Register Thursday | September 20 | 2018

What the F—?

Film Critic Matthew Hays looks at print media's hidebound, prim, knee-jerk, paternalistic, unthinking, programmatic attitude towards the word "fuck."

This past April, as the final season of The Sopranos was about to unravel on HBO, I came across what seemed like a perfect Canadian angle on the iconic American series: a Quebec actor, Philippe Bergeron, had landed a small but pivotal role in the final season’s first episode. He was playing one of two petty crooks from Quebec who conduct some business with Tony Soprano. I pitched the story to the Globe and Mail and the editors bit.

When I spoke to him, Bergeron described the elaborate party he was planning in his LA home to screen the episode, including hiring women bartenders who looked like they were straight out of the Bada Bing strip club. He also told me how he got the gig in the first place. As it turns out, one of the writers for the show had gone to a Quebec-born dental hygienist. The writer needed advice on “some dialogue, to make a scene authentic between Tony Soprano and some greasy French Canadians,” and she suggested her friend (Bergeron) would be the perfect man for the job.

Bergeron was skeptical until he got a call from Andrew Schneider, a writer and producer for The Sopranos. “The first thing he asked me was, ‘How would a French Canadian say, you fucking cunt?’” Bergeron recalled. “I knew he wasn’t an impostor. I thought, ‘Welcome to The Sopranos!’”

Bergeron’s most telling tidbit described a scene in which James Gandolfini, playing Tony Soprano, was having some trouble with his lines. “It was really pissing him off. So he started banging the table repeatedly with his hand, yelling, ‘Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!’ For a second, I got lost in it, and I actually thought I was sitting in front of Tony Soprano. Then he delivered the line, perfectly.”

It was this last story, in context, that really captured the combination of stress and talent involved in the series. But when my Sopranos piece appeared in the April 5 edition of the Globe and Mail, the story had been edited to look more like a take on The Brady Bunch. Bergeron’s anecdotes, told so beautifully and entirely suitable for a piece about foul-mouthed gangsters, were gone. Virtually everything else was left intact. The F-word, as it turns out, had been too objectionable for the Globe editors; its inclusion didn’t carry “news value.”

As a freelancer, I’d been here before. Back in 2001, I interviewed the crusty Quebec separatist filmmaker Pierre Falardeau about his latest piece of incendiary nationalism, 15 février 1839. (In the film, the francophone rebels are heroes and the English Canadians are nasty. Not a shocker, given Falardeau’s politics.) In person, Falardeau is a real trip. His hands flap about, in between hauls on American cigarettes and swigs of British draft beer. And every other sentence is punctuated by the F-word. He says “fuck” a lot.

In my piece, I quoted Falardeau verbatim. I left the word “fuck” in, whenever he’d said it, the way a journalist is supposed to do. Now, I’m not using the words “supposed to” as in, you’re supposed to give up your seat on the bus for senior citizens and pregnant women. Quoting directly and accurately is not just a voluntary courtesy. Quite the opposite: it is a cardinal rule, hammered into journalism students time and time again. It’s part of the sacred trust of truthfulness that’s supposed to exist between writers, editors and readers. It’s what makes journalism non-fiction.

But lo and behold, when the piece on Falardeau ran in the January 26 edition of the Globe, the gritty filmmaker hadsomehow been transformed into Jerry Falwell. Someone had been awfully busy with the delete button: every single “fuck” had been yanked from the story. No “f***,” or even “f---,” or even a passing mention of all the deleted expletives. Gone. If the fun had been yanked out of the Sopranos story, then the accuracy had been ripped out of the Falardeau one. Anyone who has ever spoken with Falardeau knows that a crucial part of who he is—his legendary gueule maudite—had been lost in translation. 

A copy editor at the paper explained to me that the Globe was a “family newspaper.” Come again? Since when do eight-year-olds rush to check up on their favourite stocks every morning? To be fair, the Globe likely thinks of itself as a “mass-market” or  “national” product. But the fact is even young adults barely read the paper dailies anymore. Such appeals (be it to family, market, or nation) are not only doublespeak for Puritanism and censorship but are a large reason why mainstream daily journalism—a format deemed less and less trustworthy by the public—is in such a sorry state.

And not only in Canada. In September 2005, I sat down for the New York Times with Liza Minnelli at the Toronto International Film Festival to discuss the restored version of her landmark 1972 TV concert, Liza with a ‘Z’. Since the choreography was by legendary dance man Bob Fosse, I asked her what the difference was between hip hop dancing today and what she and Fosse were doing back then. She responded with one of the best quotes I’ve ever gotten out of a celebrity interview: “Dancing now, the movement is obvious. It’s like fucking. What Fosse did was foreplay.”

When the piece ultimately ran on Minnelli’s 60th birthday (March 12, 2006), the editors pulled the quote. I protested, and a copy editor said: “We can’t run that word in the Times, ever.”

In fact, the Times has printed the word “fuck”  a handful of times, most recently, in a document released with the Starr Report on Monica Lewinsky in 1998. However when Vice-President Cheney used the word during his spat with Senator Leahy on the Senate floor in 2004, the Times opted against reporting it.

According to the Times style guide, the “argument that someone’s use of a vulgar expression was surprising or politically dramatic, or revealing about art or the intensity of feelings, will not be compelling.” Yet ignor-ing Cheney’s expletive struck me as the most troublesome thing I’d heard in a while. If the Bush promise was to clean up the White House after all those nasty, slutty Clinton years, isn’t it newsworthy if the second-in-command later tells someone to “Go fuck yourself”? Wouldn’t the truth be more accurately served if readers of the Times knew how often the purportedly well-behaved, God-fearing Christians running their country actually sounded like, well, the Sopranos?

The deletion of the fuck word isn’t a minor thing. Instead, it speaks volumes about the collapsing fortunes of daily newspapers. There’s a reason young people today seek out the rough, uncut, liberated content they find so readily on blogs and websites like YouTube. They trust it more. The very unplugged obscenities editors and publishers think they are protecting us from have, in fact, become colourful signposts that the facts and attitudes found therein are genuine, or at least less tampered with than they are elsewhere. Young readers and viewers in particular—the very demographic the dailies can’t get enough of and are purportedly courting—sense this prudish, censorial attitude in the daily pages and are tuning out in record numbers.

Too bad for readers (not to mention democracy and accurate reporting). If someone actually said it, and it’s a meaningful part of the picture, why shouldn’t we read it? What the fuck is going on?