Friday, December 8, 2006
Last year the documentaryThe Aristocrats
analyzed one very old and very dirty joke. Earlier this year,This Film is Not Yet Rated
explored the secretive methods by which the MPAA determines how much obscenity it takes to get an NC-17. And now the new documentary examines the infamous four letter word inF*CK
(opening December 8 at Landmarks Hillcrest Cinemas).
Recent documentaries have been pushing the envelope as they have examined a dirty joke, sex in movies and now the notorious expletive. By examining what has been deemed obscene, this trio of non-fiction work reflects on our culture and reveals how such things can divide a society. All three of these films have shocked certain segments of the audience and have been given either NC-17 ratings or no rating at all, which should not come as a surprise.
Steve Andersons F*CK begins by trying to pin down the origins of its titular word. The most common origin cited by people on the street as well as by the celebrities interviewed for the film is that its an acronym for either "For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge" or "Fornication Under Command of the King." Both are readily dismissed by experts, including a man who identifies himself as a cunning linguist. Yet no one is able to offer any substantial proof of the real origins of the word. All anyone knows or agrees on is the fact that the word has been around for centuries. Comedian Billy Connolly suggests that it was the first word ever spoken and emerged from our primordial ooze. Scholars point out that Shakespeare never used the word in any of his writings but just about everyone else seems to have employed it from poets to presidents.
Bill Plympton poster for the documentary F*CK.
Whats great about the documentary is the mix of people Anderson interviews for opinions and insights. He speaks with Kevin Smith, Sam Donaldson, Ice T, Pat Boone, Janeane Garofolo, Miss Manners, Bill Mahr, Alan Keyes, and the late Hunter S. Thompson. Pat Boone explains that he never uses the vile term and instead has turned his own name into a cuss word to take its place. When hes mad he just exclaims: Oh Boone! Ice-T tries out the expression but it doesnt seem to suit him. Kevin Smith (whose Clerks II may not hold the dubious title of having the most uses of the word in a narrative film) says it would be hypocritical of him to shield his young daughter from the word so he uses it in front of her, but explains that while its okay to say in the house, its not okay to use in other places. Miss Manners on the other hand sees no reason to use the word at all, and insists that people find a better way to express themselves.
Anderson also gathers some great archive footage, most notably of comedians Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. Bruce paved the way for todays comedians who lob the f word without having to face the kind of consequences that Bruce did. Bruce was convicted of word crimes and served time in jail. The snippets of his comey rountines reveals the humorous as well as serious power of language. Carlins famous and wickedly funny routine about the seven forbidden words still makes audiences laugh and still has a satiric bite.
Cartoonist Bill Plympton provides animation for titles, transitions and occasional segments in the film. At one point he illustrates the incredible versatility and adaptability of the word that can function in almost any position in a sentence and even within another word.
The film champions free speech as it explores the increasing popularity of the word even in mainstream media. Yet toward the end of the film one of the conservatives interviewed suggests that more and better art has been produced when restrictions are in place. Even the liberal Garofolo admits that cable TVs Deadwood relies a little too much on the expletive to pad out its scripts and remind you youre watching cable where commercial TV rules dont apply. The idea suggested by both is that the word needs to shock in order to be useful. After all, whats the point of saying the f word if no one is offended or takes notice. Would Lenny Bruce or George Carlin have been as funny or as edgy if there were not forces trying to silence them? While I would never want to see full on government censorship, some boundaries are good and may even help spur creativity in artists who have to cleverly work around restrictions or challenge restrictions with some wit. So in order for the word to maintain its power, it has to be forbidden in some places.
F*CK (unrated but no one under 17 admitted because of languageduh!) is an entertaining documentary that reveals a lot about our culture by looking at the impact of a single little four letter word.
Companion viewing: The Aristocrats, This Film is Not Yet Rated, Scarface (with Al Pacino) , South Park