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I don’t know how to say this, but…

Molly Griffin | Tuesday, November 8, 2005

It came to my attention the other day that I might not actually have anything to say. Really. This realization emerged out of the fact that a large portion of the things that I say are actually quotes from movies.

Thinking of this terrified me for a moment – until I realized that I am in no way the sole victim of this phenomenon.

Quoting movies is a part of our cultural climate, particularly as college students, but I began to wonder – why do we do it? And, more specifically, why do some movies become choice mines for quotes while others don’t?

To clarify this discussion, there is a difference between classic movies that get quoted, such as “Casablanca,” “Citizen Kane” and “Gone with the Wind,” and more current movies. These films are like great literature and are a part of our cultural heritage rather than a source of amusing quotes. If you say, “Here’s looking at you, kid,” it is possible that you, your parents and your grandparents will know what you’re talking about, regardless of whether they have seen the movie. If you say, “We’re going streaking!” (to quote “Old School,”) it is more likely that you will get funny looks from those who haven’t seen the film multiple times.

The movies that become popular sources of quotes are usually juvenile comedies, but this doesn’t necessarily speak to the decline of the modern college student. It speaks more to a need to feel accepted and a need to find quotes that apply to our daily lives.

“Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” is currently a favorite source for choice phrases. In an odd way, quotes from these films are a sort of secret code, and knowing them makes you part of a secret society of sorts. If you say, “I don’t know how to put this, but I’m kind of a big deal … people know me…” you will either get blank stares (those who haven’t seen the movie and think you’re slightly pompous) or the person will volley back with, “I’m very important. I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany,” initiating a sudden and inexplicable bond between the two of you.

It may not make perfect sense, but this phenomenon goes deeper than the fact that you have both seen the same movie. In quoting a film, it is implied not only that you have seen it enough to memorize it, but also that you somehow want to be associated with it.

Frequently-quoted films also usually have phrases in them that are applicable to everyday life. For all the money that the “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy or the “Harry Potter” series made, you rarely hear people quoting pithy retorts from hobbits or Hermione. While these are legitimately popular and well-made films, they often lack the witty one-liners that lodge in our brains. More importantly, they often lack the everyday applicability that other quotes provide.

“Napoleon Dynamite” is a great example of how lines that can be used in everyday conversation become popular. While it has a much smaller audience than other films, I can guarantee you that if you say a breathy, “Gosh!,” “Tina, eat the food!,” or “If you vote for me, all of your wildest dreams will come true,” there exists a large majority of people who will know exactly what you’re talking about. Since the film is genuinely about everyday life, a rarity among comedies, it is a gold mine of quotes for inane daily situations, even if you don’t live in rural Idaho.

While these films are generally well known, there are certain cult films out there where quoting them is a true “in or out” proposition. “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” is a specific example. Either you love this film and know every “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries” and “Yes, shrubberies are my trade. I am a shrubber. My name is Roger the Shrubber. I arrange, design, and sell shrubberies,” or you have absolutely no clue what is going on. With films like these, it is less a matter of how the quote applies to a given situation as it is letting people know that you are part of the cult.

Movie quote identification can also occur along gender lines. While some movie buffs defy gender stereotypes, there are certain movies that divide strictly between boys and girls. If you say to a girl, “Whoever said orange was the new pink was seriously disturbed,” most will know that you are referring to “Legally Blonde.” Say the same thing to a guy and he might think you’re insulting his clothing choices. If you say “Come and say hello to my little friend,” to a girl, she might think you are getting fresh instead of quoting “Scarface.” It is, once again, a matter of audience and in what context you use the quote.

Film quotes are more than just conversation filler. They are a means of identifying with others and relating our lives to the always interesting world of film. The movies we choose reveal what we want others know about us, and “Great Odin’s Raven!,” it’s also a just a great way to throw around some truly great one-liners that we could never write on our own.

Contact Molly Griffin at mgriffin@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.