Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 32 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Directed by: Andrew James & Joshua Ligairi
Starring: Ray Lines, Allan Erb, Daniel Thompson, Robert Parry, Neil LaBute & Richard Dutcher
I remember walking into a Cleanflix store once. Other than that little hazy experience, the only thing I can recall about these family friendly video stores is that they have since become a blip on the radar of copyright infringement past. Who knew that an account of illegal stores carrying censored Hollywood films would make for an interesting documentary? That’s exactly what the aptly titled CLEANFLIX is.
The narrative of this film is split into about six different chapters, each exploring another piece of history or dilemma brought about by this short-lived industry that aimed to censor R and PG-13 films in order to give families movies of a “higher moral standard.” Since the original Cleanflix stores lasted only for a short amount of time, the entire film doesn’t necessarily focus on just the company it’s titled after. We also span through the many other incarnations of similar stores trying to cash in on the craze in Utah. There is also a strong look into one man, named Daniel Thompson, who caused quite an uproar in many ways (both regarding his love for media attention and some other scandalous reasons).
CLEANFLIX doesn’t limit itself to merely detailing the quick rise and equally fast fall of these censored film stores. Plenty of questions are raised about ethical and moral dilemmas that stem from the idea of censorship for profit. This was a business that centered around cutting out the “bad” parts of films in order to make a fortune from it. One theory is that Cleanflix merely existed to cash in on people of LDS faith. Certain scenes make for some rather funny moments too (one scene showing their jumbled re-edit of a scene from SAVING PRIVATE RYAN is nothing short of hysterical).
Speaking of which, this documentary doesn’t necessarily ridicule the Mormon faith itself, but it does examine how easily led so many Utah-based LDS families seem to be. A particular interview with former LDS film director Richard Dutcher reveals that it seems local film companies in Utah would rather make light-hearted commercially happy films, instead of deeper “tough” cinema that makes one question themselves and think of why they’ve put their faith in a religion that others see as ridiculous. This is all set around the basic situation of people feeling the ultimate sense of entitlement. It’s the mindset of “my morals beat your morals.” Another point examined is about the unnecessary fear of sexuality inflicted on people from a young age, as opposed to the almost automatic acceptance of gratuitous violence in movies. There’s a lot more material on this latter point in the fantastic THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED.
It’s on the technical side of things in this documentary that things feel a little (for lack of a better word) cheap. The transitions consist of quick editing with words laid out over images (is it really that expensive to hire a good narrator) and these are accompanied by some annoying music. It might be more tolerable if these only separated the six chapters, but it’s frequently used to the point that it was grating on my nerves. At the conclusion, there’s also some really dark stuff that seems to be almost swept under the rug and glossed over quickly. I wanted to know more about these details and the filmmakers seemed content with focusing on the less interesting side of it.
Some crappy transitions and a rushed wrap-up aside, CLEANFLIX is an intriguing and shocking piece of work. By the time the film has ended, the viewer will be left re-evaluating the idea of censorship, entitlement, artist’s work, and just why some people advocate for “squeaky clean” cinema. Michael Mann puts it best in an interview: “If you don’t like it, don’t watch it!” That’s absolutely true and a completely valid point. If you don’t want to see swearing, sex, or violence in something like GOODFELLAS or BRAVEHEART, then either wait for the TV edit or just don’t watch it at all. There’s only a market for “sanitized films” in Utah (which explains why a bunch of naïve people protest in Utah to show that they want the edited versions of these films. If you had tried it in any other state, it would have failed drastically).
Filmmakers should not have to cater to everyone, respect the easily offended, or keep things “safe.” It’s the someone’s vision that moviegoers are watching on the screen. It takes a great deal of ignorance and arrogance to cut scenes out and then resell it as “the artist’s” work. This is doing not only a huge disservice to the filmmaker in question, but it’s also giving them a massive amount of disrespect.
A good documentary should leave you wanting to talk about the subject examined. As evidenced by my review, that is exactly what CLEANFLIX left me with. It has some technical annoyances and doesn’t go too in-depth regarding the conclusion, but it’s still a very interesting documentary. This is required viewing for any cinephiles living in Utah. It also serves as good entertainment for those living outside of the state’s borders!