Imitating Oscar

Academy_award_poster Yesterday The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released the official poster for the 79th Annual Academy Awards. The poster features phrases that have lept from the screen into life:

  • Here’s looking at you, kid.
  • How do you fight an idea?
  • Rosebud.
  • The horror.  The horror.
  • You can’t handle the truth.
  • I’ll be back.
  • What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.
  • Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.
  • Snap out of it. 
  • Stella!
  • If you build it, they will come. 

This is a brilliant bit of brand building, isn’t it?  Hollywood ceased to be a matter of mere entertainment a long time ago.  It is now the supplier of basic cultural materials, the very stuff of our self and collective definition.  Good on the Academy for reminding us that Hollywood writers write for all of us, and that Hollywood directors direct even the details of our personal lives. 

Two ethnographic notes. 

1. A couple of years ago, I was searching for the ghost of Mordecai Richler in the bars of Montreal.  I had found one of his favorites, a quiet, smoky place, dark wood, good scotch, and, bang, the door swung open and a man entered shouting, "yeah, baby!"  If I had been visiting from the hinterland of Ethiopia, say, this might have been a baffling cultural moment.  What was the shouter shouting?  Why was the shouter shouting? 

Everyone else knew exactly what was going on.  This man was performing a phrase from an Austin Powers movie.  And the odd thing was this didn’t seem the least bit odd.  It wasn’t even irritating.  It was our culture of the moment.  All of us in the bar, even those pretending to be sophisticated Richler readers, had tried the phrase out, perhaps not at this volume or so publicly, but the phrase was part of our vocabularies too.

2. The other day I caught myself in a bit of borrowing of my own.  I was reading something really stupid, and my reaction was to make precisely the sound that Alan Arkin, as Dr. Oatman, makes in Gross Pointe Blank (1997) when he’s finally had it with Martin Q. Blank. It’s a low, small phatic grunt that mixes exasperation, resignation and repudiation.  What’s odd is that this proved to be EXACTLY the thing I need to "say" at the moment, despite the fact that I knew I was borrowing from Hollywood.  How strange that a fragment of a movie should have lodged in me in such a way that I could summon it at the very moment I needed it.  (I should say that because this is a favorite film I have seen it several times.  I don’t think I ever "channel" films I’ve only seen once.)

Cultural caveat

Of course, we don’t like the sound of this one bit.  We treasure the idea that we are as cultural actors autonomous, self created, self directing, self authored.  The idea that we should all be captive of a phrase like "Yeah, baby" seems unlikely and offensive.  The idea that some part of my personal life should have been written by Tom Jankiewicz, directed by George Armitage, and crafted by Alan Arkin, this doesn’t sit well.  A little voice within takes umbrage.  No, no, I am the author of Grant McCracken!  Aren’t I?  If I borrow from Hollywood, what does that say about my precious selfhood? 

The fact of the matter is a river runs through us.  (There, it happened again.)  We do not just swim the media stream, it pours through us.  I believe that phrases and gestures are crucial to the way we stay in touch with our dynamic culture.  In the 1980s, David Letterman’s characteristic "yeah" complete with pumping hand gesture became a way that people showed their identification with the new values of the moment.  The phrases, "snap out of it," and "get a life" performed this work as well.  In the 1990s, a new semiotics was installed.  New films prevailed.

But we appropriate gesture and language secretly.  A friend of mine in Montreal openly admired how well a friend of hers could do the noise made by Martians in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks.  Oh, but her friend was not pleased.  It was as if my friend had accused her friend of fakery or something.  Apparently, we believe that our appropriation of Hollywood phrases is exactly that, not merely a robotic repetition, but a cunning redeployment.  Once we take it on, it belongs to us, and expresses the authentic self, not some borrowed one.  (As T.S. Eliot used to say, "bad fans imitate, good fans steal.")

What the president of the Academy, Sid Ganis, says is true.  The lines on the poster are everywhere around us in “in everyday conversations, in meetings, at parties, or walking down the street.  They … give us great shorthand ways to express how we feel about […] things.”  And with this poster I wonder if Hollywood contemplates declaring and perhaps recapturing the highest order value it creates in our culture…as it creates our culture. 

There is no danger that Hollywood will find us in copyright violation when we enter a bar shouting, "Yeah, baby!"   But it does make sense that Hollywood should take credit where credit is due, for the fact that it is perhaps the most important supplier of the cultural materials with which we direct, write, and perform the details of our everyday lives. 

Much is changing in Hollywood at the moment, but this "value add" grows, I believe, ever more important. 


Melidonian, Teni. 2006 Oscar@ Gets Quoted.  Press release for the Oscar poster for 2007.  here.

McCracken, Grant.  Prefab culture.  This Blog Sits At The Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  December 8, 2002.  here. (for the role of TV in the creation of cultural materials.)


Thanks to the Academy for permission to reproduce this poster. 

Hats off to TBWA\Chiat\Day Los Angeles for their work here.  (If anyone knows the names of the people on the creative and account team, please let me know, and I will add them here.)

8 thoughts on “Imitating Oscar

  1. Carol Gee

    Grant, this was a fascinating post, full of stuff with which I identified. We do need shorthand; the trick for me is to use it sparingly, and in those “just right moments.” Otherwise, I feel that my own command of the mother tongue should be exercised. But If I do “copy” a line, in one way it is in homage to the originating writer.
    – From an incurable movie fan

  2. Brian Kenny

    Grant — I hope the respite from the blog was relaxing, and welcome back.

    Three comments on your Hollywood post:

    (1) We eat some pretty rough stuff in my household, and this often leads to collective re-enactment of certain scenes from the movie ‘Blazing Saddles’ (and none of us remotely look like Mel Brooks, Cleavon Little, or any other members of the original cast). We blame Hollywood.

    (2) A friend emailed me a note about the University of Minnesota football team, and my response was ‘Yah sure, you bet’. That response launched us into discussion that my e-mail was mimicking an accent, and we concluded that Hollywood had conscripted us. My friend noted that it happened even as early as during the Charlie Chaplin silent movie era, and I noted my viewing of cowboy movies (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence — 1962 — had a character named Peter who used an accent from Scandinavia). I also noted that the old political cartoons in the late 1800s newspapers conveyed ideas like ‘drunk Irish policemen with red nose’ without motion or sound. We are highly susceptible to thinking in stereotypic fashion using iconic words and images and actions.

    (3) Imagine the mental template of what Jesus Christ looks like — the image we conjure is a bit older than Hollywood, and we fall for its instant recognizability everywhere. Some of the problems we have with the Muslim world (and they with us) is over our iconic remnants. They hate icons and tear them down (Bamiyan Buddhas; the World Trade Center). We love icons and build them up and re-mix them loosely and dynamically.

    No wonder we love Hollywood, while they find Hollywood a cultural and religious assault.

  3. Tom Guarriello

    The thing I always want to ask these sui generis identity constructionists is where it is, exactly, that they think we’re supposed to get the raw materials for these selves, anyway? Make ’em up? The power of those Hollywood (fill in the blank here: archetypes, memes, role models) is so great that we’re really only kidding ourselves if we don’t at least find some vestiges of them somewhere in there; like trace elements in the flesh of fish caught far at sea.

    Good to see you’ve hit the ground running upon your return here.

  4. Peter

    Grant — great post, as always! Welcome back.

    One thought: Where do Hollywood writers get their phrases from in the first place? Mike Myers is Canadian. Did he happen to hear the same guy you heard in the bar in Montreal saying “Yeah, baby”, and then decide to borrow the phrase for his Austin Powers character?

    This might seem a strange comment, but one of the comedians on a popular British TV sketch show, “The Fast Show”, has revealed that most of the characters and their catch-phrases came from the actual people in a pub he used to frequent in London’s East End.

    And, the US has the example of Chicago’s Second City Comedy Club begatting Saturday Night Live begatting loads of Hollywood comedy films. Maybe these catch phrases all originate with a drinks waiter in a now-defunct bar in Forest Park?

  5. Eric

    What’s interesting is that it’s possible to pick up catch phrases from movies I’ve never seen. They exist in the cultural ocean and are so omnipresent (like “Yeah baby!”) that one can’t help but be aware of them even if one hasn’t seen the movie itself. As a geek, I knew half the lines of Monty Python’s Holy Grail before I ever saw the movie. I had the same feeling when watching Aliens for the first time – “_That’s_ where all these catch phrases come from!” So I think it’s definitely possible to “channel” films that have only been seen once, or even not at all, if one is part of a community of others who have absorbed that movie.

  6. LK

    Also interesting is how things move through the parody pipe. Kids of my friends, kids who are under 10, often shock me with their knowledge of 60’s,70’s, and 80’s…catchphrases, physical gestures, inflections. The one that totally floored me was when they did the Edward Munch “The Scream” face, and called it “The Scream”, because they had seen it on, yes the Simpsons. For more on the topic of iintertextuality and memes in popular culture a wonderful authority is Jonathan Gray, author of “Watching The Simpsons”, and currently a Media Studies Professor at Fordham University in NY (and a former classmate of mine at Goldsmiths College, University of London; Respect to the class of 2000!)

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