Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Frankly My Dear, My Students Don't Give a Damn

It all started with a question.

"If you had to ask 100 random people to name a film based off a famous quote from that film, what quote would you use?"

I glance over at Phil. It's late at night on Hollywood Boulevard, we've exited the Roosevelt hotel as we journey back to my car. Most people pay for valet, but you can always find free street parking, provided you are willing to hike three blocks and brave the acme of humanity that washes up on Hollywood Boulevard.

I ponder Phil's question. We are forever asking each other such questions. Would you let the United States military torture you for 24 hours in return for 1 million dollars? Which would you rather have: be super strong but mentally retarded or be able to fly but have no arms or no legs? If you could convince any one person once a year to do what you want, who would you convince and why?

We're writers. We can't help it.

I think about it, eyebrows creased in thought. What movie quote would 100 people know? This is a game we both love to play, asking hypothetical questions.

"What do I get if I win?" I ask, ignoring the homeless kid who is hawking $1 dollar T-shirts to obstensibly pay for his friends funeral.

"Five thousand bucks." Phil pauses to look at the kid. "How can you hope to make a profit on a $1 T-shirt?"

"Beats me." I shrug. "I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too!" Who doesn't know the Wicked Witch of the West?

Phil smirks. "There's no place like home."

Oh, that is a good one.

We pass by 25 degrees, a hot new burger restaurant named for said difference between a burger cooked medium rare and a burger cooked well done. I salivate through the window. The burger's look amazing. Phil tells me people on Yelp constantly debate who has the best burger in LA, and it's an ongoing battle between 25 degrees and Father's Office.

"That certainly looks like one of the best burgers in the city."

Phil shakes his head. "You think every new burger place we try has the best burger in the city. You're a burger whore."

I don't argue. I am a burger whore.

"I've got a quote even more iconic," Phil continues, "May the Force be with you."

Try as I might, I can't think of a more well known movie quote on the planet. Star Wars was not only a mega smash hit that revolutionized the movie industry, it revolutionized movie merchandising. Star Wars toys, Star Wars games, the Star Wars defense system (SDI), the endless Family Guy and Simpson parodies. Even John McCain used Star Wars as a metaphor when he was running against George Bush in the 2000 primaries, comparing himself to Luke Skywalker fighting the evil empire, and McCain is older then dirt.

You don't have to have ever seen Star Wars to know "May the Force be with you."

Phil's got me.

The next day towards the end of class I take an impromptu poll of thirty 11th graders. It's a good class. Time to put Phil's theory to the test.

"Ladies and Gentleman," I begin, "I'm going to state several movie quotes. If you don't know the quote, don't raise your hand."

I decide to start with Wizard of Oz. "I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too!"

The students stare at me with unblinking, brown eyes. A half dozen of them nod knowingly. "Wizard of Oz!" someone calls out.

One of the A students looks completely stupefied. "I've never seen it."

It's my turn to be shocked. "There's no place like home?" I ask. "Surely you've heard that phrase?"

She looks embarrassed. "Should I know it? I'm sorry."

"Does anyone else here not know this movie?" I ask.

Ten hands go up. If any of these kids had been picked, Phil would be out five thousand bucks.

"How about this one? May the Force be with you."

This time most of the class nods. Most. There are still about half a dozen kids, mostly girls, who don't know the quote. "Haven't any of you ever heard of an Ewok?"

"Those are those little teddy bear things," one of the kids shouts out. "They were kind of cute and kind of stupid."

"Yes," I blurt, "they were stupid! That's not the point!"

"So why do we got to know about Ewoks?" a kid in the back answers.

"Because they saved the rebels collective hides from the evil empire!" I cry, pacing back and forth across the room. "That and the yub nub, e cha yub nub!"

My eyes have turned into wide maniacal saucers. Un-freakin-believable! I know these are first and second generation immigrants, but can you not know Star Wars!

Calm down, know your audience. I've got one that they'll all know. "Say hello to my little friends!"

Only about half of them know that's from Scarface.

"I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse."
"Here's looking at you kid."
"Go ahead. Make my day."
"You talkin' to me?"
"I'm the king of the world!"

I pull quotes out like a magician desperately seeking a trick that will completely floor his audience. No matter what I try, some of the kids know it, but there is always at least a handful that don't. Here I am living in the city built on movies and yet I can't find a film that all the kids know or have seen.

I throw up my hands. "I give up! I'll be back."

The class lights up. Aiiiiee! Mister! We know that one! Hasta La Vista, Baby! I'll be back. That's that robot movie, starts with a T...Terminator.

"Hasta La Vista, baby!" a student cries out. "I say that one all the time!"

How can they all know "I'll be back" but not "May the Force be with you?" Is it because Schwarzengger uses it in all his movies, or is it because he's the governator? Maybe they remember "Hasta La Vista, baby" because it's Spanish?

"I've got one!" a kid volunteers. "E.T. phone home!"

They know this one too. Of course, the quote is in the title. Perhaps main stream culture is not yet completely dead. I try out the poll in other classes, a rowdy group of 9th graders taking biology, a special ed class of 10th graders, an English class of 12th graders. No matter where I go, the only one they all know is "I'll be back".

That and "E.T. phone home."

Leiken, phone home. Film culture is dead. The modern world is in a semi-permanent ADD state, if your film didn't come out in the past five years, to the young it might not as well exist.
If it isn't a place you can buy a snack, isn't a commercial on TV, and doesn't involve a pop star flashing her private parts for the paparazzi, who cares?

Five minutes ago might as well be fifty years ago.

Because frankly my dear, modern culture just doesn't give a damn.

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