Whatever happened to quotable movies?
The other day we sat down to watch Groundhog Day with the kids. Fancy that, a movie we can all watch together that doesn’t have me rolling my eyes or the kids hiding their faces in embarrassment. I forgot how many awesome quotes there are from this movie. I mean, I still say, “Don’t drive angry!” all the time.
Dialogue is one of the last layers of a script. You have to start with the story (why are you telling this?), then develop a rock-solid spine (how are you going to tell this story?), and develop the characters who are going to act this story out (you want to attract the best actors you can!). Then, and only then, do you start working on dialogue. When you’re trying to figure out the best way to have the characters talk to one another about this story. Everyone wants to start with dialogue, because it’s easy and we can write pages and pages of it. But dialogue’s the easiest part, because writers tend to be, uh, good with words. So you have to do the harder part first.
What I’m finding in most of the recent movies I’ve seen is that not only are they not doing the harder parts of “story” and “theme” and “spine,” but there’s absolutely no dialogue worth talking about.
Have there been any great quotable movies recently? I tried to think if there were any fabulous quotes from a movie I’d seen relatively recently and I came up with “The first rule of Zombieland: Cardio.” And maybe “If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.” But maybe that’s just because Zombieland got me thinking about Jesse Eisenberg.
Oh, of course: “A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.”
(Aaron Sorkin knows how to turn a snappy phrase. I betcha he doesn’t start with the snappiness, though.)
I guess Joss Whedon does too: “Puny god.” Or, “He’s adopted.” “Let’s get a shawarma when this is all over with.” But I can’t see a lot of application for those in people in everyday speech.
Movies used to be very quotable. People still say, “You’re going to need a bigger boat,” all the time, and that movie came out almost forty years ago. I can’t think of any quotes from the original Alien but I can quote the hell out of Aliens. If you’ve spent any time at a computer company you can recite the entire Monty Python oeuvre without ever needing to see one of their shows or movies. Star Wars. The Empire Strikes Back.
I thought about some of the possible reasons for this.
- Scripts by committee. It is true, scripts are massaged by tons of writers — you have the original author, then you have the guys brought in to “punch it up,” then every star has their personal writer “do a pass.” But I’m not on the “writers are just typing monkeys” bandwagon (Jesus, I hope I’m not). I guess writers might get rid of other writers’ hilarious lines in order to make sure the hilarious writers don’t get any credit when it comes time to handing out credit.
(And as a mom who had to watch Toy Story and Toy Story 2 about a zillion times, I can tell you that those scripts had a lot of writers and were still quotable. So committees are not a sure way of creating dross.)
- Action movies. Overseas is a huge part of the movie business now, and the less trouble studios have to go through in order to translate dialogue for a foreign audience, the better. Comedies are extremely hard to translate overseas — so what’s their excuse?
- Movies are so disposable now — putting them in the theaters is more of a promotional exercise than an income-generating one. That there’s no point in giving them any personality.
- The dispersion of popular culture. There used to be three TV channels, and maybe you had one or two movie theaters nearby. Now there are probably ten multiplexes within fifteen miles of your house, and even though the same movie is showing on a huge percentage of the screens (see: “movies are disposable”), there are still a ton more movies being released every year. And the number of TV channels! And other ways to get stuff! We’re not all watching the same things any more. So even if you quote something, I might not recognize it.
- Writer-auteurs work in television, not movies. (Eg. Sorkin, Whedon.) Directors are king in movies, and most of them have no clue what a halfway decent script is, let alone good dialogue.
I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong and kids do go around quoting movies as much as we did. Or quoting TV shows. Or whatever. But I haven’t heard of any particularly quotable video games (although every time I’ve heard dialogue from Deathspank I’ve cracked up).
If there is fabulous dialogue in recent movies, could you point me toward it? I don’t want to be all “movies were better in my day” but I’m really coming to the conclusion (especially after the horrible Prometheus) that they really, really were.