Theatre Matters

Contemplations on the dramatic arts from a national perspective


Steven Oxman has contributed to such publications as the Los Angeles Times, American Theatre, Stagebill, and, most frequently, Variety, for which he has written over 300 television and theatre reviews.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Cleanliness is Next to Censorship

An extremely informative and provocative article in today's Washington Post, dealing with the issue of "film sanitizers." These are folks who edit commercially released DVDs to remove the "objectionable" parts, things like nudity, sex (or the more amorphuous "sexual suggestiveness"), bad language, and the occasional SpongeBob character dancing in fishnet stockings (not kidding). Then they re-sell the DVD. They claim to avoid blatant copyright infringement under the fair use doctrine, and because they buy the original DVD, then create an altered version, selling the end consumer both. In other words, the studio doesn't lose money on the deal.

Film directors see it as a violation of their artistic rights, while film studios are working hard not to say anything at all.

It would be easy to say, "Oh, those right-wing prudes are at it again." Except... watch out for knee-jerk reactions. I understand the market for this. As the article notes, it started with "Titanic." The whole article made me remember my brother buying his young daughter the DVD as soon as it came out, then having to sit there to make sure she was distracted during the parts he didn't feel she was ready to see. He definitely would have spent an extra $7 to have an edited version. And the studios are already altering these films for airlines and broadcast TV, so nobody's pure here.

Just because I understand the market for this, though, doesn't make it right. There are clearly changes that alter a piece so greatly that they violate the artist's vision, fundamentally alter a work's "meaning," and should be seen as censorship, not fair use. The example in the article:

"Robert Rosen, dean of UCLA's film, theater and television school, points to a sanitized version of 'The Hurricane,' about African American boxer Rubin Carter, that eliminated racial epithets uttered by police officials investigating Carter. That, according to Rosen, undercut two of the movie's central themes, racism and police corruption."

I'm fascinated by this ever-colliding intersection of dramatic art, law, and politics.

If these are deemed legal, imagine the possibilites. You could buy the DVD and re-edit it at your will, then profit from the re-sale.

Think of the movies you'd like to get your hands on! While the current sanitizers are removing Schindler's extra-marital affairs, perhaps others could be adding some nude scenes to certain Disney flicks to make them more marketable to adults. Is adding something different than deleting?