Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Here's quoting at you, kid

Clay Risen considers the possibility that's it's time to mark and celebrate the death of the movie catchphrase:

Take the American Film Institute's list of the 100 most memorable film quotes, compiled in 2005, ranging from what was arguably the first film that could be quoted, 1927’s The Jazz Singer—whose signature quote, "Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain't heard nothin’ yet!" was so perfectly self-reflexive, the archetypal movie quote—to 2002's "My precious," from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. What I'll call the two-decade Golden Era of the Movie Quote, 1967-1986, accounts for 36 citations, by far the densest 20-year stretch.

One could argue that classic movie quotes proliferated during this time because movies were so imminently quotable. It was the era of the heroic screenwriter, the time when men (and a few women) took dialogue seriously; memorable lines were a way of grounding a scene, the ironic counterpoint to a moment of high seriousness that kept the whole thing stuck in your mind—Roy Scheider's "you're gonna need a bigger boat" in Jaws, for instance.

Needless to say, that line and others, like "bad hat, Harry," also served to brand Jaws as more than your average slasher fare. Over time, though, that branding got out of hand. From the subtle use of catchphrases in a film like Jaws, scriptwriters eventually moved to a baroque phase in which catchphrases were an end in themselves. By the mid-1980s, a summer blockbuster risked failure without a memorable line. Otherwise-middling actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis found they could make up for their lack of skills by learning to dish out well-placed lines like "Hasta la vista, baby" and "Yippee kay-ay, motherfucker." Is it any wonder that we eventually took a break from the whole thing?