Add 'Cut' and 'Bleep' to a DVD's Options
By DAVID POGUE
Published: May 27, 2004
THIS column is rated PG-13. It contains salty language, dripping sarcasm and descriptions of some really gross movie scenes.
All that is unavoidable, really, because the topic is RCA's new DRC232N, a DVD player that automatically skips cinematic violence, sex, swearing and drug use.
Its scene-cutting technology, called ClearPlay, comes from a Utah company of the same name. Its executives maintain that by sanitizing movies, they're actually doing Hollywood a favor by building a broader audience.
Hollywood begs to differ. Actually, it sues to differ; eight movie studios and the Directors Guild of America have taken ClearPlay and a group of similar companies to court. "ClearPlay software edits movies to conform to ClearPlay's vision of a movie instead of letting audiences see, and judge for themselves, what writers wrote, what actors said and what directors envisioned," the Directors Guild says.
Meanwhile, the RCA player is available for $70 at Wal-Mart and at a few online stores. It's a sleek black super-thin machine with progressive-scan outputs (connections to high-end TV sets for superior color). The only misfire is the remote, whose buttons don't light up and are mostly the same size and shape.
The machine plays regular, unmodified commercial DVD's. It skips objectionable scenes based on software filters created by human editors and stored in its memory. (It does not filter DVD bonus materials, homemade DVD's or copies of DVD's.)
The filters for 100 recent movies come installed. You have to pay for access to the other 500 filters the company has released so far: $1.50 for a single movie, $50 a year for the entire library, and so on.
Installing new filters is a hassle. You feed them to the player on a CD that you've either burned yourself using a computer (after downloading the filters) or ordered from ClearPlay for another $3 each (one-shot, weekly or monthly). As for movies that the company hasn't yet edited, you can set up the RCA player to play them, refuse them, or play them only if they're "below," say, PG-13.
You, the password-wielding parent, can specify just how zealously you want the player to filter four kinds of material: Violence, Explicit Scenes & Nudity, Language, and Other (which turns out to mean "explicit drug use").
For example, the Language category offers checkboxes for screening options like these (shown here with ClearPlay's own onscreen descriptions): Cursing ("Profane uses of 'h*ll' and "d*mn"'), Strong Profanity ("Swear-words, including strong profanities such as 'a**' and 's***'), Ethnic and Social Slurs ("Ethnically or socially offensive insults"), Crude Language and Humor ("Crude language and bodily humor"), and Vain Reference to Deity ("Vain or irreverent reference to God or a deity").
To mask bad language, the player momentarily mutes the soundtrack. As you know from watching cleaned-up TV movies, it's usually not hard to guess what you've just missed, thanks to the context and the lip movements. (When Steven Seagal says, "Go to [beep]," it's a pretty good bet he didn't say "bed.") But if you're worried about young children in attendance, this bleeping may be better than nothing.
To filter out violence, sex and "disturbing images," on the other hand, the player simply skips ahead. A quarter-second video freeze, a discontinuity in the music and, sometimes, bizarre holes in plot or staging make you quite aware when ClearPlay's magic scissors are at work. (Among its most ham-handed edits: In "The Matrix Reloaded," Neo and Trinity kiss longingly, and then - blink! - instantly appear, sweaty and tousled, chatting in bed. ClearPlay just sent three and a half minutes to the cutting-room floor.)
The funny thing is, you have to wonder if ClearPlay's opponents have ever even tried it. If they did, they would discover ClearPlay is not objectionable just because it butchers the moviemakers' vision. The much bigger problem is that it does not fulfill its mission: to make otherwise offensive movies appropriate for the whole family.
For starters, its editors are wildly inconsistent. They duly mute every "Oh my God," "You bastard," and "We're gonna have a helluva time" (meaning sex). But they leave intact various examples of crude teen slang and a term for the male anatomy.
In "Pirates of the Caribbean," "God-forsaken island" is bleeped, but "heathen gods" slips through. (So much for the promise to remove references to "God or a deity.")
Similarly, in "Terminator 3," the software skips over the Terminator - a cyborg, mind you - bloodlessly opening his abdomen to make a repair. Yet you're still shown a hook carving bloody gouges into the palms of a "Matrix Reloaded" character.
The second problem is that the editors wield their scissors differently according to their view of the characters' righteousness. When Americans are shot in "Black Hawk Down," the editors carefully omit the bullet's moment of impact. But when Somali gunmen are blown apart, you see the whole twitching, gruesome scene.
ClearPlay's most ridiculous assumption, however, is that excising only the split second of central violence somehow makes the overall scene less traumatic. In "Spider-Man," you're spared the three frames of film in which the Green Goblin is impaled by the razors on his own flying skateboard - but you see the entire painful, lingering death that follows. (Maybe ClearPlay assumes that your first grader is numb by now, having already seen Uncle Ben's ClearPlay-approved sidewalk death, his assailant's fall from a six-story window, a test pilot's midair incineration and a grenade blowing several city elders into glowing skeletons.)
Similarly, in "The Ring" (caution: plot spoiler ahead), ClearPlay doesn't want us to see a disturbed woman murder her own daughter by throwing her down a well. So instead, we see the two of them march up to the edge of the well, and then - snip! - we see the girl falling down its shaft and drowning. What are we supposed to think, that she got tossed in by a sudden gust of wind?
Then in "Terminator 3," the editors excise the naked Terminator's exit from his "arrival sphere": a back-lighted nighttime shot that revealed nothing personal about his anatomy to begin with. Good thing, too; a shot of Arnold Schwarzenegger's shadowy flank would surely be more upsetting than the scenes of global nuclear Armageddon - "three billion lives, wiped out in an instant," as the narrator helpfully puts it - that ClearPlay leaves for you to explain to your youngsters.
Pervading the editing is an infuriating literal-mindedness, a squeamishness about sex and language but an astonishing indifference to violence, destruction and pain. In "Terminator 3," for example, a man learning that he has unwittingly triggered the annihilation of mankind is not allowed to say "Dear God" - but you won't miss a frame of the movie's hyperviolent fight sequences. (In one of them, the Terminator smashes a urinal on his cyber-opponent's head and shoves her head into a toilet; she slams him through a marble wall, hurls him across the room using his groin as a handle, and blasts his face with a flamethrower.)
ClearPlay says that it won't try to create filters for movies like "Kill Bill" or "The Passion of the Christ," which are more or less nonstop violence. Good call.
So why, then, does it even bother with horror movies like "Gothika" and "28 Days," tales of incessant brutality like "Amistad" and "Gladiator," and disturbing films like "The English Patient" and "The Pianist"?
Every parent's tolerance is different, of course. But even if you cut out everything but the credits, only Gomez and Morticia Addams would consider these movies suitable for young children.
ClearPlay works fine on movies that might, in fact, be considered family-friendly if relieved of the occasional gory injury or strong language - say, "Raiders of the Lost Ark" or "Freaky Friday." And for any movie, you can press the right-arrow button twice on the ClearPlay welcome screen to see a list of things the filter will make no attempt to skip (Intense Life/Death Situations, Intense Battle Sequences, Murder and so on). Nonetheless, had ClearPlay done a little filtering of titles and not just scenes, its arguments might have been a bit more persuasive, and the current court battle more meaningful.
But as it is, the evidence suggests that ClearPlay's technology is not intended for families at all. It's for like-minded adults, specifically those who are offended by bad language and sexual situations but don't mind brutality, destruction and suffering.
Maybe every ClearPlay-sanitized movie ought to begin with a message: "This film has been modified as follows: It has been formatted to fit the taste, sensibilities and religious beliefs of a couple of guys in Utah. That'll be $1.50."
Honestly. I thought the V-chip was bad enough. *scorn*