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What the ...? 

A look at profanity, starting at Word Zero

When you give your documentary a name like Fuck, you know you're in for a marketing challenge. Many posters and publications identify it as F*ck or otherwise camouflage the full title, but this newspaper can use the name with impunity. Fuck. See?

Just because one can use the F-word, that doesn't necessarily mean one always should, however. Steve Anderson's documentary uses the expletive's checkered past and current usage as a springboard for addressing the nature of free speech. The film features compelling issues, snappy editing and lively interviewees from across the cultural spectrum, including Ice-T, Pat Boone, porn star Tera Patrick, conservative radio hosts Michael Medved and Dennis Prager, and such comedians as Bill Maher and Janeane Garofalo. Despite its provocative title, Fuck proves too superficial to be much of a turn-on.

Some of the film's best moments come from the history of the four-letter word. It may not be the first utterance ever spoken by Homo sapiens, as Scottish comedian Billy Connolly hilariously suggests, but it dates back at least as far as 1475, its first appearance in print. The film's historians admit that its origins have been lost in time, but discredit the notion that it ever served as an acronym for "For unlawful carnal knowledge," "Fornication under consent of the king," etc.

Anderson devotes special attention to the decency debates surrounding stand-up comedians Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, and finds a present-day equivalent to their efforts in the battles between shock jock Howard Stern and the Federal Communications Commission. Fuck asks whether a censorious crackdown on the public airwaves has coincided with the election of George W. Bush, and airs some intriguing statistics. In 2000, the FCC received little more than 100 indecency complaints, but in 2004 the number was more than 1 million -- 99.9 percent from the conservative watchdog group the Parents Television Council.

Just when you think the film will dig in and go after the FCC, like the recent, similarly themed This Film Is Not Yet Rated took on the MPAA, Fuck seems to lose interest and drifts to the word's relationship to religion, the White House and popular media. Though This Film Is Not Yet Rated had a narrower scope, it's also a more substantial film. (Incidentally, if future historians tried to understand present-day cinema based solely on these two docs, they'd think that Kevin Smith was one of our most important directors, and Team America was a major motion picture.)

Fuck never bores the viewer, but it presents some increasingly facile sequences, such as a discussion of the different types of sexual positions or self-righteous declarations that no child has ever been harmed by hearing the word. At times, Anderson relies on the sophomoric technique of cutting back and forth between individuals (filmed at different times) to simulate "debate," so Judith "Miss Manners" Martin seems annoyed at porn star Ron Jeremy.

Given the film's salty, light-hearted nature, emphasized by Bill Plympton's uninhibited animated sequences, Fuck's sympathies clearly lie with the liberals. The film draws up battle lines for amusing free thinkers on the side of vulgarity, and humorless authority figures on the side of public civility. But can't someone support free speech while still being dismayed at the coarsening of the culture? The film points out that the word has become increasingly prevalent in society, barely disguised in such titles as Meet the Fockers or Fuddruckers restaurants. The idea that this might be an unpleasant side effect of a free and open society never gets mentioned.

I found myself sharing the view of the street clown who compares rough language to a public nuisance like cigarette smoke. Is it possible for a society to refuse to curb speech or expression, but still encourage civil public discourse and a responsible use of profanity?

Chanting "Fuck the war!" at a rally seems a world apart from cracking an off-color joke on prime-time television. Perhaps we should keep our arsenal stockpiled with F-bombs, but only deploy them strictly when necessary.

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