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F**K Reviewed & A Profanisaurus Of Cinema's Best Swearing
David Moats , February 13th, 2009 07:23

F**K, a documentary by the creators of The Aristocrats, mixes puerile humour with provocative questions to mixed results. David Moats puts the film, released this week by the ICA, in the context of the culture wars. Plus: we look at how cinema has best made use of cussin'.

Click here for the Quietus Cinema Profanisaurus gallery

In Britain, the half-time show at the 2004 Superbowl, in which millions of viewers caught a split second glimpse of Janet Jackson's nipple, was a minor scandal. But in America, this was an event surpassed in cultural significance only by 9/11 and maybe the Iraq War. The impact was so catastrophic that American commentators are now obliged to refer to our current epoch as "In a post-Janet-Jackson-wardrobe-malfunction world..."

The half-time show was a major skirmish in the so called culture wars which America has been embroiled in seriously since the late 80s. With the political spectrum narrowed to two parties who are almost identical in terms of policy, culture has become the real site of struggle for the red and the blue states. It is nothing less than a battle for America's soul and national identity - is America a country of militant, fundamentalist Christians or liberal drug-munching hippies and gays? Both sides ironically invoke the constitution and it's amendments (1st or 2nd depending on which side) to justify their positions.

To understand the work of any American comedian who's not a sell-out, tow the line, Disney-friendly hack like Jeff Foxworthy, you have to see them in the context of the culture wars. It may seem to outsiders that they are merely attempting to shock and titillate with material which, compared to Brass Eye or Monkey Dust, isn't that shocking _or_ titillating, but they are in fact bravely establishing beachheads of bad taste and defending them against FFC censors and the sophisticated machinery of the Christian right.

The culture wars are also then lens through which you need to understand F**K, originally released in 2005. It might seem flippant to make a documentary about the word "fuck" (a film about the n-word would certainly have generated a more substantial debate) but you have to remember that this was made in a country in which Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand's careers could have been ended for saying "fuck" let alone "fucked your granddaughter" on an elderly man's answering machine.

What is immediately surprising in this film, given the climate in which it was produced is the apparent balance of the interviewees and the seeming lack of partisan manipulation. What is perhaps unsurprising is how juvenile and pointless an exercise it is. It's pointless because, as with most liberal cultures, it is preaching to the converted. Even films like Bill Maher's Religulous, which only manhandles its opponents with kid gloves, will never be watched by its intended targets because it is fronted by a known "commie scumbag". The culture wars are not fought through any sort of debate or dialogue but by each side trying to populate the cultural landscape with more of their content than their opponent's - a hegemony founded on quantity not quality.

In the same way, F**K is a liberal statement which makes token gestures to objectivity such as placing the interviewees before neutral black backgrounds and allowing several conservatives to make very reasonable points, all of which is undercut by goofy animated titles and listing a respected language expert's title as 'cunning linguist'.

Steve Anderson's previous feature was of course The Aristocrats, in which the cream of the comedy crop took turns telling the infamous in joke ad nausieum. As with that film, F**k is a somewhat nebulous cloud of ideas that that lives or dies by its interviewees. The main laughs in this outing are down to swear-heavy scenes from classic films like Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Scarface. Billy Connelly is also predictably entertaining but the balance is rarely struck between hilarity and insight. The end result is a non-argument between liberals trying to be funny and conservatives trying to make genuine points. The film does allude to numerous interesting issues but mostly fails to flesh them out. This is exacerbated by the fact that the scope of the film lacks definition - general obscenity, hand gestures, and the act of fucking itself are not always distinguished from each other.

The film rightfully draws our attention to America's obsession with holding public figures accountable for their swearing, something which is currently happening to Boris Johnson. There is an absolutely brilliant segment which collects documented instances of presidential swearing including:

"Fucking Jew Bastard." - Hillary Clinton


"Our Senators are a bunch of Jackasses... Fuck the Senate!" - Richard Nixon


"The fucking Jews think they can run the world." - Nixon (again)

It also brings up the obvious double standard that Cheney could get away with swearing but Clinton would have been drawn and quartered. And they say there's a liberal media bias?

But the conservatives suggest the very valid point that freedom of the press is there to protect our ability to criticize the government not our right to be rude in front of kids, to which Lenny Bruce retorts in his childishly profound way: "Take away the right to say fuck and you take away the right to say fuck the government."

Many evils are committed in the name of children (que clip of George Carlin saying "Fuck the children!) and while there is something to be said for knowing the time and place to swear, as several commentators note, kids are going to find stuff out anyway. It is the job of parents to raise their kids not let TV, films and ambient pop-culture raise their kids for them.

It's ironic that if the film is anti-censorship, as it must be, than it sabotages itself by emphasizing the importance of the word when it should have been arguing that words are relative, given importance only by their socially constructed context. Ice-T, one of the most entertaining and articulate of the talking heads, perfectly illustrates this point when he starts using a made up word 'boon' in place of 'fuck' and shows how offensive it becomes simply through his delivery.

So although several provocative ideas come out of this onslaught of puerile jokes, they can offer few answers because liberals and conservatives are barely arguing by the same logic. This is not the fault of the film. It is simply the product of a pre-Obama, Bush-era America at the hight of polarized politics, and in this way, the film will make a fascinating document in years to come.

What we are left with then is a funny film overburdened by politics. Unfortunately, in the same way that The Aristocrats, by being the definitive document of that joke, ultimately ruined it for everyone, F**K has the effect of robbing the word of its impact. In the end I found myself wishing they would stop using the word fuck - not in the name of children or decency but in the name of good comedy. For boon's sake, people!

Click here for the Quietus Cinema Profanisaurus gallery