Monday, February 28, 2011

OC-Ed: Sometimes A Good “Fuck” Is Called For

The King's Speech will get a new
sound edit to move from R to PG-13.
The King’s Speech won big at the Oscars last night, taking home awards for Best Picture, Best Actor (Colin Firth in the title role), Best Director (Tom Hooper), and Best Original Screenplay (David Seidler). That’s going to mean more theaters for the drama, about King George VI struggle to overcome his stuttering to address a nation sorely in need of leadership as it heads to war.

And now, according to the Hollywood Reporter, the film is going to get a quick edit so it can exchange its R rating for PG-13, which would allow more people to see it. The Weinstein Co. wants families to be able to see the film together, so they have removed the word “fuck” from the film by muting the sound whenever it is said.

The King’s Speech is a wonderful film, a great story told with humor, passion, and empathy. I am all for more families seeing the film. It’s inspiring. But cutting the language seems like a desperate grab to wring a few more dollars out of the screenings.

The word “fuck” in the now Oscar-winning script is not gratuitous. It perfectly expresses the anger and frustration that King George VI feels as he receives his tutelage from Lionel Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush in what was also an Oscar-worthy performance). I’m sure ever utterance of the word was agonized over by Seidler and Hooper, and it is used to great effect, sometime bursting a bubble of tension that has been skillfully built throughout a scene. Cutting it, or muting it, hurts the film.

For what it’s worth, Firth agrees with me. Backstage at the Oscars last night, he told the Hollywood Reporter that he does not support the new edit of the film, which he said has “integrity as it stands.”

"It serves a purpose," he told the Reporter, mentioning that he doesn’t take profanity casually, but that he takes his children to soccer games where they might hear swearing because he still wants them to experience the game. "But in the context of the film, it couldn't be more edifying, more appropriate. It's not vicious or insulting. It's not in the context that might offend."

When I was a kid, my parents allowed me to hear all kinds of language in film. They trusted me to handle it. We would sometimes watch fucktastic flicks like Scarface, the atomic profanity weight of which was the rough equivalent of uranium. We made a joke of it. It was absurdly profane and over the top, something we acknowledged in its context and moved on. In my admittedly biased opinion, I was not harmed from it.

We would have watched a film like The King’s Speech without flinching. The profanity (I agree with Billy Connolly on this – it is not “cursing” or “swearing,” there is no oath taken here) is organic to the scene and the character. The character of King George VI presented in the film is tightly wound and has a rash temper. He can even be a little mean. A handful of well-placed “fucks” is exactly what the script calls for.

We are too shy about language as a culture, which is somewhat amazing. Context should matter more than it seems to. Cee Lo Green had a viral video hit over the summer with “Fuck You,” one of the most joyous, soulful songs I have heard come out of the mainstream in years. But in order to reach more people, the song got changed to “Forget You,” a version that loses a lot of its potency. It was terrible on Glee, it was terrible on Saturday Night Live (but still great on Later with Jools Holland). The groove was there, but without that lynchpin profanity, the urgency of the narrative is gone.

Which of these moves you more?

I see you driving round town with the girl I love
And I’m like, fuck you
I guess the change in my pocket wasn’t enough
And I’m like, fuck you and fuck her, too


I see you driving round town with the girl I love
And I’m like, forget you
I guess the change in my pocket wasn’t enough
And I’m like, forget you and forget her, too

The guy in version two is milquetoast. I don’t care what he is feeling if all he can muster from his pain and frustration is “forget you,” which is a meaningless stand-in. The phrase is counter-intuitive in the context of the song. There is no release in it (pardon the roundabout pun).

Sometime post-Oscars, the original version of The King’s Speech will fall out of circulation in favor of the sanitized version. So if you want to see the film that just won four Oscars, get out and see it before it leaves. And if you want to hear Cee Lo’s song the way it was intended, the video is below. And for good measure, the next time you see Scarface on network TV, skip it. It’s not worth it.

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