Pop Culture Q&A, Vol. 2: Favorite Uses of the F-Word in Media

Another installment in the AV Club’s wonderful AVQ&A series. The question:

  • What are some of your favorite moments in film, television, or music that are anchored by f- you, f- off, go f- yourself/yourselves, or the like?

Quick disclaimer to readers of high sensitivity: I do print the f- word a few times throughout this post.

When I read this question, my immediate thought was the movie High Fidelity. Not even one line in particular, just a variety. High Fidelity was one of the first movies that I actually remember noting the f- word used for more than just shock value. I didn’t hear it and cringe because I associated it with being “bad” and punishment. It was used so artistically, in a way that communicated more feelings than what was strictly spoken. You know how scientists say that something like only 30% of our communication is verbal? The rest of it is all non-verbal: shrugs, looks, sighs, smirks, postures, etc. I feel like the f- word can be used in a very similar way; to communicate more feelings than we often have with regular words. It’s like how certain words in English have no direct translation in a non-Western language, and vice versa. When used sparingly and correctly, the f- word can communicate the feelings that can only be obliquely intimated through regular speech.

High Fidelity was my first exposure to the word’s usage in that context. There are so many good uses of the word in this movie, but I’m going to call out my favorite three.

3. “What….fucking…IAN GUY!?”

Scene: Rob has very recently broken up with Laura, and he’s at work, on the phone with their mutual friend Liz. Liz is telling him that she hasn’t chosen sides between Laura and Rob, that she liked Rob and Laura together and that she doesn’t think too much of this Ian guy. Before Rob can respond, coworker Dick interrupts him to tell that Marie DeSalle, the local musician they just recently saw perform, has stopped by their record store. Rob promptly says goodbye to Liz, goes out and greets Marie DeSalle, then heads back to the back room, shuts the door and pauses a moment with shaking hands before screaming directly at the camera, “What…fucking…..IAN GUY!?” and subsequently destroys his back room office. This f- word has a lot wrapped up in it, mostly angry stuff. It’s anger, betrayal, jealousy. This is the most common usage of the f- word, or at least what it was probably originally intended for; to communicate anger. The current incarnation of the word has quite a myriad of uses, but in this particular scene, Rob’s using it cause he’s got literally no other words that can get across how explosively angry he feels. It’s a perfectly acted moment by Cusack, who holds it all in for an incredibly pregnant 2-second pause before exploding with rage.

2. “Holy shi-ite….what the fuck is that?”

With this line, we’re introduced to Barry, my very favorite character Jack Black has ever played. I’m convinced he’s the biggest reason this entire movie works so well. Jack Black completely inhabits Barry, and provides the perfect character balance to Dick’s too-shy-and-too-smart role and Rob’s reluctantly-defeated leader role. From the get go, he’s a whirlwind, a hurricane of spoiled low self-esteem masked by a shell of pompous indignation at his limited success in life via his very specific skill set. This is one of the key differences between Barry and Rob: neither have had much success, and they both live and breathe within an incredibly niche work environment, but Rob seems slightly more self-aware in his life situation, whereas Barry just blusters on, running over most everyone in his path. Jack Black brings a crazy confidence to Barry and he is absolutely magnetic within the role.

When we first meet Barry, Rob and Dick are listening to a softly complacent Belle And Sebastian album as they’re preparing to open the record store on a Monday morning. You can hear Barry “nair-nair”-ing a guitar solo before he even walks in the door. As soon as he’s in, he stops, listens to what is playing, and delivers his hello: “Holy shi-ite….what the fuck is that?” Rob counters with “It’s the record we were listening to and enjoying, Barry” through a worn-out sigh. Barry puts on his newly made Monday Morning Mixtape and what transpires in the next few minutes is an absolute joy to watch. Jack Black is a fantastic physical comedian and he brings a fiery energy to Barry that is perfectly showcased in this scene.

The other part of Jack Black’s perfection in this role is how unique his speech cadence is. His words roll off the tongue with such a special fluidity all his own. Even if he doesn’t swear, he’s got such control over the volume, speed, and rhythm of his words that it makes him sound unlike anybody else. His noises, his vocal tone; the guy is an aural enigma. And when you add f- words to this mix, it just adds another great layer to an already unique vocal production. He uses the word like a musician. He puts it right where it needs to be and it flows out without effort. He can make it sound so normal rather than curt, like it very often does. And while he uses it to great effect throughout the movie, this instance is probably my favorite.

1. “Is that Peter Fucking Frampton?”

It surprises me that my favorite is a line uttered by not Jack Black, but John Cusack, an actor whose biggest fan I am not. This is a line perfect in its delivery and intent, and the sheer WTF-ness of its f- word usage hits it out of the park. Quick recap of the scene, Cusack’s character Rob, dumped by his girlfriend, is slowing trying to regain some sense of togetherness and walks to a club to meet his record store colleagues to see Marie DeSalle perform. On the way he passes the Biograph Theater, where John Dillinger was shot and killed by the FBI. He explains to the audience how they were able to catch up with Dillinger there at the theater and says, “You know who tipped them off? His fuckin’ girlfriend.” (Great line, but not the favorite in question.) He walks across the street to the club where Marie DeSalle has already started her set inside. He can hear her cover of “Baby I Love Your Way” on his way into the club, and once he realizes what song it is, he stops by the club’s bouncer and asks, “Is that Peter Fucking Frampton?” and the Dave Chappelle-lookin’ bouncer just slowly nods and Rob walks in. Cusack absolutely kills this line. He’s so defeated. He’s been torn up by his girlfriend leaving (to be fair, he was an awful partner), he’s got no real life plans going forward, his record store is failing, and he’s going to hang out with the two guys who work at his record store that he sees all day every day. And to top it off, the musician he’s going to see perform is doing a great cover of a truly terrible song, a song vilified among the musically elite snobs like Rob and his coworkers. But the way he uses the f- word likes it’s Frampton’s middle name is just so potently sad. Music is the one thing in Rob’s life that he feels control over, it’s the thing he knows more about than anybody, it’s his shield. He’s able to go on with his miserable life because of music. And he wants to cut this song down but he just can’t, because Marie DeSalle is actually a good musician and is creating a beautiful song out of the saccharine mess of the original. All of this is wrapped up in how sharp he hits the -ing of the word and his audible capitalization.

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