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ClearPlay’s movie filters arrive on DVD players

Goal is simple: to turn films into PG-rated fare

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The future is now. The RCA ClearPlay DVD player is here. Parents can now watch PG-13 and R-rated films with their children, with all the objectionable content eliminated.

You won't see Halle Berry's breasts.

Enjoy the new-and-improved, no-longer-bisexual Frida Kahlo.

Watch Jennifer Garner's turn as a prostitute in "Catch Me if You Can" — but don't blink, because you will miss it.

As for the character Fat Bastard in "Goldmember," well, he makes the cut, sort of, except you no longer hear anyone utter the words "fat bastard." He's become like Harry Potter's Voldemort, the character who must not be named.

"This was part of the original DVD promise — that people would be able to customize the viewing process," says Bill Aho, the CEO of ClearPlay, the Salt Lake-based company that developed the filtering technology installed on the RCA players. "The most common question asked about DVDs are, 'How do I modify the content?' "

ClearPlay's goal is simple: to turn a movie rated R or PG-13 into strictly PG fare, while preserving as much of the integrity of the narrative as possible.

The filtering technology has been available for a number of years, in a number of forms, from a number of companies — but it's only now being installed directly onto a mass-market DVD player. To create a filter for a specific movie, ClearPlay employees review a film, marking all potentially objectionable content, in 14 categories — everything from sexual content, nudity and crude humor to graphic violence, strong language and "vain references to deity." These "filters" are then installed onto the DVD player. When you play a film for which a filter has been created, the DVD player can skip over the objectionable content.

You can mix and match categories in determining what you want to stay and what you want to be cut (say, keeping the strong language, but deleting the nudity). The RCA player comes with 100 free filters, mostly films from the past three years. You can download additional movie filters on the ClearPlay Web site and then install them onto your DVD player yourself. Prices range from $1.50 for an individual filter to $49 for a year-long subscription that allows you to download as many filters as you want.

Is all of this legal? That question remains unresolved. Unlike several companies — such as the Colorado-based CleanFlicks, which sells and rents altered version of films — ClearPlay doesn't alter the content of the DVD in any permanent way. You can also watch the movie unedited by simply turning off the filter option. And the DVD player works perfectly with DVDs for which there are no filters.

It's no different, says Aho, than an airplane or television version of the film. But the Directors Guild of America contends otherwise. Along with the eight major studios in Hollywood, it sued ClearPlay and CleanFlicks (and other companies like them) in September 2002, contending that the editing is unauthorized. (The studios and filmmakers have control over the editing of films shown on airplanes and broadcast television; with ClearPlay they have none.) According to a statement issued last week, the guild is in "ongoing settlement discussions" with the companies regarding these lawsuits.

So does this thing actually work? Well, yes, but it's not without quirks. Whereas airline and television versions of R-rated films might alter a curse word — "fudge" suddenly becoming more than just a confectionery treat — ClearPlay just mutes it out. That occasionally makes for jarring viewing, especially in something like "2 Fast 2 Furious," where strings of curse words tend to run together. You start wondering if you accidentally sat on the remote control.

And whereas the filters do a good job of delicately eliminating shots of the most graphic violence in a movie like "Black Hawk Down" — a close-up of a severed limb, say — sexual content tends to be approached like a tumor that must be eliminated entirely. In the original version of "Swordfish," for instance, Halle Berry's breasts are on screen for only a few seconds, in two separate shots. But instead of cutting just those shots out, the filter eliminates the entire minute-long conversation between her and Hugh Jackman.

"Swordfish" is probably something ClearPlay never should have attempted to filter. Aho says that in several cases, his employees have started creating a filter for a movie, only to realize that they wouldn't be able to preserve a coherent story line. His company won't attempt to edit films like "Kill Bill: Vol. 1" or "The Passion of the Christ" (if you edited one of those movies for violence, you'd end up with a short subject). In an especially admirable move, Aho also says the company won't create filters for historically valuable movies like "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan," movies where the graphic content is very much part of the film's point and instructive purpose.

As is inevitable with any content-control effort, ClearPlay often marks as objectionable content that most of us wouldn't blink twice at, while leaving in eyebrow-raising material. Among the most delightfully silly sequences in "Goldmember" is the one where Austin Powers infiltrates a Japanese office building and then must stand in for a cherub statue that urinates into a fountain. Toilet humor, no doubt — but of the most innocuous and goofy sort. The ClearPlay filter skips over the entire scene, which seems like a betrayal of every 11-year-old on the planet, for whom such jokes should be a constitutionally protected rite of passage. This all seems even screwier when you take into account some of the "Goldmember" double-entendres that do make the cut, such as the name of Gwyneth Paltrow's character, Dixie Normous. (Aho explains the double-entendre policy thusly: "If a double-entendre doesn't include language or words that are on our list of profanities, and it's not a strong sexual innuendo, then we won't filter it.")

Then there are the filtering choices that seem plainly puritanical. There are no clothes removed in the scene between Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Garner in "Catch Me if You Can," where Garner, a prostitute, negotiates her fee and then allows DiCaprio to give her a fake check for her services. But presumably the mere suggestion of prostitution is enough for ClearPlay to hit the delete button.

Even more dubious is the elimination of a scene in "Frida" where Salma Hayek and Ashley Judd dirty dance and then playfully kiss one another. It's one of the few intimations we get of Kahlo's bisexuality, but it's cut whole, despite the strong likelihood that if it were a man and a woman dancing and kissing, it wouldn't have been touched. In ClearPlay's view of things, it's acceptable to eliminate an essential aspect of a historical figure's life if you don't agree with it.

Granted, parents might not want to explain notions of prostitution and bisexuality to their 8-year-olds. But what 8-year-olds are watching multilayered dramas like "Catch Me if You Can" and "Frida"?

Aho says that his company is only responding to the kind of content that parents tell him they wish could be eliminated. ClearPlay, he insists, isn't trying to promote any sort of political agenda.

"We're not telling people what kind of movies they can make, and we're not putting pressure to make them do certain kinds of things," he says.

But what of the broader message being sent to kids, that art need not be respected, that movies are nothing but passive entertainment from which whole sections can readily be chopped? Is ClearPlay encouraging a generation of philistines who will never be able to grasp that sometimes art is necessarily gruesome, troubling and dirty?

Says Aho: "Are parents discouraging their love of art? I hope not. I think it's an interesting vehicle that meets consumer demand. Everyone has their own personal values, and parenting style . . . it's all about choice."

The Directors Guild of America is a little less enthusiastic about allowing such choice. In a statement issued two weeks ago, it said: "The Directors Guild has always worked within the framework that parents should choose their entertainment . . . but it opposes third parties taking copyright-protected work and altering it without the input of the copyright holders and filmmakers."

Aho says he's heard from some filmmakers who are interested in being involved in editing their works for ClearPlay — though for now ClearPlay's employees will continue to have the final say on the filtering. As for whether we'll see ClearPlay technology as a standard feature on DVD players, as Aho hopes — well, only time and the demands of the marketplace will tell. It's already available on www.walmart.com, for $69.84, and should be on store shelves within the next few weeks.

Frida Kahlo scholars, you've been warned.

Christopher Kelly writes for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. E-mail: cmkellystar-telegram.com