix.” Time and again, James and Ligairi use cartoonish graphics and loud techno-pop music to score easy points, even when a calmer and more balanced approach might have been more appropriate. Tech values are OK, but a better pic is waiting to be made on the subject.