Friday, September 11, 2009

TIFF 2009 Reviews: Cleanflix

I did really want to love Cleanflix, truly I did. I didn't dislike it, but it's still a moderate non-recommend. The problem may be one of expectations: the filmmakers could have take their investigation and the material in at least three directions that I can think of, and they chose to go the least interesting route.

Okay, sidebar here, then I'll get back to the movie. I need to talk a bit about the screening venue. The AMC at Yonge-Dundas Square is without a doubt one of the best-appointed theatres I've ever been in. The seats are wide, plush and comfortable, with plenty of leg room. The rooms boast brand spankin' new digital projections and sound systems, so I've yet to see a movie there with less-than-stellar image and sound (though come to think of it, last summer's Godfather reissue was a bit grainy). With the steep stadium seating there's not a bad seat in the theatre. And I hate the place, and try to avoid seeing movies there if I can at all help it during the rest of the year. I hate that it charges a higher admission than anywhere else in the city, that it's got a lousy snack bar, that the time-waster magazine "Tribute" that they distribute in the lobby is an ugly piece of crap that seems to be designed for people whose lips move when they read US Weekly. And I hate that often it's the only place in town--or often it's one of two places the other being the equally execrable yet still cheaper Canada Square--that shows a number of smaller-release films and as a viewer I don't have much choice in the matter than to sit in a virtually-empty screening room for a Saturday matinee. I will concede that it's a convenient location for festival screenings, but when the Lightbox is finally complete hopefully TIFF can lose it as a venue. Maybe in a few years when it's a bit more broken in I won't feel such antipathy towards the place, but right now, less than two years into its existence, attending the AMC at Yonge & Dundas is like seeing a movie in a clinical, sterile and friction-free environment.

And speaking of clinical, sterile and friction-free, the "International" theme of the festival now takes us to the Utah Valley, where freshly-scrubbed and ultra-judgmental (emphasis on the "mental") white people insist that Hollywood is in the business of foisting its values on a godly world that simply knows better what makes a good movie. Cleanflix is (sort of) about the variety of companies that sprung up in Utah in the past decade or so that rent or sell bowdlerized versions of mainstream movies, DVDs and videotapes in which all blood, sex, nudity or even oblique references to human anatomy are excised so as not to poison innocent Mormon minds. This is all done, of course, in clear violation of U.S. copyright law, and the DGA rightly won injunctions against the dealers to get them to stop the practice (which, needless to say, goes on largely unabated anyway).

To my mind, the filmmakers could have gone a few ways with this. As members of the Mormon community themselves, but obviously not on the side of censorship, Ligairi and James could have explored the moral value system of the Church of LDS and examined why committee decisions by the Elders are treated as holy writ carried down from the mountain, why the entire community seems to be raised in fear of exposure to any cutlure that brushes roughly against their established beliefs. There is a bit of this; one former LDS filmmaker expounds on how Mormonism is not a religion for self-examination or philosophizing. They also could have examined the artistic side of the equation, gone in-depth on the subject of the censored movies, what got changed and why, maybe shown the Cleanflicks versions of their films to H'wood directors and gotten their reactions. As it is, the only director who seems to have sat down with the filmmakers is Neil LaBute, who famously left the church and is quite eloquent as to why. Many other directors appear onscreen, but judging from the video quality, this all seems to be found footage.

The tack the directors took was to focus on one player in the mess, a video store owner who, due to his love of being on camera for this film or for local media, became one of the public faces of the controversy as he ran his store, reopened it after the first injunction, got shut down again and eventually got busted soliciting sex from a couple of fourteen year old girls. I don't know if the movie ever explicitly states he's a Mormon. I'm not sure he is: he says "shit" a couple of times on camera and mentions the market for the movies much more than any moral issues he himself takes with the product. Which is, I guess, the big irony that the directors simply never bring up (or maybe they didn't notice it): anyone who's worked there, or who pays attention at all, knows that Hollywood has no moral agenda. The town as a collective whole does not foist any particular brand of morality on the world. The city produces and distributes with one goal in mind: profit. The same industry produced Showgirls and Passion of the Christ. Hostel and the Tyler Perry movies. The 10 Commandments and Five Easy Pieces. So the Cleanflix directors focussed on a guy with no moral stake in the game who violated copyright law to make a big profit, just like the system he's ripping off...and this is never pointed out! There's a missed opportunity here on several levels, I think. (**1/2)

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