No sex, no lies, but a lot of 'clean' videotape

Marlon Brando may be untouchable, but can "The Godfather" really be "The Godfather" without the blood?

What if Eddie Murphy's non-stop profanities in "Beverly Hills Cop" were muted?

And can the disturbingly charming Dr. Hannibal Lecter of "The Silence of the Lambs" properly be portrayed as a man-eater if the movie's gruesome bits are cut out?

In an unusual videostore in this Bible-belt city, the shelves are stuffed with rentals that have been edited to be "clean."

The parent company's in-house editors remove much of the sex, violence, and nudity from films, which is proving popular with a lot of families disenchanted with Hollywood: Some 65 "Cleanflicks" stores have opened across the country in just the past 18 months.

But the idea of someone in a back room, no matter how well-intentioned, playing the role of Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorcese and fiddling with content is also raising debate over decency versus artistic vision.

"It's like watching a film on TV that's been heavily censored, and you feel utterly cheated," says Mr. Dixon, the film studies professor at the University of Nebraska. "The very idea of taking something and cutting it out on the grounds of it being acceptable violates the integrity of the work itself."

But David A'Hearn, the manager of this Cleanflicks branch, says these family-edited flicks are perfect for parents who want to enjoy a good Hollywood movie with their kids – minus those inevitable awkward moments.

Leaning on the shiny counter of his admittedly sparse storefront in a Chattanooga strip mall, Mr. A'Hearn, answers charges of censorship by saying that people can still go to any video store for the uncut version.

"So many movies today turn the viewers into voyeurs," says A'Hearn, who opened his shop three weeks ago. "Instead, these movies leave the intimation of violence up to the viewer's imagination, which I personally think is more effective."

There is a precedent for what Cleanflicks are doing. In 1998, a mom-and-pop rental distributed 1,700 copies of "Titanic" minus a nude Kate Winslet in 1998. Hollywood came calling when they heard about the edit but the store was never formally prosecuted because the store only edited copies personally owned by their clients. Ownership of a video makes all the difference to being legally able to edit it, says Dave Lukens of the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Dove Foundation, which assigns "stamps of approval" to movies they define as appropriate for Christian audiences.

"If you wanted to take that video and take a sledgehammer to it, it's your video, you can do what you want," says Mr. Lukens.

Cleanflicks, which is also based in Utah, operates on much the same principle. The store defines itself as a co-op so that when customers sign up for memberships, they can be said to technically "own" the videos they rent from the store. The chain, which has yet to be challenged by Hollywood, now has stores in Colorado, Arizona, and Idaho, and aims to have a shop in every state by the end of 2002.

Here in Chattanooga, not many have discovered the store yet. Still, it already has loyal customers. Chattanooga software technician David Miller, a Southern Baptist, first heard about Cleanflicks on a conservative radio station last year. These days, he can rent Jackie Chan's Rush Hour without a shooting scene.

"I've tried to rent videos and speed past the nudity and violence, but, doggone it, you already saw it and it already affected you," says Mr. Miller. "It's not just an innocent video, it's affecting the way you're going to behave. I'm thrilled that someone is making a monumental step in the right direction."

The quick rise of Cleanflicks is part of a family-oriented film trend that Hollywood is listening to, says Dick Rolfe, the president of the Dove Foundation. New Line Cinema, which put out the "Blair Witch Project," one of several movies Cleanflicks won't stock, recently released four "family edited" films, including "The Mask," recut by the directors.

"It just stands to reason that the less offensive material is in a film, the broader the potential audience," says Mr. Rolfe.

But some critics call Cleanflicks founder, Ray Lines, the Thomas Bowdler of the 21st century, after the Victorian-era editor who took scissors to Shakespearean plays like "A Midsummer Night's Dream. "

"Ultimately, it leads us down the path of ignoring the artist's intention and desire. And then there's the question: Why bother to show the movie at all? Are children so desperate to learn about the Mafia that parents need to show them movies about them?" says Lester Friedman, a film scholar at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill..

Even supporters of Cleanflicks occasionally have quibbles with some of their movies.

"We don't categorically approve every movie Cleanflicks edits," Mr. Rolfe says. "Like in 'Silence of the Lambs,' the notion of eating a fellow with fava beans and a lovely Chianti, that passes the profanity test, but it doesn't pass the gruesome test."

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