City of Tall Facades of Marble and Iron
The First Amendment actually is magical.
“Ready to go out in a blaze of glory?” Contemplating the end of their local NYC radio show, Joe (Josh Hamilton) and his engineer Manny (Zak Orth) try to make the best of it. They’re done because the FCC has fined them over $1 million, an unfathomable sum—either to pay or contest legally. Frustrated and furious, Joe decides to take his last show “to the streets,” specifically, streets populated by demonstrators drawn to the city for the Republican National Convention. And so, during the final hot days of summer 2004, Joe packs up his mic and starts walking, hoping to learn the meaning of free speech.
It so happens that Jed Weintrob’s The F Word, originally released in 2005, is airing on IFC this morning, the very morning that the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing FCC v. Fox Television Stations, 07-582. The case concerns the FCC’s efforts to ban (and so, fine) the use of “fleeting expletives,” one-time utterances (like, say, Cher’s exclamation at the 2002 Billboard Music Awards: “People have been telling me I’m on the way out every year, right? So fuck ‘em”). The FCC has argued that “context” allows its new ban on such one-offs; Fox says this changed indecency policy violates the Constitutional right to free speech. On this Election Day 2008, the case’s resonance is expanded, given the likelihood that the next president will nominate two to three new Supreme Court Justices, shaping court ideology and legal decisions for decades to come.
Such resonance is never far from the surface in The F Word. A faux documentary format (referencing Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool), the movie follows Joe’s efforts to discover and represent his “community,” which the Supreme Court, way back in 1973, famously said determined standards for obscenity and “redeeming social value.” Joe uses his mic to he engage and air a range of opinions—on everything from the war in Iraq and George Bush to 9/11 and Joey Ramone. Beginning near ground zero, he meets New Yorkers who resent the RNC “exploiting” 9/11 by holding their convention in town, a woman extolling the merits of the Republican tax plan (she’s been to medical school and wants her taxes lowered: “it’s not a financial issue,” she says, “It’s moral”), and also Reverend Billy, reading out the Constitution through a bullhorn while his choir adds hallelujahs. “You have the power,” asserts the star of What Would Jesus Buy?, reassuring the about-to-be-jobless Joe, “I know you’ll come back to life.”
The possibility of Joe’s resurrection is, of course, ragingly metaphorical. Even as he feels depressed concerning his immediate fortune, he also feels affirmed and encouraged by the diversity he finds outside the studio. He’s briefly distracted when he spots his fifth grade crush, Stephanie (Callie Thorne), now working as a stripper and enjoying “probably the biggest week of the year for me,” thanks to the RNC. When he runs into a “huge march for women’s rights” on the Brooklyn Bridge, Joe notes that the “pro-lifers” are being “heavily guarded by the police,” then focuses his attention on the louder, more numerous pro-choicers. He asks, “You have anything to say to the RNC?” Sure, comes the answer, “We want them to listen to what we’re saying. We want our rights back!”
Joe is even more thrilled when, crossing Houston Street (“the great divide”), he runs into a construction worker (Michael Tenaglia) who’s willing to hold forth on all matters political. Proclaiming his intention to vote for Ralph Nader and complaining that the country “lacks leadership.” this guy takes on a nearby conservative-leaning executive, identified by his suit and tie, and his suggestion that “George Bush is a strong leader,” under fire by “the liberal media.” Whoa, says the hard-hat. “You can’t talk about the liberal media when you’ve got that pumpkin-head Rush Limbaugh on the radio.” Asked to explain, he jumps in with both feet: “There are unemployed factory workers in rural Ohio, in rural Kentucky, and West Virginia who are going to vote Republican even though it’s absolutely not in their economic best interests… because Rush Limbaugh and people like them whip these people into a frenzy over gun control and gay marriage.” Joe nods and smiles, moving his mic between the debaters. This is the community he’s been looking for.
A few steps later Joe’s listening to John Perry Barlow, former lyricist for the Grateful Dead and once a “major campaign organizer for Dick Cheney, “when he was running for Congress.” Yes, Barlow says, eyes bright, “I am a recovering Republican.” After he describes Cheney as “kind of sociopathic,” Barlow turns to his main concern, the ongoing Bush Administration effort to repeal civil rights with the Patriot Act. It’s “full of unbelievably repressive potential for the government,” he grimaces, “which they’re not using, for political reasons.”
Jeremy (Sam Rockwell) provides Joe with a different sort of surreal encounter, appearing at a moment when Joe has dozed off, answering all his questions with non sequiturs (“How do you feel about the RNC?” “I love Ferris wheels!”). Unnerved by Jeremy’s this hallucinatory wackscape, Joe is rescued by the words of Walt Whitman, literally written across a bridge as he walks and muses and exhales, at last: “Proud and passionate city—mettlesome, mad, extravagant city!”
A special kind of madness is everywhere during the protests—marchers with placards, children shouting their parents’ beliefs, a huge walking pink penis to represent “Dick Cheney”—Joe is more interested in talking with individuals. An Iraq war veteran reports, “Morale’s really high… because they’re going out and killing people, I mean, combatants.” A protestor disagrees: “My cousin’s in Iraq,” he says, “He doesn’t want to be there.” When they discover that the vet’s a Marine and the cousin’s in the Army, the men nod in agreement: “The Marines are more gung-ho.”
Joe nods too, enjoying his immersion, inspired by the “passion on the streets.” As it follows his veering focus, The F Word is by turns giddy and hopeful, contemplative and outraged. The point is to speak—again and again.