As a primer on a couple of arcane legal spats with some serious real-world consequences, “Bleep! Censoring Hollywood” provides viewers with plenty to debate. It covers the major points of censorship, but not probingly or rigorously. Still, the AMC-ABC News doc is quality primetime infotainment.
“Bleep!” focuses on two related phenomena that have incensed Hollywood creatives: the rise of a cottage industry of so-called movie sanitizers, who digitally edit or remove content they deem objectionable from DVDs and then sell “cleaned up” versions; and the development of DVD filtering technology that allows parents to skip over material they don’t want their children to see.
Doc is strongest on the sanitizers who say they’ve responded to a demand for Hollywood fare minus “offensive” parts. They also argue their resale in no way hurts the movie industry financially: For every altered DVD they sell, they either buy an original at regular price or bundle an original with the altered copy.
To some extent, the numbers support the sanitizers’ claim of a demand. AMC and ABC News conducted a poll showing that 51% of Americans opposed the idea of cleaning up movies, 44% supported it. But 20% — roughly 40 million people — said they would “very likely” rent or buy sanitized DVDs. The sanitizers — mostly videotaped in their editing studios, looking extremely professional — say they are merely providing this sizeable market with “an option” that Hollywood doesn’t give.
Representing Hollywood is a coalition of directors, led by Steven Soderbergh, who claim that movie sanitizing is unauthorized tampering with content. Others, like Taylor Hackford, talk about the imperative of directorial vision, which they creditably argue is impaired or undermined by such editing.
The doc itself raises an effective question by simply juxtaposing lists of different material that different sanitizing operations delete. CleanFlicks, for instance, edits out scenes of nudity, sex, violence and obscene language; FamilyFlix excises all of that plus any mention even of “Oh, God!” or its ilk. The point — that offensive material is in the eye of the beholder — is neatly scored.
A lawsuit is also still pending over DVD filtering technology, but the case, like “Bleep!” itself in this instance, has been overtaken by very recent events. Hollywood has taken ClearPlay, a company based in Utah, to court for its filtering technology, alleging copyright violation. The doc notes that legislation pending in Congress would very likely moot the case: The Family Movie Act aims to formally legitimize the technology as copyright friendly, since content is not permanently altered. The legislation passed just last week.
Doc allows the technology’s developers and sellers to make a good case — this is purely for home use, no resale of any kind involved, Hollywood routinely lets airlines and television broadcasts edit out content — but then fails to press the movie industry on its claim that this, too, constitutes copyright infringement.
Then again, “Bleep!” lets sanitizers get away with saying things like “Morality is deteriorating” and “What’s at stake is our families, and if our families crumble, our whole society crumbles.” Um, evidence, please?
Still, if “Bleep!” doesn’t always pursue obvious implications — Should books that inspire movies be sanitized? Should viewers be able to edit the news? — the doc transcends the stereotypes of “holier-than-thou police” versus “greedy Hollywood reprobates” the debate tends to evoke in most media coverage. Certainly both sides find those stereotypes offensive and objectionable and should therefore thank the makers of “Bleep!” for finding the first common ground between them.