At the outset, Cleanflix seems to be a simple documentary about the rise and fall of the small Utah company that offered sanitized versions of popular films (spelled CleanFlicks-- the X was probably seen as risqué). Relieving these films of their bad words and/or boobies made them accessible to a religious audience, especially Mormons, who, due to a specific church doctrine outlawing R-Rated films, had no other access to any popular movies not made by, say, Pixar (and even then, Toy Story 3 is touch-and-go).
CleanFlicks did big business in Utah when it started about 10 years ago, but when it began to get too much attention, it rankled the membership of the Director’s Guild of America, and after an odd lawsuit, the company was ordered to shut down. It’s at this point that the documentary’s story begins in earnest, because Cleanflix isn’t just about one company, but about the strange black-and-white nature of religious doctrine in general, especially when it comes to the Mormon church.
As someone who lived in Los Angeles when Prop 8 (the anti-gay marriage initiative) was voted into law, I’ve personally witnessed the mighty power of the Mormon church; it mobilized in force behind Prop 8 with great success. The then-artistic director of California Musical Theater, Scott Eckern, was a Mormon, so, despite working in one of the gayest fields out there next to interior design and bouncing at Rawhide on 8th Avenue, he’d followed church doctrine and donated $1,000 to support Prop 8. “I honestly had no idea that this would be the reaction,” he explained, after having to step down due to the uproar.
After all, he’d only been following the orders sent down from church leadership, which is very much the sentiment you witness in action in Cleanflix, when religious Mormons willingly break the law--technically, an immoral act--in order to sell, or even rent, censored films.There’s no consideration given to gradations of morality, especially when films like Casino are considered OK to view after getting the CleanFlicks treatment. Even if that film has every bit of nudity, graphic violence, and profanity removed, it’s still about corrupt, evil people, but there are no nuances to the doctrine, so the words of the prophet, be they about what movies to see or what causes to donate to, are final.
There are other amazing twists to the story of the post-CleanFlicks censored film industry involving angry competitors and arrests for sex with underage girls, but the real twists in the film are the bigger questions about what really makes a film art, or evil, or acceptable, or all of the above, and who has the right to make those decisions. Cleanflix is a surprisingly deft documentary that uses the simple story of one company to take on a much more complicated, and potentially dangerous, issue.