The Bigger Picture: The Big Three, Part One
If you read this column last week, you might think from reading the headline that I’ve decided to only discuss the economic situation. In truth, I’m not referencing the “big three” U.S. automakers, but rather what I consider to be the “big three” taboos in American cinema and our love/hate relationship with them.Â This week’s column is part one of a three-part series.
The first involves dialogue, namely the use of profane language. Before one criticizes the modern age for its use of profanity, one must consider that such coarse language has always existed. Perhaps I am too young to judge whether or not today’s culture is more profane than that of previous generations, but I do know by studying history that vulgar expressions have always existed within art. If one disagrees, he ought to read the works of Shakespeare or Chaucer.
Time seems to dull the impact of even the most shocking works of art. Often, the language seems to seep into our consciousness. Consider the “Quarter pounder with cheese” conversation from Pulp Fiction. That particular scene is so famous that often people who haven’t seen the movie are at least familiar with it. It is a scene laced with the very same profanity that appears in the rest of the film, but one barely considers the coarseness of the language because the overall inanity of the conversation entertains.
There is, however, an unfortunately negative side to profanity in film scripts. Auteurs such as Tarantino have spawned mimicry. I have a general rule about scripts, in which the dialogue must drive the plot forward. Tarantino, in the earlier part of his career, managed to break this rule fairly successfully. I might argue that he has started to become a parody of himself, if a film like Death Proof is any evidence. The dialogue in that film was not only asinine, it was boring and poorly paced.
Some might argue that there was indeed a time when movies employed a cleaner style of language. This is undeniable, though if one considers the overall spectrum of art in human civilization, it probably only exists as a tiny blip. However, often one must take a closer look at cinema’s “Golden Age” to see that things aren’t quite as they seem. Quite often, things are referred to in a more creative manner.
Other times, a movie seems well ahead of its time when viewed from a modern perspective. As a general rule, people seem to view movies pre-1960 as squeaky clean. Consider then, Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, which was released in 1959. Perhaps this movie was a bridge to the societal changes that waited with the 1960s, but the dialogue in that film is quite graphic, even though the script skirts past certain words.
Consider the line, “Now, Mr. Dancer, get off the panties. You’ve done enough damage.” Taken out of the context of the movie, one might simply think that was a bit of Pythonesque double-entendre, but remember that Anatomy of a Murder is a film dealing with rape. When dealing with such controversial subjects, one must expect the dialogue to contain a certain graphic quality. For the most part, they artfully dodge words that would never have made it past the censors in 1959.
“Claude Dancer: When I was overseas during the war, Your Honor, I learned a French word. I’m afraid that it might be slightly suggestive.
Judge Weaver: Most French words are.”
In this case, one can clearly see an attempt by the writer to avoid words that, though widely known within the culture, were still highly censored.
There is another level of the profanity versus censorship argument that I find very interesting. While liberal use of profane language has become accepted within our movie theaters, television remains under severe constraints. In some strange way, I sort of like that.
When a movie is shown on television, the censors have two methods of dealing with the colorful language. The first involves a bleep or even cutting the audio for a moment. I find the bleeping effect to be funnier than the actual use of profanity. As an example, Jon Stewart tends to use his foul-language freely. However, when I watch the broadcast I find myself laughing more when his f-bombs are bleeped than when I watch the uncensored version online. Perhaps this has to do with the seriousness of the word, or perhaps it’s the fact that the danger of it brings out one’s juvenile side.
The other method the censors use is the redub. This is often funnier than the original line. “This town is like a giant chicken just waiting to be plucked” is what these guys came up with when Scarface was broadcast on television. I find it amusing to imagine the censors, who are probably just regular guys like all of us, sitting around with beers trying to come up with creative ways to make profane dialogue harmless. I actually think that would be a fun job.
These redubs are sort of like a remix in music. They can completely change the tone of the movie. A funny movie that you’ve seen before can seem funnier, and a serious drama can be reduced to a juvenile comedy. I don’t have a problem with that, really. Movies on TV have become somewhat irrelevant in our current culture of Netflix and OnDemand.
Colorful language, for all of its proliferation in today’s art, remains a bit of a taboo. When one evaluates its usage, one must consider the fact that these words are really considered dangerous because people condemn their usage. It’s true that they can be ugly, but as long as ugliness exists in our world there will be methods of expressing it. The most important thing filmmakers must consider is how this language is used. If it is used as a false expression of a writer’s intent, it will be shallow. If it is used intelligently to expand on a character’s sensibilities and the situation he or she is confronting, then it is no different from any other dialogue. In many ways, profane language can work against a writer simply because it can be distracting for many viewers. Restraint is the key.
Join me next week as I discuss the second taboo.