Swearing and the Single Film
As I mentioned before in a previous post, I have a grandmother who loves movies. Because she has trouble sleeping, she spends most of her nights watching movies or television. Over the last few years, movies have slowly won the battle. Like me, she’s not into horror films, and like most reserved octogenarians, she’s not into science fiction or fantasy. She does, however, love a good heart wrenching drama or tense thriller. We’ve spent countless hours comparing, sharing and watching films that we love. My most recent recommendation to her was the film Unstoppable, with Denzel Washington and Chris Pine. She had a blast with it.
Of course, there are plenty of other films that I think she would enjoy. She’d love the mysterious, psychological aspect of The Usual Suspects. She’d be John McClane’s biggest fan with Die Hard. And she’d definitely keep her distance from any buses if she got a load of Speed. And I’d love to show her all these movies and more. There’s just one problem.
She comes from a time when swearing carried weight. It was common but not as frequent, and when you swore, you knew there was trouble. You took the person and their argument seriously. Nowadays we tend to swear at anything and everything. Believe me, the Usual Suspects guys have got nothing on what you’d hear in the hallway of your average high school. It’s practically commonplace now. But is it necessary to carry the habit over into film?
In some cases, it is. I’d even argue that in some cases, it needs to be. Swearing is not uncommon in today’s society, so it makes sense that movies, which are meant to reflect real life, have some swearing in them. It’s used to get a point across, to express anger, or even to get a laugh. In its simplest form, it can be used to provide insight into a character. Look at John McClane. Would he be the same character in Die Hard if he didn’t swear? You can bet your last “yippee-ki-yay” he wouldn’t. Look at a film like The King’s Speech and Colin Firth’s turn as Prince Albert. There was talk at one point of taking out the swearing scene, but was left in. Why? Because aside from providing humour, it was not only a deeply insightful scene into Albert’s character, but served as a bonding moment between Albert and Lionel. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about I suggest you stop reading now and go watch the film. You won’t regret it.) So in many ways, swearing serves an important purpose in terms of character and story.
I do feel though that, in some instances, it isn’t necessary. My favourite example of this is The Usual Suspects which, despite the language, is one of my favourite movies. As many of you know, the swearing in the film is excessive — the ‘f’ word alone is used ninety-eight or so times. Many will argue that it’s because the film focuses on the exploits of five hardened criminals. This is true. But is it necessary to be so frequent? The Godfather, possibly the scariest criminal of them all, not only controls his swearing, but never really shouts in the first film. Again, it all comes back to character. It’s also interesting to note that the most intense scenes in that film don’t have swearing at all. If you have compelling characters and a strong enough plot, the swearing should be nothing more than a supporting player. Swearing should not be it’s own main character in the film. Sure, you can get used to it, but who wants to do that? And what about those people who don’t get that far?
As a sometimes television watcher, I’m always catching movies either partway through or fully. What I’ve always found interesting is how well some of the movies play without the language. Language-censored movies still contain all of the story and all of the lines, but viewers aren’t distracted by the language. Movies like The Boondocks Saints and Goodfellas are fantastic movies. Ask anybody what they liked about the movies. I’ll bet you not one of the says “Oh, and I loved how much swearing there was in it”. It just doesn’t happen. Neither does anyone ever say “You know what that film was missing? Swearing”. So why have it to so much excess in the first place? Do you really miss it if it’s not there?
I’ve always held that the primary purpose of movies is to tell a story and share it with the world. But in order to be successful in reaching as many people as possible, you need to find that balance that accommodates the most. You want to use swearing that makes it real to life? Fine. But do you need to go to the point where it becomes excessive? Maybe you do. But one thing I do know is that swearing shouldn’t overpower the plot. It shouldn’t overshadow the actor’s talents and ability to convey character, and it definitely shouldn’t be the reason why people can or won’t see a film.