Looking Forward: Profanity In Film

Hi everyone! As you know if you read last week’s post, we have now reached the final week of “Things You Never Noticed You Noticed.” After this I’ll be moving on to my next series, and then to the future of the blog as a whole, wherever that goes. So in this installment of the series I wanted to leave you less with an analysis of something specific and more with a tool that you could use to investigate and interrogate films on your own. To that end, we’re discussing something today that you will all be able to think about any time you watch a movie: swearing in film.

Now, we’ve all noticed that as a movie’s target audience gets older, the restrictions on swearing drop, from completely clean “G” offerings up to the often vulgarity-packed “R-framed” films. The journey between those two extremes, however, is where things get interesting, particularly when it comes to PG-13 movies. Usually, such movies are allowed to carry one or even two of the harsher expletives, but any more than these will lead to an R rating. This, as much as it may seem like a restriction, is actually an incredible opportunity. Not only is it a chance for a film to carefully play around profanity in ways that cleverly hint at it, it’s a chance to add huge dramatic weight to a scene. After all, in a movie largely devoid of profanity, those kinds of words can often shock us, and if they’re used well can lend incredible power to any particular moment in the script.

How, then, do PG-13 movies use their one or two words of profanity? Most of the time, the answer to this question is not very well. The vast majority of profanity in PG-13 films comes right before a massive explosion or other screen-dominating event. These moments of profanity serve to accentuate moments that don't need accentuating, showing that an explosion is, indeed, a scary thing. Every so often, however, you come by a movie like Skyfall, which showcases how profanity can have a truly powerful impact. Upon arriving at the eponymous Bond mansion for the final showdown, the usually unapologetic M simply says "I've really fucked this one up, haven't I?" This time, that single instance of profanity does so much: it shows us just how high the stakes are here, rips open M's hard-ass facade to reveal a woman who both recognizes her mistakes and is deeply troubled by them, and jars us just as much as M herself must be disoriented in this situation. That this is the first time in the entire Bond franchise that the f-bomb has graced the screen only heightens its power, as a textbook example of how a single word can seriously give us insight into a character's mindset and help us feel what they're feeling.

This is something of a final gift to all of you, as overdramatic as that sounds: a tool that you can help you think critically about movies, a little tidbit that might deepen your appreciation of film making. You’ve noticed profanity in films before of course, and may well have noticed that some examples of it hit far harder than others. But I flatter myself to think that, in drawing attention to the way that film writers have to make conscious choices about where to best use cursing, I might have helped you notice that you notice the power of well-used profanity. And if that’s true, I’ll have done something useful.

With excitement and optimism,