Saturday, July 4, 2015

How the F-bomb in films went from offensive to really annoying

When "Gone With the Wind" was released in 1939, Clark Gable's use of the D-word, as in "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," caused a minor stir, for even such gentle cuss word was considered risqué. Today, "damn" wouldn't even be noticed in the torrent of profanities that routinely course through movie dialogues.

In particular, the use of the so-called "F-bomb" has risen from offensive, to either meaningless or downright annoying. (Blogger disclosure: I was not raised in a Cuban nunnery, nor am I averse to a string of expletives when provoked.)
Research, research: Computations involved in this post. 

The "F-bomb" has become gratuitous, like much movie nudity. A well placed "fuck!" or "shit!" may be perfectly apt in a conversation among hoodlums, who wouldn't be expected to use "golly!".  But like nudity, it needs to be well placed, unless of course, you're watching pornography, when the more cussing and nudity the better.

The suggestion of sex, with a sprinkling of nudity—I think it's called titillation or teasing—can actually be more effective and erotic than wholesale undress, particularly when the results are not that attractive.

Take Harvey Keitel's butt, please, which he and/or the director Elizabeth Jane Campion, decided to share with the movie public in the 1993 flick "The Piano." It's gratuitous nudity and worse, unpleasant to look at. Far more "ugh!" than "ah!", more "did you have to?" than "hmm, look at that!".

So it is with the F-word, which in some movies is used with such carpet-bombing abandon—literally hundreds of times—that it's a wonder there's any room left in the script for other probing terms, like "the", "is", and "what?"

Two nights ago, with no other entertainment readily available, Stew and I visited our local Blockbuster outlet, which along with Radio Shack, continues to thrive in San Miguel, long after the original chains vanished in the U.S. We think of those two stores as the retailing equivalent of Jurassic Park.

The DVD selection at Blockbuster included some new releases but also lots of musty oldies, like "Saturday Night Fever," in yellowing plastic boxes.

We settled on the James Bond-ish 2014 film "Kingsman: The Secret Service," starring Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Caine. It also starred Mark Hamill, nowadays no Star Wars bon-bon anymore. Hamill was unrecognizable.

Twenty minutes into the film, Stew asked, "Have noticed how many times they've used the word 'fuck' "? In fact, the use of the F-word and its various conjugations, was astonishing. Along with the other four-letter words, it became really obnoxious. Like Keitel's bare ass, most of the cussing in "Kingsman" seemed totally dispensable.

Last year Variety magazine ranked recent movies according the use of the F-bomb, and Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street," starring Leonardo DiCaprio, came first. The word "fuck" was used five-hundred and six times. Divide the running time of the movie in seconds by the number of F-bombs and we hear the word approximately every 21 seconds.

One can understand the use of the word on special occasions, as when Vice President Biden, unaware of a open microphone, leaned over President Obama, during the signing of the Affordable Care Act, and exclaimed, "Mr. President, this is a big fucking deal!"

John Oliver, the squirrel-like British comedian on HBO, also drops F-bombs, but judiciously and for good effect—he's very funny. He uses the F-bomb like someone would use red pepper on a pizza—carefully.

How many times did they use the naughty word in "Kingsman"? I replayed the movie on a laptop, with subtitles to ensure maximum accuracy, and alas, I only counted one hundred and twelve occurrences.

That's about once per minute, not that bad really, compared to the "Wolf", but, when added to the other cuss words, including some British imports like "wanker" and "bollocks," it felt like aerial bombardment rather than sniper hits.

By golly, Olivia, you look really mahvelous. 
Which brings us to Olivia de Havilland, who celebrated her ninety-ninth birthday on July 3 and still looks great.

She played the gentle Melanie "Mellie" Hamilton in GWTW, and even today punctuates her conversation with nothing naughtier than "golly," "marvelous," and "splendid." Mellie was the foil to the evil, unscrupulous and scheming Scarlett O'Hara, who probably deserved a good "fuck you!" more than anyone in film history.

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