On February 19, about 400 high school students from all over Utah joined in a Presidents’ Day rally at the state Capitol. They were there to protest pornography, though exactly what material warranted that politically-charged description proved tough to pin down.
According to comments published in the Salt Lake Tribune, Morgan High School senior Karlee Adams included in her definition of pornography “R-rated movies.” North Summit High senior Lacee Wilde described it as “anything that you wouldn’t feel comfortable watching with your parents.” Most memorably, Timpanogos High sophomore Ashley Spackman placed in the category of pornography Michelangelo’s sculpture of David.
We know, of course, that the U.S. Supreme Court has defined pornography in far less restrictive terms. Even the state of Utah requires that pornography have “no scientific, artistic or political value” and “appeal only to prurient interests.” Our well-intentioned youth will learn better. They’ll learn that pornography isn’t defined by visible genitalia, or by the inclusion of violence, or by a generous helping of four-letter words.
Or maybe they won’t. This is, after all, a state in which many of the LDS faithful accept as revelation an admonition by former church President Ezra Taft Benson in 1986 not to watch R-rated movies. It’s a state in which a thriving business has been built on deleting all violence, sexual content and profanity from mainstream Hollywood movies for the consumption of sensitive viewers. It’s a state in which a Mormon writer is making it his mission—no pun intended—to clean up a literary genre generally awash in potentially offensive content. A whole lot of people want their arts and entertainment rated G, or they don’t want them at all.
So what’s wrong with a push for clean entertainment? Multiplexes and bookstores overflow with material that pushes the limits of common decency. Even the most liberal-minded defender of the First Amendment could be moved to retching by Tom Green’s horse-fondling, cow-suckling, baby-wrangling exploits in Freddy Got Fingered. Why not counteract the muck with a little purity? And in the name of all that is good and holy, what about the children?
In American pop culture, it’s often justifiable to ask, “How much is too much?” On the other hand, is there also a time to ask how little is too little? LDS artists and entrepreneurs are approaching this challenging question from a variety of perspectives, developing their own unique answers along the way. Do their good intentions risk paving a proverbial road to … heck?
The Case of the Clean Thriller
Ken Merrell can’t possibly be real. His publicity photo presents a gentle smile and a button-down collar, the image of a devoted family man. He speaks in the most level and sincere of tones, even when his perspectives are being challenged. When he calls from Arizona for a phone interview set up for 8 a.m., he calls at 8 a.m. Not at 7:59; not at 8:01; but at eight on the dot.
Everything about him suggests that if anyone were deadly earnest in his desire to make the world a little nicer by writing a “clean thriller,” it would be Ken Merrell. In his novel The Landlord, Merrell has constructed a suspense thriller completely free of potentially offensive material. Graphic depictions of violence in this serial killer mystery? None. Sexual trysts between its protagonists? None. Profanity harsher than the occasional “butt” or “crap”? Decidedly none.
“I like thrillers,” Merrell says with enthusiasm, “and I like surprises. Yet it’s offensive to me when I pick up a best-selling thriller and it’s full of vulgarity. I didn’t hear this material all day, so why did I have to hear it there? We think we have to describe those things as clear as could be, but I think there are other ways to do it.”
For Merrell, the “other ways” include shootings described in such understated terms as “the bullet found its mark,” or “one [bullet] connected with flesh.” The descriptions are quaint, but do little harm to the integrity of the story. That’s not the case with a number of passages involving the story’s primary villain, defined by Merrell as “trained to kill during the Vietnam War,” one of a group of “elite killing machines … brainwashed to fight and kill without feeling.” Merrell repeatedly mutes his attempts to portray his antagonist’s dark heart, stepping into the third person when the character threatens the novel’s hero: “[He] went on to describe in graphic detail a knife stuck deep in Stacey’s spine.” And in the novel’s most hilariously ill-advised example of soft-pedalling, this villain—a hardened war veteran—musters up the bile to call the hero “turd-brain.”
Merrell defends his approach to writing his first novel—if not his specific choices—vigorously. “I am getting better at those sorts of things,” he replies, never seeming the least bit upset by the criticism. “There are some things that sound kind of odd, because we’ve become so accustomed to things being explicit. No one has taken the time and energy to know how to make it work. If I were writing it now, I would have changed [the use of the word ‘turd-brain’] in a way that would have made it better, without that one little thing that pulls you out of the scene.”
Implicit in Merrell’s argument is the idea that there’s always an appropriate inoffensive alternative, always a “turd-brain” that will suffice where the reader might expect a 12-letter expletive. It’s simply a matter of practice, he suggests, of taking the time to come up with alternatives. And for Merrell, it appears that the alternative would almost invariably be better … even if we’re talking about the nudity in the concentration camp scenes in Schindler’s List.
“If clothes were put on them, it would be way out of whack,” Merrell acknowledges. “But if it could have been more sensitive in the angles of those shots, so that it could have helped the more sensitive viewer, and could have been just as impactful. We still would have everything we need in the movie.”
Like many crusaders for more morally responsible art, Merrell invokes “the children” with regularity. He describes his motivations for writing The Landlord in terms of having “teenagers that I struggle with.” In response to the student quote regarding Michelangelo’s “David” being pornography, Merrell comments, “I don’t think [it’s] pornographic, but it may be pushing the edge with younger children.” And of popular culture in general, he says, “We’re destroying our culture; we’re desensitizing our children.”
Yet he’s also convinced that there’s a reason to write as he does, even in a book—and a genre—that would not be intended for young children. “Sometimes, when you talk about what happens to the children,” he says, “we don’t realize how we’re being affected. We see people desensitized. It’s like hopping into a pot of warm water and having the heat slowly turned up.”
There’s no need to fear any such warm water in The Landlord.
The Unkindest Cut
Ray Lines has already grown accustomed to the spotlight. He also seems quite comfortable there.
“I’ve been on 50 radio stations,” Lines begins, “MSNBC, Today, Jerry Fallwell’s program, I’ve been interviewed in London. I knew when the story came out in the New York Times, we’d get a lot of attention.”
The object of that attention is Lines’ CleanFlicks video operation, which has been as popular as it has been controversial. Since October of 2000, Lines has been selling and renting videos of mainstream theatrical films from his stores in Pleasant Grove and Orem—and later, Provo—edited to remove all profanity, nudity, sexual content, profane reference to God and excessive violence. He edits more than 200 films a week—most of them himself—and subcontracts his services to other retailers like American Fork’s Sunrise Family Video.
For Lines, it’s impossible to separate how much of CleanFlicks was inspired by moral sense, and how much by business sense. “We’ve always felt like this was something that would be good for people,” Lines says with calm sincerity rather than any sense of zeal. “Then people came to us, and we saw there’s a need for this. It’s been a complaint for years that ‘there’s just this one little part that I don’t want to have to see.’”
And it’s clear to Lines that this isn’t an LDS-specific issue. He has been consulted by entrepreneurs around the country about starting similar businesses. Websites like EditMyMovies.com are also tapping the content-cleansing market. “There’s a lot of people that are sick and tired of listening to this crap or watching this crap,” Lines adds, spitting out the words.
This crap has included everything from the more graphic violence in Gladiator to portions of the Omaha Beach opening sequence in Saving Private Ryan, from the sordid goings-on in L.A. Confidential to Kate Winslet’s bare breasts in Titanic. It’s nothing that isn’t being done for television and airline versions of the films, Lines contends, which is why he’s perplexed by the outcry from studios and film-makers—like director John Schlesinger, who referred to Sunrise Video’s editing practices as “mutilating art”—over similar content editing of home video copies.
Lines counters that most of the complaints come from people who haven’t even seen his edited versions, and that the changes are barely noticeable. “I had to send some examples to the Today show,” he recalls with a chuckle, “and after we sent the edited ones, they said, ‘OK, now send the edited ones.’”
For Lines, the only question regarding whether or not he’ll edit a film is whether the edits would change a specific film so dramatically that it would be rendered incomprehensible. Eyes Wide Shut, Primary Colors and Pretty Woman are listed among the titles CleanFlicks won’t edit for customers. As for the Saving Private Ryan argument he’s heard many times, Lines simply states, “People say, ‘You’d have to take out the first 20 minutes.’ I take maybe three minutes out of the whole movie.”
Thus far, CleanFlicks has avoided any direct legal action over its editing of videos. Lines edits films for customers after they are already sold, or offers them for rent only to members of CleanFlicks’ “co-op,” which may allow him to sidestep copyright infringement litigation. Meanwhile, plenty of people want the edited versions of Hollywood films, and that seems to be good enough for Lines.
Besides, he notes with utmost practicality, “You’d think that Hollywood guys would think, ‘Hey, this is great that more people can see these films now.’”
The Rating Game
Among those who don’t think it’s great that Ray Lines might edit his films, count Richard Dutcher.
Count him also among those you couldn’t exactly call one of those “Hollywood guys.” Though he looked a bit more showbiz at an April press conference to announce his next project—slicked-back hair, black blazer, no tie—nothing in his demeanor suggests he has changed as a person since his film God’s Army became an independent hit last year. He’s open, unguarded and apparently unconcerned about whether his comments create a stir. Dutcher is as committed as ever to telling morally instructive film stories from his LDS perspective. He’s also committed to making good movies, without deciding in advance what they must be rated by the MPAA to win the approval of Mormon viewers.
That commitment presented him with a slight dilemma when the mystery thriller Brigham City, which Dutcher wrote, directed and starred in, received a PG-13 rating from the Motion Picture Association of America. From Dutcher’s perspective, though, it was never really a dilemma at all. He says he never considered editing any of the violent content from the film, even when he realized some LDS viewers might stay away from the film because of its more restrictive rating.
“I think choosing our entertainment or art based on the rating of the MPAA is ridiculous,” Dutcher says. “Purely from a Mormon standpoint, I don’t think what President Benson meant to do [with his 1986 admonition] was to have everyone surrender their agency to the MPAA.
“Since ,” he adds, “the only thing that’s been said officially by the church leadership is to avoid inappropriate films. And that lays a greater burden on the viewer.”
In Brigham City, Dutcher hardly needed to push an NC-17 to make a moral point. Like Ken Merrell’s The Landlord, the film takes place in a small Utah community where serial killings are taking place. Unlike The Landlord, this story finds a place for the violence of those killings. Still, Dutcher admits he was surprised that Brigham City’s PG-13 rating proved so controversial—as well as by the reaction to his comment that, if a story he wanted to tell warranted content that would earn it an R rating, he might someday make an R-rated film.
“I got a call from someone who had heard that comment,” Dutcher laughs, “who said, ‘We will never see any of your movies, because we’d never want our movie-going dollars going to someone who may someday make an R-rated film.’”
For Dutcher, the nitpicking over ratings and specific content ignores the more pressing question of how such material is presented in an artistic work. He juxtaposes Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs with the Scream series, noting that in the former, extreme and even shocking violence was used to make a point rather than for what he perceived as “violence for titillation.”
“I don’t think you can illustrate morality without illustrating immorality,” Dutcher contends. “It’s an artistic impossibility. It’s very possible for a well-meaning story-teller to sacrifice his integrity and tell lies in order not to offend.”
He also reacts bluntly to the quoted statements from the students at the anti-pornography rally. “It seems to indicate we’re raising a generation of idiots,” he says. “It’s ridiculous to claim that R-rated movies are pornography. It seems to be something that’s just happened over the past decade or so, this idea that all movies or television should be for everyone.”
As for the CleanFlicks question, Dutcher admits he’s of two minds. How would he feel if a consumer purchased a video copy of Brigham City and had CleanFlicks edit out the violence that he decided to include? “I recognize their right. It’s their property. But it would sadden me. It’s taking words out of the message I’m trying to communicate. And it’s a consumerist attitude, I think—that you can take a work of art and do whatever you want with it.”
What about that next film project? It will be a biography of Joseph Smith Jr., tentatively titled The Prophet. And while Dutcher anticipates that the script he has written will probably result in a PG-13 rating, he says that if historical accuracy demands that the story be R-rated, then it will be R-rated. “You can probably cover things like John Taylor being massacred, or Joseph Smith himself, in a PG kind of way. But if that neuters the impact … no, I wouldn’t do it.”
When he speaks on the subject of content in films—and the way an LDS audience might approach that content—Kieth Merrill (no relation to The Landlord author Ken Merrell) chooses his words carefully. After all, he’s not just any filmmaker speaking on these subjects. This is the writer/director of the revered Church-commissioned films Legacy and The Testaments. He knows his words will be taken very seriously. “I’ve been quite outspoken about the mistaken notion that people should tie their morality to the MPAA rating system,” Merrill says. “But I’ve been careful never to go on record as saying people should go to see R-rated movies.” And in his subsequent comments, it’s clear he often subscribes to even higher standards than the MPAA.
But Merrill is also an Oscar-winning director, a creator of documentaries, historical dramas and large format (IMAX) films featuring material that might make a pious Mormon do a double take. His film The Witness—produced for Connecticut’s Mashentucket Pequot Museum to tell the story of a tragic massacre of Native Americans by English soldiers—contains war violence and historically accurate depiction of partial nudity. The IMAX film Amazon includes footage of indigenous people who wear no clothes at all.
There’s tension and ambivalence in nearly every response as Merrill speaks—not a lack of conviction, but a recognition that his convictions make for some blurrier lines than many LDS faithful might find comfortable. While he “defers to the personal standard” in defining pornography, he admits to being slightly offended by the idea that Michelangelo’s “David” could be considered pornographic because “experiencing that for me was a religious experience.” And while he is serving on the board of directors for a company developing a digital technology for custom-editing films, he says, “Curiously, yes, it would bother me that someone else could edit my movie.”
What Merrill does say without reservation is that content is not the same as an artist’s intent with that content. “I’ve certainly made films where I’ve had partial nudity, or violence,” he says, “but there was no exploitation in the way we shot it. … It’s an attitude of exploitation in the film-maker that may make the difference between whether it has redeeming value or whether it doesn’t.”
Merrill faced a challenge even in dealing with filming the crucifixion sequence for The Testaments. “There was great concern that it would be too intense,” he recalls. “My feeling was that parents need to make sure their children are prepared, and that they shouldn’t haul little kids in there.
“It seems strange to say that an unrated film made for the LDS church shouldn’t be for children,” he continues, “but that may be the case. That may be the most benign environment in which to watch a film, yet we’re still struggling with the question of exploitation.”
For Merrill, such matters of content vs. exploitation transcend the decisions made by the MPAA on rating films. He singles out R-rated films like The Patriot and Schindler’s List as films that can tell highly moral stories while not being appropriate for a family audience. At the same time, he mentions PG-13-rated films like In & Out and Heartbreakers that contain an overall thematic message he considers potentially more morally damaging.
“To me,” Merrill states flatly, “the standard is where it modifies behavior and where it damages the soul. I know where that is in my own life. I know what I’m not willing to expose myself to because it may corrupt me.”
A Question of Corruption
Kieth Merrill’s standard may be the most worthwhile personal definition of objectionable content. It may also be the trickiest. “We should probably focus on the fact that’s his or her value system,” Ken Merrell says of the student calling Michelangelo’s “David” pornography; Kieth Merrill adds on the same subject, “For that individual, in terms of how it affects them, it may be.”
But we’re faced with a dilemma of circular reasoning when considering such an unusual, restrictive definition for pornography. Is such benign material only potentially corrupting because it’s the most extreme material to which that individual has been exposed? And if so, wouldn’t it be beneficial for that individual to be exposed to more benignly “corrupting” art, allowing the standard to be set at a more reasonable level?
For LDS artists and the consumers of that art, the struggle with that subject will continue. Many will consider not just what is said or portrayed, but how, and why. Many—like those hypothetical readers described by Orson Scott Card—will ignore context and consider virtually everything provocative.
In a fitting example of thematic synchronicity, Brigham City also addresses the subject of insulation vs. exposure. Through the challenges faced by his own character in the film, Richard Dutcher explores whether it’s possible for a community to remain pure by refusing to acknowledge the realities of the wider society.
“I hear this debate a lot, over whether to include violence at all, to include sexuality at all,” Dutcher says. “I find that a strange argument to come from religious people. The perfect storyteller—God—told his stories with violence and human sexuality, and all those stories are told for a reason.
“I think remaining innocent is so valuable, but I think it’s inherently impossible to do so,” he adds. “You’re going to fail.”