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100 Years, 100 Hoo-ahs!

What's missing from AFI's list of great movie lines

First let’s admit we’re drawn to lists, and not always for shallow reasons. Pop culture is a messy phenomenon and someone has to order it in some fashion. The problem is often the people who try to order it in some fashion. Lists have become the lingua franca on two networks — VH1 and E! — where they broadcast stuff like “100 Biggest One-Hit Wonders” and “101 Biggest Celebrity Oops!” But based on what? And defined by whom? If you don’t tell us who’s measuring what, and what the parameters are, you’re just making noise.

One group that isn’t just making noise is the American Film Institute. AFI was created in 1967, with money from the National Endowment for the Arts (which was created in 1965), to help preserve and promote the most popular storytelling form of the 20th century. In 1998 AFI broadcast “100 years…100 Movies,” or the 100 best American movies from 1896 to 1996, selected by 1,500 industry leaders who chose from a list of 400 AFI-nominated films. The list was serious (“Citizen Kane” at No. 1), but not too serious (“Star Wars” at No. 15). Sure, I had quibbles. Who didn’t? “The Third Man” (No. 57) and “Annie Hall” (No. 27) go in my top five. And couldn’t “All the President’s Men” crack the hot 100? But overall it felt like it was assembled with an eye toward the ages rather than the thumb-sucking present. My friend Jim gives it the honor of the definite article. He calls it simply: “The List.”

Every year since AFI has come up with a spin-off of some sort — 50 biggest movie stars; 100 best comedies, or thrillers, or romances — and afterwards I always think, “Well, they’ve got to be done now. What’s left?” But the following June they always come back with another interesting variation. On June 21, AFI will count down “100 years…100 Quotes,” or the 100 greatest lines in movie history, from a list of 400 nominees they announced in November. (Download the list in .pdf format here.) Before browsing the list I thought: Brilliant! Afterwards I thought: Or is it?

Houston, we have a problem

AFI doesn’t help itself with its vague definition of a movie quote: “A statement, phrase or brief exchange of dialogue spoken in an American film.” How do they define “brief exchange”? They don’t, but among the nominees is the famous “Suppose…” exchange in “Double Indemnity.” Ten lines of dialogue. Back and forth. Hardly brief.

Why include dialogue exchanges at all? If the quote can’t stand on its own it’s not really a quote, is it? The 400 nominees also include lines made famous elsewhere. “Schwing!” and “We’re not worthy” were catchphrases on “Saturday Night Live” first. “Luckiest man on the face of the earth” belongs to Lou Gehrig more than Gary Cooper. “Plymouth rock landed on us” belongs to Malcolm X more than Denzel Washington. These are historic quotes, not movie quotes.

What lines do these lines nudge out? A sample of the missing:

  • “I’m gonna get medieval on your ass.”
  • “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.”
  • “You know what happens to nosey fellows?”
  • “I never drink…wine.”
  • “Friend. Good.”
  • “Inconceivable!”

Overall AFI seems to favor catchphrases, such as “Hoo-ah!,” “Fiddle-dee-dee,” and “La-dee-dah.” “My precious” makes it instead of Gandalf’s prophetic declaration, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” “You betcha” is anointed instead of Marge Gunderson’s sad comment, “And here ya are. And it’s a beautiful day.”

“Casablanca” has the most quotes among the nominees — seven — yet one of its most memorable lines is conspicuously absent. Remember when Captain Renault, looking for an excuse to close down Rick’s, declares himself “shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here,” just before the croupier hands him his winnings? Ever since, people have used that double-adjective to describe the false innocence of public officials: those who know the score, benefit from the score, and then loudly condemn the score. It’s the list’s most glaring omission.

AFI does encourage write-in candidates. But we all know what happens to write-in candidates.

A failure to communicate

The criteria AFI is asking voters to consider for the final 100 doesn’t include how resonant or deep the quote is, or how it illustrates or illuminates the character who said it. Instead, just two concerns: Cultural Impact, or “quotes that viewers use in their own lives and situations” and Legacy, or “quotes that viewers use to evoke the memory of a treasured film.” Even within these narrow confines, my fear is that the latter (legacy) will trump the former (general use).

Here, for example, is my guess at their Top 10:

  1. “There’s no place like home.”
  2. “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse”
  3. “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
  4. “Plastics.”
  5. “Here’s looking at you, kid.”
  6. “You don’t understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I could’ve been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am…”
  7. “May the Force be with you.”
  8. “E.T. phone home.”
  9. “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
  10. “You talkin’ to me?”

All famous lines, but how many do we really use? Telling a girl, “Here’s looking at you, kid”? Telling a friend, “May the force be with you”? Too corny. Too calcified. Of course this may be a generational thing, in which case these movie lines are like George Trow’s father’s fedora in his book, “Within the Context of No Context.” What the father wore with dignity the son could only wear with irony. The movie lines our parents repeated with sincerity we can only repeat with a smirk.

Let’s face it: Movie lines are only really fun when they’re not part of the national lexicon. Otherwise we risk coming off as the boob at the party saying “Do I make you horny, baby?” one too many times. A line I use a lot isn’t among the 400 nominees and I didn’t expect it to be (and I didn’t want it to be). It’s from “Die Hard.” John McClane is going through hell battling terrorists alone until the bad guys begin shooting up a police car. McClane’s sympathetic reaction? “Welcome to the party, pal!” I use this line whenever I’m suffering through something — bad weather, bad boss, asthma — and a neophyte gripes about that very thing. But if everyone said it? No fun at all.

That’s the irony of “100 Years…100 Quotes.” The most famous lines in movie history aren’t much fun to say anymore.

An Offer They Can’t Refuse

So how can AFI make sure they don’t breed contempt with their familiar quotes? A few suggestions. First, during the June broadcast, make sure filmmakers and stars tell us what lines they use in their daily lives. Particularly if the lines aren’t famous. Or theirs.

More important, don’t just celebrate these quotes; theorize why they’re popular. Are certain lines — “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid”; “Show me the money” — well-known because they’re repeated often during the course of the film? Are they memorable, in other words, only because they’re easy to remember? Hell, let’s admit that some of these lines are actually kind of dumb. Love means never having to say you’re sorry? Life is like a box of chocolates? If the worst thing in your life is nougat, you’re getting off easy.

Come June I doubt we’ll be able to quote Itzhak Stern’s line in “Schindler’s List” about the list being an absolute good. But pretty good wouldn’t be bad.

—One of Erik Lundegaard’s favorite movie quotes is from “Fargo”: “You lied to me, Mr. Lundegaard! You’re a bald-faced liar!” Something about it rings true. This piece was originally published 6/21/05 on MSNBC.com.