There is a YouTube video I can never get enough of. It was uploaded in early 2008 and has more than 16 million views. The video is of Sesame Street's Count von Count doing his counting thing in his bat-infested castle. But in this edit, every time he says "count" or "counting," it is bleeped. And so we hear: "I really love to [bleep]... Sometimes I sit and [bleep] all day... Once I start to [bleep], it's very hard to stop..." The genius of this video is that the bleeping effectively becomes a curse word, becomes "fucking." Without the bleep, the video is clean and safe for children. Add the bleep, and we are watching an adult video. And what this reveals is that when you bleep a curse word, it doesn't go away, but it is instead replaced by the bleep.
With this in mind, let's turn to Leviathan, an amazing new film by Andrey Zvyagintsev, the very talented Russian director who gave us the equally amazing Elena. The feature is about a middle-aged mechanic, Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), who takes on the ruthless and crooked mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov), of his small coastal town, where the outlook is best described as bleak. The mayor is an awful person and an alcoholic. The mechanic is weak and an alcoholic. His buddy is an asshole and an alcoholic. His son is a brat, and his young wife is unfaithful. The police officers are corrupt alcoholics, and the main church leader is sober but only cares about worldly power. All of this ends badly indeed. Leviathan has received a lot of negative press in Russia, where the perception seems to be that the film is receiving acclaim in the West—including an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film—for its negative portrayal of Russians in the Putin era.
On top of that, the film is packed with foul language, and because there is now a law in Russia that bans swearing in films, it has been heavily censored. And how was this done? Not with bleeps, but with silence: When the actor on the screen says a curse word, nothing is heard from the moving lips. The result is that the silence itself becomes the curse word. Nothing becomes a "fuck you" or "asshole" or "bitch" or however they curse in Russian. What is to be learned from this? Words are just signs, and anything can be a sign, even nothing.