A few hours after plopping in the tape of the 34-minute AMC documentary, "Bleep: Censoring Hollywood?" (10 tonight), I practiced some self-censorship of my own.
My 12 year-old son, Max, was sick and home from school. Saying "there was nothing on television" on the 300 channels available to him, he asked me to head to the local video store to rent a video game or the Eminem movie "8 Mile."
The game wasn't available. Noticing "8 Mile" was rated R because of sex and violence, I put it back on the shelf.
"If you won't let him watch that movie, then you wouldn't rent that game, either," said a store employee. "It has as much sex and violence as the movie."
I left empty-handed. Max wasn't happy, but parents have to make some unpopular calls. Of course, many parents are unwilling or unable to just say no to their kids. They'd prefer a compromise -- a way to allow their kids to watch PG-13 or R-rated films if the content that gave them the restricted rating was eliminated.
Partly as a result, a whole new industry of "film sanitizing" has emerged and is the focus of "Bleep: Censoring Hollywood?" Produced by ABC News, it focuses on an issue so hot it was the subject of two articles in Sunday's Buffalo News.
To such A-list filmmakers as Michael Apted, Taylor Hackford, Steven Soderbergh and Marshall Herskovitz, the creation of CleanFlicks and a company, ClearPlay, that sells software that censors films, is scarier than anything in "Pyscho" or "The Amityville Horror."
The enlightening and timely documentary explores the debate between censorship and artistic freedom. It doesn't take sides, allowing each its say.
On one side are the sanitizing-industry founders. They have emotion on their side. They believe they are providing a family-friendly service that doesn't harm anyone or Hollywood's profits (they buy an original copy for each sanitized copy) and which 44 percent (according to an ABC News poll) of Americans believe should be allowed. One industry leader, a Mormon based in Utah, where the industry has flourished, was inspired to start his company by friends and family after he censored "Titanic" for them.
On the other side is the Directors Guild of America. It believes it has the (copyright) law on its side. It doesn't want amateur editors messing with their creations for fear it can be a monstrous distortion of their artistic vision.
Inevitably in the Red State-Blue State world we now live in, politicians got in the act. Predictably, a Republican congressman from Texas, Lamar Smith, is on the side of the sanitizers, because he feels Hollywood has gone too far. Just as predictably, California Rep. Howard Berman, makes the valid point that "some films aren't appropriate for children."
Rep. Smith added an amendment to the Family Entertainment and Copyright Act, which was originally intended to prevent the bootlegging of films. It passed the House last week and just needs President Bush's signature. Smith's amendment legalizes technological devices that enable films to be sanitized. However, according to the Los Angeles Times, the bill doesn't protect firms like the one run by the "Titanic" editor, so that issue may be settled in court.
The sanitizers probably wouldn't allow their kids to watch this documentary, either. Viewers are shown the director's original version of movies' scenes and then a sanitized version, sometimes with results that are so distorted it is laughable. Among the most outlandish bit of sanitizing concerns the first 25 minutes of Steven Spielberg's film classic, "Saving Private Ryan." Some early scenes depicting the horror of war, which have aired unedited on ABC, are removed, thereby softening Spielberg's message.
The filmmakers seem willing to make some compromises. They are willing to edit their own films to reduce some objectionable content. They note they already do it for network television and airplane versions. They just don't want some amateur deciding how they should be edited.
We all know that Hollywood producers and directors can be an easy target, especially for politicians who want to play the family-friendly card. But this time, they hardly look like the bad guys. I'm not sure they can win in America's current political environment, but some recent comments made by our family-friendly president may supply some comfort.
Favoring TV industry self-regulation in the current debate over TV indecency, President Bush reportedly said: "The final edit is a parent turning off the TV. The ultimate responsibility in a consumer-driven economy is for people to say, 'I'm not going to watch it' and turn the knob off. That's how best to make decisions and how best to send influences."
I'm with the president. I wouldn't have rented "8 Mile" if a sanitized version of Eminem's life had been available. Max can wait until he's 21 (all right, I'll compromise and say 16) to see it the way the filmmakers intended it to be seen.