The Cusstomer is Always Right
Ever since the Hays Code took a fatal nosedive in the 1960s, movies have been cursing like there’s no tomorrow. At one point, movies, no matter how much they sublimated their sex and forefronted their violence, were as sanitary as a dentist’s tools. Sometimes this resulted in some finely suggestive dialogue; much of the sterling-silver patter of noir, not to mention gems like Bette Davis’ “You’re something to make the corn grow tall”, sprung from this restrictive atmosphere. Still, the fact that clever screenwriters and directors found creative ways around the linguistic straitjacket of the Production Code still left hundreds of movies where soldiers, longshoremen, and criminal lowlifes all talked like they were in a church parking lot. Eventually, things like the Vietnam War convinced America that there were worse things than hearing a movie actor say the word “shit” on occasion, and the standards of the past were greatly relaxed. Today, even Pixar movies are more likely than not to drop a couple of F-bombs at a critical juncture, and a television character can distinguish himself from the crowd by the mere act of not cursing. But all the four-letter words in the world don’t add up to a four-star movie; here are a few exceptions.
Here’s something funny about Oliver Stone: he seems to have a lot more fun when he’s writing movies than when he’s directing them. While the movies where he’s behind the camera have become self-important bores, the movies where he’s behind the typewriter are highly enjoyable, if completely demented. Conan the Barbarian may have been the purest distillation of his bloodthirstily goofy aesthetic, but it was the screenplay for Brian DePalma’s Scarface a year earlier where he really let his freak flag fly. A perfect example of a movie that’s compulsively watchable without actually being very good, Scarface also proves that the one thing more enjoyable than a movie with non-stop vulgarity is a movie with non-stop vulgarity in an incredibly over-the-top quasi-Cuban accent. (A chainsaw execution can’t hurt, either.) Al Pacino’s Tony Montana isn’t an obscenity artist; he is but a humble craftsman, a busy businessman who relies on the word “fuck” because he hasn’t got the time to learn any other ones. For every cleverly crafted like “Why don’t you try sticking your head up your ass? See if it fits.”, there’s a workmanlike get-over like “You know what? Fuck you! How about that?” How about that, indeed. It’s hard to know if Scarface would have been the deranged, hyperactive masterpiece that it is without Pacino’s constant Hispanic-causing-panic vulgarisms, but it surely wouldn’t have been as much fun. If you don’t believe us, try to imagine Paul Muni saying “This town is like a great big pussy just waiting to get fucked.” Now that’s comedy!
FULL METAL JACKET
The training sequences at the beginning of Full Metal Jacket are so famously vulgar, intense and energetic that once they’re over, the air sort of gets let out of the movie for the entire middle passage and doesn’t pick back up until the end. For this reason, it’s often considered a lesser Stanley Kubrick film, which is somewhat unfair; there’s a lot to like about the movie even once Private Leonard Lawrence and Gunnery Sergeant Hartman exit the stage. But oh, that opening sequence! As Hartman, character actor (and actual Marine Corps sergeant) R. Lee Ermey works in obscenity the way that Picasso worked in paint; so staggeringly awful (and hilariously funny) are his vulgar degradations of his raw recruits that by the time he has his final confrontation with Private Pyle, no one in the audience has any trouble believing that someone would want to shoot him. Although Ermey has tried to claim credit for many of Hartman’s lines, what he really brings to the role is the pitch-perfect delivery; most of the lines are taken directly from Gustav Hasford’s novel The Short-Timers, on which the movie is based. There’s a telling moment early in Hartman’s tirade where he singles out Pyle for abuse, after he has committed the crime of laughing at his obscene explosions, but it cuts directly to the heart of the matter: as violent, hateful and repulsive as the sarge’s speeches are, they’re also incredibly amusing. His recruits don’t have the luxury of laughter, but we do.
NIL BY MOUTH
When it comes to vulgar language in movies, there is quality, and then there is quantity. Whether or not Gary Oldman’s directorial debut, Nil By Mouth, counts as a lodestone of quality obscenity, it is the all time grand champion in terms of quantity. It’s actually a fine little film, and Oldman’s script about growing up in a dysfunctional working-class family in South London is quite compelling at times, but where it truly excels is in its non-stop barrage of obscenity. No less than the Guinness Book of World Records has certified it as the film containing the most iterations of the word “fuck”: it appears an astonishing 470 times, or almost four times a minute. It’s that sort of dedication that separates the pretenders from the true masters, and Oldman doesn’t stop there: he also favors us with the word “cunt” a whopping 82 times, or once every minute and a half. Most of the fucks and cunts issue from the lager-stained mouth of Ray Winstone, playing a character based on Oldman’s own father. (Oldman dedicates the film to his old man, which must have made him feel pretty good about himself.) Some films don’t even have as much punctuation as Nil By Mouth has “fuck”s; if its director grew up an environment anything like the one portrayed here, it’s a wonder he can communicate at all. Other films may be more artful in their use of the f-word, and other films may save it for when it counts more instead of going for total sensory overload, but until someone manages to make a movie in which someone uses the word “fuck” in every frame, then Nil By Mouth will be the reigning king.