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Hollywood, we have a problem

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Travis Bickle’s (Robert De Niro) angry 
‘You talkin’ to me’ rant in ‘Taxi Driver’ became the retort of the denim-clad generation

Have we heard the last truly memorable word from Hollywood? 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 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. “Show me the money!” howled mimics of Jerry Maguire, written by Cameron Crowe in 1996. Two years later, after watching The Big Lebowski, by Ethan and Joel Coen, we regularly told one another that “the Dude abides”. 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 is one of a very few in the last five years to have left some lasting 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, producer of Jerry Maguire.

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.” However, he 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. “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 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 said. “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, 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 artistes, 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. Only one post-1990s 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 — that phrase though was written by J R R Tolkien decades ago.

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 Roman Polanski’s 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, in 1991.

Great movie lines might communicate insouciance (“La-di-da” from Woody Allen’s 1977 film Annie Hall), rage (“You talking to me?” from Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver released in 1976) or something more cosmic (“May the Force be with you” from Geroge Lucas’s epic Star Wars). But they are almost never so much about Noël Coward-like turns of phrase as simply capturing “indelible character moments,” says Tom Rothman, chairman of the Fox Movies.

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. He predicted, for instance, that Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, directed by Oliver Stone and 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.” It still doesn’t trump the original Wall Street, from 1987, which declared 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 he admired The Social Network, and thought 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, he 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 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, just last year, “That’s a bingo.”

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