Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Where have all the zingers gone?

My blog-friend JES, knowing my interest in all things cinematic, sent me a link a few days ago for an article in The New York Times, reviewing some of the great quotable lines from the movies.... and lamenting that there don't seem to have been very many new additions to the canon in recent years.

Of course, I did a film quotes quiz myself about 18 months ago; and earlier this year, my 'Film List' post on Crowning Moments of Awesome included quite a few more favourite lines.

While the quotations in my quiz were a wilfully eclectic - unrepresentative - selection, there were a few from the mid-90s and a couple from the Noughties.  And I am unashamed to admit that I am a huge fan of Will Ferrell's Anchorman, the most quotable movie, I think, of the last decade, and the only one of his (so far) that's likely to prove an enduring classic. So many good lines in that: "I'm kind of a big deal around here.  People know me."  "I think I ate your chocolate squirrel."  "Leave the mothers out of this."

I wonder if the supposed shortage of 'great lines' in the last decade or so is partly the product of the 'instant communications' era: is there a faddishness problem, that the modern Internet/Twitter/SMS environment leads to 'great lines' being passed into popular culture far more quickly and pervasively than before; and they get done to death, and then recede from popular consciousness again - quickly discarded because they got too ubiquitous for a while.

You know I love any excuse to pour scorn on the Twitterati, but in fact I rather doubt if their debasing of 'popular culture' in recent years is the main culprit.  I conjecture that it's just always been - and is probably always going to be - the case that to become deeply embedded in the mass consciousness requires a decade or so, maybe a full generation.  People who saw Casablanca in movie theatres in the 1940s probably didn't go around quoting it all the time.  Kids who grew up seeing it on TV (and having their parents tell them how great it was) in the '50s or '60s did.  And for those of us who grew up in the '70s and '80s, it's just become an established cultural meme - we don't question how it got to be that way.

It occurs to me also that this process of slowly becoming a part of the general cultural landscape, part of everyone's common experience, has in the past probably been driven primarily by TV.   Our conception of what was a great film - and our appreciation of the great lines within them - was largely conditioned by the purchasing and scheduling decisions of the networks, by what we were given the opportunity to see again and again and again during our formative years.  (JES cites The Wizard of Oz as his most quotable film; while I see what he's getting at - "I don't think we're in Kansas any more." "Fly, my pretties, fly!" - I think his enthusiasm for even some of less prominent lines in the film suggests that he has re-watched it many more times than I have.  I would think that, from the 'golden age', Casablanca - and a few others, too - trumps it for most people.  And, from my own lifetime, The Blues Brothers is almost certainly the most quoted film.)

Outside of a few 'cult' classics - like The Blues Brothers, Animal House, Anchorman, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Pulp Fiction - most people generally only go to see a film in a theatre once, on first release.  It's only been on TV that we'd get the repeated exposure which hardwires the greatest lines and moments into our brains.  I suppose that may now be changing with on-demand pay-per-view cable channels, cheap DVDs... and so much free online streaming.  (I don't think that VHS really had so much impact on viewing habits during the '70s and '80s.  Occasional rentals would usually be used to catch up on things we'd missed at the cinema, or to indulge in cheap trash that never got a theatrical release at all; we didn't use rented videos very much to watch a classic over and over again.  And the picture quality was too poor, the storage medium too bulky to encourage many people to build up large home libraries: I've always been an avid film collector, but I never owned much more than a hundred titles on VHS, many of them home-taped; I have something like 1,000 on DVD!)

I wonder how this shift in habits of consumption will affect the formation of our shared 'cultural database'.  I suspect there must be a tendency to fragment it - perhaps to make it more diverse, but at the cost of less and less of it (perhaps none of it?) being truly universal any more.  When I was growing up, with only two or three TV channels (the second BBC channel was, I think, launched in the early or mid-60s, but it took a decade or more before it achieved widespread uptake; whether or not you had BBC2 was still a mark of social distinction when I was in primary school - and we didn't!), the first screening of a major film was a huge event - and everyone would watch it.  Moreover, because the TV companies were having to pay so much for the rights (in that halcyon time of effectively exclusive distribution), they would run the film again, at least once or twice a year, for the next three, five, or seven years.  I think that's why people of my age know Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid inside and out; but we don't have a similarly comprehensive familiarity with Unforgiven (and I suspect almost no-one does).

Anyway, to remind us of what we may soon be missing, here is one of the best compilations I could find on YouTube just now - a '100 Best' in just 200 seconds!

And here's quite a fun countdown - literally: 100 lines featuring the numbers from 100 down to 1.  This was offered by YouTube user 'AlonzoMosleyFBI' (and much kudos to you if you if you can spot that reference!) as an affectionate parody of the American Film Institute's list of 100 Greatest Film Quotes, which you can see in four parts, here, here, here, and here.  Or make do with this teaser overview below...


Hopfrog said...

aka Agent Foster Grant (if memory serves) and one of my favorite comedies of all time. Also, count me in on the Anchorman bandwagon. One of the funniest films of this decade. In fact, I cannot currently think of one that had me laughing harder in this century.

I absolutely love this post. Mainly because I have been saying the same things for the past 10 years and this is the first time I've heard someone else saying these things about our cultural base or commonalities. I'm sure others have made the point, I just haven't come across them.

I like to call it the dying water cooler conversation phenomenon, but I'll have to condense that at some point. When I grew up we had 13 channels on the tube and I can remember my parents and their friends, as well as my classmates and I, talking about the tv shows and movies that we were ALL watching. I can vividly recall quotes being bantied about at a much higher rate than they are today.

Just this month I can think of several incidents where a co-worker has turned to another and said "did you see XYZ last night" or " did anyone catch "E, F, and G this week" only to be met with a blank stare and a "uh, yeah I don't watch that show, but did you see blah blah blah, oh you don't watch that, you should". I think this translates into music as well with nobody being able to identify the artist on the radio about 80% of the time.

This phenomenon is also why I feel sport is defying logic and becoming more important in an era where I think most people would have predicted it would have become less so. The only ones who seem to be having water cooler conversations these days where I work are the sports fans.

We just have more choices today, a LOT of them, and while I feel its a good thing, it has its drawbacks and the glaring one is that we just don't have as much in common anymore. Fortunately, among these choices is the massive internet community. At least we can still stumble across others who share our interests. Whats this? This english bloke has an affinity for westerns and has seen just about everyone ever made, along with a ton of other classic films, oh and he has a passion for Formula 1, a disdain for Twitter and Facebook, a Monopoly habit (the Orange and Red properties is a strategy I've found unbeatable), despises social injustice, thinks Emma Peel is the bees knees, and loves hitting the sauce and playing billiards... I thought I was the only one! But the haiku, eh, viva la diffe'rence.

That sounded gushy, but the point is, nowadays I am finding conversation and insight a lot more interesting in places far removed from my immediate circle lately.

The British Cowboy said...

I am utterly amazed (and frankly more than a little appalled) you think Anchorman is (a) more quotable; (b) better; and (c) more likely to become a classic than Old School, which is the last decades Animal House.

I spit on you.

Froog said...

I find the enthusiasm for Old School baffling. I've seen it twice, Cowboy, and still can't remember that much about it - apart from occasionally being quite bored. It does have a vociferous fan club, but a much, much smaller segment of the population - it seems to me - than Anchorman... and pretty much exclusively American. I wonder if this isn't evidence of the degree of your Americanization these days?

I would suggest that it's also probably context-dependent. If you happen to relate to the film for some personal reason, or especially enjoy your first experience of it due to the external circumstances at the time - then you can come to love it. But EVERYBODY loves Anchorman.

And I think you're in very dangerous territory when you start comparing it to Animal House - not remotely in the same league, I don't think. But then, I adored Animal House on first exposure, for external reasons...

So, what would you say were the most quotable lines from Old School??

Froog said...

Hopfrog - aw, shucks.

I'm glad we disagree on some things - otherwise people might start to think that I'd made you up to try to kick-start my comment-threads into life. (Somehow, people never seem to have this suspicion about The British Cowboy!)

The British Cowboy said...

"Well, um, actually a pretty nice little Saturday, we're going to go to Home Depot. Yeah, buy some wallpaper, maybe get some flooring, stuff like that. Maybe Bed, Bath, & Beyond, I don't know, I don't know if we'll have enough time."

"Just ring the fucking bell, you pansy."

"I see Blue, He look's glorious. "

"You're my boy, Blue."

"Please be honest with me. Tell me this is the first time this has ever happened."
"Well, do you want me to be honest or do you want me to tell you this is the first time?"

"I'm here for the gangbang"

"Once it hits your lips, it's so good!"

"Have at it, hoss"

"That's how you do it. That's how you debate."

"Sorry, your seatbelt seems to be broken. What do you recommend I do?"
"I recommend you stop being such a faggot. You're in the backseat."

That's for starters - soem I had to check the wording. I knew it was a classic when it was on in a bar, without volume or subtitles, and a group of us were still in hysterics watching it.

Anchorman is good, possibly very good. But it ain't worthy of tonguing the lint from Old School's belly button.

Froog said...

Well, I guess there's a tipping point for these things.

I've seen it twice, but don't think I remember any of those lines.

How many times have you seen it now, Cowboy??

Also, have to say, none of those lines are very funny out of context - whereas "People know me" or "You ate my chocolate squirrel" are. And maybe the un-PC-ness is part of the film's distinctive humour, but... relying on slurs like 'pansy' and 'faggot' does rather take these lines out of the realm of universal repeatability.

The British Cowboy said...

Oh come on froog. Anchorman depends on sexist humor throughout! Some of the absolute funniest moments of Animal House involve very dated, racist homor and stereotypes.

And there is nothing inherently funny about "people know me" or "you ate my chocolate squirrel."

Froog said...

Anchorman does it with irony: the absurdity of the sexism - set in the 70s - is the whole point of the movie.

Animal House is similarly ironic, for the most part - but that's thirty years old, expectations were different then.

Calling people 'faggot' and 'pansy' just to get a cheap laugh is very uncool in a Noughties movie.

"People know me" implies arrogance, vanity, narcissism; and people can pick up on that without knowing the orginal context in the movie. And the mere idea of a "chocolate squirrel" I find pretty funny (let alone the idea of someone being uncertain whether they'd eaten one or not)... without needing to surmise that maybe it wasn't chocolate.

Sorry - Old School SUCKS: it's loud, crude, and tedious; one of the weakest, and certainly the most overrated of the Ferrell oeuvre.

Froog said...

And, for those who didn't spot it (congrats, Hopfrog!).... Alonzo Mosley was the name of the FBI agent played by Yaphet Kotto in the 1988 Charles Grodin/Robert De Niro comedy-thriller Midnight Run.

Gary said...

Old School has a few funny moments. But yeah, it's mostly kind of desperate and pointless. The concept is what? A bunch of prematurely middle-aged losers decide to relive their college days only 10 or 12 years on? How is that funny? It's just sad.

Anchorman has far more rewatch potential. Every other line is a quoter.

Froog said...

Aha, you see, Cowboy, it's not just me.

Glad to find an American who's immune the supposed charms of this film, Gary.

Perhaps our new friend Hopfrog will give us his opinion on this?

The British Cowboy said...

I have to say the "it's irony" is one of the weakest copouts I have ever heard. Old School is equally as self-mocking as Anchorman, and has the added benefit of being funnier.

Movie lines are only funny in the context of the movie. "People know me" is simply not a funny line without the intonation. It implies absolutely nothing until it is heard. To take three words completely out of context and attach some inherent amusement value to them is frankly ridiculous.

The British Cowboy said...

And I have to say, this new posting system sucks donkey balls (apologies if referencing ball-mouth contact in a negative fashion is uncool given the time we are in). I have to click on Post Comment, it then brings me back to the same screen. I click on Post Comment again, and it deigns to let me enter a username and password. And then it asks for the entry of a silly word.

Three stages. Whoever designed it should be strung up on a butcher's hook.

Froog said...

I've brought the house down with that line - with people who've never seen the movie. Yes, it needs some intonation to sell the line, but it doesn't need context.

I don't see the 'self-mocking' thing with Old School. It's mocking itself for being bad?? Anchorman isn't mocking itself, it's mocking the sexist attitudes of our parents' era.

Froog said...

Sorry about problems with Blogger. I haven't noticed any difference - but maybe it's different for me because I am always logging on as the blog user.