Back in 2015 I wrote about visual swears in film, where profanity appears on the screen rather than on the soundtrack. The films featured in that post were The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Blade II, Shoot ’Em Up, Runaway Train, and Sorry to Bother You. Since then I’ve gathered a fuckload more.
Visual swears can have all sorts of motivations for filmmakers: humour, attitude, character type or mood, place detail, meta-commentary, and so on. After all, they’re deliberately built into a film’s production design – unless it’s a documentary, in which case they’re still selected in the framing and editing.
The first film below happens to be a documentary, and a great one: Dark Days (2000), which explores the lives of people living in a disused New York subway tunnel. One of them labels a makeshift toilet SHIT SPOT, perhaps for both informational and comedic reasons:
At Strong Language we love creative swearing. But sometimes being creative means avoiding swearwords. When John Boorman and his team were filming Deliverance in rural southeast US, they faced difficulties not only in handling the unforgiving location but also in making certain scenes suitable for eventual TV broadcasting.
One scene in particular proved a challenge: Jon Voight and Ned Beatty’s brutal encounter with two sadistic locals in the woods. According to Boorman, the film’s producers suggested that he shoot the scene two different ways, so that there’d be a version suitable for TV. This meant, among other things, toning down the language in the working script.
Wes Anderson’s 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums features a short exchange that’s interesting for its taboo-linguistic detail. It takes place between Royal himself, played by Gene Hackman, and Henry, played by Danny Glover.
If you haven’t seen the film, but you might sometime (do, dammit), don’t worry about spoilers – the images below don’t give much away. And you don’t need to know the characters’ backstory, so let’s jump right in:
Blue Velvet is a film with an enduring power to unsettle viewers. Its unique brand of ‘darkness in colour’ (to borrow Pauline Kael’s phrase) features also at the level of language, with the cornball goofing of its young sweethearts set against the malevolent and compulsive profanity of Frank Booth, played by Dennis Hopper.
For his book Lynch on Lynch, Chris Rodley asked David Lynch if all of Frank’s fucks were in the script or if any were improvised. Lynch replied:
I had many, many, many of them written in the script, but Dennis always added more, because you get on a roll, and you can’t help yourself. And if an actor is locked into the groove so solidly, even if they say extra lines, or not exactly the way they’re written, they’re truthful. And for me Dennis was one of those guys. He always says that I could never say the word on set and that I would go to the script and say, ‘Dennis, when you say this word.’ [Laughs.] That’s not true exactly.
The filmmakers initially passed on Hopper because of his reputation, but the actor persisted and Lynch, thankfully, reconsidered. Without presuming to psychoanalyze Booth – ‘there’s enough material there for an entire conference,’ as the psychiatrist said of Basil Fawlty – we can see in his profanilect* motifs of incest, defecation, and violence, among other things. He swears inventively but also routinely, and constantly.
Enough fucking about. Let’s look at some examples. (Spoiler and trigger warnings ahoy.)
Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell are on a press junket, promoting their new film Daddy’s Home 2. (Any comments about the quality of this franchise or the need for a sequel will be summarily ignored.) This week, one stop on that tour was with the Israeli website ynet (the online arm of the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth). During the interview, Ferrell was asked about Wahlberg’s “profound knowledge of Hebrew”, which Wahlberg was then happy to demonstrate. And, like any good language learner, his knowledge apparently includes a wealth of profanity, which I’ll lay out below. Continue reading