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Questions of morality

"Gone With the Wind" had one dirty word. "Casablanca" had none, even though it took place in a bar. "Scarface" had more than 500. "Glengarry Glen Ross," the new film written by David Mamet, doesn't top the "Scarface" over-all total, but places first in one category, the number of times it employs the word beginning with "f."

I have before me a letter from a man who went to see "Glengarry Glen Ross" in a movie theater. He is a man of the world, he says, and yet he was shocked at the language in the film, and even more disturbed on behalf of the couple sitting a few rows in front of him, who had brought along their young children. Why, he asked, should children be subjected to such language?

Why, indeed - although perhaps he should have asked the parents themselves. Why did they bring their children to a movie clearly rated as "R" - one restricted to those older than 17, unless accompanied by just such parents as those seated in front of him?

As for the man himself, he took exception to my praise for the movie's dialogue. I had written: "Mamet's dialogue has a kind of logic, a cadence, that allows people to arrive in triumph at the ends of sentences we could not possibly have imagined. There is great energy in it. You can see the joy with which these actors get their teeth into these great lines, after living through movies in which flat dialogue serves only to advance the story."

This is strange praise, the letter informs me, for gutter language that would shock a longshoreman. (Longshoremen for some reason are always being held up as being fouler-mouthed than anyone else, and yet more frequently shocked.)

How do I answer this man? How should I answer many other moviegoers like him, who are offended by four-letter words and do not understand why so many of them have to be used in the movies? How, for that matter, do I answer Michael Medved, who has written a new book in which he prints the dirty-word totals for a great many movies, and says they are part of a Hollywood conspiracy against family values?

Like any reasonable person, I am of two minds about the subject. On the one hand, I haven't heard much in a movie that doesn't more or less reflect the way the same sorts of characters would speak in real life. Ross Perot may have wanted out of the Navy because of the rude way the sailors talked, but most people, I imagine, have heard all of the famous words often enough that they have lost their shock value.

On the other hand, I regret the universal lowering of standards that foul language represents. I share some of the guilt for the decay of verbal manners; I was a member of the generation that came of age in the 1960s and seized upon f- - -, s- - - and the other forbidden words as emblems of liberation. And I have spent a great deal of time since then in newspaper offices, saloons, TV studios and other places where such words fall naturally into the cadence of everyday speech. Recently, I have found myself using them less, maybe because I am tired of them, or maybe because a certain nostalgia for good manners has crept up on me. But when I hear the f-word from real estate salesmen in a David Mamet screenplay, or from cops and criminals and astronauts and football players in other movies, I don't find it unnatural; if the idea is to reflect the world these people live in, then the words are part of the music.

It is a universal truth that people who would censor the movies do so on behalf of others, not themselves. The censors can take the dirty stuff - why, that's how they earn their living. But others might be offended. Ask most people if they are personally shocked by "f- - -," and they will have a hard time admitting it. It's the other folks they're worried about.

When we go to the movies, we are, of course, surrounded by other folks. Maybe that's the problem. Words that we would hardly notice become magnified in importance if we are sitting next to our children, or our parents. They violate verbal taboos we observe within our families. By sitting there together and listening to them, we are forced to acknowledge that they do exist, and are spoken by others. An example from life

An example. Some years ago my mother came to Chicago on a visit, and I took her to a new movie, "Jinxed," starring Bette Midler. I first called up someone who had seen the movie and asked whether there was anything in it likely to offend one's mother. Not a blessed thing, I was assured. So Mom and I went off to the movies. Imagine my feelings when the very first word on the soundtrack was that 12-letter obscenity that one would not, above all others, choose for one's mother to hear. Did the word itself bother me? No. Did it offend my mother? I doubt it; as a pioneering businesswoman in downtown Urbana in the days when most women stayed in the home, she no doubt knew it existed. What embarrassed me was hearing it in her presence. Did it embarrass her? I was too embarrassed to ask her.

All words are essentially neutral. They have power only when they are used to hurt. When they are used against other people on the screen, they do not hurt us. When the effect is to hurt the people around us - loved ones, for example - we notice them, and then we ask why they need to be in the movie. But what is the answer? To banish them from the movies? No, because that would be the first step in denying movies their artistic power altogether.

There are people who don't want to learn anything from the movies that they don't already know. Who want to be entertained within the boundaries they have set down for themselves. Who want to see their values reflected from the screen. There are movies that will perform that service for them. Some of them are even great movies.

Other movies are about characters who are bad, or rude, or hateful. Villains have always been the most valuable stock in fiction. We find them more interesting than heroes, just as we find crime and sin more fascinating than virtue, which is why there are so many more crime novels in the bookstores than jolly parables with happy endings. What do we "learn" from these vile characters? Nothing, maybe; perhaps we just enjoy exorcising our fears at one remove, by witnessing their defeats. 

Then there are other characters in movies who are not evil, but simply sad, or discouraged, or angry, or inarticulate in their rage, and who use four-letter words because they hope the language will somehow make them feel better - or let others know how they feel. When we listen to these people, we can learn something about being human, and about ourselves.

Many screenplays, it's true, use four-letter words thoughtlessly, by reflex. When a gifted writer such as David Mamet comes along, it's another matter. His use of four-letter words is like an essay about them. Listen to his characters in "Glengarry Glen Ross," and you will begin to understand the depth of their despair. You will be listening to people who have been rendered impotent by a society that prohibits them from earning a decent living - and then even emasculates the words they need to express their anger.

The most fundamental mistake you can make with any piece of fiction is to confuse the content with the subject. The content is what is in a movie. The subject is what the movie is about. Word counters like Medved are as offended by a Martin Scorsese picture as by a brainless violent action picture, because they see the same elements in both. But the brainless picture is simply a form of exhibitionism, in which the director is showing you disgusting things on the screen. And the Scorsese picture might be an attempt to deal seriously with guilt and sin, with evil and the possibility of redemption. If you cannot tell one from the other, then you owe it to yourself to learn; life is short, and no fun if you spend it disowning your own intelligence.

And as far as I'm concerned, when Bogart went to the train station in Paris and Ingrid Bergman wasn't there to meet him, and all he got was a lousy note to read in the rain, if he had said "f- - -," I would have known just how he felt.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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