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:
Well, that title’s not exactly true. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has given a few FUCKs.
It has, for example, registered FUCK RACISM and FUCK THE ODDS for apparel, FUCK BOY for candles, FUCK JERRY for marketing and entertainment services, and FUCK THE POPULATION for various toys, bags, apparel and sporting equipment.
But not FUCK itself.
Well, sure, FUCK for snow globes, but more on that later. . . .
Erik Brunetti had to go all the way to the Supreme Court a couple of years ago to get the USPTO to give him a trademark registration for the legally scandalous term FUCT. He owns a few registrations for FUCT and uses it on a variety of goods including apparel, bags of different types, and eyeglasses.
But the USPTO has rejected his application for FUCK for essentially the same goods and services. Why did the USPTO decide to draw the line there?
The New York Times has a replete searchable archive. Every issue is there. But every issue from before 1996 has been OCRed (has had optical character recognition performed on it) and in general has not been checked by human eyes. The result is that sometimes the words you see online are not the words that were in print. And word forms are sometimes misrecognized as other lexical items, such as fuck, rather than as unintelligible collections of characters. (The word fuck per se has appeared many times in The New York Times even before recent years, especially in excerpts from books.)
And so we get this headline from September 29, 1950:
Fucks and Wilt Will Speak
My last collection of sweary songs began with some vintage a cappella filth about cocksuckers. For balance, I’ll start this one with The Fourskins’ winning ditty ‘Her Vagina’ (most audio that follows is VNSFW):
Want ruder? Harry Roy and His Orchestra sang about ‘My Girl’s Pussy’ almost a century ago. Warning: this one has serious earworm potential:
(Comic artist R. Crumb and his Cheap Suit Serenaders introduced me to the song.)
A lyric for our times: ‘Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole’ by Martha Wainwright:
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.)