Thursday, June 23, 2005

Words and Pictures?

Have you taken a look at the American Film Institute's long-awaited Top 100 Film Quotes yet? It's an interesting read. Everything you'd expect is there, I think, as well as homage to some great movies that had no really seminal single lines. The excellent film critic Stephen Whitty had a great column just before the thing was release, talking about filmmakers' decreasing respect for dialog. That may be true, but I'm more perturbed today about the AFI's complete lack of sense for climactic language. The list captures good lines from critical movie moments, but it frequently misses the peak, the poetic moment, if you will of these dialogues. Some examples:
  • At #91, from the Abbott and Costello movie The Naughty Nineties, AFI selected "Who's on first." If you're familiar with the routine, one of the great comedy bits ever, would you say this line captures the spirit of that scene? Or would you immediately bark out "I don't know. THIRD BASE!"
  • A couple notches up, we have a short Katherine Hepburn speech from "On Golden Pond". It's a lovely scene. It was a lovely moment. The lines are memorable only because they were Kate and Hank; otherwise, they're pretty ordinary. This was a very good movie. I've never, ever, heard it quoted.
  • Up at #82, from all the marvelous lines in National Lampoon's Animal House, AFI selected "Toga! Toga!". Uh huh. If you want to quote that scene, it's "There's only one thing to do. Toga Party." Maybe the dialog that follows it. Or give me something Bluto said. Or better still, list "Thank you sir, may I have another," which I've heard uttered at least once a week for 20 years.

Peruse the list yourself. Some I like ("Don't call me Shirley", "Here's Johnny", "There's no crying in baseball"), and you can't really argue with most of the top 20, but for the most part, I think the list just misses the climaxes of the scenes it quotes.

Which has me thinking: it's part of the poet's approach to always know where that climatic second is, no? Because we write (for the most part) in distilled language, and (for the most part) in snapshots and images and fragments, we can't afford to be just off, can we? If we are, the poem simply doesn't work. Unfortunately, with our own words, it's not always obvious to us that this is the root of a failed or stalled poem. Movies have a luxury we don't.

As do top-100 lists.

1 comment:

Kells said...

One of my favorites is last:
No one puts baby in the corner (Dirty Dancing). I know, I know what this says about me.

Other favorites which weren't included:

"You'll have nothing and like it."
(I still say this one)

"You mess with the bull, you get the horns."
Breakfast Club

"It's k-k-k-k-ken's f-f-f-fish."
A Fish Called Wanda