I See Dead Catchphrases

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Do you think it’s amusing to say “I drink your milkshake…I drink it up!” at regular intervals throughout the day at your office water cooler, in the hopes of heightening your popularity?

Do you look for ways to insert the word “milkshake” into after-work or party conversations as a means of making your friends laugh knowingly at your pop-culture savvy?

Do you enjoy scrunching your face up like scenery-chewing British-Irish Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis and making gestures that mimic the “milkshake” sequence in his latest exercise in over-the-top madness, There Will Be Blood?

If so, I have some bad news for you. What began only seven weeks ago as a potentially long-lasting new movie catchphrase from the Oscar-nominated Paul Thomas Anderson film—“I drink your milkshake! I drink it up!”—has already reached the end of its limited-run lifespan. Thanks to the Internet, YouTube, some overanxious entertainment journalists, Saturday Night Live and a healthy smidgen of common sense, “I drink your milkshake!” will now take its proper place alongside “It’s not a tumor!” from Kindergarten Cop as a potentially memorable line left to languish on the side of the road to perpetuity.

Does news of the line’s unusually speedy trip to the dustbin of movie-catchphrase history make you wistful?
Frankly, reader, I don’t give a damn.

It all began on December 26th, when There Will Be Blood opened weakly in limited release despite rave reviews. Even by the second weekend in January, when it had earned two Golden Globe nominations, it had grossed just $1.86 million, one slot above Alien vs. Predator: Requiem.

But by then the “milkshake” line had leaked into the media’s consciousness, if not that of the water-cooler culture itself.

On January 8, New York magazine’s highly attuned Vulture blog noted that the “volcanically dramatic, mind-bendingly cool line” was about to “enter the pop-culture catchphrase lexicon, nestling alongside such former lazy-writer tropes as ‘I see dead people,’ ‘Say hello to my little friend,’ ‘Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in,’ and all the rest.” This was unfair, Vulture writer Josh Ozersky observed, because the line had “such Dickensian grandeur that its miniaturization in the mouths of SportsCenter anchors, scab gag writers, bloggers, and their ilk is practically a national tragedy.”

Two days later, an online film critic named Jürgen Fauth launched idrinkyourmilkshake.com, “where you [could] discuss Paul Thomas Anderson’s magnificent ‘There Will Be Blood’ or just hit that play button again and again to hear Daniel Day-Lewis bark,” he stated, in what sounded like either a promise or a thinly veiled threat.

On February 4, shortly after the movie’s wide release to 1,500 theaters—at this point it had still only grossed $21 million—USA Today published an article in its Life section on the “milkshake” sensation. “‘Blood’ stirs the milkshake: movie catchphrase has historic roots, Web cred,” the headline breathlessly promised. As “evidence” to support his assertion, reporter Scott Bowles cited only the New York magazine item, the Fauth website, and a YouTube posting of the video (mashed up with a song from Kelis) that had gotten all of 60,000 hits: hardly a ripple in a world where YouTube postings sometimes reach millions of fans. Nevertheless, USA Today had found itself a trend. Never mind the fact that the only people quoted in the article were the website creator and Kevin Kunze, the University of San Francisco student who’d posted the YouTube video.

Oh, and there was an interview with Blood director Paul Thomas Anderson, who professed to be “puzzled” by the line’s popularity. And it’s no wonder, since he confessed to having copied it verbatim from a volume of testimony taken during the Teapot Dome scandal.

Entertainment Weekly, which had already posted the YouTube mashup, returned to the milkshake trough the next day with another post on its Popwatch blog calling it the “Movie Quote of the Year?” a reference to the USA Today article, which called the line “Hollywood’s hottest catchphrase.”

The publicity team at Paramount Vantage—the studio that released There Will Be Blood—was happy to ride the wave of media-generated “milkshake”-related publicity. On February 8, Variety blogger Kristopher Tapley reported that a fresh milkshake had been delivered to his door fifteen minutes earlier and said that it came with a Blood-themed card that prominently displayed the phrase. Bloggers like Slash Film’s Hunter Stephenson got the card and a gift certificate good for one shake at Cold Stone Creamery.

I’ll admit to having a certain soft spot for memorable lines in movie history. I still smile knowingly during my 132nd re-watching of The Godfather, as those wonderful aphorisms about cannoli and offer refusals spill forth. At this point, it doesn’t matter whether we like hearing them or not; they’re a permanent part of the culture. I’ve come to realize this every Thanksgiving, when my cousin makes his annual declaration over the sweet potatoes that “in five years the Elzweig family will be completely legitimate.”

It makes sense that we embrace these lines—they’re the connective tissue of a society that rarely speaks in declarative sentences like “Make my day!” or “Here’s looking at you, kid.” They remind us of the marvel of movies—the way they speak broad truths and address universal emotions in ways that resonate in our minds. Like it or not, “You complete me”—a line from Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire that some find utterly nauseating—spoke to an inner feeling shared by millions and still turns up in conversation more than a decade after the movie’s release. What makes a catchphrase last? I called Richard Schickel, the longtime film critic and historian, who explained that a successful catchphrase—he cited their abundance in Casablanca as an example—has “some metaphorical applications to other aspects of life.” People, Schickel explained to me, have “a hunger for smart, efficient, witty phrases that we can somehow apply in our daily lives.”

We get it, Dick. The witless among us need screenwriters to help the conversation along.

But why do some lines achieve mass popularity and others don’t? Why is it that today’s young people can go through their lives without inserting the phrase “Yeah, well, I’m from Buenos Aires, and I say, kill ‘em all” from Starship Troopers? Schickel’s theory is that the quality of the movie matters as much as the line itself. “If it appears in a movie like Definitely, Maybe,” he says, “it’s not going to resonate down the ages.”

Perhaps that’s why in early February I allowed myself to hope that “I drink your milkshake” might transcend the curse. It was derived from a movie millions (okay, hundreds of thousands) adored; the actor who spoke the line had won an Oscar and seemed destined to earn another for this performance: It had the declarative feel of a “Here’s Johnny!” or “Make my day!” and the literate cleverness of an “I’ll have what she’s having” or “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.” It tripped off the tongue with such smooth insouciance that no one seemed to care that it made no sense.

But any hopes I may have harbored for the permanence of “I drink your milkshake!” melted before my eyes in mid-February. Its denouement began with a clever send-up of the phrase in the now-officially-obsessed New York magazine Vulture blog, which presented a guide to witty ways of inserting the meaningless mash-up of words into comprehensible sentences. Here are some examples: “‘Let’s face it. The Celtics drank the Knicks’ milkshake last night.’” “Or maybe,” the blog continued, “in a nod to the godlike venom of its utterer, a taunt: ‘You best back down before I drink your milkshake, bitch.’”

In its ironic homage to the catchphrase’s potential, the blog was doing precisely what the Internet succeeds at most: over-saturating us to the point of annoyance. Its cleverness had made it next to impossible for anyone to slip the “milkshake” phrase into normal conversation without looking like they were hopelessly out of touch.
But nothing caps a comic premise like a satiric jab on Saturday Night Live. And true to form, on its first weekend back after a three-month strike hiatus, a sketch offered up Bill Hader as Daniel Plainview on a Food Network series called “I Drink Your Milkshake,” in which the star travels across America with a long straw and a quest to taste milkshakes wherever he goes. In classic comic tradition, the SNL writers took the figurative meaning of the phrase and turned it literal—and in doing so, forever removed its potential for metaphoric meaning. Plus, they’d co-opted the comic value, rendering it useless to anyone except film critics and Daniel Day-Lewis devotees. By the next night, when he accepted the Academy Award for best actor, I accepted the sad truth that it was time to look for a new movie catchphrase.

I wasn’t worried, though. After years of catchphrase-mongering, I knew that if I built it, they would come. Nobody puts Elzweig in a corner!

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