“Words are what men live by – words they say and mean” -- John Wayne in The Commancheros.
With the recent opening of director Judd Apatow’s Funny People, filmgoers are once again bombarded by raunchy situations and words that make the ears bleed. I amend that statement. Words that used to make the ears bleed.
Though his film, like many others from the desensitized filmmaker (Knocked Up, Pineapple Express, Anchorman, The 40-Year-Old Virgin), contains themes of repentance where characters become better people by film’s end, Apatow leans on uncouth situations and filthy language to express human development. Is this progress? Is this what we have become – disciples of Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen?
Certainly, there are well-spoken people who are nothing more than whitewashed sepulchers. So there is more to being a good person than being well-spoken. But our public behavior and speech should indicate to others what we stand for. And our words should define our character. Else, how are others to know? Like the Duke said, “Words are what men live by.” Words not only reveal character, they also indicate our spiritual values. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs” (Ephesians 4:29 NIV).
Motion pictures shouldn’t just show us what we are, but what we can become. That’s the ultimate purpose of an art form. Yet somehow the people now writing movies (generally) can’t express frustration without the f-bomb or anger without profaning God’s name. And the s-word has become the new “darn it.”
Added to the obscene and the profane, colloquialisms like “dude,” “like,” and “awesome” now pepper speech patterns in America’s conversations. And I blame Hollywood for it. Listening to nearly every member of Hollywood’s constellation appearing on Letterman or Leno, one gets the distinct impression that Sean Penn’s Spicoli-isms are here to stay.
Though much of comedy is built on outrageousness, there comes a point when the abuse of language becomes a sad commentary on society’s moral torpor. Earlier this year, for example, Seth Rogen, this generation’s guru of grime, starred in the security cop comedy Observe and Report. With 160 uses of the f-word alone, not to mention every other obscenity he could muster, plus insensitive gags about casual drug use and mall shootings, he took the genre to a new low. But he will be outdone.
Comedy contemporaries Mike Myers, Ben Stiller, and Jason Segal join Seth Rogan and the rest with not being content with bathroom humor. Each insists on spending much of their screen time in the sewer. And there are a great many people willing to sludge around in these cesspools of soporific stench, somehow believing this is the genesis for all things funny.
Oh, what they’ve forgotten.
Dialogue can be clever: "I see...the pellet with the poison's in the flagon with the dragon; the vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true." --Danny Kaye making sure not to drink the potion meant for his jousting opponent in The Court Jester, during a decade when wit and a clever use of vocabulary helped give sparkle to movie humor.
Dialogue can be incisive: “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within,” (the narrator in The Fall of the Roman Empire).
Dialogue can be satirical: "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here, this is the war room!" -- An outraged President Muffley (Peter Sellers), in Dr. Strangelove.
And dialogue can be profound: "And I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand”-- the newly converted Ben Hur.
Dialogue can also be crude and debasing: Funny People, The Hangover, I Love You, Beth Cooper, I Love You Man, Land of the Lost, Observe and Report, Orphan, The Ugly Truth, Whatever Works, and Year One.
And those are just the comedies. From this year. So far.
Lest you think I am being pretentious, I am aware that I began three previous sentences with “And.” I freely declare those in the Hollywood writing pool to be far more gifted than I. I just wish they would use that talent to uplift and engage the mind and spirit of man. Or at least be witty.