Th!nkFilm // 2005 // 90 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // March 12th, 2007
"Fuck you, motherfucker -- it's not funny after a while." -- Richard Nixon, recorded on White House tapes
Is excessive swearing a new thing? Have we crossed the rubicon and made taboos commonplace? Examples abound in popular culture -- The Aristocrats. Princeton professor Harry G. Frankfurt's bestseller, On Bullshit. the obsessive use of the word "frak" on Battlestar Galactica -- that might lead one to believe so. In a single episode of South Park, the word "shit" was repeated 162 times. This incurred the wrath of the gods of "Standards and Practices," whose job it was to protect the sacred taboo of curse words.
Thinkfilm begins the DVD for its new documentary, Fuck with a trailer for John Cameron Mitchell's recent relationship comedy, Shortbus, which features actual fucking. There is still a sense of the taboo here: the trailer itself is censored and is introduced by Mitchell, who seems abashed at having to explain why and how he would make such a movie. The truth is, apart from some pretty vanilla sex (both straight and gay), Shortbus is a fairly normal indie relationship comedy. This trailer is followed by one for a naughty parody of March of the Penguins led by the big surprise of The Aristocrats, Bob Saget's dirty, dirty mouth.
I point out these trailers to make a point: Thinkfilm expects that naughty words and naughty actions find an audience, particularly in educated, middle class, whitebread urbanites who love the thrill of breaking taboos. But these taboos are only broken by speaking and watching -- rarely doing.
Fuck is a documentary about speaking -- and rarely doing. The documentary begins with a clip from the notorious 1965 scare film, "Perversion for Profit," played for camp value. As to the rest of the film, there is something a little perverse about throwing the right-wing Alan Keyes and porn actor Ron Jeremy on screen as experts.
A host of interview subjects make the point that the word is all-purpose: it can be an expression of pain, of anger, of emphasis. An episode of Spongebob Squarepants calls it "a sentence enhancer." (This is so delightful an expression that I plan to use it myself.) "It's the ultimate bad word," says Bill Maher. Billy Connolly insists that "fuck off" only means "fuck off." There is no translation -- it is a purely emotive moment. Others remark on the existence -- or lack thereof -- of boundaries of good taste. But would "fuck" have any cultural impact if it was not transgressive? This film is not about fucking. That is, it is not about having sex. It is clearly about a word. As such, you might end up sitting through this movie wondering what the big deal is. Indeed, the film undermines its own purpose when it implies that everything it is trying to do was already done in one Lenny Bruce routine years ago. Yet, we are only half an hour into the documentary, and people are still fighting about this.
The documentary makes its point in the first few minutes. The rest is shapeless. Director Steve Anderson tries to group points by topics related to the use of the word: the First Amendment, the etymological origins of the word (which turn out to be completely mundane), cultural shifts in the word's use, particularly on television. But there is little serious debate here; the scholars are quickly pushed aside by the comedians making dirty jokes and the conservatives (like Pat Boone, who helpfully offers alternate euphemisms) trying to cover their asses. The tone is relentlessly light. There are even animated segments from Bill Plympton. So, it should be pretty obvious which side of the fence the filmmakers have come down on. Even the usual admonition "don't do it because it is bad for children" is treated as a big joke.
The villain of the piece -- and you could see this coming from a mile away -- is the FCC. Even in advertising the movie ("The Film That Dare Not Speak Its Name!"), the filmmakers clearly want to provoke the government into making them an example. Again, though, the deck is stacked: when the film has to concede that the FCC backed down on Bono's naughty expletive on television in 2003, it has to bounce back with a condemnation of the infamous Janet Jackson "nipple incident" -- which is not about the use of bad language at all. A later section about the bad language in Scarface is actually quite silly: why is nobody commenting on the horrific violence and its impact on the audience? When all anyone in your documentary can object to is some bad words when the rest of the film is loaded with drug use, degradation of women, and massive bloody slaughter, you have clearly steered the conversation in the wrong direction.
The film then shifts to cinematic depictions of sex and the issue of pornography. All played for laughs, of course. Descriptions of sex are intercut with footage of animals copulating. But it all turns, once again, on language, how one describes the act, rather than the act itself.
Unless you are in middle school, this will become tiresome, merely a matter of keeping score. In fact, instead of subtitles, the film includes a "curse counter" to keep actual score. Eight hundred and twenty-four, for the record, though I'm pretty sure they missed a few here and there. (By comparison, I've only managed to sneak it into this review 13 times.) There is no counter to keep track of the other curse words. Go figure.
Just in case you need more transgressive language, there are extended interview clips. Pat Boone talks about how he reacted when his daughters asked why "that word" was bad. Hunter Thompson makes the salient point that the word has more impact when used less often. In a separate set of interviews (not meant for inclusion in the film), Bill Plympton explains his philosophy of "adult" cartoons, while director Steve Anderson gives a promotional interview to HDNet. There are two deleted scenes: a Bill Plympton music video for the classic "Surfin' Bird" (Psychotronic Film fans take note), and a bit on people's favorite curse words.
Steve Anderson admits in his commentary track that the idea for this documentary was initially thrown out as joke, and that the pitch itself was "high concept." He defends the film's superficiality by, well, admitting its superficiality and overall fun approach to the topic: "We decided we weren't going to go too deep into each section." Fair enough, since this is really only about a bad word that doesn't even have to refer to a bad act to still get people talking.
The best observation in the film is made by Drew Carey, when he implies that "fuck" is just too ordinary a curse word to still be transgressive. "Where is the 'cunt' documentary?" he asks. Indeed, that might have a lot more to say about gender, the body, and the real boundaries of our culture. "Fuck" is just tapped out. Ultimately, South Park was probably right, at least where this documentary is concerned. Overusing the taboo word robs it of all impact. After 90 minutes, "fuck" becomes routine. And so does Fuck.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary Track
* Interview with Steve Anderson
* Interview with Bill Plympton
* Extended Interviews
* Deleted Scenes
* Curse Counter
* Theatrical Trailer
* Official Site