Vidangel and the Bowdlerization of Film
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?