Evergreen dialogues

Punch lines
Last Updated 23 October 2010, 12:37 IST

Probably not, but it’s been a while since the movies had everybody parroting a great line. Like, say, “Go ahead, make my day.” That was from Sudden Impact, written by Joseph Stinson and others, more than 27 years ago. Sticky movie lines were everywhere as recently as the 1990s. But they appear to be evaporating from a film world in which the memorable one-liner — a brilliant epigram, a quirky mantra, a moment in a bottle — is in danger of becoming a lost art.

Life was like a box of chocolates, per Forrest Gump, released in 1994 and written by Eric Roth, based on the novel by Winston Groom. Show me the money! howled mimics of Jerry Maguire, written by Cameron Crowe in 1996. Two years later, after watching The Big Lebowski, written by Ethan and Joel Coen, we told one another that “the Dude abides.”

Frequently repeated

But lately, “not so much” — to steal a few words from Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Released in 2006, that film was written by Sacha Baron Cohen and others and is one of a very few in the last five years to have left some lines behind.

Maybe it’s that filmmaking is more visual, or that other cultural noise is drowning out the zingers.

“I’m at a loss, because the lines for a while were coming fast and furious,” said Laurence Mark, who had us at “hello” as a producer of Jerry Maguire, and is a producer of  How Do You Know, which is written and directed by James L Brooks and scheduled to open just before Christmas. (In 1987 Brooks mapped the media future in seven words from “Broadcast News”: “Let’s never forget, we’re the real story.”)

If film lines don’t stick the way they used to, Mark said, it is not for lack of wit and wisdom in Hollywood. “What I don’t believe is that the writers are less talented,” he insisted. “I don’t think that’s true, I just don’t.” Speaking by phone recently, however, Mark was hard-pressed to come up with a line that stuck with him in the last few years. “I will try my darnedest to think of one,” he promised.

It may be that a Web-driven culture of irony latches onto the movie lines for something other than brilliance, or is downright allergic to the kind of polish that was once applied to the best bits of dialogue. Thus one of the most frequently repeated lines of the last year came from Clash of the Titans, which scored an unimpressive 28 percent positive rating among critics on the Rottentomatoes.com Web site after it was released by Warner Brothers in April.

“Release the Kraken!” thundered Liam Neeson as Zeus — spawning good-natured mockery on obscene T-shirts and in Kraken-captioned photos of angry kitty cats.
In truth, a good deal of thought went into the line. “When we came on, one of our conditions was that the line had to be in the movie,” said Matt Manfredi, who, with his writing partner, Phil Hay, joined in revising a script by Travis Beacham.

A predecessor film in 1981, written by Beverley Cross, had used the line, alongside another formulation that called for the Kraken to be “let loose,” Manfredi recalled. “In terms of poetry, ‘release’ worked for us,” he said. “Machete don’t text,” from Machete, written by Robert Rodriguez and Álvaro Rodriguez, also traveled well on the Internet this year. But “can you imagine comparing that to ‘round up the usual suspects?’ ” said Mark, invoking a much-quoted line from Casablanca, the 1942 film that marked the golden era of movie quotations.

Written by Julius Epstein, Philip Epstein and Howard Koch, based on a play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, with uncredited work by Casey Robinson, Casablanca placed six lines in a list of 100 top movie quotations compiled by the American Film Institute in 2005, with help from a panel of 1,500 film artists, critics and historians.

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” was first on the list. Those words, of course, come from Gone With the Wind, whose screenplay, based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell, was written seven decades ago by Sidney Howard and a number of uncredited writers.

Only one post-’90s line made the institute’s ranking. That would be “My precious.” The line came in 2002 from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair and Peter Jackson, based on a novel by JRR Tolkien.


When the film institute updates its list in another five years, at least a handful of lines from the current era will perhaps have aged into greatness, alongside classics like “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown,” from Chinatown, with a screenplay by Robert Towne, in 1974, and “Hasta la vista, baby,” from Terminator 2: Judgment Day, written by James Cameron and William Wisher Jr, in 1991.

“I drink your milkshake” is a possibility, said Bob Gazzale, the institute’s chief executive. Those words, connoting triumph, came from There Will Be Blood, written in 2007 by Paul Thomas Anderson and based on a novel by Upton Sinclair.

Great movie lines might communicate insouciance (“La-di-da”), rage (“You talking to me?”) or something more cosmic (“May the Force be with you”). But they are almost never so much about Noël Coward-like turns of phrase as simply capturing “indelible character moments,” says Tom Rothman, a chairman of the Fox movie operation, who has also introduced regular showings of classic films on the Fox Movie Channel.

(In a window display at the headquarters of the Writers Guild of America West and the Writers Guild Foundation here, some of the more elaborate wordsmithing comes from Billy Wilder and his various associates. Even Coward would be hard-pressed to one-up a line from a script by Wilder and Charles Brackett for The Major and the Minor. The line is spoken by Robert Benchley, and Wilder attributed it to him, although Benchley, in turn, apparently attributed it to his friend Charles Butterworth: “Why don’t you get out of that wet coat and into a dry martini?”)

And Rothman cautions against believing that the great lines are all behind.

“It just takes a little time to sort the wheat from the chaff,” he said in an e-mail last week. Rothman predicted, for instance, that Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, with a script by Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff, would have a keeper with “Stop telling lies about me, and I’ll stop telling the truth about you.” (Written by Stanley Weiser and Oliver Stone, the original Wall Street, from 1987, will ever be remembered for declaring that “greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”)

Meanwhile, a call to Eric Roth, the veteran screenwriter behind movies like “Munich” and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, found him scratching to find an unstoppable one-liner in The Social Network.  That film was written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by David Fincher, and in a bit of dialogue that inspired Web parodies galore, it has the Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg “talking about taking the entire social experience of college and putting it online.” Roth said that he deeply admired The Social Network, and that he thought that it could secure its place in history with a simple bon mot. But “is there a great line” in it? he pondered. Its best lines, Roth said, were not as “sophomoric” as his own much-quoted speeches from Forrest Gump. Who could forget “Stupid is as stupid does”?

Neither are they quite as angry as Paddy Chayefsky’s mad-as-hell work in Network, from 1976, he noted. But, Roth said, there is still time for viewers to find a word or two that will sum up The Social Network — much as “plastics” did for The Graduate, with a script by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry, in 1967. Besides, memorable words have a way of popping up when they are least expected. “The minute you write this, you’ll be proved wrong,” Roth predicted.

As Quentin Tarantino wrote in Inglourious Basterds, “That’s a bingo.”

(Published 23 October 2010, 12:37 IST)

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