In the Movies

Credit: Skip Sterling

As Time Goes By

In the past 20 years, movies and the quotes they’ve sprinkled across American pop culture have occupied a shrinking proportion of our social mindshare. It’s time to mark and celebrate the death of the movie catchphrase.

In the beginning was the word: “Plastics.” The year, 1967, and the film, The Graduate, with its famous scene between Mr. McGuire and Benjamin Braddock, didn’t mark the birth of the movie catchphrase. But it’s as good a date as any to set the start of the golden age of memorable movie lines and the accompanying predilection to repeat them, endlessly, wherever we went—an age that, by the second decade of the new millennium, is fast receding into our cultural rearview mirror.

A warning: Social observation, especially of this essay’s casual and historical kind, is inherently imperfect. No doubt there are college kids this very second “eating sofa pizza,” a la The Hangover, just like there was some prankster department head in the 1940s who spent the month after seeing Knute Rockne, All American telling his sales girls to “win just one for the Gipper.”

Nevertheless, in the same way that movies seemed to matter more during the late ’60s, the ’70s and well into the 1980s, movie quotes once mattered, too: It’s no coincidence that the films that defined the era—The Godfather, Chinatown, Airplane, Network—are also films whose best lines—“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,” “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown,” “Don’t call me Shirley,” “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”—cropped up across the cultural spectrum, from board meetings to dorm rooms to newscasts.

Since the late ’80s, though, movies and the quotes they sprinkled across the verdant field of American pop culture have occupied less and less of our social mindshare. Which is odd, since we continue to spend astronomical amounts of money at the box office—we spent $10.46 billion to buy 1.33 billion tickets last year. The films of the 1990s and even early 2000s certainly have their quotable moments, but fleetingly rare is the quote that achieves a momentary hold on our public vocabulary.

This point is largely speculative, but there is some evidence to back it up: 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?

Eventually catchphrases, like so much of earlier pop culture, found refuge in parody, defending their cultural relevance behind a wall of ironic detachment. One of the last truly memorable ones, 2006’s “motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane,” from—do I even need to say it?—Samuel L. Jackson’s Snakes on a Plane, was a cynical late addition, filmed and spliced into the film after an Internet parody suggested it. Since everyone already expected a Samuel L. Jackson character, in a movie about snakes on a plane, to insult the mothers of said snakes, why not accept it as a part of the film itself?

It’s one thing to write the lines, but why did viewers repeat them on endless loop? There is in fact growing academic literature on this question: Richard Harris, a psychologist at Kansas State University, co-wrote a paper in 2008 titled “Social Movie Quoting: What, Why, and How?” in which he posited that “it may be that quoting a movie like is very much like telling a joke, in terms of the uses and gratifications of amusing oneself and others.”

Such amusement depends on a grasp of the material—while some movie quotes are self-sufficiently funny, most rely on a common knowledge of the film and the quote’s specific context. In a scene in Kevin Smith’s Clerks, we see Randal absent-mindedly spinning a tortilla chip in a jar of dip. “Salsa shark,” he says. “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” A salsa shark is a funny image, but to get the second part of the joke, we need to have seen Jaws first. This idea of a shared pop culture explains why movie quotes blossomed when they did: Dozens of postwar, educated, worldly screenwriters were creating films for a burgeoning, film-going audience made up of people just like themselves, people who relished moviegoing as a cultural experience and weren’t afraid to demonstrate that love out loud.

But if pop culture was expanding its grasp, its media weren’t: In the catchphrase’s golden years, moviegoing as an experience was essentially unchanged from the beginning of the century, while TV and its three nationwide networks, far from offering an alternative cultural outlet, kept all eyes and ears pointed in the same direction.

Quoting movies, then, became a handy way for people to both assert their membership in a culture and to demonstrate their mastery of it. Quoting films at length became a skill in its own right—I remember being in awe, my freshman year in college, of an upperclassman friend of a friend who could recite word for word Bill Murray’s Dalai Lama monologue from Caddyshack.

But moviegoing has, to put it mildly, changed since the days of Caddyshack. Films spend less and less time in theaters, cutting short the period in which a movie has its best chance of seeding the social mind with memorable zingers. Home viewing has changed, too: There was a time, not long ago, when every college male could be expected to have the same 20 or 30 videos in his dorm room (Godfather I and II, Swingers, Pulp Fiction); with the rise of online libraries and file sharing, who wants to watch the same old movie again and again? Who wants to even watch a movie at all, when YouTube clips, online TV, and multiplayer online games are equally entertaining? Of course, they’re not equally as rich in dialogue, and even if they were, they’re not equally shared by mainstream culture. Cue the gong: The movie quote is dead.

But are we here to praise the movie quote, or bury it? It’s comforting to wax nostalgic for a day when everyone seemed on the same page, culturally, and seemed to stay there for months, even years, on end. Nowadays, a cultural meme is here and gone, gaining hold for a few moments, like a tenacious snowflake stuck, for a few seconds, on the window of a speeding jetliner.

Then again, there’s a reason I cringe at the thought of admiring someone for a skill like reciting Caddyshack quotes. It’s a base form of humor, slavish repetition, and it’s probably good that we’ve lifted its laurel crown. I’m not sure we’re any funnier today—in fact, I’m almost positive we’re not—but at least we no longer pretend we can tell a joke simply because we can recite someone else’s.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen