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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7 comments:

  1. It is no wonder that this profanity is common is the language of our youngsters.

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  2. I am in total agreement with you. Unfortunately the movies are reflecting real life or vice versa. When I was a teacher I got so sick and tired of the incessant use of the "F" word by students in the hallways. (Reporting them to the office?? Yeah, right, like that was going to do any good.) However, within my classroom the students knew enough to watch their language. They would get upset with me when I showed Spanish language movies, and I would cover up the subtitles whenever the "F" word came up.

    Now that I have left the classroom behind, it is so nice not have to hear the cussing. There have been several occasions where I have turned off a movie because of the constant profanity. I have not seen "The Wolf of Wall Street". Thanks for the heads up. I won't bother putting it on my Netflix list.

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  3. I worked in a steelmill, a good deal of my working life, I learned swear words in five different languages my first week in the mill. A quarter of the workforce had been 'displaced' by WWII and been resettled in Ohio. We actually looked up to people who could put down a good foul oath, it was comic relief. The only thing that was really off limits were threats to one's family. As to trash talk in the movies-water off a duck.

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  4. If you watched Kingsman more than once, you deserve an award for investigative journalism. How about a Pulitizer? And, if you do not get it for stamina, you should for "it's a wonder there's any room left in the script for other probing terms, like 'the', 'is', and 'what?'" -- one of the wittiest constructions of the morning.

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  5. Amen! We should strive to be better than that. The word that starts with F and ends in K, and isn't fork has crept into our language like a cancer. Worse is the use of the Massey Ferguson word. I hear little kids use it, and it is disgusting.

    We can only hope things will improve.

    Robert Gill
    Phoenix, AZ

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  6. I'm not in the camp of "cultural doomsters," folks who think American culture is going down the toilet at warp speed. Still, I agree with the essence of your post. And I'll add that it's not just "F-bombs" at the movies. Take Bloomberg.com, a news site with a focus on the financial aspect of things, meant mainly for a Wall Street audience.

    Someone there has decided that the tone needs to be more "folksy," and so we are treated to articles that sound like they were written by a precocious middle-schooler, and include words like "ain't."

    That might be OK for People Weekly, but I frankly find it a bit offensive when reading about the Greek Crisis.

    It's the literary equivalent of wearing faded and ripped jeans with a T-shirt and baseball cap to the opera.

    Saludos,

    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Where we are slowly turning into an old fogey.

    Saludos

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  7. I have read both of Larson's books and was astonished at the amount of research done on the Lusitania book. I think I"ve read everything he has written.
    As far as the F word. I find it disgusting and appalling but I don't know what the man is referring to about the Massey Ferguson tractor....seriously. IF my grandchildren use the F word, they certainly have never used any profanity around me - nor do my kids. I think of it as respect.........I try not to ever see movies that have cursing instead of good dialog. I rent quite a few foreign films where character development is a delight.

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