As we pass the middle and enter the end of what some have labeled 'the Naughts' (the years between 2000 and 2009), it is clear that society is struggling to find a happy medium between rights and restrictions. Unfortunately, the powers that can benefit from such a schism keep pushing the boundaries of acceptability out further and further. Nowhere is this truer than in the arena of free speech. Some believe in an inalienable right (yes) without reasonable restrictions (no). Others view the 1st Amendment as a necessary evil (no) being potentially overused by individuals desperate to hide behind its Constitutional protections (yes). A perfect example is the word "Fuck". Some feel it has no place in legitimate social dialogue. Others view it as a matter of fact exclamation that fits effortlessly into the permissible idiom. Now, director Steve Anderson adds fuel to the fire with his comic documentary, based on said swear word. He's interested in more than the word, however. He wants to dissect the reasons for its restriction, taking on more than any one movie can possibly manage.
Gathering together an eccentric group of comedians, celebrities, adult industry fixtures, university scholars, linguists, religious leaders, conservative talk show hosts and liberal (and/or likeminded) authors, Steve Anderson wants to figure out why "fuck" is such a titillating taboo. Many believe it's the word's sexual orientation, a definitional determination that's existed for centuries. A few argue that decency and manners define the expression's highly restrictive use. There are individuals who can link the term to Biblical blasphemy, and those for whom the remark represents the last frontier of free speech. In between we get cartoon clarifications on "the bird", a look at Lenny Bruce and his public pioneering of profanity, and lots of little asides meant to clarify "Fuck"'s place in human discourse. Impolite or incidental, a sign of the times or portent of a world ready to implode, everyone has an opinion – and Anderson wants to explore each and every one of them.
It's a subject with almost too many facets to legitimately cover. It affects all aspects of daily human life – the pragmatic, the political, the spiritual and the social. Toss in the connection to law and order, media and entertainment, the Bill of Rights and the powerful partisanship between Conservative and Liberal and you have a canvas increasing in size, exponentially. So when filmmaker Steve Anderson decided to take on the word 'Fuck' – from its unknown linguistic origins to the way it has transformed our post-modern mentality – he literally bit off way more than he could chew. Even approaching the subject from both a talking head and Michael Moore-ish interactive perspective, illustrating obvious examples while plowing forward with the first person POV, you can see the mountain he has to climb literally being created in front of him. As each one of his self-appointed pundits make their case for the word's use/non-use, as readily apparent agendas knock heads with common knowledge sentiments, more tangents than conclusions are reached. Before you know it, we are witnessing yet another dissection of Janet Jackson's Super Bowl nip slip, and Howard Stern's notorious struggles with the FCC. Sure, it's all in service of what wants to be a statement on censorship, but for some reason, the various narrative threads fail to link back to this primary theme.
Indeed, much of the time, Fuck feels like a stand-up comedy routine created by a series of select comics and commentators. Each personality is given their individual forum, and they are allowed to lecture us on the good and bad in so-called foul language. Even after admitting that arbitrary meaning has been given to these self-styled obscenities, a moral apologist like Pat Boone will still suggest that "decent" people just don't swear. It's a generalized, generational thing, an argument foisted forward by a bunch of ideological firebrands who believe in the good old days when gentlemen held their blue tongue in front of refined ladies, and certain subjects (and the words describing them) were never allowed in mixed company. Of course, this has to be contrasted, so why bring out the hardcore porn stars, individuals like Tera Patrick, Evan Seinfeld and Ron Jeremy who argue profusely that they have no issue with the word and its wanton usage. In the middle are people like Bill Maher, refusing to play into the propaganda positions being laid out. While he will uphold his own beliefs, he does interject some much needed normalcy into the proceedings. It's at these time when Fuck as a film functions the best. As for the other comedians, they fall into filler mode, working on new nightclub material right before our eyes. Janeane Garofalo, Drew Carrey and Billy Connolly, among others, provide more shtick than substance, though occasionally they put forth a lucid thought or two.
But perhaps the biggest problem with Fuck is its well-meaning lack of focus. At times it plays like a really lame version of HBO's Real Sex, man on the street interviews degenerating into everyday people sheepishly using profanity. Similarly, we are tossed into the middle of a Lenny Bruce lovefest that, while deserved (the comic did crusade for freedom of expression on the stand-up stage) tends to overpower the rest of the material. Then there will be moments of pure movie making magic, as when scholars refute all the urban legends surrounding the word's origins (it is not an acronym of "for unlawful carnal knowledge" or any other clever play on words) or when Kevin Smith recalls a screening of Scarface when he was a teen. Indeed, Fuck frequently finds the proper balance between information and entertainment, diatribe and satiric slam-dunk. The result is a fun and fresh documentary. But the fact remains that the use and uselessness of vulgarity, the reasons why some words (shit, asshole) make it into the everyday lexicon while the F-bomb is still the height of cultural crassness, has a massive, meaningful scope. To attempt to address every aspect of its value, the reactions that people have over the connotation, or the comic possibilities of same, would stretch any filmmaker's creative frontiers. Anderson does a good job of keeping things light and on the surface, which may indeed be the best way to start the discussion. But a word like Fuckhas so many more facets to its existence than humor and horror. Too bad the film fashioned around its exploration tried to tell it all.
Obviously created on one of the many new digital cameras, THINKFilm makes the wise decision of remastering the movie, taking out the forced film look imposed upon Fuck for a theatrical release and letting the original video speak for itself. The resulting image is amazingly bright, even when Anderson stages his speakers in deep shadow and basic black backdrops. The colors are crisp and the details are abundant and clear. Certainly there is a stray flare or two, and the mixing of mediums (film, archival material, animation) does lead to a slight sense of visual disorientation, but overall, this is an excellent 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer.
For a film heavily reliant on conversation and dialogue, the Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix is a perfect presentational complement. All the participants are easy to understand, and even the occasional musical cue is nicely balanced. It doesn't overpower or overwhelm the rest of the aural elements.
THINKFilms has also piled on the added content for this DVD release, hoping to provide more detailed bonus feature bang for your digital buck. First up is a very verbose audio commentary from director Anderson. Never at a loss for something to say about his film, its creation, its marketing and distribution, and the weird ways its been listed on movie marquees ("0000" being the oddest example), the director does a good job of keeping the contextual conversation going. While it covers some of the same material featured during his interview with Ron Wilonsky of HD-NET's Higher Definition (also offered here), the amount of detail makes the difference. If you want to understand the pros and prolific cons about making an independent documentary – and all the rights and rebroadcast issues one faces – Anderson has some solid, sensible advice to meter out. In addition to the HD-Net piece, there is a chat with cartoonist Bill Plympton (who explains his involvement with the film), more Q&A material from Billy Connolly, Pat Boone, Tera Patrick, Ice-T and the late, great Hunter S. Thompson. Finally, just for fun, there is a deleted sequence where the participants talk about their favorite dirty words, and there's a subtitle option that allows you to count the number of times "fuck" is used in the film. Toss in the standard trailers and you have a nice selection of insightful supplements.
Like the naughty schoolboy who enjoys getting caught, the film Fuck doesn't mind standing over in the corner, snickering to itself. After all, it has just spent 90 minutes getting away with something most movies can't or won't even attempt. And it does deserve a great deal of credit for balancing the discourse between the opinions of the open and narrow minded. Still, one wishes the movie had been a little more limited in its scope. It turns an important work of social commentary into a merely enjoyable exercise in expletives. All minor (and major) misgivings aside, Fuck still deserves a Highly Recommended rating, if for no other reason than reminding us of how precarious our Constitutional protections really are. With constant bombardment from groups on both sides, and the extrapolated excusing and accusing of behavior on all fronts, we seem to be approaching a kind of cultural critical mass when it comes to our rights and duties. As a word, "fuck" may have more than one meaning, but its range of motion picture possibilities works both for and against Steven Anderson. He could have crafted an important film. He made something frothy and funny instead.
Want more Gibron Goodness?
Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here