BOOS! and WHOOP-DOOS!: The Power of F*@# in a PG-13 World
The fabulous "fuck" word. A pair of glistening titties. A subplot about spoiled underpants. Gratuitous underage alcohol consumption. Granny bashing. And a horny Asian co-op student that rubs his dick on a seven-foot tall beast of a woman. All in a PG rated movie. What? How did this happen? The year was 1984, and John Hughes got away with murder. His film Sixteen Candles came just before Mola Ram graciously ripped the heart out of an extra on the set of Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom. Moments before Steven Spielberg preformed this one malicious act on the filmgoing youth of America, our PG rated films used to be a lot meaner. Sexier. Funnier. Right on the edge of being R rated. Now, most PG-13 films won't touch the material found in those early PG rated affairs. You need look no further than the original The Bad News Bears starring Walter Matthew and Tatum O'Neal for evidence. The PG-13 remake starring Billy Bob Thornton came on like a whitewashed version that would have been slapped with an X had it extorted towards the tendencies of its once great forbearer of family cinema.
Back in 1976, you could show tweens (a word that didn't exist then) guzzling beer on a baseball diamond. You could have them swearing and acting like middle-aged ex-sailors. They didn't have to redeem themselves in an act of kindness, either. They could end their note as ugly and as awesome as when they first stepped into the light. Not now. Not today. We've reverted backwards as far as thematic content goes. And ever since the 1990s, most raunchy teen genre filmmakers have looked at their PG-13 rating as a stumbling speed bump that fails them up until that unrated DVD release. The last time someone really grabbed ahold of that PG-13 rating and tried to use it to their advantage was, again, John Hughes, who almost got away with 18 "fucking"s in one sixty second scene. Steve Martin's rant is one of many memorable moments in Planes, Trains & Automobiles. And quite harmless fun. But the MPAA couldn't be convinced, and thus slapped what is one of the all-time greatest holiday family films with an undeserved R rating. All because of one little word. If Gremlins hadn't come along and wrecked the ratings board, Steve Martin and John Candy's hellish road trip would've been given a PG rating. In a world where fucked-up dudes open fire in a strip mall fitness center, it seems paltry to stamp certain films unwatchable by a younger public just because of one tiny, insignificant word.
Fuck. What does it really mean? And where does the word come from? My friend Ian Kennedy helped answer this question by co-producing the hilarious documentary F*ck a few years back. Maybe you don't have the time to sit down and watch it right this very second. So a brief history lesson is in order (then you can throw it in your Netflix que). The word fuck is not an acronym for Fornication Under Consent of the King. That is just an Urban Legend not featured in Joshua Jackson's best movie to date. Fuck's history is shadowed in accuracy. No one is clear on how it became such an ominous fixture on the tongue of the depraved. It seemed to develop into an offensive slang term throughout the years, and is now wildly recognized as the most notoriously inappropriate utterance one can make in social circles, even beating out "cunt" with its sheer ugliness. Maybe it's the way it thuds out of the mouth like a free-swinging hammer to the cerebellum. It has a delicious, nasty nectar that never grows tiresome, and it can mean many things. Its etymology is uncertain, but it is most likely a Germanic word derived from the act of striking, rubbing, and well, having sex (i.e. fucking). Its first appearance in literature came in a poem written in the year 1500, so it's been alive and well in the mouths of beggars since before you, the MPAA, or the FCC ever came along. Ruining and uplifting its usage. The first movie to ever utilize the obscenity was Robert Altman's MASH. It has since gone on to dominate the dialogue of many R rated films, and, as I told you earlier, some PG rated ones as well. This was all before Jack Valenti, with Steven Spielberg's help, introduced the PG-13 rating. After July 1st, 1984, the word fuck would never again be uttered in anything harboring a PG stamp of approval. Or so you might think.
Between 1984 and 1990 (when the MPAA really clamped down) four PG rated films managed to ease the word "fuck" into their on-screen vocabulary. These films include Big, Spaceballs, Beetlejuice, and Eight Men Out. At the time, directors still wanted to be edgy and of the moment. Yet they didn't want to lose those coveted family ticket sales. Throughout the 1990s, the MPAA started to change its mind about certain objectionable content. It really changed its stance on what could and couldn't be shown in the context of a PG or PG-13 rated film. And the film-rating world has gotten smaller. Here we stand today, with a PG-13 that isn't as explicit as the PG rating of the 70s and 80s. Fuck is no longer allowed in a so-called family film. And the teens with their PG-13 only get one use of the word. Which is ridiculous.
Only a single rating stands between one fuck and the one hundred and eight-six used by the gang in Superbad (at 118 minutes, that 1.6 fucks said every single minute the film is on scream). Because of this, most directors saddled with a PG-13 film don't really take the opportunity to use their one allotted fuck to its best advantage. Take director David R. Ellis and his Snakes on a Plane. He was going to abandoned his fuck altogether, until New Line decided to give him a little extra money and an R rating. There are stipulations that come with a PG-13 fuck. It can't be used with any sexual undertones. Thus, any variation of Mother Fucker is out of the question. And that's Samuel L. Jackson's signature line. He wasn't going to settle for a "Get these fucking snakes off this plane." He wanted the whole banana boat. This viewpoint is held by most. Why bother with one fuck? It's a hassle. And doesn't change the course of any given movie. Sure, Superbad wouldn't be Superbad without its dumpster full of profane moments. But you could wring the genuine heart it contains through a PG-13 filter and still find the same story in tact. Almost.
This summer marks a weird trend in that directors are actually dusting off their one fuck and using it as an artistic moment of brevity. They are showcasing their coveted one-fuck moment and using it to create scenes of importance as held within the framework of their story. Its as though someone suddenly noticed a lack of useful fuck implementation, and sent out a challenge to see who could give their fuck the biggest spotlight. In turn, it's almost made the word naughty again. Imagine having one bullet to kill your foe, as opposed to having the amount of ammo Sylvester Stallone uses up in the last real of Rambo VI. You can't just fire it off aimlessly, in a shower spark of action and nonsense. The director has to take it, and love it, and utilize it as a gift bestowed upon him/or herself. There are four recent PG-13 rated films this summer that have tried to use their fuck as a symbol of creative storytelling. They've tried to utilize the word in the best way they know how. And make it matter again. Not shockingly, it has had varying degrees of effect.
The first film is Julie & Julia. Director Nora Ephron gave actor Chris Messina "the one fuck" to catch, and keep, and kick over that goal post. As Eric Powell, Chris plays the neglected and put-upon husband of Julie Powell, the real-life woman who blogged her adventures in cooking Julia Child's famous recipes, thus became a celebrity herself. Messina does a nice job of handling his fuck, delivering it at an important moment, just as he is about to break up with his wife. The sentence "Fuck Julia Child!" Comes as a shock to the audience. Because the film has played it pretty safe up until this point. The word actually conveys Eric Powell's true emotions quite well. Ephron could have gone the gratuitous route by having Meryl Streep, as Child, say the word. Always a smart director, Ephron knew she'd get the most mileage out of her one vulgarity by using it to fluff a domestic argument that needed more weight. The word sticks out, making us realize how much this guy loves his wife. That in their history together, he's never spoken to her in this manner. The weird thing about Julie & Julia is that its an adult film. It doesn't need to be rated PG-13. No kid wants to watch this thing. So why burden yourself with catering to them? Powell's book, upon which the movie is based, is not raunchy, but it does have fun with the English language. The real Julie Powell was a little upset that her on-screen doppelganger, as played by Amy Adams, resorts to saying "The F word". No one in the heat of the moment would say, "The F word!" They would say, "Fuck!" Still, if more fucks were permitted in this drama, they would zap the one on-screen fuck of its impact, and we wouldn't have been as emotionally charged by the Powells' futile domestic squabble. Plus, "the one fuck" allows us to truly empathize with Messina's real life character.
The second film is I Love You, Beth Cooper, one of the biggest bombs of the summer. When Larry Doyle wrote this book, he intended it to be a send-up of every teen film known to mankind. And it is a very R rated endeavor. His screenplay, however, reverts back to the more challenging nature of an edgy PG-13 rated teen outing. Whole scenes have been molested, and the entire third act is missing. There's a moment in the film where the underage Hayden Panettiere is confronted by an Inglourious Basterd for her ID when trying to buy beer. In the book, she grabbed the cashier's dick and gave it a nice little tug. In the film, she kisses Sam Levine on the mouth (off screen, of course). Yet, when she walks outside, you can clearly read her lips. They say, "I kissed him on the cock." But the ADR relates back something a little more family friendly. So, basically, the theatrical release becomes nothing more than an advertisement for the upcoming unrated DVD. Which I am more than positive will be pockmarked with a bucket full of fucks. Director Chris Columbus still holds some belief in the theatrical release, though. He is, after all, one of the men responsible for the PG-13 rating, as his script for Gremlins was the catalyst of the movement. He takes his fuck and gently caresses it into the mouth of closeted teen Rich Munsch (as played by Jack Carpenter). Both in the book and on-screen, Munsch has the annoying character trait of spewing memorable movie lines followed by the year the film was made and the director that bore it into existence. Every time he goes for one of these cliches, it becomes harder and harder to like the character. Jack Carpenter goes a long way in rectifying that on-screen. Before Denis Coverman (Paul Rust, also an Inglourious Basterd), the kid that declared his love for Beth Cooper in his commencement speech, and Rich are left to their own devices at a home thrown after-graduation party where they are the only two attendees, Denis' dad (Ferris Bueller's Alan Ruck) arrives to offer a bottle of champagne and a little advice. He quotes his own refried movie line in hopes of inspiring his son and his son's friend in life after high school. In doing so, he says the word "f'ing." Rich leans over, and in a whisper, as if he is saying something incredibly obscene, coos, "Fucking. Not f'ing." And though the rest of the movie never skirts that line again, the build up and delivery of the word "fucking" almost makes us believe we are entering uncharted waters. That we are about to see something edgy and fun. That this quaint high school flick isn't going to puss out or tiptoe around the bigger issues of the day. It is a masterfully delivered fuck. Yet, it comes as false advertising. And the one scene, itself, is essentially setting up the more gratuitous unrated Blu-ray that will be on shelves soon enough.
The third film is Michael Bay's Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. This thing was gargantuan in both its sheer size and box office gross. Bay threw in everything including a kitchen sink that transformers into a laser-blasting prick of a robot. He left no stone unturned, and pushed the very boundaries of that PG-13 rating to its breaking point. Instead of blood, he spilled oil. He threw Lycra on his uber-sexy female co-stars so that they only seemed to be wearing something. He gave us jive-talking jigaboo Junkers that played as ignorant, racial stereotypes. Each bomb was precisely placed, giving us explosions as big as an IMAX screen. And he took extreme care with his one and only "f bomb", as it were, shoving it in one of the quieter, more resourceful moments, where he knew it wouldn't get lost amongst the nearly non-stop mayhem that plays out for over two hours on screen. Sure, he could have given his fuck to one of his human co-stars as they jumped like a gazelle out of the way of deadly, flying debris. Locked in there, it would have gone unnoticed and unappreciated. That's why Bay, instead, carefully placed it on the metallic tongue of the robot Wheelie. This is a movie based on Hasbro toys, and to have a kid's action figure spewing the black tar of profanity that comes laced with "the one fuck" can, and is, quite shocking to parents that expect nothing more than Saturday morning cartoon violence. In the theater, there was an audible groan upon hearing this verb tumble out of a robot's mouth. It was as if some sort of power had been brought back to the waning swear word. Though fuck has been used beyond cliché, Michael Bay was once again able to give this often-used bolt of lighting a surge of distress. Just put the word fuck in the mouth of your cartoon comic relief, and you will have outrage. If even for a fleeting moment. Michael Bay's fuck was masterfully handled, and did what it was intended to do, however cheap and scandalous it might appear to be.
Hands down, the best use of "the one fuck" came courtesy of our fourth film, Brad Silbering's Land of the Lost. It, too, is based on a Saturday morning cartoon. But in the hands of Will Farrell and Danny McBride, this Sid & Marty Krofft classic, which always edged towards being an adult endeavor anyway, goes full bore with its unsubtle commentary, turning the dinosaur adventure into an "almost" R rated romp. Their trippy version of the old 70s show is one of the weirdest mainstream films to come along in quite some time. And Farrell quite literally shocked audiences of all ages when he got right down in Chaka's face and said very boldly, "Fuck you!" As unexpected as it was, it got the biggest laugh in the film. And showed that these guys weren't messing around. They didn't fail to disappoint. Unlike I Love You, Beth Cooper, Farrell and company took it as far as it could go, with reason and purpose, and returned with what will be remembered as a dorm room classic in the next couple of years. Sure, it, too, could be looked at as a bomb, but box office isn't everything. Land of the Lost is a very funny movie. And it is loaded with great lines. This is one of those massage therapy films that needs to be slowly rubbed into the shoulders of our cinematic youth. Giving Will "the one fuck" worked wonders in giving the film that specific "edge" most films desperately need in this day and age, and I doubt this is the last we'll hear about Land of the Lost.
"The One Fuck!" It is just four letters long, but it can do so much for a failing comedy, or a drama, or even a huge sci-fi guilloche. I'm glad that directors are suddenly starting to use their allotted fuck more wisely. It's like having one drop of bright red paint on a gray and black canvas. Where you decide to place it means everything. To summer 2009's PG-13 use of "the one fuck", I say Whoop-doo! I just hope more directors learn how to use theirs more carefully, and purposefully, in the future.