And the award for Most Egregious Editing goes to…

elvira edited
“There’s nothing wrong with G-rated movies, as long as there’s lots of sex and violence.”

– Elvira, Mistress of the Dark

Once upon a time, long, long ago, when Netflix and TiVo were just a twinkle in the ether, there was a boy who loved going to the video store. His usual haunts were small, dark independent stores tucked around corners or in basements, stocked with an eclectic mix of classics, oddities and trash. But sometimes, when he was feeling tired and lazy, he’d slouch around the corner to Blockbuster.

What the boy didn’t know was that there was a hidden artistic price for his sloth. Although Viacom/Blockbuster does not edit their movies, and this particular boy has no idea what they currently do, in this long ago time they did order “edited for content” versions of movies from studios. This is a lesson the boy learned the hard way, at the cost of watching two of his favorite films disembowelled before his eyes.

Clint Eastwood‘s 1973 spaghetti-western-style gunslinger film, High Plains Drifter, and John Woo‘s melodramatic 1989 Hong Kong action film, The Killer, are both violent movies. Intense, artistic, thought-provoking and ethically complex, but violent. Both narratives rely heavily on specific brutal incidents to justify the characters’ actions and both films draw much of their irony, pathos and moral ambiguity from how those acts of violence radiate out over time.

high plains drifterIn High Plains Drifter, a nameless gunslinger commonly referred to as “the Stranger” rides into town and immediately shoots three other gunslingers. Rather than charging him with murder, the townspeople decide to hire him to protect them from yet three more gunslingers who are due to be released from prison and are seeking revenge on the town. Through the Stranger’s dreams, it’s revealed that what the three men were sent to prison for was bullwhipping the previous Sheriff to death while the whole town stood by and watched.

The Stranger trains them to defend themselves and tasks them with painting their entire town bright red. When the preacher asks him, “You can’t possibly mean the church too?” he says, “I mean especially the church.” The Stranger rides out to the town’s welcome sign and paints ‘Hell’ over ‘Lago’. After the townsfolk have finished painting everything, he rides away and leaves them at the mercy of the gunslingers. He returns later to kill the gunslingers, and on his way out of town he passes one of the two characters who ever tried to do the right thing. He’s carving an RIP gravestone for the murdered Sheriff, and he says, “I never did know your name,” to which the Stranger replies, “Yes, you do.”

welcome-to-hellAnyone laying bets on what didn’t make the cut in the edited version I rented? Among other things, the bullwhipping. Wow, that whole devil-comes-to-town-and-paints-it-up-like-hell thing sure doesn’t seem quite justified without the violence of the initial act. It’s upsetting to watch, sure, as is the part where the Stranger rapes a woman near the beginning (also cut), but it’s supposed to be upsetting. We live in a world where women have to deal with the ongoing possibility of rape and people stand by and let terrible things happen to one another. Anyone who participates by action or inaction is morally compromised. The ethical complexity and emotional impact of a film like this is effectively neutered by minimizing the violence and removing the prime motivation for the action.

Where the edited version of High Plains Drifter made about as much sense as a punchline without the joke, The Killer ended up like a joke without the punchline. Chow Yun-Fat is a hired killer, Ah Jong, who accidentally damages a young singer’s eyes during a gunfight. He starts coming to the club to watch the girl, Jennie, sing and one night he rescues her from being attacked on the street. He begins to visit her and learns that she can avoid going blind if she can raise enough money for a corneal transplant. He decides to take one last job to get her the money, but the Triad leader who hired him arranges to kill him rather than paying him.

the-killerAh Jong works out a way to get the money but the Triad is still after him, so he asks his friend, Li, to make sure that if he dies, his corneas get donated to Jennie or the money is used to send her abroad for surgery. In the final shootout, which I understand involves killing more people than the rest of John Woo’s American films combined, the Triad leader shoots Ah Jong in both eyes. He and Jennie crawl blindly past each other on their stomachs, unable to find one another. Then he dies, and Li gets himself arrested for shooting the Triad leader.

The edited version didn’t censor out all the bleeding and dying, but it did omit the part where he gets his eyes shot out. It cut directly from the standoff with the Triad leader to Jennie and Ah Jong inexplicably crawling past each other on the ground. Huh? I’m not sure I would have understood what happened at all if I hadn’t already seen the film. Who looked at this movie and thought, ‘that’s too violent, we’ll just take it out?’ Who looked at this movie and thought ‘let’s edit it for violence?’ Why would anyone who was offended by violence ever want to watch this movie?

This question leads me to Clearplay, a dvd player that allows viewers to customize their “tolerance settings” for content such as violence, sex or nudity in a selection of films. “Strong profanity” is pretty self-explanatory, but what exactly gets edited out if you choose to filter for “disturbing images” is up for debate. Dubbed as “the safest way to enjoy movies with your family,”  it suggests you “set content preferences based on your family values” and the player will “filter out the images and dialogue you don’t want.”

“It definitely doesn’t take anything away from the actual movie,” claims one of the customer testimonials on their website. I keep imagining Austin Powers filtered for “crude language and humor,” or Glengarry Glen Ross filtered for “cursing.” Some movies are made solely with profit in mind, but most are based on an artistic vision of some kind. A combination of writers, directors, producers, cinematographers and actors created them that way on purpose to show you something. You may like it or hate it, maybe it’s successful or maybe not so much, but you can’t excise and rearrange it in whatever way you choose and still get the same value out of it.

That said, the things we watch are constantly edited for content, edited for time, edited to fit your tv screen. Much as I think the killerremoving content from movies is missing a fundamental point about art and life, it’s absolutely fine for people to choose what they do and don’t want to watch, and in the case of Clearplay people are making a choice. With my accidental Blockbuster experience however, that was not what I thought I was paying for. How could I have guessed that anyone would try to edit those films for violent content?

Here’s a tip for y’all: if you don’t want to watch any killing, don’t watch movies about hired killers.


alex MacFadyen also recommends checking out this entertaining thread about receiving cold calls from the Dove Foundation, a non-profit organization “dedicated to advocating for families and moving Hollywood in a more family-friendly direction.”

6 replies »

  1. If it weren’t for High Plains Drifter and The Killer, chances are I would never know that Blockbuster was offering films that had been edited for content.

    The rape, I thought I might have misremembered, but when there was no bullwhipping, I knew they were editing and not even bothering to tell people. High Plains Drifter without the bullwhipping is, as you say, unjustified–and even becomes the kind of gratuitously cruel movie the editing was supposed to fix.

    The Killer was just… funny. Again, that undermines what that editing was supposed to fix. The edit is startling and just cuts out the tragedy–which is also moral. There is no good, no redemption in what Jeff/Ah Jong does.


  2. I think what bothers me about things like the “edited for content” approaches is that it seems like cowardice. People who want to indulge something that they feel somewhat ashamed about so they simply edit parts of the shamefulness (at least in their heads, anyway) stuff so that they can attempt to have it both ways.

    I feel like if you have some kind of moral objection to what’s in the movie, have the fortitude to not watch it, or if you choose to watch it, have the honesty to face the parts you find troublesome.


  3. Wow !

    I just checked out the CLEARPLAY website and I have 2 comments:

    1) The don’t offer RE-ANIMATOR, which is a shame, because if you filter all options, it would make a great soap opera. I’m convinced of it. (Interestingly, they do offer EVIL DEAD 1 & 2, which leaves what…5 minutes of film to watch? Combined!)

    2) They do offer very explicit rape: the Player & First Year of Membership Regular Price: $245.87. That makes my a** hurt.

    Thanks for exposing me to this headscratcher of a product.


  4. So in thirty years we’ve gone from nationwide “awareness” campaigns headed by the wives of TV preachers and sitting Senators, aimed at “educating” parents about the magical ways popular media will corrupt their children to…a $250 DVD player with the “family values” pre-programed in? By whom? Where? And what makes them think they’re so hot that their family and mine share the same “values”? Are our “family values” so simplistic and paltry we can reduce them to binary options, easily processed by one of the dumbest (and fussiest) pieces of technology ever conceived, the home-DVD player?

    If ClearPlay’s userbase were encouraged to (or capable of) of program(ming) the machine themselves, I’d be a lot more comfortable with this. Among other things, it would eliminate the need for ClearPlay to exist. But this reeks to high heaven of another “lifestyle product” scam designed by and for narcissists who want to look like they care about “family values” without doing the hard work of actually communicating those “values” to their “family” (i.e., the mewling poop-machines they spawned and now have no idea what to do with). People who can put this sentence (from their website’s review of Star Trek (2009)):

    “ClearPlayed, the movie loses about 20 moments of profanity, some graphic violence with swordplay and fist fighting, unnecessary innuendo of James T. Kirk carousing, and women in underwear, but loses none of its rollicking impact. (Emphasis mine)”

    right next to this sentence:

    “The ClearPlayed version has implied violence, including the destruction of a planet, but none of the bloody aftermath.” (Again, emphasis all mine.)

    without a hint of cognitive dissonance. (Ignoring, for the moment, that there is no “bloody aftermath” to the destruction of Vulcan, or anything in that film, save Kirk’s initial barfight.)

    Ah well. Cognitive dissonance is overrated anyway. And since I can’t beat them, I might as well join them in using The Children as human shields for my own social program. Because I pity the children of such people. What are they to make of all this? “Gee, mom and dad sure talk a good game, but they pawn most of their parental responsibilities off on professional educators they obviously don’t respect (“who are those teachers to tell me how to raise my kid?”) and machines I know way the hell more about than they ever bothered to learn. Seems like the thing this ‘family’ really ‘values’ is convenience. Being left alone so we can all do our own ‘thing.’ Whatever that is.”


  5. With all the movies in the world, Evil Dead is a very odd choice. So Ash and his friends drive up to the cabin and open the cellar door… uh… yeah. I’m having trouble thinking of anything else that would make the cut after that. Personally, I vote for the raped-by-a-tree scene falling under the “disturbing images” category though. I could actually have been perfectly happy never seeing that.


  6. Thanks for the quotes on Star Trek! The removal of the bloody aftermath of genocide is a perfect illustration of what I was getting at. Rather than addressing the reality of violence, it gets swept under the rug because real violence is emotionally and ethically uncomfortable to cope with.

    I can respect the position that violence is not entertainment – that acknowledges the reality of violence and demonstrates a commitment to an ideal – and I can respect simply saying ‘I find it upsetting and therefore I don’t want to see it when I’m trying to relax on my sofa.’ But I think that whitewashing the consequences of a profoundly violent act like the annihilation of an entire society actually fails to teach critical thinking and strong moral values around non-violence, and painting a picture of that as the higher moral ground doesn’t sit well with me.

    Also, with no swordplay, carousing, or unnecessary innuendo, by my definition it sure does sound like they took a whole lot of the rollicking out of it.


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