Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Fuck

(movie review)

It's summer vacation over here, which means I can waste time watching movies again. So, I wandered over to my local video store to see what was new.

And I stumbled upon this film.
Apparently it's a few years old, but it just hit my local video store now. (As long as I'm living in Japan, I'll never be a topical reviewer. I've made my peace with it).

I had never heard of this film before, but I guessed (rightly) that it was a film about the cultural wars surrounding the F-word. And so I thought it might be pretty interesting.

Driving home, it occurred to me that it was odd this movie should in a Japanese video rental store at all, 3 years late or not. The F-word is a peculiarly American debate, one that has little relevance to Japanese culture, and one (in my experience) Japanese people don't really understand.

There are impolite words in Japanese, but as far as I can tell there are no "bad" words. I invite someone with a deeper knowledge of the language to comment on this, but in my experience there are no words in Japanese that are viewed as having a moral status. Or words that are bad anytime, anywhere, and in any situation. Simply put, there's no Japanese equivalent to the word "Fuck".

By contrast I, and many of you, were brought up in such a way that if I even thought "fuck" as a youngster I would feel incredibly guilty. When I try and explain the deep taboo this word has in American culture, my Japanese friends just give me confused looks.
(I'd be interested in hearing from those of you who've studied other languages as to your experience with swear words).

On the other hand, "fuck" is definitely one of the most recognizable English words in the world. You travel anywhere, and people know what it means (as Billy Connolly points out in this film). So in that respect I guess it is at least something the Japanese public will easily recognize.

Growing up in a conservative Christian environment, this word had strong moral connotations for me as a child. And as an adult, I decided the whole thing was silly. I wrote a little manifesto about my feelings on "swear words" in this post here, but I had developed these opinions long before that.

The director of this movie obviously has opinions very close to mine. Unfortunately, however, this documentary is a disappointment.

For one thing there's very little hard information actually in this 90 minute film. It's hard to even properly call it a documentary. The whole thing is almost entirely talking heads.

Most of the people being interviewed are celebrities, some of them of dubious qualification (like Sam Donaldson). Many of the other celebrities(Ice-T, Drew Carey, Kevin Smith, Alanis Morisette) seem to be featured just because they use the word a lot. I'm not sure this makes them experts.
And then in an even further stretch there are a few porn stars interviewed, who are famous for...well, you know... .

Occassionally there are a few good points made in the discussion, but mostly it's just a lot of idle talking and hot air.

Even worse, there's lots of man on the street interviews. Whenever you're watching a documentary and they keep throwing in "man on the street interviews" you know they're just desperate for a way to fill up the time.
I've lived in America for 23 years. I know what the man on the street thinks about the word "fuck". I don't need to rent a documentary to learn it.

The film goes briefly into the origin of the word. Several people in the "man on the street" interviews repeat the urban legend that FUCK is an acronym. And then a few expert linguists set us straight.

This is the most interesting part of the film, but it would have been a lot more interesting 20 years ago before the rise of the internet. Nowadays people can just google the origin of "Fuck", and I suspect most of us already have at some point in our lives. And if you haven't, what are you waiting for? Check out the on-line dictionary or read wikipedia's article. If you do that, you'll be better informed than you would be after watching this movie.
...(and well you're over there, check out the history of the word "OK". I always thought that was an interesting story).

There's some brief historical tid-bits about the word fuck in the 20th century, but it's very patchy. It's obvious that whoever put this movie together did almost no research. (Well, why would you? When you can splice a bunch of celebrity interviews together and call it a finished documentary, why bother to do any research?)

For example, the word fuck has been around as far back as anyone can trace, but it only achieved it's status of infamy in the 20th century. Why? This film mentions the 2 world wars as the reason, but doesn't expand on that at all. Out of all the dirty words in the English language, why fuck?

(This also would have been a great time to mention Kurt Vonnegut's quote: "If you hate filthy language, you better make sure you vote against wars. Because after Johnny's been in the battlefield and seen his friend's head blown off, he's not going to come home talking like a choir boy anymore" (all paraphrased as I have no copy in front of me) but unfortunately the movie's director dropped the ball on this one as well).

We get other brief historical glimpses. The Supreme Court ruling on the use of Fuck in anti-war protests, the first time Fuck was said on the moon, the first time Fuck was used in a major motion picture (1970, "Mash"). But they're just skimming the surface here, and for the most part they're not telling us anything we didn't already know.

The film does attempt to create some sort of debate by having on defenders of public decency advocates like Pat Boone, Miss Manners, Alan Keys, and assorted right wing talk show hosts. But the conservatives are always edited to look ridiculous, or intercut with opposing comments.

Although I agree politically with the director, I think this is an area where his passion got the better of his common sense. Had the debate just been allowed to happen on equal footing, the conservatives would have looked ridiculous all by themselves. As they tried to create moral boundaries around a phonetic utterance, they would have drifted more and more into the world of the bizarre, and the whole ludicrousness of the debate would have been shown for what it is.

...As it is, they can now go back to their right wing radio listeners and complain (legitimately) that they came in good faith to give their opinions for this liberal documentary, and were skewered in the editing process.

But even aside from that, this film is preaching entirely to the converted in a lot of other ways. In addition to the word "fuck" there are gratioutious scenes of fucking added to the film. (Much of which I suspect is again mainly just for the sake of filler). This all but guarantees that anyone on the other side of the culture war debate is not going to sit through this film without turning off the TV and walking away disgustedly. So as a film which hopes to impact and inform the cultural debate, it shoots itself in the foot. (Or the head really. I know lots of people in the moral majority, but there's no way I could possibly recommend this film to them).

The film is not without it's good points, however. It does a good job of showing the hypocrisy of Washington politicians, especially Dick "Go Fuck Yourself" Cheney. And the film also does a good job of pointing out that with the increased clampdown by the FCC (an undemocratic, unelected body) free speech is once again under renewed attack.

But on the whole I agree with this reviewer who said: Anderson's jumpy editing fails to cover up the fact that he only has 30 good minutes of material here. It's not that there aren't some good points in this film, but unfortunately there's a lot of pointless filler as well.

The high points of this film are usually when it shows clips from other films: Lenny Bruce, South Park, George Carlin. Renting those videos should be just as good as sitting through this movie.

Link of the Day
Vanity Fair's Christopher Hitchens Undergoes Waterboarding

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