It’s a sure sign that your adolescence is irretrievably behind you when you no longer take any particular joy in using the word “fuck.” In that fleeting moment around age 12, when the possibilities of childhood mingle rabidly with the knowledge of adulthood, “fuck” has irrepressible meaning and élan. It is pronounced often, for its own sake, and with glee. In that fleeting moment and, now, in Fuck, a feature-length documentary from producer-director Steve Anderson.
Ostensibly a full-bore investigation into the untamable expletive’s origins, its uses and its effervescent capacity to roil American sensibilities it is, more than all that, a celebration of the f-word.
A stew of vintage footage, archive audio and Bill Plympton animations, the documentary’s real ace is its cast of celebrity commentators, appearing in sleek interview clips. A parade of novelty: Alan Keyes, Janeane Garofolo, Ron Jeremy, Miss Manners, Hunter S. Thompson and Pat Boone, among others. And all swearing like sailors. Except Pat Boone, who, allergic to the f-word has concocted his own brand of semantic saccharine. Whenever he’s in a cursing mood, he spits out his own last name (i.e. “Oh boone!”, “Boone it!”.)
A certain yawning feeling creeps in between the flying “fuck”s (about nine a minute, if you count.) There’s little drama in the word itself. “Fuck” doesn’t have much of a backstory. The most linguists can say is that it’s not a medieval acronym for “fornication under consent of the king.” Beyond that no one actually knows its origins-probably a long-lost Germanic verb meaning “to poke.” It was first written down in 1475. Huh.
The celebrities interject their observations on usage, but they’re not particularly . . . well . . . Ice-T? “That word is an exclamation point.” Okay. Bill Connolly? “‘Fuck off” doesn’t mean ‘go away.’ It means ‘fuck off.'” Indeed. “Fuck” is a famously dexterous word: transitive and intransitive verb, adjective, interjection, noun. So many meanings can make a word unique. Or meaningless. The camera takes its subject to the man on the street, revealing that the man on the street swears occasionally.
With such a dirty mouth, wandering into the culture wars is inevitable. Interviewees break down into teams and a loose dialectic starts up. Dennis Prager and Michael Medved are all dowdy on “fuck.” With a juxtaposing slight-of-slice editing style, they seem to be debating Bill Maher, Chuck D and NYPD Blue creator Steven Bochco. One side says “fuck” is a crude and pointless word, the overuse of which augurs a coarsening culture. “Fuck” never hurt anyone, comes the reply, (it’s just sex, after all) and those who can’t get over it are First-Amendment-hating prudes.
Anderson presses his thumb on the scale with one hand, conjuring digressive mini-hagiographies of Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. With the other hand he grasps wildly for any and every topic that could possibly keep the four-letter word interesting. What he draws in–Janet Jackson’s nipple, Howard Stern’s crusade against the FCC, a montage of copulating animals–is increasingly tangential. The reaching is too much for the space-time continuum. The farther Fuck wanders, the slower time goes. (Quantum physicists can save themselves some calculation: the exact point at which time ceases to move forward is the same point at which Clerks director Kevin Smith starts counting off the number of times he’s used “fuck” in his movies.)
The distributor behind Fuck is ThinkFilm, the same behind last year’s surprise-hit documentary on the world’s dirtiest joke, The Aristocrats. It was clearly hoping for a repeat success. Alas, Fuck has some of The Aristocrats gestalt but none of its substance. The Aristocrats is about a joke you never knew existed, and as soon as you do, you’re immersed in the mechanics of humor and the character of comedians who all have their personal versions of it. “Fuck” is a word you’ve heard probably 10,000 times before and it used in exactly the same unthinking way each time.
What’s really being celebrated is the attitude of “fuck.” That unfazed, defiant disposition of perpetual boundary-pushing. It’s quite diffuse though, and maybe not that much deeper than the word that sums it up. As Gertrude Stein might have said, “there’s just no fucking there there.”
Fuck insists on the dignity and value of “fuck” to the last frame. It catches a smiles along the way: Ice-T is informed of Pat Boone’s innovation and takes a shine to it, rolling the word around his mouth and saying he’s going home to boone his wife.
A final look at The Aristocrats reveals all. As it ends, you still want to hear the joke again, maybe try to tell it yourself. At the end of Fuck, you don’t want to hear “fuck” again for at least a week. It’s enough to put you into the minds of the gray-flecked talking heads that are so Victorian about the f-word. And enough to suggest they might be onto something.
Louis Wittig is a media writer in New York.