Insert Title Here: A Movie Titling Manifesto

We have come an awfully long way from brilliantly titled films like Five Easy Pieces and Apocalypse Now to the likes of The Artist and The Help. It seems that catchy titles with layered meanings have nearly gone the way of the dodo. As for the work itself, these weak titles are just a voiceless reflection of the work they represent. As Hollywood films become more and more bombastic and puerile, and as independent cinema becomes more and more vacuous and shallow — and scared to death about probing any question that surpasses the boundaries of being ostensibly “with it” — a year’s end leaves us with not much to put in your pockets and take with you in terms of exciting new film work. And the way we’re going, we’ll be watching these lackluster excuses for good work on iPods. Like anything, there are certainly exceptions, but those often don’t stand a perfume spray’s chance in a hurricane. Largely, there’s a flagrant complacency. One of the biggest illustrations of this complacency? The lackluster titles of the films currently on the market. If originality in the work itself is paramount to its directors, writers and creators, why should the title of that work be any different? A title can completely define a film for a person who has not seen it. Yes, I am certainly someone who places a premium on the value of a powerful and impactful title, and for damn good reason. After all, a title like The 39 Steps gets one wondering what could possibly lie at the top (or bottom) of them.

So okay, if you look at the titles of the films I have personlly directed, you might think to yourself that I am exhibitionist of wanton eccentricity; well, either that or someone straining to extreme lengths to be Original. From my perspective, however, good titles are an artform unto themselves. Yes, my canon includes titles like Yarns To Be Spun on the Way to the Happy Home (oy!), The Idiotmaker’s Gravity Tour (oy!) and A Trip to Swadades (oy!). If you think those are doozies, the titles of my university short subjects were far more, shall we say, ornate. If you think I’m kidding, would you be interested in seeing an outlandishly meaningless, experimental little ditty I made called Cockamamie Daguerreotypes? Yeah, I wouldn’t be interested either, if I were you. But admit it…that title has box office smash written all over it (sarcasm). The scary part is that the previous example is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of my old film-school titles. Nonetheless, I have always tortured myself over effectively naming my work, and never have ceased deliberating long and hard about it with each and every project. The Idiotmaker’s Gravity Tour might be a crazy title and one that is easy to lampoon for its outlandishness, but at least it’s interesting and doesn’t march to the beat of any other drummer but its own — and your ears are pricked to discover its meaning(s), even when it’s not so obvious or readily apparent in the work.

As a film viewer, you take away from the title of a movie more than anyone cares to recognize. A title has the power to make or break the possibility of seeing a given film, whether one admits to it or not. As a filmmaker and as a film lover, I find myself constantly disgusted and appalled at an apathy that filmmakers often have towards titling their work effectively. Originality, in this day and age, is often a veil for being derivative in some other covert way. As a result, I have always been dogged and obsessive with providing my works with original titles that could never be mimicked. I give my work titles that stand alone, apart from all other works. This has occasionally back-fired, which I will explore more later. But as I always say, if someone is disinterested in naming their work effectively, I’m disinterested in seeing it…effectively. Now, more than ever before, mediocrity in titling films seems to be the name of the game. Generic titles rule the waves and, as a result, I seem to have been shying away more and more from the newest crop of movies. For all I know, they could be seminal works of art, but the fact that their creators have so gracelessly and unimaginatively named something over which they’ve toiled for months, and often years, drives a need in me to avoid them. If they don’t care, why should I? If they worked that hard on something for that amount of time, why not go the extra mile and work just a little harder in naming their “child”. To me, disinterest in a title is often proportionate with a director’s ultimate disinterest in the work it respresents. I once had a film professor who could be a provocateur when he felt like it, who posited that movie titles should be outlawed and numbers should be used to identify films. The Idiotmaker’s Gravity Tour would thus become Kremer’s #6. Needless to say, I never heard of anything more preposterous and nonsensical, and I don’t even think it merits further comment, but that position is indicative of a much larger apathy towards effective titling. There are as many original title possibilities as there are stars in the sky. For some reason, most filmmakers could care less. They prefer soft titles that are so passive and nondescript, they disappear.With all this in mind, I’ve composed a Movie Titling Manifesto, which seeks to call to mind the cardinal sins of naming a film and a general work of art.

1. (A, The) (noun): Boring one-word titles, with or without the definite or indefinite articles, is the chief cardinal sin of today’s movie titles. Nothing marks movie-titling mediocrity more than this. Titles like this scream “Lazy!” and “Perfunctory!” No matter how apropos a one-word title is, it’s still boring boring boring. Exceptions to this rule can include instances when the single word is unusual, esoteric, archaic or created-from-scratch. Solid and worthy examples of this exception: The Wackness, The Pyx, The Go-Between, The Shining, Sunchaser, Skidoo, Smithereens, Eraserhead, Coonskin, Barfly, Hopscotch, Kamouraska, Zardoz. Interesting surnames like Silkwood and Hesher also make sufficient titles. And the relatively recent film titles guilty of this crime? Tragically, there are way, way too many to name. We could start with The Artist (I nearly didn’t see it because its title was so bland), The Hangover, The Fighter, Somewhere, The Deal, Deal (the previous two were both released in 2008), Bully, CafĂ© (which one, you ask? does it matter?), The Village, The Postman, The Happening, The Debt, The Dreamers, The Jacket (don’t want to see a movie about a jacket unless it’s a full metal one), The Experiment, The American, The Switch, The Help, An Education, The Reader, Cars, The Town, The Aviator, The Notebook, The Dilemma, yada yada yada yada. I could go on. I won’t. I need a good drink after wading through all that laziness.


2. Titles being reused from pre-existing films: If, after a long deliberation process, I found the absolutely perfect title for a film I had just directed, and then discovered that even one other previous film used that title before, I would bite the bullet and never even dream of using it, no matter how obscure that other film was. The title would be ruined for me, and the search for a title would continue. Remakes are another pet peeve of mine, but that’s another story. I am one of those folks who resents having to specify a version when I bring up a film like Psycho. For a certain period of time, thanks to Gus Van Sant, I had to clarify that I was discussing “Hitchcock’s Psycho” when speaking in conversation. I believe that remakes should have different titles from the original they are adapting, as not to disgrace or besmirch the reputation of the original should they tank. One of my favorite 70’s thrillers, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, was one of many films that fell victim to such a “remake smear campaign”. No matter the merits of the original, it will be known more for the failings of the remake. There are defenders of films like Soderbergh’s Solaris. I’m not one of them, even though I have a clear, unfettered view of his intentions with the remake. I do, however, greatly admire Tarkovsky’s Solaris as an immortal landmark masterpiece. I now have to clarify that I am referring to “the Tarkovsky version” when I discuss the film with people. Thanks a lot, Mr. Soderbergh. I really resent that. There are examples that I champion, like The Truth About Charlie, the Jonathan Demme remake of Charade. I can’t say I’m a fan of the remake, but I am grateful that the filmmakers were sensible enough to respect the original enough to want to avoid confusion between the two, thanks to an effective retitling. Likewise is the case with one of my favorite guilty pleasures, Meet Joe Black, which was a remake of Death Takes a Holiday. Aside from remakes, there are titles that people reuse over and over again repeatedly and ad nauseam for projects, even though the like-titled films bear no relation to each other. If you look up Lost and Found on IMDb, it will return 69 hits. Who knows what the return will be in the coming weeks! Trapped returns 61 hits. Even if those titles didn’t return all those hits, who’d want to use them? I’m sorry, there’s just no excuse naming a film with a title that’s been reused umpteen times, in my eyes. Even Scorsese’s The Aviator is guilty of reusing the title of a lackluster 1985 Christopher Reeve vehicle. The former is certainly a good film and the better film of the two, but why reuse a title? I mean, there’s a galaxy of title choices and options for a Howard Hughes biopic. Unfortunately, one cannot copyright a title, except for trademarks. This should change as soon as possible. A title is just as much intellectual property as anything else in the actual film. This goes for books and albums too.

3. Two-Word Titles That Begin With the Word “American”: Anthem, Beauty, Buffalo, Carol, Dream, Flyers, Gangster, Gigolo, Gothic, Graffiti, Movie, Ninja, Pie, Pimp, President, Psycho, Splendor, etc. etc. etc. This is such a tired formula to me. Do people like it because “American” would seem to mellifluously roll off the tongue, almost as if it were under the guidance of a metronome? Perhaps this is the case, but it’s still one of the most eye-rolling conceits in film titling. Exceptions to this rule: The American Friend (because of its ironical sound, considering Wim Wenders uses this collection of words for the sake of irony), American Mongrel (the title of my good friend Deniz Demirer’s upcoming feature works because of how the two words ideologically complement each other -- and Mongrel is a word that I have personally never heard before in a book or film title) and American Graffiti (because the word ‘Graffiti’ is just a good-looking word that is pleasing to the ear, no matter what you pair with it).

4. Excessively lengthy titles: I have been guilty of this sin many times in the past. I used to have a proclivity for the baroque in titles. Thankfully I lost it because now I find it incredibly tiresome. I don’t even believe that titles should be full sentences, no matter how short. There are still certain lengthy titles that I still quite like. Among them: Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (1970), The Sidelong Glances of a Pigeon Kicker (1970), The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972), Who is Harry Kellerman and Why is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (1971), Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976), Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969), The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me But Your Teeth Are in My Neck (1967) and, of course, the incomparable Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). That said, I now regret that I named a film Yarns To Be Spun on the Way to the Happy Home and I’m glad that I was able to see my way around to changing the title of my first film Crumbs from a Hard-Boiled Egg to the much more suitable and attractive Charles at the Threshold. My advice: If you don’t absolutely have to do it, don’t. No one except you thinks it’s cute. I learned the hard way. People didn’t remember those early films I made as much as their crazy titles. And the films I want(ed) people to forget are remembered because of their wild names. Ugh. Come to think of it, there's a 1966 comedy film called Don't Worry, We'll Think of a Title.

5. First Names: I can take the first name and last name together if it sounds interesting, but naming a film for the first name of a character is a big no-no, and they’re a dime a dozen. Rudy, Michael, Daniel, Jack, Marnie, Eva, Hugo, Joe, David, Dave, Adam, Anna, Elizabeth, Emily, Tim, Margaret, etc. All have a movie named for them. It’s like Holly Golightly naming her cat “Cat” in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

6. Question Titles: Okay, with the question formula, you occasionally get great titles like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and What’s New, Pussycat?, but by and large, it’s a hazard that makes for a bad title, and invites critics to take wise-acre stabs at the work. What’s the Worst That Could Happen? Um, seeing this movie. How Do You Know? I just know it’s bad. Isn’t it obvious? Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? Well, I don’t know about Rock Hunter, but it has spoiled Hollywood into thinking that any title will do, as long as they slap a couple celebrities’ names above it.

7. Once Upon a Time in Wherever: Absolutely no one has the right, in my eyes, to name a film Once Upon a Time in “Wherever”, except Mr. Sergio Leone. And he’s passed on. I’ve seen Mexico, Anatolia, China and Midlands permutations of the formula that belongs solely to a departed Italian master. Please, filmmakers, financiers, marketing people: By all means, knock it off…now…this instant! It really ticks me and others off…and it doesn’t get me into the theater thinking it’s another Leone film. I walk by the theater holding my tongue from cursing whomever named it that. It’s just dancing on Leone’s grave. Some may think it’s an homage. It’s not. It’s theft. Think of something original and try again.

8. Two Names Separated by “And”: We’ve seen Mikey and Nicky, Minnie and Moskowitz, Nicholas and Alexandra, Melvin and Howard, Thelma and Louise, Poto and Cabengo, O.C. and Stiggs, and an endless barrage of other onscreen teams. The previous ones I can accept, but come on, the best ones have been done by now. Again, perfunctory.

9. Generally Generic Titles: Can you imagine a more boring name for an autobiography than My Life or This is My Life? Wake me when it’s over. Unfortunately, there are films that use these titles as well. When a title is so perfunctory and so stale, it’s an immediate turn-off, and tells me something about its creator’s imagination, or lack thereof. Other recent domestic titles that offend this admittedly ambiguous guideline? How about James L. Brooks’ How Do You Know, Remember Me, Life As We Know It (and just about any title with the word Life in it, for that matter), Something’s Gotta Give, It’s Complicated, Just Go With It, He’s Just Not That Into You, She’s the One, She’s So Lovely.

10. Parodies/Send-Ups/Homages to Other Titles: These titles usually remind us of the better movie that their title echoes. To harp on another title and, by extension, another film illustrates to me a lack of imagination and a lack of faith in the product – that it must drudge up the name of a successful film to be successful itself. Examples: Shaun of the Dead, the upcoming Woody Allen film To Rome With Love (which was renamed twice from the more effective The Bop Decameron and Nero Fiddled), From Paris With Love , The Chinese Connection, Silence of the Hams…I’m sure there are others of these that aren’t immediately leaping to mind. I’ve probably blocked them out.

11. Titles Containing Words Like “Deadly,” “Dangerous,” “Fatal” and “Murder”: Titles containing these words nearly always sound like B movies to me, maybe because B movies need the extra dose of sensationalism to sell them, which is something those words provide. When I see these words, I envision the quality of the film being sub-standard. I have a friend whose film was renamed Deadly Drifter by a low-rent distribution company, who then proceeded to market this abstract art film as a big-budget action-packed firecracker. Boy, did that audience probably have a reason to be upset! And what of Dangerous Liaisons and Fatal Attraction? Fairly solid films, yes, but the titles don’t scintillate those baser natures to which they’re trying to appeal.

The really scary part of all this? Many of today’s titles are guilty of multiple above "crimes" all at once.

Favorite Titles of the Last 10 Years:

Exit Through the Gift Shop – I still don’t know what it means and how it relates to the film really, but the fact that I have to consider the meaning afterwards is a big plus. That, and certain titles look great on paper. This one does.

Gabi on the Roof in July – I wouldn’t have even seen this film if its alluring title hadn’t so successfully and poetically evoked Eric Rohmer’s titles. It’s one of my favorite film titles of the last five years.

The Hurt Locker – An unlikely combination of words increases the intrigue level.

The Limits of Control – The way it looks and what it says; when both are solid, it makes a deadly titling combination, and this has both.

Mutual Appreciation – Pleasing to the ear, easy to say and fitting for the film it represents.

Slumdog Millionaire – Some titles just have a good beat.

Martha Marcy May Marlene – It sure is a mouthful, but at least it’s different…and gutsy.

Gambling, Gods and LSD – Sounds slightly more like a book title than a film title, but it’s an enticing combination of words and elements. It got me to buy the DVD from Amazon sight unseen.

L.A. Without a Map – I passionately hated the actual film, but the title was attractive enough to me to want to at least see it.

Lust, Caution – This title is poetry, and it defines the film so well.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close – In my mind, this film was the real all-stops-out worst piece of excrement of 2011. It was just a horrid, wretched, tragedy-milking excuse for a family drama. But I still like the title.

Inglourious Basterds – It may be a riff on another title, but it’s got style. How could one dislike that title?

Underused and Undervalued Titling Models (Paragons of Title Style Which Filmmakers Should Use More):

1. One or Two Characters Doing Something: Celine and Julie Go Boating, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, The Leningrad Cowboys Go America, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. I once entertained Reggie and Chazz Play Catch as a possible alternate for my upcoming film A Simple Game of Catch. Two characters doing something establishes a sense of mission and playfulness. Before I wound up seeing it, I sure wanted to join Celine and Julie on their boating expedition. The best part: most of the time, the expectation that the title precipitates is defied, and the title takes on a completely different meaning. That’s the good stuff, folks.

2. Titles That Use a Clock Time: Adam at 6 A.M., 3:10 to Yuma, 12:08 East of Bucharest, 10:30 P.M. Summer, Dinner at Eight, Tonight at 8:30, High Noon. I don’t know why we don’t encounter titles with times more often. After all, isn’t a lot of film watching in eager anticipation of something that is going to happen…or something that’s supposed to happen? Like I wrote above, even a title like The 39 Steps gets us wondering what lies at the top of them, like we wonder about what’s going to happen tonight at 8:30. You want an answer? In that case, Noel Coward’s got it…go see the show! See what I mean?

3. Addresses: An interesting and/or cool-sounding address in a title at least could get me to give a film a chance. 84 Charing Cross Road, 10 Rillington Place, 11 Harrowhouse, 711 Ocean Drive, 99 River Street, 29 Firemans Street, 2046. The most excessive (and perfect) example of this is Chantal Akerman’s masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 Rue du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. An offshoot of this is archaic phone prefixes: Butterfield 8, and
Call Northside 777. These addresses and phone numbers hold enough water to be movie titles? You’re wondering why, right? Let’s watch the films! These places have to important somehow.

4. Acronyms, Organizations, Statutes, Rules, Stations, et al. Any title that can get you asking right away, “I wonder what that stands for?” or “I wonder what that means” is a real plus. In a different way, one of my titles seems to successfully do this. Everytime I tell someone I directed a film called A Trip to Swadades, always the first thing out of their mouths is “Where’s that?” Many believed upon first hearing the title that I went to a foreign country to shoot it (I didn’t), and asked me if that was the case. In any case, the intrigue level was definitely upped for most. Examples: M*A*S*H, Catch-22, F.I.S.T. (Federation of Inter-State Truckers), Article 99 (a legal loophole which states that unless his illness/injury is related to military service, a veteran is not eligible for VA hospital benefits), WUSA (a right-wing radio station), C.H.U.D. (Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers), CHOMPS (Canine Home Protection System), D.A.R.Y.L. (Data-Analyzing Robot Youth Lifeform), S.O.B. (Standard Operational Bullshit), even Robert Altman’s HealtH (Happiness, Energy And Longevity Through Health).

5. Town and State: An unlikely mixture of town and state will get the prospective audience asking themselves “What’s so important about that place?” Scotland, PA
; Synecdoche, New York; Vernon, Florida; Paris, Texas; Eversmile, New Jersey.

6. Intentional Redundancy: Story of a Love Story, Raymond Carver’s short story “Can You Please Be Quiet Please”

7. Ambiguous and/or Evocative Titles: Your prospective audience can never ask too many questions and wonder too much about “what that’s about.” I’d easily put my own film The Idiotmaker’s Gravity Tour into this category. I can’t tell you how many times this exchange has occurred:

Person: So what’s your film called?

Me: [with a weird smile] The Idiotmaker’s Gravity Tour.

Person:: [chuckling] The Idiotmaker’s Gravity Tour?! And what is that about?

Do you think they would have been even half as interested if I had named my film The Indian Journey, or something like that? I don’t think so. An interesting title goes a long, long way to build an audience’s intrigue level, take my word for it. Other examples: 37o2 in the Morning (the temperature of the human body after a morning orgasm – in the U.S., they changed the title to the “less cerebral” Betty Blue), 36 Views from the Pic San Loup (the U.S. distributor changed this title to Around a Small Mountain), Four Flies on Grey Velvet, The Sterile Cuckoo (I've seen the film a few times and never figured out what the title really signifies), Puzzle of a Downfall Child (I personally asked the director the meaning of the title and he couldn’t give me a straight answer – bravo!), Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, the 1971 obscurity The Christian Licorice Store, and the epic-length 1969 Japanese political screed Eros Plus Massacre.

General Rules of Thumb:

1. Titles containing the letters K, X and Z are usually attention-getters for the eye.
2. Unless making a James Bond movie, melodramatic titles containing play-on-words involving Living, Dying, Tomorrow, Yesterday, Forever and the like usually are a hazard, and should be reserved exclusively for soap operas.
3. Repetitions of words and names are corny. Why was the Seinfeld fake-movie Rochelle Rochelle as funny as it was? The only movies to ever get away with it are Kazan’s America, America and Scorsese’s New York, New York.
4. Avoid excessive foreign-language titles if the film isn’t in that language. It’s Pretentious Filmmaking 101.
5. Use the word “Heart” very carefully, lest your film sound like a Hallmark Movie of the Week production.
6. Shakespeare in a title must be done with extreme care. An example that works well: Fortune and Men's Eyes.
7. Avoid overwrought metaphors involving the word Life.
8. Avoid naming a film after a hit song. People will often remember the use of the song in the film much more than anything in the work.

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There are many titles that I love dearly, too many to name in this article. I have a 25-page index of titles I conceived from simply combining words that I found at least some way fascinating in list-form. Pairing up words for titles is my form of crossword puzzle. From that 25-page mass, there is perhaps one single solid page of good titles. One could write stories based on the content of these titles. Truth be told, a couple short films I’ve made have arisen from a this index. I just don’t understand why more people aren’t like this. Titles are arbitrarily handed out to films, and very little thought is put into anything. A note to filmmakers: the next time you’re up to bat with a film, why don’t you think about these points. “You must choose, but choose wisely.”