F*** (documentary)

As Shakespeare wrote in “Henry IV Part II,” “‘Tis needful that the most immodest word be looked upon and learned.” That is the stated agenda of “F***,” a ribald and riotous documentary about the word I just bleeped, a word so notorious that all I had to do was give you the first letter and you knew which one I meant.

Because I don’t like asterisks but I do like fudge, I’m going to replace the word in question with the word “fudge” throughout this review, except when I’m talking about the title of the film. Many of the figures interviewed in the film indicate that, while they avoid blue language in mixed company, there are certain times when That Word is simply all that will do. They may have a point, but still, I’m keepin’ it clean here.

We begin with some of “fudge’s” etymology, although we can only go so far. We know it first appeared in print in 1475, but we don’t know for certain what language it was derived from. We know that, no matter how many urban legends you hear to the contrary, it is NOT an acronym for anything.

I knew all of that, more or less. (I can sniff out an urban legend a mile away, so quit forwarding me all your stupid e-mails, OK?) I was not aware that it wasn’t until the 20th century that “fudge” came to have as many varied uses — verb, noun, adjective, etc. — as it does today. The two World Wars are attributed with popularizing those diverse meanings, which makes sense. If anyone has a reason to swear and to swear creatively, it’s soldiers.

Then we move on to the word’s impact on society. Comedians Lenny Bruce and George Carlin — the former a legendary provocateur, the latter an insightful wordsmith — are discussed at length, particularly their battles with decency laws and censorship. It’s hard to imagine someone today being put in jail just for talking dirty in a nightclub full of adults, but that’s what happened to Bruce.

I love this quote from Tom Lehrer, not heard in “F***” but applicable to the discussion: “When I was in college, there were certain words you couldn’t say in front of a girl. Now you can say them, but you can’t say ‘girl.'”

Times have changed, no question. We’ve become quite permissive in a lot of ways, yet remain puritanical in others. The film extends its discussion of “fudge” to include commentary on swearing and “indecency” in general. For example, that unexpected peek at Janet Jackson’s nipple had tremendous ramifications in the television industry. A watchdog group called the Parents Television Council constantly floods the FCC with complaints about “indecent” programming. The film points out that the FCC had 111 such complaints in 2000. In 2004, there were over a million — 99.9 percent of them from the Parents Television Council.

For as permissive as we’ve become, you still can’t say “fudge” on prime-time network TV, although the way the FCC enforces that is arbitrary and strange. When U2’s Bono let it slip at an awards show, the FCC ruled that since it was being used as an adjective (“fudging brilliant”) rather than a verb, it wasn’t indecent. But then Nipplegate happened, everyone got skittish, and the FCC reversed its decision and levied a fine against NBC for Bono’s language. A year later, ABC aired “Saving Private Ryan” complete and uncensored, including all 21 uses of “fudge,” and the FCC did nothing. See, it’s OK to say it on TV if it’s in a movie that is really serious and won Oscars.

“F***,” directed by Steve Anderson, includes conservatives like Alan Keyes and Pat Boone talking about “fudge” in harsh, disapproving terms, while people like Hunter S. Thompson, Ice-T, and Janeane Garofalo speak of it glowingly. They like its uses as an expletive, yes, but they also consider it a matter of free speech. It is, after all, Only A Word. What harm can a word do? “F***” observes that it’s because no one says it that “fudge” has so much power. It’s only offensive because people let it offend them.

Anderson keeps a buoyant tone and a fast pace, flitting from one angle to another rapidly and including a lot of raucous humor along the way. Some misspelled and poorly punctuated captions suggest a lapse in professionalism, but you get the sense this was sort of a one-man project. I’m impressed at the number of people Anderson was able to interview.

One angle that ought to have been covered in more detail is this: Why do we choose certain words to be offended by? Why is “fudge” considered “bad”? What makes it any worse than any other part of the vocabulary? As Shakespeare would say, ay, there’s the frickin’ rub.

B (1 hr., 33 min.; Not Rated, would certainly be R for pervasive, non-stop use of a certain swear word, as well as some very strong sexuality and nudity.)