- Here’s looking at you, kid.
- How do you fight an idea?
- 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.
- 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.)
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.)