Utah David vs. Hollywood Goliath

Blessed is he who doesn't simply complain about the entertainment industry's negative influence, but goes the extra mile to counteract it, even if in so doing he faces the wrath of high-priced lawyers and a soft-porn-peddling hack.

Ray Lines owns two video-rental outlets called CleanFlicks not far south of Salt Lake City. According to a January 31 New York Times article, all the movies at CleanFlicks are free of "sex, violence, and profanity," even if Lines must remove such content himself, which, given today's Hollywood product, should qualify him for hazardous-duty pay. Among his trims: the nudity in "Titanic" and a depiction in "Schindler's List" of Oskar Schindler committing adultery.

"I have nothing but respect for people like ['Titanic' director] James Cameron and ['Schindler's List' director] Steven Spielberg," Lines, a Mormon and a father of seven, tells the Times. "I think they're the greatest, and I want my kids to see great films. But I don't think teenagers, and adults, for that matter, need to see all that sex and hear curse words and see all that blood."

The chain of events that resulted in the opening of the CleanFlicks stores began last year, when a neighbor asked Lines, who acquired his video-editing skills when he worked as a TV sportscaster, to remove the nudity from a copy of "Titanic." Before long, he'd received several dozen similar requests and soon decided to make a business of it. In Times reporter Michael Janofsky's words, Lines thinks of himself as simply "satisfying a demand in a market where residents share his values."

Hollywood relishes the line of defense that it is only satisfying market demand in producing its rot. It follows logically that Tinseltown would applaud this new application of capitalism. Its second line of defense is that "it is the parents' responsibility" to monitor what their children watch. Surely it would salute Lines for taking the initiative, right?

Lines says that by offering the edited movies, he's "just providing the community an option" - after all, the original versions remain widely available. So is the entertainment industry expressing its support - maybe even its gratitude - for his practices? Not on your Oscar.

Instead, the industry is exploring its legal options. One entertainment lawyer argues that what Lines is doing is "not only a potential copyright infringement [but] also an impingement on the rights of artists, particularly directors." A Paramount executive declares that if his studio made any of the movies that CleanFlicks edits and then rents out, "we would have a discussion with [Lines], that's for sure." (Paramount, by the way, co-produced "Titanic.")

It would be so easy for the studios to release Lines-style edits of their movies at the same time they release the standard versions, in much the same way that record companies issue both "clean" and "dirty" versions of certain CDs. But since they're unwilling, Lines had to step in.

This is not a matter of property rights. As Lines says of the films in question, "I go to the store and I buy them." After that transaction is completed, what he does with the tapes - as long as he doesn't copy them for rental or sale - is no longer the concern of a studio or any other copyright holder.

On February 1, Lines appeared on the "Today" show to debate issues raised in the Times article. He made his point early in the segment, and he made it effectively: "We live in a country that keeps asking Hollywood the question, when are they going to take responsibility for their actions?...And the answer is, they're not going to...So as a parent, don't I have a right to take responsibility for my children and the way that I raise them?"

Lines came off especially well on "Today" because his adversary wasn't some smooth-talking industry flack. Rather, it was that sleaze merchant Joe Eszterhas, screenwriter for such films as "Basic Instinct" and the notorious bomb "Showgirls." Eszterhas, whose next understatement probably will be his first, accused Lines of "vigilante vandalism," "terrorism," and "perverting" the "creative vision of others."

Eszterhas also made the inevitable accusation: "Censorship." That ugly word is Hollywood's final line of defense when all else fails. In this case the industry is correct: It is censorship - self-censorship at its most respectable and, apparently, successful best.

Three cheers for Ray Lines, vlines@aol.com for those of you who would like to tell him so personally.