WHAT’S IN A NAME? A BRIEF CONSIDERATION OF FILM TITLES
While reviewing the entertaining HBO show Barry, it struck me that I have an irrational dislike of film and TV programmes which resort to using people’s singular names in the title. Why, though? Let’s be honest: it’s not a big deal. So, why does it bother me? To answer this question I decided to a hold a brief whimsical exploration of such titles.
Titles are important. They create the first contact for the audience. They pull you in or push you away before you even know who made the film or who stars in it. I mean, who doesn’t want to watch a film called: Jaws (1975) or Alien (1979) or The Terminator (1984)? Conversely, who wants to watch a film called The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants 2 (2008)?
Obviously, big decisions are made at the title-naming stage of any works. Or are they? I think naming a film after a single name, on the surface, just seems a tad lazy. But, on reflection, using single names for the titles of a film or TV show can be impactful and to the point.
It’s weird, because I don’t mind place name titles at all. In fact, Fargo (1996), is one of my favourite films. The singular title just works. Similarly, so does Chinatown (1974). Fargo, especially, names both a place and the two syllables within the place — ‘far’ and ‘go’ — suggest the actions of the characters in the story. Chinatown, on the other hand, is more poetic; naming a place but also hinting at something exotic and mysterious. Either that or a cultural area where you can visit and perhaps get a certain kind of food.
I also don’t object to personal names being part of the title. For example, Rosemary’s Baby (1968), is such a great title because it’s better than just plain old ‘Rosemary’. What does the singular Rosemary tell us? Very little. But add the ‘baby’ element and you conjure up suspense and a desire to know what will happen to Rosemary and her child. Similarly, When Harry Met Sally (1986), is a simple yet delightful title which tells you the character names, events and we’re most likely to witness some form of romance.
It may be that the film is an adaptation and just named after the original source material. Rebecca (1940), by Daphne Du Maurier is a good example of this. Rebecca works for me though as the name has a haunting feel; and this is certainly confirmed once you read the book or watch the film. On the other hand, the film Carol (2015), feels benign in comparison. Based on Patricia Highsmith’s literary classic, it’s a sumptuous and touching romance, however, the title did not draw me in. It was only when I saw the cast and that it was directed by Todd Haynes, I decided to watch it.
The best singular name film is Rocky (1975). Here is a classic underdog story of a boxer who is Rocky by name and rocky by nature. He’s streetwise but lacking intellect and seems to have literal rocks in his head. He’s scrabbling around trying to make ends meet with a head as hard as rock too. But, because of this he can take the blows and punches and still come back for more. We love the character because he never gives in; he literally rocks!
In conclusion, like everything, there are good and bad examples of film titles. Some singular named titles work way better than others. Titles like: Barry (2018), Dave (1993) and even a fine film like Carol, seem weak to me. Meanwhile, a title like Rocky just works perfectly. Anyway, here are eleven singular named film titles which also fly against my pet annoyance and mostly work really well.
Produced by: Jason Blum, Ian Cooper, Sean McKittrick, Jordan Peele
Written by: Jordan Peele
Starring: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex etc.
Music: Michael Abels
Cinematography: Mike Gioulakis
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
Orson Welles is reportedly quoted as saying, “A movie in production is the greatest train set a boy could ever have.” Thus, Jordan Peele proves this point with an unstoppable cinematic train ride in Us (2019); that while threatening to career off the rails on occasions, proves to be a thrilling work of horror-meets-social-satire entertainment.
The film centres on an everyday normal family of four — the Wilsons: Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), Gabe (Winston Duke), and their two children — as they visit their summer home by the beach. Haunted by a scary incident in a hall of mirrors when a child, Adelaide is afraid to return to the beach where it occurred, until her husband’s goofy enthusiasm wins her over.
Events begin to turn and twist askew when their son, Jason, seems to go missing for a while. Even though he returns, paranoia and fear sneaks into Adelaide’s psyche. Things become even stranger when a mysterious family of four appear in the Wilsons’ drive in the dead of night. This is when the true face of horror surfaces and a pulsating home invasion and prolonged chase sequence ensues.
Peele has clearly seen a lot of horror films. As such the early scenes build tension perfectly with: stormy weather; a strange drifter with biblical sign haunting the boardwalk; creepy hall of mirrors; the choral soundtrack reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby (1968); the son, Jason wearing a Jaws (1975) movie t-shirt; the flock of seagulls on the beach echoing Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963); and so it goes.
Such horror tropes build a huge wall of tension so effectively it’s almost a relief when released during the big doppelganger reveal. Subsequently, the blood-letting ensues in some meaty fights and exchanges involving weapons, such as: baseball bats, metal pokers, ornaments and golf clubs. The doppelgangers themselves are clearly a reflection of the self; twisted visions of humanity turning against the characters, as they literally become their own worst enemies.
The cast are expertly marshalled by Peele, as he gets doubly great performances from all the actors. The logistics of shooting doubles must have been tough, especially so many at a time. The featured cast are very good, notably Winston Duke as Gabe Wilson. He offers some light, comedic and physical humour amidst the gore. Meanwhile, Lupita Nyong’o steals the show in the dominant twin roles of Adelaide and the nefarious Red.
It’s Adelaide’s personal journey of double/split identity which provides the spine of the film. As she fights to save her family she must also literally battle the demon inside and outside herself. This thematic is the most powerful of the film for me, as Nyong’o’s acting is full of emotional resonance.
Perhaps, not as successful, when compared to Get Out, is the attempt to marry the personal conflict to the socio-political landscape. While Peele’s first film was an overt satire of slavery and white America oppression and exploitation, Us’ targets are intellectually more ambiguous and open to interpretation. I mean take your pick from: class, capitalism, consumerism, race, de-politicization, narcissism, over-population, split personalities, government conspiracies; and over-arching fear of ‘the other’.
These and many more themes are on Peele’s radar, as is his overall critique of the United States (U.S. = US – geddit!). That they don’t quite gel coherently is not a criticism but a positive indictment of his ambition. Conversely, while I felt the underlying power of Peele’s call-to-arms and desire for human unity in Us, one could argue the fire, smoke and mirrors of these ideas subtract from the power of the families’ personal struggle. Moreover, what is the solution to the government copying us or burying our doubles underground? Is it to kill the others and hold hands in unity? Who knows? What I can say is such naive idealism in horror has never been so entertaining.
After the success of the slavery-soul-swapping and genre bending thriller, Get Out, Jordan Peele has tasked himself with trying to top that fine movie. Well, if Get Out was the starter, Us is the main meal. In fact, one could argue the film is so full of ideas that it threatens to fail due to sensory overload. However, Peele is such a multi-talented storyteller he skilfully delivers, wholly thanks to great writing, masterful film production, an exceptional soundtrack and an incredible cast.
With SPECTRE (2015) looming on the horizon I’ve picked out some memorable Bond bits which make this one of, if not the best, genre franchises ever. I knocked this up during my lunchtime so it’s by no means definitive but there’s a mix of deadly, funny and sad moments. If you have your own please do nominate.
**THERE BE SPOILERS!**
THE GUN BARREL OPENING
As the classic music kicks in and the Agent points his gun and fires, literally “killing” the audience, you’re immediately hooked!
DR NO (1962) – “BOND, JAMES BOND”
With the suave delivery of one simple line Connery’s Bond eases into cinematic folklore. Much imitated but never bettered.
FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963) – FIGHT SCENE ON THE TRAIN
Henchmen/women have played a massive part in the series and peroxide-blonde Robert Shaw was a worthy adversary for Bond. This is a great fight: dirty, realistic, confined, brutal and full of suspense.
GOLDFINGER (1964) – THE THEME TUNE
The GREATEST Bond theme song EVER! Probably!
GOLDFINGER (1964) – “NO, MR BOND – I EXPECT YOU TO DIE”
Love the cat-and-mouse plot of Goldfinger as Bond hunts the megalomaniac while getting into a number of scrapes and close calls; the laser set-piece being one of the most memorable.
ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (1969) – THAT ENDING
George Lazenby was the David Moyes of Bonds inasmuch as he had an impossible job following an icon. But O.H.M.S.S is a really good spy/action film with all the elements of a great Bond movie. Lazenby is wooden as hell but the brave ending is a dramatic humdinger! Bond cries! Bond cries!
THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977) – THE UNDERWATER CAR
Wow! Just wow! Watching this as a kid you think Bond is done for during this pursuit – but NO! Have some of that baddies – this car can swim!
MOONRAKER (1979) – “JAWS” FALLS IN LOVE
I’m not a big Roger Moore fan as his legacy was besmirched by some dodgy later films plus they became TOO jokey for my liking. However, in his films he had some great gadgets, humour and henchmen to face. None more so that “Jaws” – the metallic-teethed giant who proved impossible to kill. I loved the moment when the writers gave “Jaws” a romance. It’s very silly but just hilarious.
FOR YOUR EYES ONLY (1983) – THE CITROEN CV2 CAR CHASE
After the comic-book-sci-fi-over-the-top-ness of Moonraker the franchise was brought back to Earth with a grittier and more realistic treatment in For Your Eyes Only. Despite the 80s hair and dodgy score the Yellow Citroen car chase is executed with much wit and suspense by the impressive stunt-team.
THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS (1987) – THE PLOT
Dalton was a great Bond and this is one of my favourite stories as it feels like a proper thriller rather than a series of set-pieces and chases held together by a flimsy plot. Blonde cellists/assassins, Soviet defections, KGB villains, triple agents and the general air of espionage and boys’ own spy stuff make this one of the best plots in the series in my humble opinion.
GOLDENEYE (1995) – BUNGEE-JUMP OPENING
Bond was back with a bang AND a new face. Pierce Brosnan was a very charismatic Bond and this is his best film. The makers needed to make their mark and did so with an incredible bungee-jumping stunt, followed by explosive shoot-out with the bad-guys! Damned perfection!! Sorry.
GOLDENEYE (1995) – “THAT’S MY LUNCH!”
Q and Bond’s scenes were always a treat like a Headmaster showing a schoolboy the ropes. Bond’s insouciance was always a treat and the zinger in this is terrific.
CASINO ROYALE (2006) – THE PARKOURING
So Bond was back with a real proper actor in Daniel Craig and while he lacked the suave look and cheeky humour of Brosnan he made up for it with steely toughness and physical force. This was ably demonstrated in a brilliant opening scene which popularized the “Parkour” phenomenon of the time.
CASINO ROYALE (2006) – “I’M THE MONEY”
Vesper Lynd is my favourite female Bond lead. Played brilliantly by the enigmatic Eva Green her character is no pushover and more than matches Bond verbally during their first meeting. Later in the story she steals and breaks his heart adding an emotional depth to their relationship not often witnessed in other Bond adventures.
QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008) – THE OPERA SCENE
Stylistically speaking Quantum of Solace is a cracking film filled with tremendous set-pieces. While it lacks a decent story/villain it works pretty well as a kind of sequel to Casino Royale. The Opera scene is stunningly shot and edited; the form bleeding into the action to create pure cinema at its finest.
SKYFALL (2012) – THE TWO FACES OF RAUL SILVA
Javier Bardem really brought a wonderful performance to the Bond table in Skyfall. Initially he plays and flirts with Bond revealing a technological brilliance and homo-erotic slant; THEN he switches to full on monster mode displaying horror at M’s lack of “maternal” instinct when he was captured in the field.
I have a confession to make. I am a love cheat. I love the cinema but, of late, I have been cheating on it with Television. I couldn’t help myself. TV used to be cinema’s bastard child but now it’s all grown up and wow, has it matured! Gone are the past memories of four channels with some programmes of high quality yet limited choice. Now we have four thousand channels to choose from and while much of it is light bum-fluffery there has been some great product, notably dramas such as: Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, 24, The Sopranos, Hannibal, Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, The Fall, Daredevil, Peaky Blinders, Doctor Who, True Detective, Band of Brothers and many more I have forgotten or just haven’t had time to watch. But never fear cinema I still love you.
The moment I purchase a cinema ticket, in fact even before I leave the front door knowing I am about to leave for the cinema I get the charge, the buzz and the anticipation of getting a movie fix. Because for me going to the cinema does what television cannot: it takes me out of my home. It takes me off the street. It takes me out of THIS world. It takes me to a dark secluded spot sat staring at a gigantic silver screen waiting for the moment the projectionist feeds celluloid through light, well digital files though a computer and then a lens or something; anyway, you get the picture. Then the movie starts and for the next few hours I’m transported to another world featuring: places, times, characters, sounds, images, events etc. that are beyond my imagination. And when the movie ends there’s a rush of excitement, a reaction to the cinematic assault on the senses. But, alas, the fix cannot last. Reality is soon knocking on my door.
Cinema offers a wide-screen visual delight. Indeed, when television first came into people’s homes film producers were frightened that this new-fangled ‘radio with pictures’ would steal away audiences so Hollywood made bigger, though not necessarily better, movies; epics such as: The Robe (1953), The TenCommandments (1956), Ben Hur (1959) and Cleopatra (1963). Obviously, the epics just keep coming notably in the raft of summer blockbusters which infest the screen. This year has been no different with films such as: Ant-Man (2015), Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Jurassic World (2015), Fast and Furious 7 (2015), Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation etc. delivering with spectacular monsters, crashes and stunts.
While such blockbusters may lack depth of character than many TV dramas it’s the spectacle I crave at the cinema. That moment where you go giddy because you haven’t breathed for a minute until all the air rushes from your mouth as one simultaneously pushes your jaw back shut. Good old TV cannot do this though. The television set traditionally occupies a foremost place in the ‘living room’; it’s small compared to the cinema screen and has kind of replaced the hearth that used to provide heat and light. The TV glows and is reminiscent of the old-fashioned campsite fire where families or scouts swap ghost stories while capturing the heat from the flames.
Cinema offer a short, sharp hit compared to TV. Often, a longer running drama series on TV will require a six, ten, thirteen or even longer week commitment. Of course, the introduction of streaming or binge-watching has hacked this idea down to size but movies are still economical and quicker-paced, affording little in the way of fat to the storytelling. Cinema characteristically adopts a tight narrative organised around a particular problem or disruption that is resolved at the denouement where some TV shows, while resolving some plots, will hook us in with shocks to keep us watching and sometimes this can be frustrating as the two-hour or so closure and resolution that cinema offers is very satisfying to me. One of my favourite films Jaws (1975) is a great case in point. Here a shark terrorizes a local community in the United States and the cause-effect narrative takes us through a series of conflicts involving: shark attacks, pursuit of the shark and ultimately the killing of the shark. Thus, film is able to offer a satisfying conclusion to a thrilling story. Ultimately, film offers catharsis and the endings of films such as: Fight Club (1999), Chinatown (1974), The Godfather (1970) and Planet of the Apes (1968) all build to unforgettable climaxes.
Yet, the major concern I have with committing to a new TV drama is the length of time required to get in AND out of the story. I think long and hard about such a commitment but with film one knows it’s not going to be as such. Indeed, one of the reasons I have not watched Mad Men yet is the amount of seasons ahead of me. I’ve been married and I know how much hard work it is. I just don’t feel ready to commit just yet to Don Draper and his “crew”. Plus, with TV shows designed with advertisers in mind adverts can get on the nerves when in the midst of the narrative although the set-top box and Netflix revolution has put that issue aside as has the DVD box-set. Despite this though Cinema is still the preferred mode of voyeuristic, narcissistic and vicarious pleasure though as you sit in a comfy seat eating over-priced confectionery and have a non-stop viewing experience with all adverts before the main presentation. Of course, most films do have multiple examples of product placement, especially Tom “Dorian Gray” Cruise’s M:I franchise but that’s subliminally secreted within the narrative and action and thus not an issue for me. Overall, TV’s episodic form lends itself perfectly to advertisers yet once the movie has started it remains a satisfying whole and is never interrupted with a word from the sponsor.
While I admit that TV stories are gaining more and more complexity notably in regard to depth of characterisation and emotional power they are intrinsically “talking heads” and dialogue lead. TV is still anchored by a lack of screen-size and scope. Rarely does the action on a TV show reach the heights of the cinema although in recent times 24 and Daredevil have featured some spectacular set-pieces and fight scenes. Moreover, Hannibal has to be the most exquisitely edited TV show I have ever seen. But is it better than the cinema? Boardwalk Empire showed flashes of narrative genius with its parallel storytelling from past and present but does it reach the stunning narrative expertise of say Memento (2000);the story of Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) – a man with no short-term memory – which presents the complex plot BACKWARDS! Moreover cinema, unlike TV, is also able to breach huge temporal and spatial differences through editing. Perhaps the most famous single cut in cinema history appears in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Opening with the “Dawn of man”, apelike hominids learn how to use tools. As the ape/man smashes down the bone he then launches it into the air. One cut later and the audience are thrown thousands of years into the future and thousands of miles into space. Such vision demonstrates the power of cinema and takes the breath away.
The arch edict screenwriters should follow when writing for the screen is one should: “Show don’t tell.” Dialogue is also a vital tool in the screenwriter’s box as filmmaker’s such as Quentin Tarantino and The Coen Brothers have demonstrated in movies such as: Reservoir Dogs (1991), Pulp Fiction (1994), The Big Lebowski (1997) and Fargo (1996). Nonetheless they have married quirky, stylish dialogue with strong visual flair. Indeed, the screenwriter must be aware that cinema represents a marriage of sound and vision. While TV traditionally favours dialogue to further the story and action, cinema uses a whole host of devices to tell the story including: cuts, dissolves, wipes, flash-cuts, voice-over, overlapping dialogue, close-ups, point-of-view shots, shot-reverse-shot, Steadicam shots, crane shots, moving shots, dolly shots, wide-screen panoramic views, black-and-white film, colour film, and use of diegetic and non-diegetic music. Indeed, for me there is nothing more cinematic than great music being placed over fantastic images. Filmmakers such as Tarantino, the Coens, and Martin Scorcese are all aware of this. Tarantino uses non-diegetic music expertly in the infamous ear-slicing scene in Reservoir Dogs (1991).
And so I conclude with a mild apology to cinema. I have been seeing a lot of Television these days I DO STILL LOVE YOU! I love your form, style and content and the way they combine to move me emotionally and physically in a way television cannot. Movies will always reach the parts Television cannot. Something magical occurs when watching a film. A whole new world develops before my very eyes; heroes and heroines are thrown into adventure and conflict with events changing their lives forever. Be it falling in love, falling out of love, fighting for their lives or the lives of the ones they love, struggling against the odds to achieve their greatest desires or, tragically failing at the last obstacle. That for me is cinema. It’s an escape from reality the moment one leaves the house. Saying goodbye to the box, not only knowing it will be there when one comes back home but also knowing that it will rarely change my life. While its heat may keep the living room warm at night it cannot compete with film. I have seen the light. Je t’aime cinema!