Friday 27 March 2009

A multifunctional gem

Fuck (2005), directed by Steve Anderson

It had to happen sooner or later: a documentary about one of our most loved, loathed and undeniably versatile words in the English language. It’s a worthy enough subject; although it may not be the most offensive word in the English language, it is one that manages to be used with casual indifference by some whilst remaining obscene and unspeakable to others. How can something so overused remain so controversial? And how did it morph from a simple verb to a multifunctional gem that can be used as a noun and an adjective to boot? Surely, there is a vast etymological mine of wonders just waiting to be explored and explained.

So how best to undertake such a potentially mammoth task? Do you go for a dry, intellectual examination of the word’s origin, history and enduring power to affect and offend? Or do you gather together a formidable cast of lovers and loathers to alternately wax lyrical and condemn your infamous word of choice? If you’ve got a camera and the likes of Billy Connolly (good at making weird faces), Kevin Smith (who is most likely kicking himself for not making your film himself) and a fistful of po-faced conservative spokespeople (one of whom is aptly named ‘Miss Manners’) then it’s more likely to take the latter shape. Throw in fleeting quips from the late Hunter S Thompson, notable film clips of your profanity in action, some choice (if slightly dated-looking) animation courtesy of Bill Plympton, plus a couple of porn actors and you’ve got the makings of a teenage boy’s wet dream. Sort of (1).

Although the film may look like it was edited on the likes of i-movie, it does manage, for the most part, to skim the surface of the dark waters of juvenile YouTube fare, rather than wallow in its murky depths. The film boasts an impressively eclectic line up with the aim of giving voice to numerous pockets of American society (namely the religious, political and entertainment ones). Alongside the comedic likes of Bill Maher and Janeane Garofalo are linguist Reinhold Albert Aman, the late media critic David Shaw, Janet LaRue of Concerned Women for America – and for reasons left unexplained, Alanis Morrisette, whose utterances add nothing witty or insightful to the mix. Other notable figures include the founder of the Cuss Control Academy and the ‘essence of wholesome American values’, Pat Boone. Various journalists, academics and knowledgeable types are brought in to flesh out the film into a commendable imitation of a considered documentary, but it is immediately clear that director Steve Anderson’s aim is entertain as much (if not more) than it is to inform.

Despite the apparent abundance of academic representation, Fuck is not overwhelmingly informative, bar debunking the myth that ‘fuck’ is an acronym for ‘Fornication Under Consent of King’ or ‘For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge’. Indeed, we are sorrowfully informed that the exact origins of the word remain unknown; there is perhaps a Germanic link, but no one quite knows for sure. But perhaps this rootlessness is fitting of a word that, according to Billy Connolly at least, has no better definition than itself: he explains that the oft-used phrase ‘fuck off’ does not mean ‘go away’ – oh no; it only ever means ‘fuck off’. The two words combined manifest themselves as an effective universal threat; immediate, urgent, inflexible – and, rather cunningly, cuts through cultural boundaries, as demonstrated by Connolly again: if you’re in a foreign country and someone tries to steal your suitcase, shout the words ‘fuck off’ and the would-be thief in question will know exactly what you mean, whether they understand English or not. Would you have thought a self-described ‘fuckumentory’ featuring Ice-T couldn’t be enlightening? Think again. Perhaps surprisingly, it is wordsmith Ice who provides some of the funniest and most convincing examples of when no other word will do.

What is made clear is the word’s link to sex, since this is its original and foremost meaning. To enhance our insight into the matter, pornography actor Tera Patrick, industry veteran Ron Jeremy and president of Morality in Media, Robert Peters, share their thoughts on obscenity, censorship and the semantic nuances of ‘to make love’ and ‘to fuck’ . On the matter of pornography, it is the words of Janet LaRue that are likely to remain etched on your mind; when voicing her bafflement at why so much money is spent on watching other people fornicate she coyly informs us that the role of participant is more enjoyable than that of voyeur. This revelation is accompanied by a ghastly smile that will chill you to the very core of your soul.

Oddly enough, the background track which sutures many of the interviews throughout the film is reminiscent of (what one might imagine) a soft-porn soundtrack might sound like; slightly buoyant but intentionally bland and forgettable. To punctuate and enhance the wordplay taking place on screen, Anderson has sourced an extensive soundtrack of much less understated tracks, which include aptly named ditties such as ‘Porn King’, ‘Shut Up and Fuck’, ‘Fucking Fucking Fuck’ and, essentially, ‘I Love to say Fuck’. Incidentally, ‘Perversion for Profit’ is the catchy title of the 1965 anti-pornography piece of which clips appear at the beginning on the film (2). It is well understood that sex sells, but what about the word itself? It turns out that French Connection aren’t the only ones to find those four letters insanely lucrative; according to Fuck, mainstream film hit Meet the Fockers (2004) is the highest grossing live action comedy – another bright idea that Kevin Smith laments not having thought of himself.

Reference is made to the wondrous onomatopoeic quality of the word, as demonstrated not only by the soundtrack but also by a vox pop couple gleefully sharing out the single syllable between them, twice. A linguist does make an appearance in the proceedings, but isn’t asked to offer any thoughts on this particular facet of the word. Another notable aspect of ‘fuck’ is its how it feels to say it; supporters speak of its cathartic appeal, likening the voicing of the word to releasing a pressure valve. Which leads one to wonder: if reciting Shakespeare feels like having jewels in your mouth (3), what does saying the word ‘fuck’ feel like? If the pressure valve analogy holds true, then one would imagine answers would include an aspect of spitting out a mouth full of something (whether that something is vile or virtuous clearly depends on the speaker). How the word is uttered is another variant; within the interviewees, some do appear say it quickly, almost shyly, whilst others prefer to savour each letter. Sadly, Anderson does not linger on questions of the emotional response the word can illicit, or the how and why a word can be so charged. As to whether its potency can be diluted in repetition, we are offered a clip of Steve Martin in Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), accompanied by a handy number count (it goes into double digits, in case you’re curious) – reading between the lines suggests that, if anything, repetition can even enhance the impact of the word’s use. In addition, a clip from Bad Santa is used to show us how, for heightened comedic effect, unleashing the word upon unassuming children is edging on the divine.

In terms of narrative, the film is loosely woven around a tug-of-war between the American notion of free speech and the vengeful cull of censorship. Common sense would suggest that with freedom comes responsibility, but – significantly – there is not necessarily an obligation; hence the creation of authorities like the FCC (the villains of the film), who step in to protect the innocence of all Americans exposed to the corrosive sweep of the media (4). But, surely, this sort of censorship is what gives words like ‘fuck’ its bite. Without its taboo trappings, the power to shock and offend disappears, making the argument for its free use rather pointless. Other important questions are raised, including the use of the word around children and the notion of polite society; most of us self-censor in the company of our families, and so inevitably the word ‘fuck’ is a sensitive one. The way in which the media is duty-bound to reflect American family values – and the responsibility of politicians and other public figures have to adhere to these standards –leads into and interesting reflection on the phenomenon the formal and informal persona. It also provides an irresistible opportunity to slip in a slice of George Bush’s ‘off air’ antics.

Although Fuck casts an amused eye over the snarling between censorship and free speech, I can’t imagine it swaying many opinions; the film stands as an entertaining affirmation for those who adore the word, and most likely a shameful sign of cultural decay to those who abhor it. Though not particularly antagonistic, the film is likely to provoke those who are disposed to being provoked. In terms of challenging the viewer’s perceptions it stands as an amusing springboard for post-viewing discussion.

Overall, Fuck is more substantial than a medley of memorable film clips, and once the film settles into its subject, does well to rise above its homemade aesthetic. Anderson sets out to both inform and entertain; as a documentary it doesn’t quite live up to its potential, as it prefers to skim the surface of its subject rather than get its analytical teeth stuck in. The jovial tone works, and though it may not devastatingly funny (although there are sure to be easily pleased fans who rave otherwise) there are definitely some genuine laughs to had. Anderson clearly takes great delight in his subject, as do many of his interviewees, many of whom all but giggle at their self-conscious naughtiness. Fuck is undeniably a celebration of the word and its legacy; it succeeds in demonstrating how western language and culture would be decidedly less colourful without the word ‘fuck’ and the cacophony of ways in which it can be used and abused. Regardless of our individual feelings towards ‘fuck’, one has to admire its enduring power to provoke and delight, something that does not appear to have diminished in its 500(ish) year history (5).

1) Interestingly, US teacher Jeffrey Smith was allegedly fired for showing this film to his 11th grade journalism students. Perhaps more curiously, the only details I can find about the story are on the film’s MySpace blog:
2) Perversion for Profit on IMDB:
3) This is according to author Frank McCourt, at least. Since he has a Pulitzer under his belt one must assume he knows what he’s talking about. His opinion on the use of ‘fuck’ is sadly unknown at the time of writing.
4) The Federal Communications Commission – US regulatory body for broadcast media:
5) Both the film and Wikipedia (quite possibly the filmmaker’s source material) estimate that the word ‘fuck’ first appeared in print in 1475, in the poem ‘Flen Flyys’. It made its first appearance in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1972.



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