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"Houston, We Have a Problem."

04/29/2010 Comments (49)

Those words, uttered by Tom Hanks as Jim Lovell in Ron Howard’s Oscar-winning Apollo 13, plastered across posters for the film, have become a ubiquitous part of the English lexicon—even though they’re not exactly what the real Jim Lovell actually said. According to Wikipedia, Lovell, repeating his fellow Apollo 13 astronaut Jack Swigert, actually said, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” All rightee then.

Speaking of which, “All rightee then” is another one of those phrases you hear everywhere, often from people who have no idea where it comes from, or even that it comes from anywhere at all. When Morgan Freeman as God said it to Jim Carrey in Bruce Almighty, it took me a beat to process that Freeman was repeating the phrase to the actor who had originated it—in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.

Movie quotations suffuse our language. Sometimes we use them knowingly, sometimes not. A recent article in the Guardian, “The Universal Language of Film Quoting” (warning: offensive language), took stock of this phenomenon. “Pop quiz, hotshot,” the article begins: When you hear the phrase “Pop quiz, hotshot,” what do you think? The source is Dennis Hopper in Speed, but you don’t actually need to know that to pick up on the vibe.

From the article:

[A]fter a lifetime of saturation-exposure to pop culture, soaking through our brains like solvents through sodden cotton wool, we have at our mental command a quote to fit every situation. And we draw on it constantly and frequently, sometimes without even thinking. Quotes accentuate our dialogue: they make it funnier, richer, deeper and more engaging. Of course, they also make it rather childish and trivial, but we won’t let that bother us …

There is absolutely nothing to beat the exact right line from a movie or TV show – whatever suits that precise moment best. Something goes well and you hiss “Exxxcelleeent” like Mr Burns [from “The Simpsons”], and everyone laughs along. Recently my dad stood as godfather for my brother’s baby: cue lines about kissing the hand of the “padrino”, may your first-born child be a masculine one, you’ve never invited me over for coffee. And so on and so on.

Such quotations can be universal, or they can be idiosyncratic to a particular family or circle of friends. Like the Guardian writer, I do say “Exxxcelleeent” in that Mr. Burns voice. But I wonder whether the Guardian writer or his circle of friends would recognize some of the sources of movie quotations in our household.

A Man for All Seasons, for instance. “I wish rain water was beer!” my wife Suzanne will say mockingly in response to some utopian political proposal. And if I tell my children, “Well, he cahn’t!” in the tone of Paul Scofield’s Thomas More telling Meg that Will Roper can’t marry her, they know it’s final.

Other sources are more familiar, even if the usage is idiosyncratic. Suzanne is fond of “Why does the floor move?” from Raiders of the Lost Ark. She may use it if she sees bugs in the house, or perhaps if a child is slinking along under a blanket.

Even baby Catie, a year and a half, drops movie quotations. She’s discovered Havarti cheese (it comes in the Costco party pack), and when she wants more she says, “Cheese, Gromit!” (Actually, it comes out more like “Tee, Dromit!”)

More obscurely, when she’s fussing for something, she sometimes interrupts herself to shout, “Haaam!” That’s from Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo, but Catie doesn’t know that. She’s just quoting her siblings, whom she’s heard say “Ham” in response to her fussing.

Sometimes during our family rosary, I may expand upon the mysteries with a brief meditation. One line I like for the Nativity is: “Behold, I have become human. If you should not want to join me in becoming God, you would do me wrong.” I think it’s a quotation from Meister Eckhart—but I know it as an intertitle from one of my favorite films, Into Great Silence.

How about you? What are some favorite or commonly used quotations in your family or circle of friends? Or do you have any least favorite quotations—anything you’re sick of hearing?

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About Steven D. Greydanus

SDG
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Steven D. Greydanus is film critic for the National Catholic Register and Decent Films, the online home for his film writing. He writes regularly for Christianity Today, Catholic World Report and other venues, and is a regular guest on several radio shows. Steven has contributed several entries to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, including “The Church and Film” and a number of filmmaker biographies. He has also written about film for the Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought, Social Science, and Social Policy. He has a BFA in Media Arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York, and an MA in Religious Studies from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Overbrook, PA. He is pursuing diaconal studies in the Archdiocese of Newark. Steven and Suzanne have seven children.