So, here goes: an attempt to review Steve Anderson's documentary without using its title, which can't be used in this newspaper. But it's used everywhere else: on playgrounds, in comedy clubs, in popular song, on the Senate floor, at work when someone spills coffee, and from the row in front of me at the movies, where the other night two nice middle-age ladies chatted colorfully about their grandchildren. It is a verb, an adjective and a noun; sometimes all three in the same sentence. It can stand for free speech, or for the decline of civilized discourse. It is both colorful and blank, at times drained of meaning by its own ubiquity. It has, in its own small four-letter way, permeated the culture.
But where did it come from? How can a little word wield such power? Why does it offend some people and amuse others? Anderson's film assembles a motley array of talking heads, among them Pat Boone, Ice-T, Sam Donaldson, Judith Martin (aka Miss Manners), porn star Ron Jeremy, Michael Medved, Hunter S. Thompson (in his last filmed interview), conservative radio host Dennis Prager and others. Some are thoughtful (Jesse Sheidlower, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, contributes some interesting historical background); some less so.
It's a scattershot approach to a potentially interesting subject, and it works only in a scattershot way. Anderson occasionally gets stuck on tangents, or lets his interview subjects get stuck and doesn't edit out their digressions. Evan Seinfeld and Tera Patrick, both adult-film actors, brag pointlessly about the various sexual positions in their repertoire, which seems more like attention-seeking than thoughtful discourse. (Get a room, kids.) And the man-on-the-street interviews add little to the mix -- basically, many people admit that they use the word, which isn't exactly news.
But I learned a few things from "F***." The word, we're told, was first used in print in 1475. It is, despite prevalent rumors, not an acronym. Shakespeare did not use it, but the poet Robert Burns did. Comedian Lenny Bruce, who died in 1966, was given a posthumous pardon in 2003 by New York Gov. George Pataki for his 1965 conviction for "giving an obscene performance" -- which included, of course, That Word. (Pataki described the pardon as a victory for the First Amendment.) The first major studio-released film to use the word was Robert Altman's "MASH," in 1970. Pat Boone sometimes says "You ragged codpiece" when he wants to swear, which almost justifies the entire movie.
But "F***" gives short shrift to a question that many moviegoers may well ponder: How, exactly, has this word become a substitute for wit, or, in many movies, for dialogue? Consider "Running Scared," a thriller released earlier this year -- if you eliminated the F-words, there'd be virtually no movie left.
In "F***," we see a scene from "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," in which Steve Martin uses the word at least 17 times. Is this funny? Yes, says "F***." Is it funnier than real writing? Is it funnier than if it were used more sparingly? Can you support the First Amendment, and be appalled at the often-ridiculous fines levied by the FCC for a single broadcast F-bomb, and still be weary of this word's ubiquity? Anderson's movie doesn't say, but many know the answer.
Copyright 2006, Seattle Times. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.