As I sit here at home, day after day – in what will surely be, by the end of all this, a whole lot of days – in my spare time (which has opened up considerably lately) I’ve been watching a lot of comfort movies. Actually, I don’t even really know what “comfort movie” means anymore? Somehow, now, Alien has become a comfort movie. “Yeah, sure, it kind of sucks that this alien is killing every member of the crew one by one, but look at how close they can all get to each other. That seems nice.”
Anyway, there’s something I’ve noticed about movies before this era – and I don’t have scientific data, but I would say that this particular observation runs through at least the movies of the early 1990s. Which is: we don’t use the word “damn” enough. And not the elongated version of “daaaaaaamn” after someone lands a particularly good insult. I mean the, “oh no, we’re in trouble,” version.
It used to be used so effectively! A properly placed “damn,” in a lot of ways, plays more effectively now than even a good “F-word.” (Note: “F-word” stands for “fuck.”) Because the F-word is way overused today. And, look, it’s a word I use a lot, but I think it’s overused because filmmakers know they get one chance to use it in a PG-13 movie, so they wait for the most dramatic scene possible to pull it out. So what happens is, we get no variety in our vulgarities. Looking back to when older PG movies were the equivalent of today’s PG-13 films (never forget that Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a movie where two characters are horribly mutilated by a malfunctioning transporter, was “rated G”), there’s almost a sense of elegance when a hero would finally admit the situation was becoming dire and let out a hearty, emotional, “Damn.”
The first time I really thought about it was after the press screening for Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. There’s a scene where an island is about to explode and Chris Pratt’s Owen Grady says something to the effect of, “Holy Fu—”, before the end of the word is cut off by the sound of the explosion. I found this to be a weird scene. Because, right then, would have been the perfect time for a shot to zoom in on Pratt’s face has he delivers a dramatic, heartfelt, “Damn.” Then BOOM! But, no, instead we don’t even get a full word. We get a cinematic cliché instead.
There are many great “damn”s over the years. Yes, Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind is probably the most famous. And of course Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes. Oh, and speaking of the Jurassic franchise, Richard Attenborough’s John Hammond gives us a perfect, “Damn!,” in Jurassic Park.
But, the one I think about the most comes from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and encapsulates why a good “damn” can be so effective. At the begging of the film, Bones gifts Kirk a pair of glasses. Yes, in the world of Star Trek, no one needs glasses anymore because poor vision has been cured by Retinax 5. But, unfortunately, Kirk is allergic, so he still needs reading glasses, but refuses to admit this. Later in the film, after Khan has hijacked the Reliant and disabled the Enterprise, Kirk comes up with a plan to disable the Reliant’s shields using an obscure Starfleet code that can override another ship’s systems.
As Kirk is implementing this plan – while buying some time by telling Khan he has to download the information on the Genesis project (if you’ve never seen Star Trek II through IV, that’s a long story) – he’s leaning over a computer panel trying to read it. It’s at this point Kirk takes out his glasses, and right before putting them on, whispers out a forceful, reluctant, “Damn.” In a movie that’s been picked over a million times, it’s this scene, for me, that summarizes so much about getting older and the reluctance of admitting that. With one word, “damn,” William Shatner* conveys everything Kirk is feeling.
*For whatever reason, Shatner is especially good at using the word “damn.” In Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, after Kirk finds out that Lord Kruge has killed Kirk’s son, David, Shatner grieves with a solemn, “Damn you, you killed my son,” that just might be Shatner’s finest work as an actor. (Also, Star Trek III: The Search For Spock gets a bad reputation. It’s pretty good! Also, where else will you find Christopher Lloyd and John Larroquette playing Klingons?).
So, yes, when movies come back, this is my simple plea: bring back the dramatic “damn.” Especially if the movie is betting its big dramatic moment on half an expletive before being cut off by a sound effect. Instead of that nonsense that’s been way overdone at this point, how about a dramatic, solemn “damn.”
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