Caution! Still talking about the f-word! (And sometimes using it.) This should wrap up the series on the extreme language.
I've talked a little about why you might want to rein in the tough language in your fiction. Is it right for the character, or the story? Is it necessary, especially if it might offend part of your audience? Even more important, will holding back make using it more effective?
Now I'm going to talk a little about why you might just want to let loose.
Before I get to The Big Lebowski and the Coen Brothers, I want to talk a little bit about some rom coms, one of which set the tone perfectly with judicious use of a few too many f-bombs, and one of which, IMHO, hurt the tone with some explicit material.
The first is Four Weddings and a Funeral. The story begins with a montage of people getting up in the morning and clearly getting ready for a wedding. During this montage, Hugh Grant's character does not get up, but instead hits the snooze alarm. At the end of the credits he wakes up, looks at the clock in horror, realizes he's terribly late for the wedding, and says "FUCK!" He wakes his female friend (I don't remember who she is - but she's not sleeping in the same bed) and she takes one look at the clock and says... "FUCK!"
The dialog pretty much sticks with that one word for a few minutes as they madly run around to get ready and get to the wedding, while everything goes wrong.
This scene, all by itself would probably have been just as funny if they were screaming "NO!" These are perfectly nice characters who are not trying to offend, and the scene is not looking for shock value. And yet I would say that the use of the f-word here is critical to the set up of this nice romantic movie.
Because this is not a sweet romance in which the birdies sing and nobody dies, and all broken hearts are healed by finding the right person. This isn't just four weddings. There is also a funeral. This is about mature, sophisticated adults who are a little ... decadent. They're a little too experienced and careworn to worry about their language. These beautiful people have been rubbed raw by reality here and there. This opening sets us up for the fact that we are going to experience some real emotion.
The rom com where the r-rated material did NOT work for me was Love Actually. I liked this film, but one of the subplots of that story is a pair of sweet innocent young people who happen to meet and fall in love on the job. What job is it? They are stand-ins for the porn industry. They are fully clothed and not actually doing anything - they just take up simulated sex poses while the camera and lighting people get their equipment set up.
It's a funny idea. It's handled with reasonable delicacy. Frankly, in a more crude movie, it might have been hilarious because of the unexpected sweetness. But the mood of Love Actually is a fairytale - so it's the crudeness that hits you as an unexpected surprise, and the sweetness here loses all of its punch.
That's something the Coen Brothers understand. The persistence of sweetness in a terrible world can be very funny, and sometimes very appealing and even uplifting.
I'll start with funny - their movie Fargo is a crime story. It's shocking and gritty, and it takes place in Minnesota where people are habitually nice. So at one point, when a a guy gets shot in a highly tense and violent scene, he doesn't say "fuck!" He says "Oh, geeze!"
But Fargo, for all you hear about the humor, is not really a comedy. It's a real crime story and drama first. It's rooted in the violence and human weakness.
The Big Lebowski, on the other hand, is about the triumph of a kind of sweetness. It too is set in a relatively crude world, but not a horrific one. The Coens, though, wanted to highlight the sweetness by contrasting it with a gritty world. One way they did it was to carpet bomb the whole movie with the f-word. It's used so frequently (260 times) that the characters don't even seem to notice they're using it.
My favorite scene reflects this. The story is narrated by Sam Elliot, in his most iconic, drawling, good-natured cowboy form. He's "The Stranger" and he tells the story of "The Dude" - a laid-back slacker who spends his days drinking White Russians and bowling - who is drawn into a hard-boiled mystery plot straight out of Raymond Chandler. Partway through the movie, The Stranger makes an appearance, sitting at the bar in the bowling alley. He and The Dude strike up a conversation, and after a bit The Stranger says:
"Dude, you're a great fella, but I wish you wouldn't cuss so dern much."
And the Dude replies, "What the fuck do you mean?"
By this time the audience has been numbed to all the cussing too, and this is refreshing. But even more important, because The Stranger is not of that world, he is able to help highlight that The Dude is a pretty sweet guy. He is lazy and a little selfish, but he tries to do the right thing. He's patient. He listens. He tries to cooperate. He doesn't hurt people. He stands by his whacky friends, even those who are too disturbing and even frighting for the rest of the world to tolerate. And in the end "The Dude Abides." He keeps sailing, good natured, steady, tying the room together like a slightly soiled rug.
I don't see myself ever writing something about a world that goes to those extremes. But I think it's important to understand the techniques. That when you don't say/use something, you can draw attention to it and it becomes more powerful. When you say something so much you get numb to it, you draw attention to other things, and they become more powerful.
I do want to get around to talking about the related issues of sex and violence and a character's moral compass but I'll be sticking to the much less extreme versions. (I think much of what I've said about strong language goes for these other subjects.) Both mysteries and romances - even the cleanest of them - are largely about violence and sex. Also about people doing each other wrong.
(Earlier posts in the series: Part 1 - Cussn' and other issues of Standards and Practices, Part 2 - A Little History of The Production Code.)