Film review by: Witney Seibold
Ah, that durable Saxony syllable.
Full disclosure: Despite having employed it a few times in my reviews, I am not a big user of the f-word. I don’t curse in general. I’m prone to using “asshole” on rare occasions, and a properly punched-up “God Damn” can be as funny as anything, but that’s as filthy as I get. When I’m angry I say “shoot,” “crap,” or “crimony.” This is not out of some brow-beating by the clean-language police, but more a way to deal with the fact that curse words just don’t sound right in my mouth; I’ve never been cool enough to use them properly or with the appropriate brio. I stopped cursing at about age 12, when I realized how stupid I sounded, and how ridiculous 12-year-olds looked when they tried to “talk like adults” (i.e. like the adults they saw in bad action moves).
Director Steve Anderson delves into the origins, the social context, and the divisive nature of the world’s most popular four-letter expletive. “Fuck,” however, is far from a serious analysis of the use of language. It’s more a rowdy and funny excuse to swear a lot. Kind of like a more academic version of “The Aristocrats.” So in addition to a precious few linguists and etymologists to discuss the source of the word, Anderson also interviews radio talk-show hosts, comedians, porn stars (I guess since they do for a living the thing that the f-word is largely defined as), and people who are just there for fun (Alanis Morisette for one, Sandra Tsing Loh for another).
There are some true revelations in “Fuck.” For one, that there is no actual law against swearing on television, and large-sum settlements are actually only ever orchestrated by the FCC and the number of complaints they receive. If you say the f-word on TV, and no one complains, you’re clean. On this matter, the film amusing calculates the fines the FCC would have charged them per times the word “fuck” is used. A few people look at the history of the middle finger salute. Pioneers of the word, George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, are profiled extensively, although they do not appear on camera. People point out that it was used in 14th century bawdy poetry, probably the first time it was used in print. The first mainstream film to use “fuck” was “M*A*S*H*,” and it was only a decade later when “Scarface” used it 183 times in its 170 minutes.
After that, its use became more and more common. People imitated the films imitated the people imitated the films… etc.
Billy Connolly has utterly hysterical contemplations on the subject: “If you yell ‘fuck off’ to a man in a Delhi airport, he will fuck off. Off he will fuck. ‘Fuck off’ doesn’t mean ‘go away.’ ‘Fuck off’ means ‘fuck off!’”
But here’s where the central problem with “fuck” lies, it wasn’t to be snarky and naughty more than it wants to be informative. Sure, it’s great fun to hear Kevin Smith or Tera Patrick or Ms. Manners or Dennis Prager talk about their personal experiences with the word, but none of them are saying anything of great insight. The linking animations by Bill Plympton are wonderful, but are add to the sketch comedy pacing of the film. Why is Ron Jeremy there? And why did the filmmakers feel the need to crosscut him with Ms. Manners so it looks like she’s outraged at what he’s saying? It feels cheap.
The comedians on screen all argue in favor of “fuck’s” use, and they have some valid points. Why be so hurt by such a strong word that is so therapeutic to say? The counter arguments from a prude like Pat Boone sound churlish in comparison. There’s no such thing, most argue, as a “bad” word. Are we so offended by a sexual word that we censor it?
The problem is, there is such a thing as a “bad” word. No one in the film addresses how angry “fuck” is. It’s not a benign thing to say to a person; there is a good deal of rage. How do you feel when a dirty man on the street yells it? Try saying it to any passing stranger. Even if you’re polite about it, they’ll usually get mad. “Fuck” is not so much a sex word anymore. It’s an anger word. If you don’t believe there are “bad” words, try yelling numerous racial epithets in public.
Despite this, “Fuck” is still a burst of fun, and amusing contemplation, and the first real analysis of the popular word. It’s also a good look at censorship and the freedom of speech. It is the last word? Certainly not.