Once upon a time, there was a critique group. And in that critique group was a screenwriter who used obscene language in his work. In that group, as well, was someone who didn’t like obscene language. After a while, the offended person left.
The rest of the group did not mind the obscene language because it was appropriate to the script. They were sorry to see the offended person go but what else were they to do?
I thought of this story after seeing Deadpool last night.
For those of you who don’t know (and how can you not know? have you been living under a rock for the past year?), Deadpool is one of a handful of rated R comic book movies and only got made because Ryan Reynolds is possibly the most stubborn, persistent person on this green Earth.
The title character is a foul mouthed, sarcastic, fugly mutant who can grow back his hand, survive getting a knife in the skull, and is desperately in love with a beautiful woman. Every other sentence is a sexual innuendo of one form or another. Watching the movie really helped me to expand my vocabulary.
The offended person from that critique group would not have gotten through the opening scene of the movie. And it would be that person’s right, of course. This post isn’t about people’s right to be offended.
What I want to talk about is “appropriate obscenities”. I think Hollywood and a few writers suffer from a sickness called “over the top for the sake of it”. That is, things are obscene or offensive simply for shock value.
coughMad Max: Fury Roadcough
Because of this, I think obscenities and violence lose the impact they are meant to have. Take Spaceballs for example.
Mel Brooks used very little coarse language in the film, though there are innuendos and bad puns by the ton. The only use of the word “fuck” comes near the end of the movie, when Darth Helmet realizes that the button to stop the ship’s self-destruct is out of order. It’s extremely appropriate for the moment (they are all about to die and just learned their one out is…out). And because Brooks kept the swearing to a tasteful minimum, Darth Helmet’s cry of, “Fuck! Even in the future, nothing works!” has a great, comedic impact.
Contrast this with Deadpool. By the middle of the movie, so much swearing and violence has been done that the audience is nearly immune to it. What we’re waiting for isn’t more but to hear how creative Deadpool can get with these things. Which is totally appropriate to the subject matter.
I’ve already ranted about Mad Max once, so let me turn to a different example of uncalled for offensive material: Tarantino’s Django Unchained.
I’m a fan of Tarantino’s early stuff but his newest installments (with the possible exception of Inglorious Basterds) are studies in going over the top with swearing and gore for the sake of it. In Django Unchained, a freed slave and a bounty hunter (Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz, respectively) go to rescue Django’s love interest. By the end of the movie, the audience has been pelted with so much violence and obscene language, we are numb from it.
Was it appropriate? Not at all. The same tale could have been told with the word “niggar” used for maximum impact by using it sparingly, not to the point where you could turn it into a drinking game and, by the end of the game, be so wasted you not only forget what the movie was about but also where you are.
Obscene language, as well as violence, can be appropriate if the genre and subject matter call for it. But when writers go above and beyond, when they create material that is obscene and offensive for the sake of it, then it stops being art. It stops carrying a message. It becomes your drunk uncle swearing about gays and immigrants.
I’m glad we have people like the offended person in that critique group. We need people who get offended over swear words and violence, even when it’s appropriate. Why? Because it makes us think about whether or not we should be using such words and actions. And thinking about it leads to movies and stories with a message, not meaningless tripe whose only purpose is to shock.
(P.S. — If you don’t mind obscene language, go see Deadpool.)
Also published on Medium.