Let’s consider a select half dozen of the fifty greatest movie quotes of all time.
1. Jimmy Cagney in White Heat, 1949: “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” A gangster’s fury has led him to his last stand by an enormous vat of flammable liquid. He is hopelessly outnumbered by law enforcement. In the next scene, Cagney’s character’s anger is exemplified by the fireball in which he is sautéed.
2. “I’m walkin’ here! I’m walkin’ here!” howls Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy. An account–possibly apocryphal–suggests that Dustin Hoffman almost being run down by a taxi wasn’t part of the script. Hoffman was so deep into his character that he yelled at the cab as Rizzo, not as Hoffman. Rizzo is the bottom rung of the social ladder. He has no money, no mobility, few opportunities. His resentments are clear; his vehemence resonates.
3. “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” is the quintessential expression of frustration. “I don’t have to tell you things are bad,” says Peter Finch as Howard Beale in Network. “Everybody knows things are bad… Shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it.” Is there reason to be any less furious in the 43 years since this movie came out?
4. “You talkin’ to me?” asks Robert DiNiro in Taxi. Roger Ebert explains: “Travis Bickle’s desperate need to make some kind of contact somehow—to share or mimic the effortless social interaction he sees all around him, but does not participate in.” In short, a sad, angry guy–desperate to fit in, infuriated that he does not. Ready to kill as a result.
5. “Go ahead, make my day” is the signature line from Sudden Impact, the fourth Dirty Harry film. The audience is all in favor of the detective killing the “punks” who are robbing the diner–after he causes them grievous bodily harm. Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan may be under control, but he is not happy.
6. Nor is Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men. “You can’t handle the truth!” Colonel Jessup is pushed to the point of blistering anger by the cross examination. Nicholson personifies anger.
The previous hundred years of film could be considered one unending series of unrelenting anger. Sure, there are classic lines in the top 50 that aren’t aggrieved: Casablanca‘s “Here’s looking at you, kid” and “I’ll have what she’s having” from When Harry Met Sally, for example. But the anger, outrage, and frustration of a century have been encapsulated by “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
And 2019 is exponentially worse. Have you turned on the news lately? Talking heads aren’t even trying to convince us to come around to their point of view; they just seem to want us to feel intense emotion–frustration, outrage, anger. Polite discourse, reasoned argument, appeals to rationality, not so much. Whatever your political leaning, even the people who agree with you are incessantly interrupting, shouting to make themselves heard, screaming incendiary platitudes. Much of the news can be summarized as “anybody with a different view is not just wrong but also stupid and evil and should be whipped and humiliated in the public square.”
Which is not to say that people who disagree with you are not stupid and evil, only that “you have not converted a man, because you have silenced him.” (Morley.) Yes, folks with an opposing point of view are mistaken, but now what. Is yelling at them and making them feel bad going to change their point of view?
Bringing us–“finally” it could be argued–to my point about our beloved children: kids prefer calm. Screaming and out-of-control polemics just make them feel unsafe. Because kids can’t effect change of any kind. It doesn’t do them any good to see their parents yell at the television.
Our children have little influence over what they eat, when they go to sleep, what they study in school. The last thing they need is inarticulate outrage from their parents about what a mess the world is. I want to put my foot through the television screen too, but just turning off the TV is a better idea. Children learn what they live: calm begets calm. Anger teaches anger.
Let’s give our children safety. Let’s model as much tranquility and serenity as we can for our kids. Leave the anger, fury, and inarticulateness for the movies and the TV news shows.