Avoiding the Very Appearance of Evil… (the CleanFlicks story)

Nick Literski Culture, doubt, faith, movies 67 Comments

Latter-day Saints are often taught to avoid the “very appearance of evil. ” This makes sense for any group that believes deity has called it to be “a peculiar people.” The individual examples of LDS members speak far louder than tens of thousands of missionaries in white shirts and ties (and dresses or skirts, of course). While this wise counsel can be taken to extremes, most seem to understand the principle behind it.

A recent news story from Utah, however, has me thinking about appearances vs. reality — something Jesus addressed when he talked about “whited sepulchres.” Several years ago, Daniel D. Thompson and Isaac R. Lifferth operated a franchise video store under the banner of Clean Flicks, Inc.  The idea was simple enough.  Thompson and Lifferth purchased videos of PG-13 or R rated films, and edited them to remove what many LDS felt was “inappropriate” content (read: sex and at least some violence).  What better business model in a state where 72% of the population has been repeatedly cautioned to avoid naughty movies?  Well, maybe a legal one would be a bit better.  In mid-2006, the company was brought to a halt after a federal court ruled that the business’ activities constituted copyright infringement.  Many were disappointed with the “end” of the Clean Flicks story.  Thompson and Lifferth reopened their store under the name “Flix Club.”

Well, it turns out that wasn’t the end.  Last week, Thompson and Lifferth found themselves under arrest. These men, who by all apperances sincerely fought Hollywood to provide wholesome entertainment for LDS families, were allegedly doing something quite different behind the counter.

A wise LDS mother brought this situation to light, when she noticed her 14 year old daughter had unaccountable $20 bills. This exemplary mother questioned her daughter, lest there be some misbehavior involved, and found more than she expected. The daughter, along with another 14 year old, had been receiving $20 payments for repeated visits to the closed Flix Club store, where they performed certain sexual acts for the gratification of Thompson and Lifferth.

Thud.

The two girls informed police that Thompson and Lifferth had been using Clean Flicks and Flicks Club all along, as a front for a pornography studio. The 14 year old girls were asked to become the latest “stars” in the Thompson/Lifferth venture, but fortunately declined. A subsequent police search resulted in discovery of many pornographic videos, liquor, illegally-possessed prescription medication, and video cameras connected to a viewing screen. Confessions by Thompson and Lifferth reveal that additional minors were similarly victimized.

When I trained with the Utah Police Academy years ago, I was privy to some pretty scary stories involving similar conduct (and worse) by local LDS leaders. I don’t think these stories make much difference in terms of faith in a particular religion, but they certainly impact our ability to trust others, even fellow-believers. That wise carpenter-turned-rabbi once told his followers to beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing, and events like these show us he was right. At the same time, we all have a strong human need to be part of a community. How do we trust others enough to have that sense of community, when appearances can so often be deceiving?

Comments

comments

Comments 67

  1. You bring up a great point. While it’s great to avoid the appearance of evil, it’s more important to avoid being evil.

  2. I agree we always need to be alert of who we trust, especially with our children, but I also don’t want to live in a world where I can’t trust. So the fine line is to be sensitive to people, lean more on people you know and treat your trust like you would your integrity, relationship to God and entertainment system.

  3. I’m stunned, yet somehow it makes sense that folks who would try to make a buck off of folk’s desire to have their cake and eat it too would be dabbling in the shady side themselves…

  4. Post
    Author

    It’s interesting to read the readers’ comments at the Deseret News and Salt Lake Tribune. Many wanted to validate their original trust for these men, and constructed narratives to do just that. The most common seemed to be an absolute declaration that these men committed their disgusting acts as a result of watching all those sexual/violent movie segments while in the process of editing videos. One commentor who took this approach actually cast these men as if they were valiant warriors of righteousness, who unexpectedly fell victims to the naughty bits (no pun intended) they had seen while editing films. In short, people had placed their trust in these men (hmmm…something about “trusting in the arm of flesh?”), and rather than acknowledge that their religious feelings had led them to trust evil individuals, they found a way to shift blame to some generic Hollywood evil-doer.

  5. The whole premise of Clean Flicks was trusting two guys you knew nothing about, other than they are apparently LDS, to remove the bits of movies you personally would find objectionable, all so you could say, “Yeah, I’ve seen Air Force One, and Borat, and Terminator, and I feel trendy and moral at the same time.” It works on a similar principle to Living Scriptures and other operations looking to make a profit off of the faithful.

  6. Wow, this is a bit sobering. Normally, you read about these kind of scandals happening far from you. I’ve bought edited movies from these guys within the last month. They both seemed like good guys. This is really unbelievable.

  7. A despicable side of humanity for sure. Yet, I don’t think hiding from it or avoiding community participation is the answer of riding this type of behavior. In fact, I think quite the opposite. In hiding our children away from societal problems or sheltering them, they become more susceptible to trickery. Naivete can only harm a child, so they need to be educated about the dangers this world has; that bad people exist. Furthermore, we need to be active in our communities and be involved with decisions that affect us, not bury our heads in the sand. I know that is not what’s being advocated in the post, but avoiding or turning our heads away from the problem is no solution. I am glad that those men were caught and prosecuted. I am glad that the mother was involved enough in her daughter’s life to recognize a problem. I am glad that as result of her involvement–sick, debaucherous men were put away. That is the importance of getting involved.

    As far as a sense of trust, there is always a danger of having that trust betrayed. I think trust is like love; there is always a risk, but do we stop because we were hurt? One has to be vigilant but not paranoid.

  8. I think trusting people based on their real or perceived appearance, both physical and or spiritual, is a bad idea in general. I have consistently found the most loving Christ like people are those you would normally try and avoid (based on appearance). Thats not to say that all people of any group are trustworthy, just that our own judgement based on the superficial is nearly always wrong.

  9. “In short, people had placed their trust in these men (hmmm…something about “trusting in the arm of flesh?”), and rather than acknowledge that their religious feelings had led them to trust evil individuals, they found a way to shift blame to some generic Hollywood evil-doer.”

    Nick,

    I’m not quite sure what you mean by this. Do you, in fact, agree that Thompson and Lifferth were victims of R-rated movies? And this is becuase other people wanted their movies sanitized?

  10. Post
    Author

    Thanks, NM Tony, for beginning to explore the ideas I was hoping for. Also, like you, I salute a mother who was perceptive and involved in her daughter’s life.

    When I was a juvenile probation officer in Utah, I learned of a police investigation where the juvenile had been allowed to paint his room black and hang knives and other weapons all over the walls. His mother allowed an officer to search the boy’s room, but was shocked to find that her little darling had guns under his matress. Go figure.

  11. Post
    Author

    I’m not quite sure what you mean by this. Do you, in fact, agree that Thompson and Lifferth were victims of R-rated movies? And this is becuase other people wanted their movies sanitized?

    No, that’s not what I meant, so thanks for asking. What I was saying is that when we extend trust to someone, we “risk” a part of our own self-image. At the same time, most of us want to trust others, particularly those who are part of our own group or community. I think this goes even further for people of faith. We want to believe that those who believe as we do are “good” people. When we find out that our trust was misplaced, it causes us to question ourselves, and even sometimes our beliefs. At least some of the commentators at the DesNews and Trib were customers of these men, and had placed their trust in them as “good” LDS men who were fighting for decency. I’d even go so far as to guess that a few customers of these men believed they had “felt the spirit” as these men professed their devotion, etc.

    Now, the hidden truth comes out. Most can simply recognize that these were evil men who pulled the wool over others’ eyes. Others are shocked at how wrong they had been in judging the character of these men, and that’s going to create some cognitive dissonance. The commenators I mentioned dealt with this by assuring themselves that the arestees really were good men, who had merely been “victimized” by an easy-to-blame, faceless Hollywood demon.

    In no way am I suggesting that the evil these men committed was somehow the result of people wanting censored movies.

  12. What puzzles me is why Mormons have a mindset that they feel they can trust relative strangers who are part of the overall religious community. As an attorney who deals with securities law, I’m always surprised at the number of people who get involved in Ponzi schemes multi-level marketing organizations or otherwise taken in by fraudsters. You can have a sense of community and the trust that it entails, but you can’t forget what my high school principal told our class when we graduated: Trust in God, but always lock your car door.

  13. “What puzzles me is why Mormons have a mindset that they feel they can trust relative strangers who are part of the overall religious community.”

    I have to agree with DPC. How many times have we seen small children unattended in the church buildings during meetings while thier parents assume that because they are at church, they are ok? How much do you know about the people that take your kids to camp? Do you ask yourself, “If this person wasn’t LDS, would I trust them with (my money, my kids, my time, to come in my front door…)”

    It is such a fine line to walk as a parent, but ultimatly our first responsibility is to keep our families safe. I’m so glad that this mother stepped forward to the proper authorities when she found out what was going on.

  14. “How much do you know about the people that take your kids to camp?”

    My Boy Scout leader had a reputation for being a great Scout leader and I went to several camps with him. Several years later, I found out that after we had moved away that he ended up going to prison for producing child pornography involving his own children and other kids in our old ward. Needless to say, it was a big shock (but at the same time a relief that nothing bad had ever happened to myself personally).

  15. I think that trust should always be tempered with reasonable measures to ensure accountability, awareness of the signs of victimization, and a recognition that goodness of character in one or many respects does not exclude the potential for other evil characteristics. I think the latter is an unfortunate bi-product of common Mormon binary thinking.
    Ultimately, however, any society cannot function if there is not some degree of trust and so I do think we can overact and become paranoid. I know that false accusations based on quickly drawn conclusions, for example, can just as easily destroy lives as crimes of victimization. Awareness is the fine line between naivety and paranoia.

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  17. Nick says: “In no way am I suggesting that the evil these men committed was somehow the result of people wanting censored movies.”

    Thanks for the clarification, Nick. I figured that was what you meant; I just wanted to be sure.

    dpc says: “I’m always surprised at the number of people who get involved in Ponzi schemes multi-level marketing organizations or otherwise taken in by fraudsters.”

    This is an interesting point because every time I have been approached with an pyramid scheme, the multi-level marketing, or other dubious ventures, it has always been my LDS friends or acquaintances. Is there an inherent gullibility of those in a religious community regarding these schemes, or is it more of a “fear to offend so I’ll listen” mindset?

  18. During the early 90s while I was attending BYU I worked at a video store across the street from Provo High. For whatever reason, this video store and its surrounding parking lot was something of an after-school hangout for many Provo high schoolers. After working there for three years I knew dozens of these kids by name. Most of these kids were between the ages of 14 and 16. But while they were too young to drive, they seemed to be “wise” beyond their years (at least in some areas). This was especially true of the girls. So while I’m sure they were some father’s “innocent little girl” at home, they were ‘anything but’ around their peers.

    I understand young teens around the country are more sexualized today, but I wondered then, and now, if there was a unique Utah or Mormon thing at work with these kids, or if it was just teens being teens.

  19. Not to threadjack, but I think the MLM business is popular within LDS culture for a couple reasons. One is that missionaries basically receive top-notch suggestive sales training in the MTC. A lot of returned missionaries find it natural to take up work selling cars, or door-to-door services like pest control and alarm systems, as a means to pay for school. So returned missionary Mormons make great sales people.

    The bigger reason, though, is basically what is at the core for success in the MLM business model. Networking. You have to know a lot of people, but with enough distance that you aren’t overly worried about long-term effects your pitch might have on your relationship. The Mormon ward family scenario, with an accompanying marketing (er, ward) phone list, is perfect for that. Mormons just generally know more people near their homes than most people.

    A third reason is that with Mormon women generally not earning an income, we are always looking for ways to generate additional income without having to take too much time from church or family duties.

  20. Sobering story. Good reminder that things aren’t as they appear to be. I don’t know what the parents were more shocked to learn: who their daughters were or who these trusted gentlemen/business were.

    #17, I hope you are describing the same scout leader I once knew, but there are likely more than just one. And they wear many different uniforms.

  21. WOW….I hadnt heard that story before. Fantastic post…it is something to learn from.

    DPC you make a great point. I noticed how Sattelite salesmen would prey on new “RM’s” to get them to do their dirty work for them offering them TONS of cash when in fact most only go away for the summer and break even without saving any money. It really makes me sick! Part of the reason why I left BYU…I just felt it was, like you say, a whited speulchre though there were many wonderful people there. It was then that I decided that though I want to remain religious…I never ever want to live in a “theocratic society”. I have never trusted Mormons nor Bishops in the same way.

    I usually dont open up to unknown Mormons after a LONG period of time because of how judgemental I can find them. I find this best to protect myself and my family…John Dehlin’s article “How to Stay in the Church After Becoming Dissaffected” is FANTASTIC for this!

  22. Nick Literski,

    1. Are you sure these two guys started Clean Flicks? The news articles linked by Clay Whipkey in comment #6 above make it appear that these guys were just franchisees of Clean Flicks or something.

    2. Were these guys Mormon?

    3. Just because these guys sold Clean Flicks doesn’t mean that they thought pornography was wrong. Perhaps they just happened to offer Clean Flicks at a video store they operated.

  23. Nick,
    As much as it pains me to agree with California Condor, the CBS story says the guys started “Flix Club” which, as far as I can tell, is unrelated to CleanFlix. He was a franchisee of Clean Flicks for a while, but not the founder.

    That doesn’t change the horrific story (and, FWIW, I am not a Clean Flicks fan, mostly for aesthetic reasons), but it’s probably worth not slandering the wrong people. Especially since Clean Flicks still operates, apparently by letting users download programs that will cause their DVDs to skip “objectionable” parts (and funny parts, etc.–my inlaws have it, and my wife was forced to sit through a couple sanitized movies, sans the good–and unobjectionable–parts).

  24. CC and Sam:
    Specifically, these guys operated a franchise under Clean Flicks Inc., until they were forced to “shut down.” They promptly reopened as “Flix Club.”

    Yes, CC, they were LDS. Sadly, there are evil people in every religion.

    No, they didn’t just offer Clean Flicks videos, and if you read the comments under the Deseret News and Salt Lake Tribune articles, you’ll see that they made frequent claims to their customers about how very important they felt it was to protect families from the kind of material they were editing out of videos.

  25. Nick,
    Your 27 seems about right, as I understand it. But that’s a far cry from the assertion (made in the post) that they “started a successful business by the name of Clean Flicks.” They bought a franchise in an existing business; I have no doubt they extolled the righteousness of what they were doing to everybody who would listen. I have no doubt they were hypocrites of the millstone type. I’m just saying that these guys didn’t found Clean Flicks—they bought into an idea that was already floating out there.

    That’s not defending them. It’s not defending Clean Flicks which, at least in its original iteration, pretty clearly violated copyright law. But the founder(s) of Clean Flicks are not (to the best of my knowledge) borderline pedophiles and statutory rapists. Two of their former franchisees, on the other hand, appear to be (with all necessary innocent-until-proven-guilty for purposes of the criminal law caveats).

  26. These men, who by all apperances sincerely fought Hollywood to provide wholesome entertainment for LDS families…

    All appearances indeed: being personally acquainted with one of the now-incarcerated owners, this sentence made me laugh out loud.

    When Clean Flicks went belly up they unloaded their inventory for cents on the dollar, and “Flix Club” and others acquired the inventory and continued operation under some legal loopholes.

    Not only are you confusing those who started Clean Flicks with others who merely jumped on a business opportunity, but you’re making assumptions about the religious affiliation and relative rightousness of people you know nothing about. The owner I know may be LDS, but he is no Saint, and these recent headlines come as no surprise whatsover.

  27. When I read the title, i thought this was a simple story about drinking hot chocolate from syrofoam cups, or going into a starbucks, lest someone think you were drinking/buying coffee, or hanging out in a bar with a friend!

    This is far worse and if ever the wolves in sheep’s clothing phrase were true, it was meant for guys like this.

    I’ve often been surprised at how gulible LDS folks are when trusting “fellow members” with their money, for instance. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

    I had one of bishops, who wanted to be released, ask me to call the Stake President and tell him I saw him leaving a liquor store.

  28. #28 and #29 confirm with my suspicians as well. Furthermore, neither of these guys look anything like they kind of people you would expect to have the busines moxie to start a company like Clean Flicks. Yeah, I may be guilty of relying on “appearances,” but they look like, well, video store employees.

    And when did Clean Flicks start? Aren’t these guys a little young to be founders of Clean Flicks?

  29. Matt,
    If you read the comments above, you’ll see I’ve clarified with regard to the business relationships involved. These men operated a franchise under Clean Flicks Inc., but subsequently became a separate business called “Flix Club” after court rulings led to the demise of the original business model.

    I’m disappointed that I was not entirely accurate in my first summary of the story. That said, I’m at least equally disappointed that the issues raised are being dismissed. Notwithstanding “Silent Observer’s” apparent full knowledge of these men’s depravity, the news comes as a surprise to many customers, who have publicly expressed their earlier confidence in these men. In the Deseret News story, one former customer said “It does shock me (because) he (Thompson) was so big on promoting family-friendly entertainment and taking out inappropriate things.” A customer quoted in the Provo newspaper said that Thompson “was always talking about fighting Holywood for the good of the children.”

    Some people deal with a breach of trust by pretending they “always knew.” Others deal with it by finding someone else to blame. In fact, some of the reader comments at the Deseret News and Salt Lake Tribune actually blame the 14 year old girls, rather than assign blame with these adult(?) men, who the commentators had mistakenly trusted. It’s all very sad.

  30. Nick,

    You need to edit this post for clarity. You are dragging the name of Clean Flicks through the mud. Perhaps the original founders of Clean Flicks haven’t committed the crimes of which Thompson and Lifferth are guilty.

  31. Nick,
    It seems to be the standard “He seemed like such a nice, quiet, well-groomed young man, always mowing my lawn; I can’t believe he shot up that school.” Having known at least one guy who killed another, I can sympathize with such a reaction. The murderer I knew was a little odd, but not so much in a homicidal manner as in vaguely socially ackward, at least until rethinking him after the killing occured. Again, it’s horrible what these guys did, but I can totally understand people’s reaction to the news (in or out of an LDS community) as they try to come to grips with it. In order to function and interact, I need to assume that most of the people around me aren’t closet pedophiles and aren’t mentally unstable and carrying a gun, even as I have to be ready in case they are.

    As for the comments in the Tribune and Deseret News, in my rare forays into their comment sections, I’m surprised that the bulk of commentors have the mental ability to turn on their computers, much less surf the interwebs. Seriously, I totally believe in evolution, but the fact that some of those people are alive could put doubts into my head. 🙂

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  33. In some ways, I think that’s it’s interesting that Mormons are told to avoid the appearance of evil on the one hand, and yet taught “Judge not, that ye be not judged”. The sad tale here is an instance where someone who appeared to be good on the outside ended up being rotten to the core. What about when something appears to be bad, yet ends up being good? If we avoid things based on the ‘appearance’ of evil, how would we ever know whether something was, in fact, good or evil?

  34. I’m surprised that nobody has brought up the issue of talking frankly to your kids about sex.

    These girls were not recruited by these men. The girls decided that they wanted extra money, decided that performing sex acts was a good way to earn this money, and actively looked for customers. At 14!

    Parents, even in Provo, need to sit their children down at perhaps an uncomfortably young age and discuss in clinical terms what sort of concepts they might encounter and that these things are not appropriate for 14-year olds.

    The stories that I’ve read have given me the impression that the girls really didn’t know what it was they were doing. I can’t imagine that on the one hand they’d be so hardened as to perform these acts and on the other hand charge $20 (which, frankly seems like a naively low price) and then confess to their mother when questioned over $20. It seems to me that these were little girls that let a monumentally stupid idea go way too far.

  35. “I can’t imagine that on the one hand they’d be so hardened as to perform these acts and on the other hand charge $20 (which, frankly seems like a naively low price) and then confess to their mother when questioned over $20.”

    If that is what the media is reporting (in a nutshell), that seems way unrealistic and smacks of oversimplification and journalistic misinterpretation. I’d be shocked if some of these details were not much more nuanced if not flat out wrong.

  36. Clay,

    I’ve been following the story from the start and that has been my impression of what happened with the girls. Perhaps their older friend suggested this to them, but I have not seen that asserted by any of the stories I’ve read.

    Did you read the articles that you linked to?

    From the DH:

    According to Orem police, on Jan. 22 a mother discovered that her 14-year-old daughter had a $20 bill and asked her where it came from. The girl told her mother that she and her 14-year-old friend had been paid for oral sex by an older man. The woman contacted police the same day, Edwards said.

    The two 14-year-olds told police they decided to trade sex for money in order to move away from home, according to McCombs’s report. They were assisted by a 16-year-old girl who sent text messages to several friends, and Lifferth responded to one of those, the report said. After more messages, they arranged to meet.

  37. aRJ,

    I only skimmed them. My first instinct when I read the post was that it didn’t have any supporting news links so I just scanned for some and posted them.

    My point was just that from a news report point of view, the series of events does seem bizarre. Most especially that the girl confessed to her mother when questioned about the money. That seems like a can of worms. The whole story seems like it must have so much more going on than just what has been reported.

  38. Clay,

    Regardless of the fact that the story strikes you as fishy, nobody is saying that there weren’t 14-year olds prostituting themselves. I don’t mean to diminish what these evil men did to these girls in any way, but what on earth is going on when your child thinks that this is an acceptable way to raise funds?

  39. @Nick Literski

    Thanks for editing the post. But be careful about dragging people’s or company’s names through the mud all in the name of a sensational blog post about the “truth” about Mormons. We’ve seen it before, starting with the Nauvoo Expositor.

  40. We’ve seen it before, starting with the Nauvoo Expositor.

    Yes – the Nauvoo Expositor was nothing but sensationalism….

  41. I had a mission companion who bragged (not bragged, stated confidently) to me during our first couple of weeks together that he had never watched an R-Rated film. He proclaimed himself a film buff, and an actor. He acted very self-satisfied in his claim that he didn’t watch R-Rated movies. A few months later, as we got to know each other better he admitted to me that he had a problem with pornography and while carefully never watching R-Rated films, he had seen NC-17 films and others of the type. His personal problems aside, this (and the extreme example of the tragedy with these two bozos) is the sort of problem we come across when we advocate a hard and fast rule of what is ok and what isn’t ok (especially in a case as arbitrary as the MPAA rating system). We become rating zealots without developing any sort of instinct for our own personalities, weaknesses, strengths, desires, and pleasures. And when we do cross that line, instead of examining ourselves, why we did it, what it means, how we feel about it, we feel like “well, I’ve crossed the line, I’m a bad guy.” and the very extreme example again, is these guys here. I’m not blaming the church’s former hard line stance on R-Rated movies (or the current imagined one) on this situation. But I think there are thousands of people out there who suffer from this sort of problem, and that type of attitude doesn’t help the situation, it makes it worse.

  42. And one other thing, people really think what these guys were doing in the first place “looked like a good thing” and “avoided the appearance of evil”? When I first heard about it, it sounded like an illegal thing. And a pharisitical thing. It sounded like some people who were clinging too tightly to the culture of mormonism and missing the spirit of what we’re taught about media consumption. I’m sorry to say that, because it sounds like some of you on here supported what they were doing and I’m not trying to pick a fight, but that’s what it looked like to me, long before these guys turned out to be who they are.

  43. Sorry to make it three in a row, but here’s my final thought (unless someone engages any of my opinions). Part of the reason John Dehlin started his podcast (and I presume this format) is to encourage the asking of questions. I know this opinion has the benefit of hindsight, but here goes. Several comments have mentioned the newspaper quote that Thompson “was always talking about fighting Hollywood for the good of the children.”

    Let’s examine that statement. The movie business is all about making money, often times to the detriment of quality. If something will make money, the movie business will make it. The way we, as consumers of movies, encourage the movie business to make or not make certain types of movies is by the simple vote of our money. If I pay to see a movie (in the theater, on video, etc) i am saying to the movie industry: make more of this. This is a very simplified explanation, but that is what it boils down to. I speak with my wallet, the movie producers listen.

    What movies were being supported by Cleanflix/flix club and their customers? Movies that by the nature of this business’ existence were movies that they felt were inappropriate. So inappropriate that they purchased them. They voted with their dollars for “evil hollywood” (that’s the studio’s name, i believe) to make more of this kind of movies. And so did every person who rented those movies, edited or unedited.

    Now on to the real question. Why didn’t this occur to us? Why didn’t we ASK ourselves, wait does what this guy is saying make sense? If he is fighting against “evil hollywood” why doesn’t he rent only family friendly fare? why not only stock Toy Story I and II, the Incredibles, and Princess Bride? The comment, when examined on the very superficial level can only be found to be disingenuous (as he smiles and takes your money for the rental/monthly subscription).

    Our religious culture doesn’t foster asking questions, especially the hard ones. The kind that make us realize, “maybe I do like watching R-Rated movies.” or “maybe
    i need to re-examine how I consume media”. Or “this movie, despite it’s mild rating is a nonsensical piece of poor filmmaking, and in the future I am not going to support films like it.” or most importantly “i am responsible for discerning what is and isn’t appropriate for me, and i need to act in accordance with that.”

  44. JH,

    Your points are excellent. Years ago we had a Clean Flicks around the corner from our house and we rented there. I was continually surprised at the titles that were being carried, edited or not. Some movies seemed like they’d only be 45 minutes long after editing. I always thought, “what’s the point?”

  45. I’ve actually struggled with the whole concept of a rating system, and relying on the MPAA to sanitize our viewing for us by providing us with information about the content of a movie based solely on the description of a single letter or rating. PG-13 or R or even PG doesn’t tell me much. TV-14 doesn’t tell me much either.

    TV-14: DSLV tells me more, but not the degree. Am I willing to deal with a certain level of suggestiveness in some circumstances but not others? Perhaps. For instance, violence that might be appropriate in a war-based movie detailing the history of a real war mean to teach us about that war (“Saving Private Ryan” springs readily to mind) is much more acceptable than the gratuitous level of violence in the rather silly and unsavory movie “The Condemned”. Films like Saw 1 to 12 (or whatever) are much more gratuitous, and are therefore more dispicable than a film like Glory or Saving Private Ryan. Language, too, is highly dependent on the situation, although I find that generally speaking it is almost always gratuitous. Sex and nudity is almost always gratuitous. I cannot think of a single instance where a sex scene or nudity was so essential to the story that it couldn’t have been handled in a more tasteful manner (fade to black, etc). Passion should not be absent from movies, but sex is, I think, never necessarily shown on screen.

    I think that this story does show two things: first, we don’t know of a certainty, which came first: the editing or the solicitation of sex acts and making pornography. It doesn’t really matter, however. I think what the story shows, however, is that we cannot make blind decisions to trust people simply because they are of a particular faith. With the elections coming up, this is an important thing to remember! I would not be surprised, however, if the men in question started off with good intentions, if rather questionable intellectual reasoning on the matter, and probably little spiritual guidance. But constant repeated exposure to the most detestable scenes of the worst of Hollywood’s offerings isn’t going to make things better, even if you are the best person in the world.

    This is why one of my friends got out of the business of being a private investigator–he spent far too much time sifting through the deranged and pornographic contents of the computers that cheating spouses were using. Emails, pictures, and the like were getting to him and he felt that he would eventually lose all spiritual strength.

    Ultimately, JH is right: we are responsible for making our own decision about what is appropriate and what is good, and relying on the Spirit for that. Letting others do that is a silly and dangerous way to live.

  46. “I cannot think of a single instance where a sex scene or nudity was so essential to the story that it couldn’t have been handled in a more tasteful manner (fade to black, etc).”

    I will agree about sex scenes. The actual showing of sex on screen isn’t necessary to include the topic of sexuality in a story. One example of where nudity was used quite powerfully was in Schindler’s List. Its a parallel to the violence in Saving Private Ryan. You cannot truly understand the humiliation and de-humanization quite as deeply (and I’ll admit we still have no clue) as seeing it visually.

  47. Good points all around Benjamin. You bring up an interesting point about sexuality, which I think I agree with generally. First, I think it is a loaded decision to attempt a sex scene (from the filmmakers side), the audience is distracted by “I’m seeing this famous person naked”, they are automatically taken out of things by that, the act of putting it out there makes a splash, etc. From a viewers standpoint, I don’t think we’re equipped (especially as mormons) to digest it and determine whether the story is being furthered or not, and then there are all the spiritual aspects of exposing ourselves to that content. But I also think that your point about violence is equally important and more often cast aside casually with the statement, “oh, violence doesn’t affect me that much.” mistakenly so, if you ask me.

  48. JH,

    I personally have never rented a movie from Clean Flix or any similar service. If I decide that I want to see a movie, I go see it or rent it. If it offends me I walk out or turn it off. So from a religious standpoint I have very little sympathy for Clean Fllix, or perhaps more accurately, for those that rent from Clean Flix.

    I do, however, think that what they did while silly, should be legal. Here are some parallel situions:

    If I purchase a paperback book, then rip out some pages, should I be able to re-sell it?

    Could I print a list of instructions for when to mute or fast forward a certain movie?

    Could I go further and make an automated remote control that would do the same?

    Can I go even further and make a DVD player that edits what is presented on the fly while leaving the disc itself intact? (Note that this is explicitly legal.)

    If Jar-Jar offends me should I be able to watch my copy of Episode I with that character edited out?

  49. You raise an interesting question, but I don’t know much about whether it should or shouldn’t be legal. I think with any work of art (literature, painting, etc) the more important thing is to look at the ideas being presented. These ideas are what make the story good or bad, redeeming or not. So editing out specific words (that our minds immediately replace anyway), or parts of the story are missing the point. It goes back to my original statement, if the movie is not good (message or craft-wise) we should not support it, or expose ourselves to it. David James Duncan (my favorite author) wrote a great chapter on this in his latest book called “God Laughs and Plays”.

  50. Back to the original story, I think that being taught to “avoid the very appearance of evil” is in itself a problem. A more appropriate principle (in this ignorant laymembers loudmouth opinion) might be something like, “avoid the preoccupation with appearance”. By disregarding appearance completely and focusing on the principles of the gospel we would truly become a peculiar people. Avoiding the appearance of evil encourages us to think that the way we look matters (is that what Jesus thinks, really?) more than the way we behave. And it undermines the truest principle of all which is: we are all sinners who need the atonement to redeem us. While avoiding the appearance of evil we somehow suggest that because of our missionary haircuts, white shirts, and loud and clear proclamations that we don’t drink alcohol or tea, we are somehow better than people who are dissimilar to us. We put the focus on the appearance and wind up smilingly condemning the evils of hollywood while shooting porn with minors in the back room. If we do our best to disregard the importance of appearance, we try to focus on what is really important, we’ll be far better off in the long (eternal) run.

  51. JH,

    Who cares. You own the physical medium on which the art is being presented. You should be free to use that disc/book/tape/whatever in any way that you want. If I want to use my copy of The Godfather as a frisbee is there anything inherently wrong with that? Should it be illegal?

    If I want to buy the collected works of Shakespeare and make paper airplanes out of the pages should anyone care?

    I’m not even making any claims about disagreeing with the original presentation of the work. I’m saying that I’ve paid money for it. I should be able to enjoy it in any way that I want to. If I want to watch a movie in slow-mo is that a problem? What if I edited out everything except the objectionable parts? Since these things can be done on the fly without making a copy of the work or even altering the disc that it came on I have a hard time seeing why you think it is illegal/bad/wrong/etc. I think you’ve approached the idea purely in the context of CleanFlix, which is just one example of what people might want to do with movies.

  52. random john,

    addressing your original examples head on, with regards to their legality or whether they should be legal, i’m inclined to agree with most of those examples (although the book with the torn pages raises in the very leasts an ethical question. I’m assuming the pages were torn with purpose and resold with knowledge of the action and the purpose). I was never arguing that these things should or shouldn’t be legal, just that they are illegal. The place where I think I would draw the hard line is the making of a profit off of this sort of venture, and I think that is where the heart of the legalities lie. destruction of personal property (as demonstrated in your last remark) is far different from taking someone else’s product, altering it and reselling/renting it for profit. I guess in my opinion that’s where the legal line should be drawn. But for me, the moral questions and implications of this whole discussion are far more intriguing.

  53. Clay (commment 50),

    As to your statement. I think the difference is that many people who produce films aren’t necessarily looking to avoid that sort of content. What they are trying to do (with varying degrees of success) is tell the story. Whether that is through the use of sex/violence/nonviolence/action/humor/music, etc. I would expect that sexuality/nudity is just one of the tools in the toolbox that each filmmaker decides whether or not to use and why.

    In my opinion, especially in our United States of America (with our own sexual hangups), showing nudity/sex brings far more baggage to the table (misinterpretation/distraction/takes you out of the story/shock value, etc) than it is worth in general. This is, of course, setting aside my personal moral values.

  54. JH,

    My point is that it is now possible to do all the things I’ve listed without selling a modified product. People can buy a DVD from anywhere and you separately sell them a filter that will play that DVD in a way not intended by the director.

    Currently in the US we’re in a situation where the end of watching a modified movie is legal but some of the means are legal and some means are not. Your are wrong if you think that simply watching a modified movie is illegal. It is explicitly legal for some methods. So starting off the discussion by assuming that anyone watching a toned down movie is a lawbreaker and therefore some sort of hypocrite seems both wrong and unproductive.

    Note that 12 years ago when DVDs were about to come out studios promised that the ability to watch a PG version of an R rated movie would be built in to the technology and that every disc would have a filter. Obviously this hasn’t happened, though DVDs have been produced that contain both a theatrical version of the movie and an “unrated” version that has additional content that is potentially offensive. If I purchase such a disc and watch only the theatrical version am I making an immoral choice because Hollywood will take my purchase as an endorsement of the unrated version?

    I agree that it is interesting to look at why people choose to use such technologies, and you’re even free to judge people for using it. Just don’t start off by assuming that they’re criminals.

  55. random john,

    What I started off by saying was that what Cleanflix was doing was illegal. And it was illegal. And they got shut down because it was illegal. I don’t see where we can argue about that point.

    Hipocrisy comes into play when people complain about the evils of Hollywood and then support those same movies by paying to watch them. Whether they are paying to watch them minus a few very specific details that are deemed by them “inappropriate” or not, they are still supporting those movies that they consider “bad” in their original form.

    I don’t think the “unrated version” plays into our discussion of endorsement because this feature, generally speaking, is used to entice a few more rentals for that specific product (just like the making of featurettes, commentaries, etc). I’m willing to bet that the studios aren’t keeping close track of how well those versions sell vs. the other versions (if they both exist, if they don’t there’s no way for them to tell if it boosted sales/rentals or not). But that is an interesting thing to bring up. Leaving the legal grounds and moving back to the moral grounds, a release with that sort of material would signal to me that the overall film is looking to entice me in ways that appeal to my guts and groins (as a friend of mine puts it), and is probably not worth watching unless I’m looking for that in a movie. And that appeal is what we are currently and explicitly advised against by our church leaders. Whether that movie is PG-13 or R or beyond.

    My overall moral point is this: if you are going to watch a movie, go watch a movie. If you think a movie is inappropriate to watch, don’t watch it (or do watch it, whatever you like). But don’t sit on the fence and pretend that a bad movie can be made good by the removal of a few certain things. If the content (and by content I mean the combination of message, craft, execution, story, acting, etc) of a movie is bad, it will remain bad even if the F-word is removed (or wasn’t used in the first place). If the content of a movie is good, it will still be good even if those F-words remain. If those few (or many) F-words (and we can throw in nudity/sexuality/violence, etc) are going to offend my soul, then I can skip that movie (even if it’s a great movie!) without the world coming to an end, and presumably without compromising my integrity. That, of course, is one loud mouth opinion that could very well be wrong. Feel free to disregard it.

    But in my mind, the mistake we make is by not giving ourselves the credit to have the ability to digest difficult material in order to get to a good message. By not educating ourselves enough to be able to do determine the message of a film, whether it holds up or breaks down, in short whether the whole content of a movie is truly good or not. We continually support halfhearted attempts at entertainment that undermine themselves and don’t bring any new ideas to the table. I think we can be better consumers of media, and I think the idea of editing content undermines the process of developing ourselves in that way. So, I guess you’re right, I did start off the discussion wrong. I don’t think that those people are criminals, or that they are aware of whatever hipocrisy may (or may not) be involved. But I don’t think they’re doing themselves any bit of good by doing it, and that’s why I wish they wouldn’t.

  56. “What I started off by saying was that what Cleanflix was doing was illegal. And it was illegal. And they got shut down because it was illegal. I don’t see where we can argue about that point.”

    While this is technically true, the movie studios allow the editing of their films for the airlines and television. So the real problem could have been nothing more than the studios not figuring out how to cash in. That is always what it is about for them. The legal excuse is just that, a lame excuse since the precedent had already been established. The cleanflix folks did not have the money to legally persue that question I don’t think.

    Can’t really believe they couldn’t see that there was money to be made with a clean version of their films. But, then these are not the best business people around, really.

  57. it still doesn’t make any difference. It is illegal, and my point is so far in a different direction I don’t understand why we’re still talking about that. That was one tiny part of what I was saying, and frankly the least disputable. If I believe it shouldn’t be illegal to not pay all my taxes I can’t point to a different legal exception as a reason to not pay in full. My overall concern is less for the money grubbers than for the consumer and the way we consume.

  58. For the record, Daniel Thompson, nor the other gentleman charged had any direct affiliation with CleanFlicks. A press release with more information can be found at www-DOT-freecleanflicks-DOT-com. It explains the lawsuit that has been filed on behalf of CleanFlicks against Daniel Thompson and helps to clarify who the founders of CleanFlicks are, and what the lawsuit entails.

  59. I find this discussion fascinating. I know both men in question and was close to the case. I am LDS and I’d like to shed some light on the situation for those of you still involved in this conversation. First of all, Daniel was inactive and he did not edit the films. Most edited video store owners received their “clean” films from edited movie distributors. Daniel received his movies from a company in Logan, Utah. He got his films from this company while at Clean Flicks and Flix Club. The notion that someone can get dragged into porn because of R-Rated films is naive. There is a huge difference between sex scenes in R-rated films and pornography. Daniel has character flaws. He has been in and out of jail for the past ten years. He’s a conflicted guy, who was trying to do something that could get the community behind him. He only got into the business because of his family. His brother was involved in editing Titanic on VHS when this whole edited film movement began in 1998. So, to characterize someone as a pervert because of Clean Flicks is simplistic, at best. There is a weird irony to this story, but lets remember, as Latter-Day-Saints, our responsibility is to be informed but to leave judgment to the Lord. I feel sorry for Daniel. He has made some terrible mistakes. I also feel sorry for the girls who victimized by he and Isaac. This is a tragic story, but let’s not over-simplify.

  60. I’m sure this article was posted with the intention of teaching a lesson of some sort, but I have followed this story closely because I know both men involved.
    Many parts of this article are inaccurate. To the writer I simply ask you, do your home work before you post, if you decide to change the post, realize that there were no good guys in this story. All were at fault including the “wise mother” as you have stated.
    To readers, know that where one person is posting, you are limited to just their version of the “truth.” I to am LDS, this was a horrible story, but if you must write about it, please do your home work, and don’t try to repaint it to be a hero story if there were no hero’s to be found.
    Research into the story, the Girls were rebellious, the mother didn’t pay attention, the girls lied, they searched for what they got, the two men involved did a horrible thing, the mother did do the right thing by calling the police, but take that as a lesson, she should have taught them better. She should have given more attention where it was needed.
    As I stated before, I know this case personally, No I was not involved in any way, but I grew up with one of the two men, I have been to the court proceedings. In no way was anyone NOT at fault. It was a horrible thing that happened, but there were no hero’s. All were at fault.

  61. you know something – I dont know these guys
    i dont know the situation
    BUT I DO know the following
    never mind 14 years old
    this is not a good way to make money at all
    its dangerous plain and simple

    lets forget the LDS thing for a moment
    It would be JUST as horrific if it were any man and any girl of 14

    im sorry if i offend anyone but in any case like this the first thing that is said is “i blame the parents”

    like i say i dont know the situation BUT i dont know any 18 year olds who would do this for money
    let alone 14!

    its horrific that it happened yes
    but lets all learn lessons from it

    there but the grace of God……

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