All writers have are words. And when you lose them – and by “losing them”, I don’t mean that they magically disappear from the dictionary, or an entire culture suddenly suffers some kind of collective amnesia – “What’s that word for the thing, you know, it comes out of the tap and you drink it and it’s clear, and there’s rivers and lakes and oceans made out of it, what’s that word again, it’s on the tip of my tongue.” – Not that. I don’t mean that.
(You probably knew I didn’t mean that. Sometimes, I just need something to get me started.)
What I do mean about losing words is this. I’ll explain with an example. There was this movie, Bullitt. 1968. It’s famous for its car chase, Steve McQueen in his Mustang, careening at breakneck speed down the scarily steep streets of San Francisco.
(I structured that last sentence deliberately so I could use the word “careening.” At Universal, the guy in the next office had written for Hill Street Blues, and I always envied him, because in all my years of writing half-hour comedies, I never got to use the word “careen” or “careening” once. The Hill Street Blues writer got to use them all the time. Of course, he didn’t get to use the word “guffaw.”)
Personally, I’m not a huge fan of car chases. I get irritated when they careen into parked cars or moving cars that happen to get in the way. All I can think of is calling your insurance agent and getting estimates.
Who pays for the damages that are caused during car chases? The responsible parties are long gone. And how would you find them?
“Did you get their license number?”
“I couldn’t. They were careening all over the place!”
When I think about Bullitt, the car chase is not my most enduring memory. What stuck with me most was a, for me, truly shocking snippet of dialogue.
The moment occurs somewhere close to the last scene in the movie. The Robert Vaughn character, a corrupt…something…is wising up the idealistic Steve McQueen character to the political “facts of life”. I couldn’t pull up the exact dialogue – YouTube apparently being only interested the car chase – but Vaughn’s message in realpolitik boiled down to this: “You lie. You cheat. You do what you have to do. That’s the game. And everybody plays it.”
To this, McQueen spits out a single-word rebuttal:
As best as I can remember, this was the first time anyone had ever uttered the word, “Bullshit!” in a major studio motion picture. It hit me like a stinging slap in the face.
Try generating a “‘Bullshit!’ Moment” in a movie today.
It can’t be done. The “shock words” themselves are still around, but through careless usage and needless repetition, they’ve completely lost their punch. The gut-walloping words of the past are now weak dribblers to the shortstop. We’ve heard them too many times.
File it under “Unintended Consequences.” The Noble Crusade: The Liberation of Cinematic Language. Trading polished exchanges for the gritty colloquiality of the street.
Mission accomplished. “Fake” dialogue has been vanquished. The artificial is no more. They talk like we talk. Isn’t it grand.
Unless you’re a writer.
And you’re trying to knock people out of their seats.