Cutting It Out
Recently, I saw District 9. Sort of.
I know, it’s an odd thing to say. But it’s true. What I saw was a different cut of the critically-acclaimed sci-fi movie that came out last year. And this cut is rather exclusive. It wasn’t shown in theaters. It isn’t available on DVD or Blu-ray. It can’t be downloaded. It hasn’t even been advertised.
This version of District 9 was really strange. Scenes were missing. The dialogue was muted out on occasion. Characters vanished from the plot, never to be heard from again. In some cases they vanished into (literal) thin air. I know the gist of what happened in the movie, but not much more.
So why would I be watching this? The short answer is that I was watching an R-rated movie in a Mormon household. It was a standard DVD of District 9, running through a DVD filtering system called ClearPlay. Based in Salt Lake City, ClearPlay provides software that can edit movies from an R rating to something closer to PG. It removes scenes, shots, and snippets of audio deemed unsuitable by ClearPlay’s editors, down to individual frames. Whatever material a viewer finds offensive can be omitted according to the following categories: violence, sex, nudity, vulgarity, bloodshed, and substance abuse.
I suppose this makes sense if you’re looking for a way to patrol what your children watch. But I saw District 9 with three adults. No children were involved. Seeing a film this way was a preference, not a safeguard. In fact, the choppy edits and missing audio didn’t seem to bother them. Overall they agreed that it was a good movie.
The reasons for this preference are tied to several aspects of life in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. They are somewhat complex and controversial among members, as Mormons call themselves. They’re also part of why I left the Church and of how the religion continues to confound me.
In a 1986 speech, the Church’s president, Ezra Taft Benson, cautioned the Church’s youth against watching movies with offensive or inappropriate material:
- We counsel you, young men, not to pollute your minds with such degrading matter, for the mind through which this filth passes is never the same afterwards. Don’t see R-rated movies or vulgar videos or participate in any entertainment that is immoral, suggestive, or pornographic. Don’t listen to music that is degrading.
Since then it has been repeatedly suggested that Mormons shouldn’t watch R-rated films at all. This isn’t necessarily enforced; there aren’t any serious repercussions. Nevertheless, it still causes heated debate. Some members choose to disregard the rule completely and use their own discretion. For one thing, the MPAA isn’t perfect. Rob Zombie’s House Of 1000 Corpses shares a R-rating with Amistad, and they are two completely different films.
Yet, for most members, what a prophet deems inappropriate should be avoided at all costs and treated as law. R-rated material could make you and others feel uncomfortable, unpleasant, confused—or, even worse, tempted. It isn’t a bad argument, particularly if you’re trying to live a life that is, as Mormons often say, “clean in thought and deed.”
But beyond this it gets complicated. There are Mormons who want to obey their leaders—or at least appear to. They don’t want to be excluded from pop culture, so they find ways to bend the rules. That’s where technologies like ClearPlay come in. Instead of avoiding R-rated movies altogether, members have come up with different ways to edit material from their videotapes, DVDs, and even theatrical screenings.
Since the late sixties, the Church has been finding ways to alter films. This is especially prevalent in Utah, where I grew up, and where people tend to be more conservative. I remember watching edited films at the Varsity Theater at BYU. Back then, the reels of film were literally cut up and re-spliced before being screened. Anything considered offensive was removed or bleeped out. Even Shakespeare was censored. The word “ass” was removed from a reel of Much Ado About Nothing even though it referred to a donkey.
There was a branch of the company CleanFlicks located in Spanish Fork, about fifteen miles from where I lived. They not only edited people’s personal video collections for a fee but sold edited films at their stores. In 1998 CleanFlicks edited so many VHS copies of Titanic that it caught the attention of the mainstream press and became popular among my Mormon neighbors. Two things about this seemed strange. First of all, this objectionable movie was rated PG-13. Secondly, it wasn’t the images of people getting shot, drowning, plummeting, or freezing to death that bothered them, but Kate Winslet’s breasts.
CleanFlicks closed down in 2006 after preemptively suing the film industry for the right to re-edit and distribute copyrighted movies. They lost their case. Nevertheless, members of the Church didn’t give up. Several other incarnations of CleanFlicks appeared in the following years: MovieMask, The Movie Shield Box, and eventually ClearPlay—all based in Utah, all founded by members. For now it seems ClearPlay is the only one left standing.
ClearPlay itself isn’t what bothers me. Keeping yourself from R-rated material is one thing. What I find unsettling are the great lengths Mormons will go to do so.
In some ways I understand this. In other ways I respect it. Mormons find strength in abstinence. It’s a means of self-control. To non-members they appear to do what is nearly impossible: refraining from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, masturbation, sexual activity before marriage, and so on. Not watching R-rated movies seems like a small sacrifice compared to these things, but I would argue it is the most troubling example of how Mormons separate themselves from “other” culture.
That’s what bothers me.
It isn’t the editing. It isn’t the films. It’s how this is a symptom of a larger problem: Mormons insulate themselves, either disregarding what they don’t like about the bigger picture—in life, on film—or stubbornly trying to change it to fit their ideals.
The writer George Eliot once noted, “If art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally.” Right now movies are our culture’s most popular art form. They are collective experiences where we can safely test our boundaries and confirm our values. They also reflect the concerns, desires, and crises that preoccupy us.
Most people aren’t Mormon, and this shows in our storytelling. People live by different standards. People make mistakes. People sin. Mormons deal with this by editing movies until they are Mormon. How can they be empathetic and understanding when they censor what the rest of the world is doing? Is that choice moral or just spiritually selfish?
When Mormons use technologies like ClearPlay to change a film to fit their standards, they are only seeing what they want to see and what they already know. You can’t do that in real life. Life is rated R, or worse. It can be unpredictable, violent, miserable, and unfair. In trying to live “clean in thought and deed” there is a constant battle to keep things in the PG realm. It’s not only a losing battle, but an act of willful ignorance.
It can be frustrating—and sometimes hilarious—to watch something like District 9 edited down to a PG rating. But say Little Miss Sunshine is put through the ClearPlay filter. Will it remove all the references to Frank’s homosexuality and his suicide attempt? This type of material is definitely not PG but is integral to the plot and understanding his character. It’s also a reflection of real life. Some people are gay. Some people try to kill themselves.
What’s even more disturbing is when this distortion is applied to life outside of movies. I have met many Mormons who do this. They deal with what they consider sinful or different by doing all sorts of mental gymnastics, rationalizing or ignoring it into nonexistence. They don’t test their minds or try to empathize with people who deal with these issues directly. They don’t learn anything and only seek to make the situation go away instead of trying to understand it.
Choosing to live this way can be irresponsible and potentially dangerous. In my experience as a Mormon I found that when something complex and unexpected does happen—mental illness, divorce, sexual abuse, or suicide, for instance—you’re surrounded by people who aren’t prepared or equipped to deal with it. In some cases, they aren’t aware that these problems exist. They don’t know what to say or do.
In the end it’s easier for them to turn away, concentrate on what is comfortable, and not talk about it.
Basically, they edit it out.