Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Commentaries: No More Smut Editors? - Christianity Today Movies

One of the movie critics at Christianity Today tells us that a federal judge in Colorado has ruled that third parties may not edit studio-produced movie recordings, i.e., DVD or VHS rental copies, for sale or rental to consumers. Such editing violates copyright laws. The reasons might seem complicated, but I'll boil it down to this: only the studio has the right to edit a movie for content. No one else. These people did not pay the studio any royalty, or otherwise get their permission, to edit out objectionable language, scenes, or other content from these films. Without that right, they may not do what they're doing.

The critic says that the third parties were not doing the right thing, legal or not--because, he says, the job of screening a movie for content belongs to a parent and not to some middleman. His solution is to withhold renting the titles involved until his children are old enough to discern the content--and in some cases, not to have nightmares about it.

I'll give some personal perspective on this matter. In 1966, Planet Film Productions released, and Universal Pictures distributed in the United States, a film titled Island of Terror. This was at the height of the horror/sci-fi craze of the late Sixties. The premise was as dumb as it was hackneyed: a team of scientists, working on an island and pursuing yet another research pathway they hoped could cure cancer, create a form of life based on silicon rather than carbon--and this form of life breaks containment, with results that would indeed make anyone shudder. Days later, a team of investigators arrive on the island and find a number of deadly creatures on it--creatures that liquefy and digest the bones of any creature, human or animal, accursed enough to let those creatures touch them. The creatures are also impervious to conventional weapons, be they blunt, sharp, or explosive. The only thing that saves the island community is the discovery that if the creatures consume any animal whose bones have taken up a radioactive isotope of strontium, then they will die of radiation poisoning. Even so, the final confrontation results in the deaths of many villagers and nearly requires the throwing of a female member of the team to the creatures. (The woman-in-jeopardy angle; how typical.) And then what should happen, after the creatures are dead: a foolish Japanese investigator re-creates the creatures independently! The movie rolls its end titles after this haples investigator's death.

I had the bad sense to watch this on late-night TV, back when broadcast TV network stations had late-movie shows. And I had nightmares about that for three solid weeks.

The bottom line: some movies are just flat-out unfit for viewing. You can't sanitize them. And any movie that has to tell its story with profane language and scenes designed with no higher purpose than to scare people, frankly doesn't deserve to be shown. Even Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde didn't require such blood and gore and bad language in its three first film tellings. Actors Spencer Tracy, Lana Turner, and Ingrid Bergman made that tale riveting, and gave us a much-needed morality play about science run amok. They would be ashamed to work in the Hollywood of today.

And even if they weren't: by editing out the obviously objectionable parts of the movies in question, these third-party sanitizers blind us to the more pervasive but subtle harms that such movies represent. Consider: do you really need to watch a film that proposes, for example, that ghosts exist, and that one can deal with them with no more effort than is required to deal with a rat infestation, even if the off-color jokes are edited out? And what do you do with a film that tells the story, not of the sinking of a famous ocean liner, but of a pair of star-crossed lovers having their affair aboard that vessel, and implying something glorious when they, quite simply, commit fornication? Even if you cut out the nude-sketch scene and the making-out-in-the-car scene, you are still left with the premise of a woman being faithless to a promise that was made and agreed-to. In short, the very story premise is objectionable. Sanitizing doesn't change that, and might even blind you to that.

So, like the film critic at Christianity Today, I don't mourn the passing of the third-party editors. If the studios are going to keep making titles that use sex, violence, and profanity to sell tickets, then the divide between the faithful and the faithless will widen, and in-country missionaries like myself will concentrate on persuading our fellow citizens and lawful residents to jump the gap, come over to our side, and give up the overwhelming bulk of the movies produced today.

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