Vidangel and the Bowdlerization of Film

Published May 10, 2021

Here’s an ad for a “service” called Vidangel, which promises to get rid of the naughty bits of popular films and shows:

My question, which I put to readers and to film critic Deacon Steven Greydanus was this: Who watches The Wolf of Wall Street with their children? These bowdlerizing “services” make no sense to me. They seem like nothing but absurd Puritanism. The whole thing seems founded on the classic conservative Puritan moral inversion that naughty words are the gravest evil in the universe, but a good old fashioned gun slaughter is just healthy entertainment.

Anyway, Steve wrote back and I thought his comments worth reprinting here:

I’ve actually thought about this a lot over the years, and I’ve been persuaded that there is a significant moral concern here.

While I don’t think that supporters of this service are 100% wrong, or that there is never, ever a case for bowdlerized works of art, I think a) bowdlerization is not a morally unproblematic act, or at least never without moral questions, and b) commodifying bowdlerization as a service, and especially habituating ourselves to consuming art in this fashion, tailored to our personal comfort level, does a potentially grave disservice both to the people who make films and ultimately to ourselves and our children.

A film, whether it is a popular entertainment or a labor of love, is a work of artistic expression. I am well aware that this assertion carries less intuitive weight in the age of Disney hegemony and the Marvelization of everything than it did when this argument was first made to me, but still and all even bad art, even commercial and corporate-driven art, is art of a sort.

The function of art is to communicate the vision of the artist to the audience. Some artistic forms by their very nature lend themselves to reinterpretation and repurposing (stories are told and retold, and each teller puts their own stamp on the material; every staging of a play is also an interpretation and commentary, etc.).

But others are not. A painting or a sculpture is the work that it is, and the Renaissance-era censors who hired “underwear artists” to cover up the nudity of works of art from the classical era to the Renaissance did the world no favors.

In general — not absolutely or dogmatically, but not as a matter of “De gustibus” personal preference either — I believe we do well to regard a film as an integral work of art, to be received (or not) as such.

Not all movies are for all audiences. Not everything a given filmmaker or artist has to say will suit our tastes, opinion, beliefs, preferences, or comfort levels.

That is as it should be. Our tastes, opinions, beliefs, preferences, and comfort levels are not the arbiter of all things, and the consumerist world we inhabit, with its social-media echo chambers, already caters to and reinforces our existing preferences and preconceptions quite well enough.

Not absolutely or dogmatically, but in general, I believe a movie that is too far outside our comfort level to watch as the filmmakers intended is probably a movie we shouldn’t watch at all.

Exceptions can be made for exceptional cases, but the *habit* of bowdlerizing films strikes me as a kind of solipsism. Instead of a true encounter or communication between artist and audience, we encounter only those parts of what the artist has to say that accord with what we have already decided to receive.

I have at times chosen to mute objectionable bits of dialogue and skipped scenes while watching movies with young children. This active intervention, which is transparent to them and to me, reminds us all that there is more to the movie than what I have chosen to show them — something they aren’t old enough for yet.

As an adult, I may choose, on rare occasions, to avert my eyes from some images on the screen. If I do so, I take personal responsibility and personal action. I don’t ask a service to adjust the presentation to my comfort level.

What do you think?

22 Responses

  1. My biggest objection to services like these is that it tends to be an exercise in straining at gnats while swallowing camels. An occasional bit of harsh language or evil violence or nudity does not necessarily make a movie or TV show immoral. Ever read the book of Genesis? You can’t get through the first half without lots of nudity, bloody violence, incest, murder, mass destruction, etc.

    The moral message of any movie or TV show has more to do with context than content.

    BOOGIE NIGHTS has lots of harsh language and nudity. But if you can get to the end of that movie and feel anything but utter disgust and revulsion at the porn industry, I think you’ve lost your humanity. Would I let my kids watch it? Nope.

    BLADE RUNNER is a violent movie, but it has a better moral message than most “Christian” movies I have seen.

    On the other hand, you could take every F-bomb out of DEADWOOD and replace it with “feathers” and it wouldn’t make the movie any better, morally or artistically.

    1. Right! As we all know from reading the Old Testament, the depiction of an act does not constitute endorsement of it! I think even older children can grasp this if you explain that. Certainly teenagers can.

  2. Well,
    a few things come to mind. When I was younger, I always thought that my Mom, (who tended to linger in the kitchen when we went into the living room to watch movies) had some supernatural sixth sense for when a sex scene was going to happen in a movie. It was cringy enough if my Dad was in the room, but I was astounded when, like night followed day, she would appear above the steps asking indignantly,

    “WHAT is this?”
    and
    “Garbage IN, Garbage OUT!”

    She made it clear that we were all consuming garbage, and would somehow become more garbagey as human beings because we’d seen a couple of actors pretending to do something sexy..

    Now that I’m older I realize that she was *listening* via the surround sound to what we were watching. She pretended that she was above any of the low brow garbage we were willing to consume. I would have been 100% fine with some service that would have spared us the cringe. I hated the shaming –as if it wasn’t already uncomfortable enough. My sisters and I would make light of it by doing impressions of her later.

    To be 100% honest, it would have sent a much better message to just let us see the sex, without a fuss, or let *us* fast forward through it if it got too over the top. I mean let’s face it, sex scenes can be teaching moments too, if you’re not some big prude. There are so many different kinds of interactions between human beings. You know what some of the WORST sex scenes, or allusions to sex scenes there were around?
    Bond. James Bond. Appalling.

  3. Also, this whole purity topic brings to mind that poor, poor, wrecked Josh Duggar. It probably wasn’t even 20 years ago that his sisters were in Walmart ringing a BELL for their brothers to avert their virginal eyes, if a girl in tight jeans arrived upon the scene.

    Appalling.

  4. There is just one problem with your friend’s take: there is no profit in it.

    So in the spirit of following the letter of the law, there just has to be a service that allows people to consume content they would otherwise find objectionable, but without the associated guilt. If there is a market to exploit, somebody’s going to do it, right? So why not them?

    Why should apologists, pundits and media personalities corner the market on scrupulousness? Its capitalism, baby!
    __

    But seriously, that’s kind of what the entire market of Christian knock-offs of mainstream entertainment is all about; these guys just cut off the middleman.

  5. After watching the “before and after” ad, my main thought is that if I were watching the filtered version, I would just be confused as to what happened, since they clearly skipped sounds and various steps in the action. Also, in the second ad, those filters seem so weirdly specific as to be practically unwieldly and a PITA to use. Finally, in the first ad, I like how the d-word is portrayed as a shot to the heart of a teenage boy, who I’m SURE has NEVER heard ANY language before ever in his life. (Melodramatic, much?)

    That said, I would consider something like this for me if they would just strategically blur the really graphic Bad Stuff – I don’t want to miss the plot, and overall I’m really good at strategically covering my eyes (and my husband usually watches things for me and tells me when to cover my eyes), but depending on the price it would be nice not to worry about it.

    But then again I’m really inconsistent and would challenge any AI filter to figure me out – some of the GoT violence bothered me (the gratuitous stuff that they really zoned in and focused on), but nothing in Saving Private Ryan bothered me. Oh well – guess I’ll just stick with covering my eyes!

  6. And from a completely different angle, I’m reminded of the new parents of a baby, who are probably the unsexiest people on the planet. They are both sleep deprived, she smells distinctly of milk, and he is beginning to wonder how celibates can think straight. If he is wise enough, he won’t go vent his frustrations by going on a date with his father-in-law to see some meatheads getting their heads cracked open. He will line up the sitter, buy a little wine and watch a steamy foreign film with his wife (they have different ideas about decency).

    Et voila. Problem solved.

  7. The late Pope John Paul I (one i) had some thoughts about this in his “Illustrissimi” (newspaper columns framed as open letters to historical figures and fictitious characters, eg Dickens, Pinocchio, etc). I forget which one he was writing to but he discussed Pasolini’s 1967 “Oedipus Rex” as an example where the sexual depiction was objectively necessary as opposed to mere titillation. Had the P2 Lodge and Vatican Bank not topped Cardinal Luciani in 1979 we might have gotten to hear his views on “The Sopranos” and Tarantino.
    Offering a redacted version, with particularly troublesome parts cut out (or replaced with “catch a tiger by the toe” etc) is a step forward for Protestants over their previous approach, which was to publish a regularly updated “Index of Books that Are Prohibited”, ie forbidden in their entirety, purportedly semper et ubique. This strange relic of the Puritan obsession with controlling what people read and watch was being issued as late as the 1960s. Curiously, its contents often overlapped with works censored by the Communists.

    1. Catholics used to have such a list (index) of forbidden books. Some friends of mine made a point of only reading those books…As well, I used to read comments published by the USCCB about movies. Some movies that I had actually watched before seeing the bishops’ comment that they were morally objectionable, had not seemed that bad to me. And they regularly counted and published the number of occurrences of the “f” word, which in my humble opinion I found stupid. Many movies show real people in actual situations, and the expletives happen to be in character with the type of person being portrayed. However, maybe I have acquired some immunity to rough language during my teens, since I found myself, at 15 years old, in college in a class of mostly 19 years old young men…

      1. Exactly.

        My kids correct my language sometimes. They say, “Mama! Language!” They have no idea that I’m fully aware that there is some reverse psychology going on. I don’t even like me when I say the F-word. Ugh. But I’m also humbled by it. I probably need that more than posturing as the lady I was raised to be.

        A lot of phrases and words have evolved. My Mom, who is very careful is not beyond saying some phrases that have circulated in society …that mean things that she has no clue about.

  8. I had a similar view as Deacon Steven but I’ve changed it a bit, my son is a freshman in high school and everyone was watching Game of Thrones, and he felt tremendous pressure about this, because the sex scenes in GOT are over the line in my opinion, I love the arts, so I’m no prude, but in my opinion it’s too far, (incest as an example), but the storyline is pretty great, so he watched the whole thing on VidAng, and it was great, he was able to have discussions with friends, etc, HBO has since sued and won so Game of Thrones is no longer covered, but I’m sure there’s others that can be helpful

    1. That’s interesting and while I enthusiastically watched GOT for all the sex, violence, cowardice, heroism and occasional rare moments of insight into the human condition, I wouldn’t watch it with my teenage son for the reasons my dad fast-forwarded through the tame sex scene in Terminator 1: it’s awkward with your kids! Especially GOT, whose sex scenes are an extension of the overall message of depravity and violence. Perhaps the only scenes that were “redemptive” (huge leap there :)) were between Tyrion and Shea or Dany and the wolf bastard…However, taken as a whole, long series, I think GOT has so much to say about our current moment and the gratuitous sex, violence and tragedy are 100% part of that story.

      1. I was not too bothered by either the (violent) sex or the violence in general. I have a callous streak. I very much disliked the subtext though: the idea that Good is not only non-existent, but an impossibility. The best it has to offer is the order of a Pontius Pilate prevailing over chaos. It’s an utterly un-Christian, or post-Christian, series.

    2. My theater friends all gushed over GoT, so I went and got DVDs from the public library. I watched the first four episodes, and shouldn’t have. It amounts to pornography with a complex plot instead of a very simple one. A lovely niece told me the TV show was tame compared to the books.

      Winter is indeed coiming.

      1. Personally I find sex scenes more tedious that titillating or offensive. Ok, so you need to use sex to advance the storyline—there are other ways to do this than spend fifteen minutes depicting the act. This doesn’t advance the narrative at all 9/10 times. You can infer what’s about to happen very clearly in such a way that it will only go over the heads of small children. So do that and then move on. That takes like 2 minutes max.

      2. @ benjamin

        Bit then, where will all of the people starved for sex, starved for the depiction of sex, starved to imagine themselves having sex with what.ever pretty face is on the screen…

        …go to have their needs fulfilled? They will either have to go without, or find some pron to look at. There will be no fig
        Leaf to provide cover their desires. “I was jist watching Outlander, which is a. Ery interesting histtorical drama. It’s not my fault if I have to watch Jamie and Claire have sex on every episode.”

        For the record, I absolutely agree with you. Even to watch people I think are attractive pretend to have sex for fifteen minutes, while the music and everything else swells, is tedious. But then, I’m neither starved nor in need of a fig leaf.

  9. At least as concerns adults—if we’re talking about actual art, and not truly obscene (and exploitative) media like pornography or snuff films—what matters is the disposition of the heart, not anything on the screen. That’s said, I fast forward through sex scenes—but only because they’re tedious, not because I’m a Puritan. They could easily infer sex with, oh, 30 seconds of film—but instead we get ten minutes of something that doesn’t advance the storyline a whit 9/10 times.

  10. My thinking is that censorship should only really be utilized when the work was specifically created for all-ages or specifically for children, but contains depictions or scenes we might consider wrong now. If it is a purely adult work, then adults should decide for themselves whether they want to watch the whole film. An excellent example of this would be the classic Tom and Jerry cartoons. These cartoons were meant for general audiences since they were shown theatrically before features, but most people fall in love with the characters as kids watching them on TV nowadays. Created largely in the 40s and 50s, MGM’s cartoon department was nuts about “blackface” gags and used them way longer than other cartoon studios. Many parents would probably feel at least a little uncomfortable if their kids watched the unedited versions today. I love sharing classic cartoons with my child and am glad they cut out those gags (you can usually tell where one originally was when something explodes in a character’s face and it cuts to the next scene before showing the aftermath). I think the originals should be available for adults who love and study these cartoons as the classic films they are, but I also don’t want my child thinking that sort of thing is okay or funny now.

  11. Our Lady of Fatima: “More souls go to Hell for sins of the flesh than anything else.” “Many fashions would be introduced that offend God.” This was 1917. Compare then to now. It’s your choice. I recommend listening to Our Blessed Mother. And to place an exclamation point behind these messages of Fatima, God worked the greatest miracle since the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This was according to Papal Theologian Cardinal Ciappi.

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