Bright Lights Film Journal

How to Hate Titles Correctly: A Pillow Book of Misguided Assertions

What’s in a name

1. The Rumpelstiltskin-God

No matter how mightily I strive to intellectualize my living (not my life, my living, you understand), to sieve from it every iota of bogus spirituality and conventionalized sentiment, I nonetheless grow content indulging in the cheapest, most pietistic kinds of pathos — that spineless, truth-clouding poison. Repeatedly, no doubt defensively, I envision myself aloft in harmonious, post-Nietzschean vapors, only to be landed by pangs of pathetic embarrassment for those godly souls whom I feel are less enlightened — and surely happier — than myself. You’ve certainly experienced this too: whenever we notice the eyes of a devout neighbor peeled rapturously, emptily skyward, a residue of condescending pathos unerringly interferes with icy contempt. Zarathustran buoyancy carries the would-be superman sanely to shore; if he then hypocritically dispatches all-too-human pity like rickety lifeboats, to salvage true believers shipwrecked by ingloriously sweet Faith, it is because his meritocratic solitude cripples more than the literature advertised.

Long after our jaded, browbeaten, sin-stained mythologies have been junked, we’re still pained to see our fellows intimidated by uncouth and paranoid Gods terrified, above all, of disclosing their names. Had our ancestors concocted Gods beyond language, they might’ve (badly) claimed an internal logic, if an outright foolhardiness; but in anthropomorphizing misty titans to whom masochism and rodential fright were forever pledged, our forefathers — Gods’ authors, overvaluing the powers of outlandish words — granted their masters Names not unspeakably inhuman but treacherously knowable. That the Gods held dear their sacred Names rendered them linguistically vulnerable in a way an illiterate desert slave can never be; in this, the genocidal curmudgeon of Exodus is no different from fiery Ra, blackmailed by poisonous Isis into revealing the true Name encoding his might. One pities the etymophobic Hebrew God, bashful before Moses, devising a blazing special-effects shrubbery to camouflage a lingual origin unknown even to Himself, just as Adam fumbled for scattered leaves to veil the sexual knowledge his privates portended. “I am what I am,” the great etymological cop-out, was God’s fig leaf, a coy confession of self-ignorance, bellowed to deafen.1 If the ancients began with the Word, the crime of Adam, who can know his procreative penis no more than the omnicreative name of He who Created it, is a particularly etymological crime rather than a generally etiological or epistemological one (yet only in myth, where written word is rarest fruit, do knowledge and power blossom into Foucault’s misbegotten, ill-popularized hybrid).

Just as we pity theists ancient and modern, so do we feel sorry for our freemason God, ever fearful public knowledge of his secret name, that font of illegible influence, will expose him to blasphemous appropriations, dominations, and transfixions — the very fear that, in post-Orwellian science fiction or manic-depressive wakingness, becomes that tired anxiety about dystopic futures neutralizing our names and blanking our faces, merging our selves into low-order materialities God’s invocation failed to deny. The mortified Hebrews remedied their Father’s Achilles’ Heel by making His potentially (if improbably) namable name unspeakable, and thus illegible cum unintelligible. One says “Adonai” rather than pronouncing literally the yod, vav, and two hehs of the vowel-less Tetragrammaton (the YHWH later corrupted as “Jehovah”); or one resorts to those inexhaustible “half-true” names scrawled in Pentateuchal martyr’s blood: Elohim, Borei Yisrael, Avi (“Father”), Tsur (“Rock”), the many reasonless Gematrian and numerological impersonations. Either way, we can’t identify Who is being objectively worshipped. The polyonomousness our ancestors afforded their Gods, as a simple means of amplifying their indefinability, made them safely anonymous and dehumanized; but in the uniqueness of their true, unknownable yet reducible names, the Gods ironically become more human, if we frame humanism — as we must — in terms of individualistic naming.

Unlike garrulous Rumpelstiltskin, the Hebrew God knew better than to exclaim his secret within mortal earshot (a devilish saving grace, keeping one’s mouth shut!). Whereas the Grimms’ petty gnome ripped himself in two upon his true name’s revelation, the Jewish God, bodiless if abundantly ur -Adamic, and conveniently beyond the impish luxury of suicide, knew only genocide and plague. The Christian God, self-loathing in his love, and mystifying us with generosities never shown, was more measured, tearing Himself into a holy three — as if the attempt to triply disguise his identity made us even less able to tell the failed Etymologist from the furious imp.

2. The Title into Which You Are Born

Sociology transforms the reasonless ritual of naming into the rationality of identity politics; psychology justifies the transformation as an inescapably natural process . . . toward maturity.

When we’re perhaps 8 or 9 — long before we’d wonder why Gwendolen Fairfax is so obsessed with the verities of “Ernest-ness” — we begin judging our appellations against those of our classmates, and ponder the cursed finitude of birthrights and wrongs. Just as we realize the fictitiousness of names, and begin to ask if life, too, is a fiction, our teachers begin foisting upon us juvenile novels where ciphered proper names impregnate formulaic verbs (e.g., “. . . Candice interjected, her arms outstretched meaningfully,” or “Pierre wondered aloud . . .”). The opening paragraph of Oliver Fleming’s Ambrotox and Limping Dick is priceless testament to the cipher-name and its allied cipher-verb:

Randal Bellamy’s country house was a place of pleasant breakfasts. From the dining room the outlook was delightful; grass, flowers and sunshine, with the host’s easy charm, made it almost as easy for Theophilus Caldegard to drink his tea fresh, as for his daughter Amaryllis not to keep her host, Sir Randal, waiting for his coffee.2

If, when I was 8 or 9, I were confronted with the mock-literary (in-)significance of “Theophilus Caldegard” and his seasonally fresh tea-bibbing, and able to articulate a critique of naming, I’d have probably oppugned Auden’s famous assertion that “Proper names are poetry in the raw . . . like all poetry they are untranslatable.” Untranslatability presumes a meaning that can be corrupted — but proper names, merely dusty heredities and arbitrary affectations, haven’t even Truths to be degraded, only sentimental poetics to be acquired, nurtured, and/or scorned. (The birthright of “Ernest-ness” is as inconsequential as the artificially manufactured — yet curiously unnamed by Wilde — title of Miss Prism’s three-volume novel.) Certainly Malcolm X knew how to historically, legally translate a proper name, as did every huddled immigrant who bartered his birthright for a Brooklyn pushcart and icebox technology.

If polytheists’ excellent delusions magnified their anthropomorphic Gods’ names into catch-all identities as multifarious as humans’ muddiest needs and stormiest passions, we claim intimate knowledge of each other, contrarily, by dwindling our names into lovely sobriquets, maudlin truncations, ironic dishonorifics, and humanistically slanged nicknames (any name that finishes with a “y” endears, never ennobles.3 In the Western canon, it was Plato’s Cratylus that first questioned our unnatural conventions of naming and namesakes: “What [of] our friend Hermogenes … [if] he has nothing of the nature of Hermes in him, shall we say that this is a wrong name, or not his name at all?”4 Perhaps we should return to medievalist, physiognomic cognomens: at least “Geoffrey the Bearded” or “Harold the Loose-Tongued” convey information more utilitarian than “Mark,” “Joshua,” or millions of other suburban Bible-wannabes. My own name, “Manly Big-Man” (the Greek andreas linked to the German “grosse mann“) is not only redundant but embarrassingly unsuitable, unless you have aberrant or deviant definitions of manhood. If I were as devious, witty, and abnormal as Erik Satie, I could devise a personal language of naming, dotted with neologistic fancy (Gnossienne) and phraseological eccentricity (Embryons desséchés); or if as nutty as the artist-formerly-known-as-Prince, I could un-Latinize and abstractly symbolize my name, to demonstrate that all lexicons and syntaxes are borne of symbols once-meaningless.5 One would think all adults, once arriving at legal age, would overrun the courtrooms anxious to legally change their names, their human titles, to exercise self-determination and overcome received sociologies. But custom and familiarity torture us, stifle us — is it fair that I remain Manly Big-Man forever?

2a. An Aside: The Proper Name as Infantile Semiotics

When Time magazine — which might well be about astrophysics or clock-making — announces its “Person of the Year,”6 dropping names like sledgehammer semioses, cynicism becomes a militant social duty, not a reactionary posture. Candidates, say Time‘s editors, are chosen not for being “most emblematic” of a given year but for generating the “most impact,” a suspicious criterion that, accurate neither in summary nor allegory, inevitably prejudices the result toward tyrants, elitists, hyped politicos — with a few humanitarian awards tossed in to appease hoi polloi.7 Zeitgeist is the ultimate arbiter: in 1929, Man of the Year was industrialist Owen Young; in 1938, Hitler. In 1950, it was, collectivistically, “the American fighting man,” yet in 1993 it was the “Peacemakers.” In emergently liberal 1966, people “Twenty-Five and Under” were chosen (above), an evaluation not only pandering but technically impossible, as toddlers and others beneath the age of reason were unlikely to engage in Aquarian revolution. In 1998, Bill Clinton and Ken Starr were jointly named (what will people think fifty years from now? — Ken Starr?); and in both 2000 and 2004, it was necessarily George W. Bush, whose name to posterity will signify only monosyllabic, bloody bumbledom. I’ve bothered to bore you with this litany because, when it came millennial moment to name Person of the Century, there was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to smash with a single name this cult of personality (even if any recognizable name will, by its very recognizability, breed cultishness). To safeguard the mythos of history, Einstein was chosen, as you know, if only to reassure us that, “No, it cannot be Hitler, but his ethical and intellectual opposite!” But had they chosen Anne Frank, they might’ve undone all their cultish atrocity, for her plight was the century’s true spirit, her name that immediate yet unsought “Eureka!” Whom would Einstein himself have chosen, but Anne Frank?

3. The Title into Which Your Art Is Born

To escape our names’ imprisonments and stases, we raise ourselves, blindly or with determination, into the demigodly chaos of art. But our self-exaltation collapses when we anchor, and likely drown, these freedoms with titles as permanent as our names (and often more meaningful, if we’re not crowned auteurs). The bureaucratic and industrial functions of titles — organizing, categorizing, cataloguing, enlarging, controlling, limiting, simplifying, conquering, most recently copyrighting — often overlap their metaphysical aim, to define indefinability, to irresponsibly represent through overreaching metonymy and underachieving microcosm.8 The title in a flash plucked from oblivion — the title in agony striving to approximate, encompass, and contain the whole of the work it designates — becomes through history aggrandized all out of proportion, beyond what its meekness can feasibly connote. After a few generations pass, the abstract, theoretically unbridgeable void between title and work — between mind and body, superego and ego, subject and object, whatever worn binary you wish — disappears; the title, absorbing all historical, sociological, epistemological meaning, is emblematic and boldly known, while the text is, at best, skimmed for excisable quotes and misconstrued summary. Our earliest texts, famous for their titles alone, were eponymous — Homer’s Odyssey united protagonist, narrative, and title all in one, though our very first, Gilgamesh, could’ve limned selflessness instead of self-discovery if we called it Enkidu. The rituals of eponymous titling won’t get you far, however, and our canon, alas, offers no sound advice for naming, only poor models one must defy. Because the burden of representation is too great, the differential between signifier and signified too insurmountable, titles become overambitious, striving to sum up hundreds of pages of text with a microcosmic axiom. “War and Peace” is arguably the most egregious example: whether manifesting Tolstoy’s original text, a despondently studio-bound film epic (Vidor, 1955), or one of cinema’s most operatic panoramas (Bondarchuk, 1967), “War and Peace” upholds itself as the apotheosis of its two nouns, as if it weren’t only the title of the greatest work to deal with these themes, but the magically overarching title of every work of similar content — and maybe the title to life itself during the experience of the text. Yet apart from such grandiosity, the title is inaccurate — where’s the love, which is certainly distinguishable from peace? The joke of Woody Allen’s parodic Love and Death (1975) is not that the title is more ridiculous than Tolstoy’s, but that it’s more accurate. Any title with aphoristic or axiomatic desires will see its aims unrequited — yet these, for their foolhardy ambitiousness alone, are our most memorable titles. Gone with the Wind seems lovely and poetic, even if we’ve never tramped through the book or suffered the film’s cornball dialog (if I confess I’ve never seen it beginning to end, will you think more or less of me?). But lacking any specific point of reference or moral critique, Gone with the Wind is, as a title, not in the edifying league of The Bad Sleep Well (1960) or Hangmen Also Die! (1943). Rebel Without a Cause is more problematic: though its gutter nobility suggests universal meanings, and though the film is only valuable if James Dean’s rebellion were everyone’s, the title cannot apply to felonious scumbag and noble revolutionary alike, for noble revolutionaries — let’s say Panamanians fighting against local police graft — do have a real cause. Any hope of universalizing the protagonist is therefore disappointed. A Streetcar Named Desire disappoints along similar lines: what we assume is a baroque, abstract metaphor turns out to be an actual streetcar thus named — though one could argue that Tennessee Williams is behaving properly here, crafting a title that doesn’t transgress its realistic, modest abilities to signify. It’s perhaps logical that only an ascetic like Jean-Pierre Melville could deflate titles’ pretensions: his Un Flic (1972), in its single noun, is both generalization and apotheosis of the noirs to which it pay homage, but unlike the similarly apotheosizing “War and Peace,” at the end of the day, it really is a flick.

4. Conjunctive Titles: Avoiding Elementary Clichés

Although the avoidance of sham poetics and bloated, misdirected metaphor is always crucial, indeed admirable, when inventing a title, we must also steer clear of structures that entrap our sweet nouns in lamentable formulae — especially that stale, unspiced recipe that couples, and occasionally contrasts, two nouns with a conjunction. The simplistically correlative “pair of nouns” strategy, whose supreme prototype is found in War and Peace, inevitably insults the audience’s intelligence, for even dimwits and mediocre, movie-going adolescents, distracted by Dolby headaches and the digital residue of butter-flavored topping, are capable of mentally juggling more than two words (or more than one correlation). If the conjunctive title is a small symptom of our dualistic, two-party thinking, it could well become a political issue, too.

The imagistic, logical, or intuitive link that exists between the coupled nouns often exploits preconceived associations that, while symbolic (“War and Peace” could be “Hell and Heaven”), also become tautologies to be accessed by those ignorant of any intended symbolization (“war and peace” sounds like pretty heavy stuff in itself). Let’s take, for instance, some combinations of four common generic nouns, some of which can also transitively stand for one another: “wine” (variously or multiply symbolic of joy, discontent, apathy, tasteful or tasteless debauchery, romance, or blood); “blood” (variously or multiply symbolic of hatred, death, family, brother-/sisterhood, purity, vengeance, interior truth); “bread” (variously or multiply symbolic of satiety, gluttony, safety, domesticity, brother-/sisterhood, agrarian nationalism); and roses (variously or multiply symbolic of blossoming love, wilted death, youthful spring, or blood-staining). Now consider 1960’s Blood and Roses (the English title for Roger Vadim’s Et mourir de plaisir — itself a decrepit cliché of French orgasmic theory), Ken Loach’s Bread & Roses (2000), Bob Rafelson’s Blood and Wine (1996), Days of Wine and Roses (1962), and, for a slight variation, Bread and Tulips (2000, Pane e tulipani — admittedly more pleasingly alliterative in Italian) — and we won’t even deign to include Bread and Chocolate (1973) or Blood and Chocolate (2007). On the one hand, all these titles subconsciously conjure — even, I’d venture, to the uneducated — myriad idiomatic and allegorical associations, both free and culturally circumscribed. Yet uninitiated viewers, having never before heard of these films nor seen a poster, advertisement, or trailer, could hardly guess that Blood and Wine is a neo-noir (where the plot hinges literally on elite wine-vending); Blood and Roses deals with treacherous female vampires (after Le Fanu’s endlessly recycled Carmilla); Bread and Roses concerns janitors engaging in unionist activism (“bread and roses” being an old socialist slogan); Days of Wine and Roses is literally about alcoholism; and Bread and Tulips (2000) would be touristic bourgeois comedy.

The moral? — do not assume clichés will make your audiences’ lives any easier. When Bahman Ghobadi’s Marooned in Iraq (2002) was changed to the hackneyed Songs of My Motherland, my life only became more treacherous — who was protecting me from what? A happier example: when a now-deceased studio boss changed the title of the silent comedy Red Wine (1928) to Let’s Make Whoopee, he chose to inflict on his audience abject stupidity instead of cliché. Yet his decision was a moral one, for the stupid are occasionally capable of exercising virtue, while the clichéd, forced to disbelieve in it, are told virtue is only for the stupid.

5. The Title as Hot Air Balloon

Before the Enlightenment, before knowledge claims bowed to scientific modesty, when philosophers’ godly theses paid no heed to discretion or logic, titles declaimed didactically and inflationarily, floating on egoist methane. We’ll never again witness the sublime overreach of Hobbes’ Human Nature, or the Fundamental Elements of Policie, or 17th century theo-philosopher Ralph Cudworth’s The True Intellectual System of the Universe, which, arguing deistically against determinism and in favor of free will, would’ve been more tenable sans the subtitle, wherein all the reason and philosophy of atheism is confuted, and its impossibility demonstrated, with a treatise concerning eternal and immutable morality. No “inflationary” title astounds me more than Louis Spohr’s symphony “The Consecration of Sound” (Die Weihe Der Tone) — did he truly believe his symphony’s banal sturm und drang would “consecrate” or legitimize the work’s very medium, or perhaps eardrums themselves?9 In 1964, Luigi Barzini drolly reinflated olden pomp with his once-popular The Italians, A Full-Length Portrait Featuring Their Manners and Morals, a title more appropriate to 1764. But in his opening chapter Barzini self-consciously deflates his pomp by admitting to its farcical, obsolete claims: “I know of no sure way to ascertain the Italian national character. There are no questionnaires for the dead.” Even in its antediluvian years, when “The Clansman” was gently and politically inflated into Birth of a Nation (1915), mainstream cinematic titles never harbored philosophical aspirations (avant-garde titles are a separate issue, but with their own generic constraints). The usual 96-minute running time, three-act structure, and determinate narrative closure preclude any theoretical vastness, and the undergraduate fallacy that cinema is “essentially” a visual medium (Eric Rohmer, anyone?) strip the title of any primacy or real stature. Indeed, compared to a Cudworth or Spohr, Griffith never had a chance.

6. A Few Lengthy Cinematic Titles: Expressionism and Anti-Expressionism

Novelists, playwrights, filmmakers, indeed all those who’ve grown to loathe their commercialistic little titles would surely craft lengthier ones if their agents, managers, producers, and distributors would allow them. Let our titles grow longer than five or six words!

The expressionistic title, unfolding snakelike into a full clause or declamatory sentence, is our cumbersome savior — not the overambitious title of pre-Enlightenment didacticism, but a title that tells us everything we need to know, like Rosa Von Praunheim’s It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse but the Situation in Which He Lives (1971), whose proclamatory-explanatory title served as a practical shield against early-70s homophobia; or titles, contrarily, that defy all impressionist delicacy and still tell us nothing, like The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972, after Paul Zindel’s play). Though the expressionist title’s impulse to over-name has literary precedents in the Rabelaisian subtitle (where each chapter’s heading outlines actions to follow), it does acquire a certain angry defiance in the context of a mass media where titles are condensed into recurrent, sellable catchphrases and radically legible chestnuts. But the more complete a title is as a self-enclosed, autonomous motive, the more we realize how unreasonable is a title’s supposed referentiality, and the more we soberly despise the inequitable spaces between proclamation (title) and actual achievement (the work’s content). The long title’s attempt at disambiguation is thus a noble failure — with the possible, self-reflective exception of Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971).

Moreover, the lengthily expressionist title also can be corrupted into indulgent, daisy-chained semi-impressionisms that retain only an appearance of objectivism. When the full-clause title devolves into Wurtmüllerian whimsy — “Washed Up on a Long Cold Shore in a Ripe Blue Ocean,” or whatever — the expressionist impulse is rewritten as precious illustration. The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Reifenstahl (1993) can be excused here, if only because the gutless German original — Die Macht der Bilder: Leni Riefenstahl (“The Power of the Image: Leni Riefenstahl”) — reinforces the very clichés the film seeks to critique.

To my knowledge, the Italian giallo is the only film subgenre that (following Argento’s lead) deliberately fostered long titles, the best of which were Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972, Tuo vizio è una stanza chiusa e solo io ne ho la chiave, Il), What Are Those Strange Drops of Blood Doing on Jennifer’s Body? (1972), and The Body Bears Traces of Carnal Violence (1973), the latter reduced to the merely shocking Torso in the U.S.10 Yet these titles are so tantalizing, so much greater than the generically (and sometimes barely) stylized thrillers they designate, that they can manufacture a kind of title-worship; indeed, such films could have no cult followings without their titles’ unsolicited beauties. The result is both transformative and deadly: when expressionistic titles have no content to express, the title eclipses the work itself — but it cannot become the work itself, for there is no work to become.

7. Inflationism Justified: Civilization and Its Discontents in Translation11

Rarely, and so sweetly, do we happen upon a title’s inflationary ambition fulfilled, and nearly accurate: Civilization and its Discontents, a title striving to encompass planetary meaning with a possessively-operating phrase. The universalizing title and universalizing content reflect one another almost exactly, the sweeping “civilization” evincing an epic history of the “ideal” of human social consciousness, while the conjunction “and” signifies discontents who are both egoistically separate from yet anxiously, Oedipally possessive of that insufferable civilization.

Yet Freud’s original German title, Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, boasts neither a transparent prepositional object nor absolutist ambition. The German “Unbehagen” implies ennui, wurst-bloated dyspepsia, and moral decline, quite different from the English “discontentment”; and if “in der Kultur” seems to locate with geographical reductivism the locus of malaise, it is because (as the sociologist Norbert Elias tells us)12 the German Kultur, while sharing with the English “civilization” the idea of an evolutionary achievement, also imparts a peculiarly ethnographic, barrel-drumming, tuba-wheezing pride that the coldly scientific English word cannot. Perhaps instead of an Aryanized Kultur, malaise might slumber within any locally particular preposition: “auf dem Markt,” “in meinem Volkswagen,” etc. Or, to more accurately reflect Freudian ideology, we might venture “im Schlafzimmer” — the “malaise in the bedroom” spells out clearly the totemic puzzle, rather than veiling it behind a mothballed Kulturidealproblematik.13 For once, a translated English title clarifies the world for us. Still, the title Civilization and its Discontents is not nearly as good as Beyond Freedom and Dignity.14

8. “The” Titles, or On the Significance of Escape from Brothel in Translation

If mistranslations only amuse, they aren’t doing their job: the good mistranslation incites reflection into the merciless grammatological imperatives of one’s native tongue, the standardized-yet-randomized ways its rules choke, not enable, creations of meaning. When we laugh at misbegotten translations, we assume our reaction, whether self-conscious or not, is a racist or ethnocentric gesture; while that’s often the case, such laughter also expresses the simple, Chomskian amazement that languages can be transposed so effortlessly, in partial or total disregard to one’s language entirely different genders, cases, tenses, and vocabularies. Many years ago, I used to frequent a local (and now-defunct) Chinese video store that invented its own ungrammatical, literalized English translations. While it was a great mental exercise to figure out what the store owner meant by “Bullet Meal” (a Taiwanese shoot-‘em-up that had something to do with “Eating Lead,” I figured) or “He Got Involved” (actually 1994’s Hunting List, about an undercover cop), I was educated better by the official, international English titles. A Hong Kong actioner nonsensically entitled T.H.E. Professionals (1998) made me realize that English has so many stupid acronyms that people in other countries now believe any English word can operate cryptically and intimidatingly if periods are placed in front of each letter. The sublime clumsiness of Bloodshed in Nightery (1993?) made me wonder why some nouns “logically” accept certain suffixes and others don’t. Then there are matters of pure personal taste: I always admired the intrepidness of Pituitary Hunter (1981), but was overjoyed when I saw a Cantonese version alternately titled Brain Theft (above).

The inexpertly translated English title of Wang Lung-wei’s sexploitation roughie Escape from Brothel (1992, hua jie kuang ben — literally, and euphemistically, Escape from [the] Flower Street)15 was a special revelation, prompting me to reassess our English demand for definite articles — which don’t exist in Chinese. Mock if you must, but the unintentional omission of the prepositional object’s “the” unsewed a few of my mental straightjackets — how much livelier, more vitally immediate, more fearsome are the subjugations of brothelry when the English article’s definitional imperatives are blithely ignored! Don’t be intolerant of the maladroit translator’s hasty blunder, for in his unknowingness he crafted one of cinema’s creepiest titles, elevating “brothel” from a singular, flea-ridden den of syphilitic penetrations — and, more specifically, the tiny Hong Kong flat that is the film’s bagnio — into the blackest monolith, a dreadful leviathan eclipsing every possible hope and human yearning. True, this “monolithicizing” of brothelry has conservative consequences, framing what could otherwise be excellent (if pricey) frottage, light cunnilingus, and mammarial play as female oppression and enslavement, particularly as the actual film involves illegal Mainland Chinese forced into indentured prostitution. Yet we’re mostly speaking of titles in the abstract here, and the act of transforming a noun’s significance has clearly limitless, and more creative, applications. Peter Weir’s de-articled Witness (1985), for example, implicates boundlessly the audience’s scopophilia — its emotive-voyeuristic process of “witnessing” the film itself — in ways that would be inhibited by the content-specific title “The Witness.”

Sometimes an article supplies a necessary sarcasm, as with The Women (1939), or historical-emotional context, as with that rancid fossil, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Rarely, an historicizing “the” makes little difference — had Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005) been “cosmically” reified as “New World,” the gesture would’ve been redundant, for the film’s poetic-naturalistic content already effuses a spirit of quasi-Herzogian transcendentalism. When you annihilate your article, take care, however, for your monolith can irritate or be blatant: the blazing single-word title, a simplistic staple of Bollywood, also pops up as a recent cliché of English-language cinema — Crush (1992)16 , Caught (1996 and 200017 ), Crash (1996 and 2004), etc. At least the singly-worded Poison (1991) evinced a grating sacrilege, and Bug (1975)18 a kitschy charm — though I’d have preferred the more accurate and explanatory title Weird Fiery Bugs of Hateful Terror Assaulting You in Your Kitchen, Crawling into Your Hairdo.

Still, before labeling your opus with definite article and common noun, think of how you’d transform the meaning by scrapping the article’s treacherous finitude and letting the noun nakedly scream. Imagine the unbounded power of Van instead of The Van (1977), Exorcist instead of The Exorcist (1973), and then weigh the horror of Unspeakable (2002) against that of The Unspeakable (1996). (Horror films above all would do well to drop their definitives; filmmakers foolishly believe that particularizing their monstrous fantasies will make them more “real.”) Religious delusionaries understand this delimiting power wherever they plaster the ungrammatical slogan “Jesus is Lord” across ghettoes and inner cities19 — it makes their monotheism more coercive, more inarguable. To place a “the” in front of “Lord” would imply that the mandate of monotheism is not self-evident, that their deity requires an article to make him singular. Imagine God embarrassed by good grammar!

Rarely, when one finds a definitely-articled title that emboldens the text’s content, one is reillusioned into believing names can be fair and thoughtful. Molière’s Le Misanthrope is such a case: it sorely needs — couldn’t go on without — its crucial Le, for hero Alceste’s misanthropy is not a rational, impersonal denunciation of social mores but is rooted individually in his broken heart, his stubborn, yet not inherent, blueness. Rousseau once explained Molière’s title by pointing out that Alceste’s misanthropy reflected a profound disappointment in, not revulsion of, his fellow men, who fall too easily into vice, stupidity, and corruption; he is a beaten humanist, not a Gulliver more comfortable among the Houyhnhnms than the Yahoos. I’m therefore thankful for the qualifying Le — without it, an unearned, monolithic title of “Misanthrope” would degrade true misanthropes, mixing them in with the poor, heartrended Alcestes, whose hatefulness passes and recedes with the fortunes of loves mostly lost, seldom conquered.

9. The “The” in The Mystery of Picasso

The littlest words lie as craftily as the big ones. The seemingly innocuous “the” in the title of Clouzot’s The Mystery of Picasso (1956) deceives viciously and must be understood as either plainspoken irony or a plain lie, for the film, raising more mysteries than it resolves, never engages the finitude signified by its definitely-articled title. Simply, we’re surprised Picasso, of all people, secrets away only one mystery (and one name) — the overriding, grandiose mystery inherent in, yet split apart and distributed by, his multi-period genius and misogynist yet aesthetically unlimited personality. The Unfathomed Mysteries of Picasso, Multiplied Anew with Each Stroke of Cinematic Paint — this could be a title better befitting the film, for it, an alleged verité document of Picasso painting for us on a transparent screen, is in fact an anti-verité critique of the limitations of representing art across media, particularly as Clouzot insists on dollying out his camera to objectivistically frame himself in the “real” process of filming Picasso. When, without notice, Clouzot reveals that the transparency on which Picasso’s been scribbling has been giving us an inverted, mirror-image view of his work, verité truth-mongering turns 180 degrees false. Clouzot then rubs our noses in his bastardly charade, joking with Picasso, “There is only one problem left: the audience will think you painted that in ten minutes.” Realizing technology (and the propulsive, bongo-driven rhythms of Georges Auric’s score) has fooled us into believing five hours of human work could be accomplished in a few ingenious moments, and that Clouzot’s pseudo-verité games revel in the incompetence of the audience’s hapless eye, we arrive at a bitter, more malicious Rashomon — didn’t you ever learn about the tilts and perils of subjectivity, you unworthy middlebrow fools?

If these slaps in the interpretive face were insufficient, Picasso grumbles over his own pretended inadequacies: “It is bad…very bad,” he says of the most colorful, complex work he creates for the film. Are we supposed to concur? Is this the film’s greatest hoodwink? — we assume these extemporaneous doodlings are stamped with the name of genius, only to be shamed by the deity himself. The same logic, of course, informs the barter of any famous signature: the autograph, both transcendental signifier and destabilized commodity, is taken as emblematic of origination and authenticity in itself, not only when unattached to a valuable object, but when unattached to any object whatsoever (save its own historicized ink). Even the original meaning of the word “autograph” — a handwritten manuscript — is itself lost, as the cult of personality authenticates all meaning through the vacuum of a name.

Is the “singular” mystery of Picasso, then, that he can exploit his godlike proper name to magically dunce us, authenticating his art through the film’s title, and his human one? If the film’s anti-verité spiel is really intended as a self-critique, we should disbelieve Picasso’s name-brandness, and acknowledge the misleading nature of the film’s title: not a mystery, but a treachery. Yet this elaborate put-on imparts obvious lessons: industrial media and celebrity collude to impose false valuations; the proto-Wellesian thesis (years before F for Fake [1973]) that the camera is an animist trickster; the pessimist fallacy that we, the decadent and unknowing, need to be slapped across blushing faces endlessly by our idols, the equally decadent but universally knowing. What is education, dear fellow . . . if not shame?

10. Avant-Garde Bologna

The titles of avant-garde works, by tacit rule, delight in telling you little; if the work’s content is incomprehensible, illegible, or solipsistic, an intentionally abstruse title either sanctifies the illegibility or (for lesser artists) jokingly testifies that the compact between text and audience is but a contemptible game. Rebelling against the literalist tags of classical representational art — Woman with Watering-Pail, and so forth — avant-gardism revels in anti-signification and Yoko Ono-ish non-referentiality (i.e., No. 4, 1966), or plays with cool Dada jest — Bagpipers Recrudesce, Also, sounds like a nice progressive jazz number. At least avant-coolness exploded the mildewed practice of Latinized pretension and canonical apostrophe; no longer can one take seriously sonatas or concerti with “Silencium” or “Tonalis” in their titles, and one feels compelled to distrust the expected scrapings of Marina Voinova’s The Weeping of Orpheus, for Solo Cello on titular grounds alone.

When my nephew was about three, and delighted in pretending he was a capable chef, lording over a synthetic toy kitchen and miniature plastic foods, he had among his paraphernalia a porcine-pink disc (right), approximately four inches in diameter, ingrained by the manufacturer with the word “China” on one side (signifying the country of manufacture, not a candy-colored dishware). To parents schooled in child-rearing and toy-hustling, this totemic disc, which might otherwise seem an enormous lozenge or undersize coaster, is recognized instantly as a simulacrum of bologna — a tactile means of socializing children into the rituals of sluiced and pressed meats likely to comprise their youthful diets. But ennobled with the right avant-garde title, the counterfeit bologna becomes a satirical objet d’art. Posing as “Industrial Artifact: Bologna Probability,” the unsignified disc’s mathematical perfection could parody the industrial processes that convert organic material into an unnaturally circular perfection. The “artifact” is both entirely parodic and entirely realistic. Perhaps avant-gardists identify with this duality: unable to communicate with an audience weaned on mass-produced art, they engage in deliberately self-parodic titles, pretending art’s all just a joke, a simulacra of a real art that can, in the postindustrial or postmodern age, never exist; but the act of playing the game verifies their authenticity as “real” artists on the margins, even when reality is perfectly pressed, sluiced, and repackaged.

11. Titles with Numbers

Hollywood’s voodoo worship of (or economic addiction to) unoriginality has made us dread seeing numbers imbedded in titles. The sequel-heralding number has become a fearful industrial glyph, resurrecting narratives whose formulaic nature is already played out (in-)adequately under unsequelized titles — Die Hard 2 (1990) becomes Under Siege (1992), though the latter should’ve been called Die Hard -1, making Under Siege 2 (1995), by the immutable laws of mathematical justice, Under Siege 1 (zero doesn’t exist, of course, unless you’re Anton Bruckner). As screenwriter’s block and savage capitalism turn eternal return’s cosmic spiral into a sterile cul-de-sac, we’re dumbstruck when confronted with sequels whose prototypes we never knew existed — say, Octopus 2: River of Fear (2001), or Megiddo: The Omega Code 2 (2001) — but know too well the impotence of laughter.

The conventional, anti-corporate scorn of movie sequels is shortsighted, however, for the notion of works in a series has existed for centuries, and often for profit. The structural and melodramatic differences between Haydn’s Third Symphony (1762) and his Fourth Symphony (also 1762) may be marginally greater than those between Ghoulies II (1987) and Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go to College (1991), but both pairs share the same driving ideology: to expand a preexisting model through variations. We have no moral objection to “State Highway #33” — in no way does it diminish its prequel — and the persistent fact that humans, Americans in particular, obsessively attach “Junior” to their children’s names seems to suggest the manufacture of sequels and pseudo-clones is praiseworthy. At least Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go to College supplies the audience with practical information, unlike the sequelized title of, say, a modish sculpture called Titanium Erection #11 (as if everyone knows what the other ten are). But sequels are really scorned because their titles’ eternally-returning numbers terrifyingly propose an overwhelming, unquenchable perpetuity. We prefer Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony to Mozart’s 41st Symphony because “Jupiter” calms our senses with narrowness and control: there are infinite numbers, but only a finite number of names in the Greco-Roman pantheon — and only a few other planets to conquer.

12. Pornographic Titles — Radical Literalism and Infantilized Punning

We are reluctantly amused by pornographic video titles because their two distinctive traits, shameless literalism and shameless punning, offer contradictory appraisals of human sexuality. While the guilelessness of, say, a Rican Fuck Club convinces us that sexuality is less mysterious than Puritans and Freudians theorized, the double pun of a Tasting Mr. Goodbar removes us to an infantile-metaphoric arena that giddily mystifies our plunges and pumpings, assuming we subscribe to the psychoanalytic view of punning.20 On the one hand, generic pornography’s marginal status obliterates the call for bourgeois metaphor; when confronted with The Weight of Water, The House of Sand and Fog, Snow Falling on Cedars, or other titles trading in pseudonaturalistic, “evocative” poetics, we can only admire a Busty Lactations, stand in awe of the anti-ageist 87 and Still Banging, salute the anti-family agenda of Totally Nude Divorcees, and marvel when women are, against all biological principle, Forced to Lactate (with clothespins and a rubber evacuation bulb, apparently, in Volume 4 of the series)21 . Yet when pornography’s complementary pun-obsession, always reminding us of the infantile (yet really eternal) nature of the masturbatory act, mildly spoofs the decencies of mainstream cinema, it doesn’t unclothe sexuality but adds a second, latex-like layer of linguistic skin. (This isn’t to say double entendres are never worthwhile — for instance, the rewarding irony that as impotent a politician as Dan Quayle would entitle his autobiography Standing Firm.) Punning titles recounted in a Variety article by Timothy M. Gray22Six Degrees of Penetration (clever), The Legend in Bagger’s Pants (even more so), the sublime Bang the Nun Slowly, and the impressively lyrical The Prettiest Face I Ever Came Across — ultimately only quip, not subvert. The cheap philology of advertising hacks, who encode their shame in obscure word roots, operates along similar lines — I was initially flummoxed by the name of the erectile dysfunction tablet Levitra, until I realized it was a deviation of the verb “to levitate.”

Pornographers are naturally crafty, however, and lest their dichotomously literal and punning titles structurally reproduce the obsolete realism/fantasy binary of the Lumières-Méliès era, they invent mold-breaking non-sequiturs. I’m indebted to the sleazed research of one website’s Sei Shonagon-esque list of worst porn video titles,23 whose wild mixture of sophomoric shock (Let’s Play Stain the Couch), unaccountable anatomic displacements (Abs of Cum and Sirloin Tits), Benny Hill-ish frivolity (Topless Brain Surgeons), and gastro-erotic ambiguity (Shrimpin’ Lobster Sauce) corrupt any dualistic determinism.

Occasionally, satire rears its head, and pornographic titles transcend the timidity of parody; for example, the military-themed gay porn title Homosexual Tendencies celebrates sodomy and advances its cause by subverting the language our government uses to prosecute/persecute gay militarists (logically, all members of a volunteer army are militarists). Yet even this satire has a regressive premise, for it’s the term’s homophobia that makes its operation as homoerotica exciting. If we were truly liberated, would we still need the self-fulfilling myth of taboo? — are we so unimaginative than we cannot experience pleasure without the added spice of subversion?

13. The Masculinization of Adjective-Noun Dyadism

Action films have always codified their generic aims and gendered natures through mighty, monolithic nouns; sometimes, the noun’s masculinity commercially adhered to an actor’s intertextual persona, such that mealy-mouthed Robert Ginty, for instance, was alternately and cumulatively The Exterminator (1980) and The Retaliator (1987). But the proliferation of fly-by-night video distribution in the early 1980s brought with it a new trend that, by introducing emphatic adjectives, replaced the individualized brutal hero with a generalized state of violent being: “Final Vengeance,” “Fatal Justice,” and sundry other nationalistic or militaristic variants, all pronounced with brutal stresses on the hard consonants. From this dyadic structure was birthed an analogous spate of legalistic titles, whose ubiquity should ideally deny the possibility of copyright infringements — anyone unthinking enough to name their film Physical Evidence (1989), Presumed Innocent (1990), or Reasonable Doubt (2001, or 2004)24 should instantly forfeit any claim to originality of content, though I sympathize with filmmakers who, told their (generic) films cannot be more than the clichés their titles invoke, still strive to be more than what their titles are permitted to be.25

When in 1986 or 1987 — when the popularization of essentially (and essentialist) masculine clichés threatened to absorb all available adjective-noun permutations — it seemed title invention was predicated on a mix-and-match, Chinese menu grammarianism:

A (Adjective) B (Noun)
Extreme Terror
Violent Justice
Deadly Vengeance
Crazy Impulse
American Fury
Fatal Force
Mortal Stench
Terminal Instinct
Intense Deception
Brutal Target
Deep Indiscretion
False Conduct
Indecent Exposure
Lethal Punishment
Malicious Motive
Black City
Final Ninja/Dragon/Cyborg/Samurai/Avenger/Tiger/Heroic Masculine Noun
Avenging Victim
Hidden War
Dark Response
Raging Rage
Missing Prey
Bloody26 Condensation 
True Payback
Etc. Etc.

The adjective “American” becomes particularly nefarious, and misleading: a white-bread, “kill-the-brown-people” actioner may be called American Rage or American Payback, though such nouns are hardly particular to America. Of course, when “payback” is Americanized, it’s better payback: as American jingoism prides itself in the belief that its sadisms are nobler (or more efficacious) than Haitian, Sudanese, or Chilean brands, the “American” in American Ninja (1985), American Kickboxer (1991), and American Streetwarrior (1992) becomes merely the most exalted form of “malicious,” “extreme,” or “deadly.” The adjective’s nationalization is frequently gratuitous, however: American Cyborg (1994) recalls the unlikelihood of many potential alternatives, for we rarely expect a Javanese Cyborg, Micronesian Cyborg, or other titles espousing the cybernetic aspirations of any technology-deficient peoples, and European cinema is unlikely to unveil a Luxembourgian Cyborg or Iberian Cyborg.26 But more recently, “American” has been deployed as identity-politics, indie-film irony — only the anti-WASP multiculturalism of titles such as American Desi (2001), American Chai (2001), American Seoul (2003), and so forth can neutralize the nascent belligerence that generically incubates in Americanism.

When we, smashed and dozy at 4:07 a.m., encounter in the darkest nadirs of cable TV the Judd Nelson vehicle Lethal Eviction (2005), we know the dyadism has run deadly dry: the adjective-noun ideology formerly signaling the most Reaganite of imperialist-masturbatory fantasies has been reduced to a local tenant-landlord dispute. Direct-to-video auteurs would be wise to explore tripartite options, with doubled adjectives, such as Illegal Lethal Vengeance or Raging Furious Intent, or adverb-adjective-noun triads, such as Wildly Lethal War, Ragingly True Menace, or Truly Brutal Exposure, for at least then they could be forthright in their ridiculousness.27

14. How Typeface and Punctuation Alter Signification

Excepting an occasional ironic question mark or humorous exclamation point, titles generally suppress and make implicit their punctuations: we do not see the full-stop period that logically attends Crime and Punishment, the question mark latent in For Whom the Bell Tolls, the ellipsis that should follow A Tale of Two Cities, or the chilling exclamation that should make Night of the Lepus (1972) spring to life. The physical printed appearance of titles, determined by arbitrary style conventions of italicization, underlines, and so on, further governs, perhaps imperils, their connotative meanings, moods, tonal postures, and outright bearings. Night of the Lepus seems at once coldly declamatory and silly for its undeserved stateliness; Night of the Lepus drips an elegance still unable to purchase the content it names respect; “Night of the Lepus” seems happily suitable for a birthday festivity or ice carnival; while the impregnable highlight of Night of the Lepus conveys both a self-protective cushioning that softens the film’s leporid terrors, and the objectivized glow of inky-thick Truth. The point is obvious enough — you may invent your own examples. Suffice it to say that certain films could benefit from materializations of latent punctuation: the live-action cartoon strip that is Oliver Stone’s Nixon would become more palatable and legitimate as political critique were it entitled Nixon!

15. Why Did Progressive Verbs Become a Bourgeois Trend?

My subtitle isn’t rhetorical; I can’t explain why sometime in the 1990s English-language film titles acquired progressive tenses (the suffixal “-ing”), but the fad spread epidemically, like some contagion osmotically contracted by exposure to Hollywood boardrooms. According to the trend, progressive action precedes an acted-upon proper noun: Losing Isaiah (1995), Chasing Amy (1997), Finding Forrester (2000), Finding Nemo (2003), Finding Neverland (2004), Owning Mahoney (2003), Finding Graceland (1998), Unfolding Florence (2005), Undertaking Betty (2002), Shooting Elizabeth (1992), etc. Shorn of any subject or actor, the object-oriented “progressive” title signifies both momentariness of action and continuousness of being, just as films are themselves works of the moment, forgotten quickly by audiences and, over time, disowned by their creators, yet also relics cycling in the mortified perpetuity of cable broadcast, eventually accumulating a crust of feebleminded nostalgia. Cinematic transience and dumbly phrased eternity strive against one another, and are brought into check only by the tasteless, borrowed humanism accrued from an acted-upon character’s first name (“Betty,” “Elizabeth,” whatever). Filmmakers keen on progressive titles probably don’t intend to stir this sort of reflection — they likely mean to inspire a breezy, one-dimensional perpetual motion — but where insufficient meaning exists, we heedlessly invent our own.

16. Bourgeois Apostrophizing (Name-Dropping for Housewives)

Just as the judiciously jargoned quotation appeases the antiromantic academic, so does the romantic-essentialist invocation of Civilization’s Towering Names impress the swooning, novel-consuming bourgeoisie. Judging by the titles of recent bestsellers, the apostrophic gesture is hardly Homeric, but a fetishistic name-dropping that lulls escapist audiences into ersatz comradeship with either upper-middlebrow culture or historicized exotica: Audrey Hepburn’s Neck, Captain Correlli’s Mandolin (as if conjuring the mystique of Archangel Corelli — but who cares?), the pop-history Galileo’s Daughter, and, worst of all, Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. The formula is transparent: an immanently mystifiable and possessive historical name, appended, by rote, to a mysteriously possessed fetish-object (neck, mandolin, daughter — that “little Chinese seamstress” operates as orientalized fetish-object is startlingly odious in this politically correct age).28 One soon believes the heretofore elusive key to middlebrow literary success might lie in hypothetical titles such as Robespierre’s Stonemason, Herr Schumann’s Chamber-Pot, Beverly Sills’ Girdle-Pincher, Mme. Maupassant’s Secret Ivory Dildo . . . you understand the point.29

17. Titular Miscellanea: Undeveloped Fragments and Unfocused Musings

Ozu’s I Was Born But . . . (1932) boasts the title of a great tragedy — the most tragic title possible, in fact — but the incongruous content of a light comedy.30 Possibly, my own suicidal tendencies predispose me to sense tragic thought where comic feeling exists; but because the title disproves my own instincts, it’s an excellent one, pressing me to forfeit my preconceptions, pushing me with incongruousness toward health again.

* * *

Ludicrousness, in uncontrolled doses, can lose its incongruous, dispossessing comic effect, and become lucid, existential tragedy — wise in despair, one recognizes the Earth itself as fallen hero. I had such a ludicrous-tragic experience when I, despairing in cable television’s ninth circle, wandered into The Discovery Health Channel’s When Surgical Tools Get Left (inside patients, that is), and Animal Planet’s E-Vets: Things Pets Swallow, whose heroes, doubtless to the delight of shatterpated suburbanites addicted to the diverse stenches and salivations of their domesticated beasts, “. . . use high-tech procedures to analyze and remove inanimate objects from pets’ digestive tracts,” or so read the capsule description.31 Blankly I confess my incomprehension of a once-hopeful world; it allows me to breathe in the tragic air, at least.

* * *

There is also a “ludicrous sincerity,” something Schopenhauer overlooks in his theory of the ludicrous-comic outlined in The World as Will and Representation, and which I’d characterize as being one degree less ironic than camp. This involves genuine, heartfelt misguidedness that, following from a semi-dramatic cause, reproduces the effect of the ludicrous — as in Frankie Chan’s I.Q. Dudettes (2000), where mild high-school escapades suddenly explode into suicides, mad uncles urinate into jars, teenage lesbianism is fantastically cured with a straightening kiss (in the year 2000, no less!), and a fifteen-minute climactic homage to The Red Shoes was likely undertaken in a self-consciously amateurish earnestness. The incongruity attendant to ludicrousness (in Schopenhauer’s terms) becomes superfluous, particularly when a supra-ludicrous title directs the action: as my mind’s voice repeated, “I.Q. Dudettes! I.Q. Dudettes!,” everything fell into exactly the right place.

* * *

Straight-facedness in a title can breed assured irony, but not only in comfortable retrospect. We can imagine the duress under which the once-modernistic composer Gavril Popov wrote his socialist-realist score for Esfir Shub’s 1932 documentary Komsomol is the Chief of Electrification . (“Komsomoltsy” were members of the Communist Youth League, often sent on perilous hydroelectric dam-building excursions in Siberia to fulfill Lenin’s decree that “Communism is Soviet Power Plus Electrification of the Entire Country”). Yet here ludicrous incongruity might take another turn, for a title that assumedly signifies mechanized socialist-realist drudgery is embodied by a film that Eisenstein himself called “a brilliant audiovisual victory,”32 and a score that is arguably better than anything Hollywood produced up until that time. Sheer talent overcomes the ludicrous.

* * *

The real problem with the titles of countries is haziness, not jingoistic boastfulness. If Pakistan’s claim to being “Land of the Pure” remains unauthenticated by any objective measure (purity is not Koranic misogyny), and “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” seems a joke not appalling but stark-mad, “The United States of America” doesn’t even bother to express an ideology or aspiration, but merely propounds a condition unhampered by any quality whatsoever. What exactly unites these states? — surely not the farcical claims of a Constitution both anachronistic and ever-violated? Oh, “the pursuit of happiness” — that crushing burden of mass individualism, our mandate to condemn fraternité, as humiliating as ten billion titles ill-striving to name what cannot be free!

* * *

Tomlinson’s 1958 Guide to Steel Beams and Girders — a title impressive in its unpretentious functionality, happy in its slack-jawed materialism. Likewise, The Irregular Rodential Brain in Figures and Tables is utilitarianism triumphant — unreformed efficiency conquers the effete alienation of pretentiously “desirous” titles. Yet for both purity of intent and unconscious insult, I prefer Wood: Its Selection and Use, a 1931 U.S. government pamphlet published by the National Committee on Wood Utilization. Banality, sweet as sugar, mistaken for holiness!


I can’t ethically object to the title Charlie Chan in Reno (1939), though viewers uninitiated into the characterological and locational trajectories of the whole of this epic series may not appreciate the import of Charlie swinging by Reno.

* * *

Godard’s autobiographically titled essay-film JLG/JLG (1996), though solipsistically trading in the director’s deconstructionist language games, offers so little insight about Godard-the-person that the divisional “/” seems a spurious self-diagnosis, intended to deceive. JLG ? JLG or JLG = JLG seem more apt for Godard’s discursive gamesmanship.

* * *

Young children should study movie posters or video box images before they are introduced to art history: clumsy two-dimensional superimpositions of a title over a static image will teach them how perspective truly works. Witness the seldom-seen advertising images for Have a Nice Weekend (1975) andThe Great Skycopter Rescue (1978). What visualist among us, when confronted with these blessed crudities, isn’t galvanized into taking up paint and brush, and discovering afresh how the dimensions work?

* * *

The Japanese electronic-pop composer Kentaro Haneda (best known for his luxurious anime scores) has a techno-Mozart album that, in English, is known horribly as Slammin’ Amadeus.33 But what a sublime way to unshackle the classics for children and illiterate hordes! I humbly suggest sequels in the vein of Pimpin’ Debussy, Gangbangin’ Glazunov, Whorin’ Telemann, and so on, to endless canonical delights. I cannot condone Hot Sex Classical Music, however, a recording apparently out of print.34

* * *

Love’s Labor’s Lost — yes, yes, more of that! But As You Like It — a revolting title, offensive in its presumption of our enthrallment to festive comedy. How depressing it is when a genius misjudges you!

* * *

According to Ernesto Cardenal, during the Somoza regime, “The Rebellion of the Masses by Ortega and Gasset was prohibited for its title . . . while The Sacred Family by Marx was allowed to enter because of its title.”35 Can we say the censorship of capitalist economics and marketing is any less superficial? Andrew Bergman’s Cop Gives Waitress $2 Million Dollar Tip! was forcibly altered to the radically insincere, anti-referential It Could Happen to You (1994); Jim Abraham’s Jane Austen’s Mafia! (1998), slapdashedly spoofing the middlebrow Austen book-clubbing of the late ’90’s, became in all promotions and advertisement the unadorned Mafia!, to avoid alienating people who don’t understand jokes; while the light British comedy The Pope Must Die (1991) was released in the U.S. as The Pope Must Diet, to placate American Catholics who believed the original title was a secularist call to arms. Hell, why even have titles at all?

* * *

A proposition: both Rules of the Game and Grand Illusion are equally good titles, but Rules of the Game is by far the better film, and certainly because of its title.

* * *

Another proposition: Paradise Lost is a superb title — because its meaning is even deeper for non-Christians.

18. Der Letzte Mann Validates Triumph des Willens

I don’t know what F. W. Murnau’s opinion of Nietzsche was, but he must have been playing an ironic, mixed-up joke when he chose the title Der Letzte Mann (1924). If Emil Jannings’ dignity-stripped doorman was intended as an infinitesimally, unroyally tragic figure, terminally fading to black at the end — as he was supposed to before UFA bigwigs insisted on that notorious title change and fanciful, tacked-on anticlimax — his incitement of pathos only corroborates the notion that dignity, the humanist’s straitjacket, is derived from — is symptomatic of! — incurable conformism.

If Jannings’ doorman were forty years younger and living ten years later, would we condone his obsessive need to exchange humanity for a brass-buttoned uniform, just as the throngs in Triumph of the Will (1934) ecstatically traded theirs for a shiny tin shovel? By forcing us to experience pathos for a personage whose identity hinges on apocalyptic conformity (and uniformity), Murnau twists our judgment and estranges our morality. Any pathos endured on Jannings’ behalf negates the supposed critique of the fascist uniform; the critique becomes a generalized, bathetic sorriness for the overdignified herd, and, as Jannings’ hamartia is only a negative affect of his sickly uniform, tragedy becomes impoverished sociology. If The Last Man was inherently insufficient as tragedy, The Last Laugh‘s capricious, nose-thumbing comic ending seems a logical refutation, and not a betrayal, of any intended condemnation of class and fortune.

Could Murnau have seriously intended us to pity the Last Man, Nietzsche’s herd-man, the anti-Zarathustra, the simian whose scattered, self-respecting bones will pave the Superman’s path? While The Last Man shames us into pitying, not scorning, the cult of dignity and its decrepitude, the ending of The Last Laugh celebrates the surrender of lower-class dignity to greedy gluttony and the nihilism of a deus ex machina. While the present ending is dramatically corrupt and unconvincing, we cannot seriously prefer the crypto-fascist fatalism of Murnau’s original to the happy nihilism introduced by the clueless producers.

The uniform, in all its guises, must be mocked and abandoned at every opportunity — a hardly challenging mission today, when the genocidal dignity of the Jannings model has been replaced with the postindustrial smocks of contemporary corporate fascism. Many years ago, when I suffered a mild kleptomania and addiction to shoplifting, I attempted to thieve (from the corporate music-and-video emporium “Coconuts,” as insipid a title as anyone could wish for) a criminally overpriced laserdisc36 by switching its usurious sticker with the friendlier one of a laserdisc no one wanted.37 Having pulled off similar swindles in the past, and believing my Robin Hoodish misdeed balanced out the distributor’s extortion, I approached the orange-uniformed assistant manager behind the front counter. He took one look at the sticker and immediately saw through my ruse; I was “somewhat” prepared for this, as all kleptomaniacs are, to varying degrees. Rather than call the police, and defer to an outside authority, he asserted his own, screaming a miserably cinematic line: “I don’t ever want to see you in my store again!” It was his Times Square empire: the humiliating orange uniform and snug black vest (if not the undignified name-plate) made it so, arousing and sanctifying within him hotly protective and sentimental feelings toward an 8-hour drudgery that surely entitled him to no stock options, no corner office, no real capital to make it really his. Though furious, he pitied me, probably, and I pitied him, privately embarrassed for his station as much as I myself was embarrassed publicly. But the store manager’s moralism made me treasure my righteous dishonesty more; his uniform, like all uniforms, like all titles and entitlements, lied badly.

19. Don’t Be Misled by Framed Beautiful Sentiments

Emerging from the Holland Tunnel into Manhattan, one was once obliged to circle past an independent movie theater called “The Screening Zone” (let’s put aside the choice of “Zone” as opposed to “Sphere,” “Club,” “Joint,” or “Den”). One day several years ago I drove past, and the marquee bore only one capitalized title: ALL FAREWELLS SHOULD BE SUDDEN. An intriguing title, I thought, and even if its aphoristic idea is untrue, it does give an effortless appearance of wisdom. But then I realized it wasn’t the title of a new film — the theater was changing ownerships (or at least its name), and this sign was a heartfelt farewell to its customers.38 Surely the theater intended the confusion, and other passersby likely enjoyed the same misconstrued experience. I was overcome with an extraordinary feeling of warm satisfaction: finally, appreciating the function of the frame in a public and practical context, someone had finally unraveled and exposed the conventionality of film titles, in the sacred place where title is king.

20. The End of Titles

Ultimately, we must take action ourselves to defeat titles’ ill-definitions of us — but they cannot be burned, shot, eaten, or shat, and striking them out will always leave traces, fugitive or conspicuous. The only solution is synthesis, for text and title to become one and the same, eliminating all distinction between the two. This is accomplished simply. Just take this text and underline, italicize, or boldface every word, for these markings will signify what is called the title; then, each and every word so signified, you cannot tell the thing from what it is called. Our problems are thus solved.

But you will be continually tempted to undo the underlines, italics, or boldface — the alternating negation and recreation of all signification can be accomplished with a few clicks of the mouse (or many strokes of the eraser). The temptation to undo your synthesis will persist, and that is good; as long as you resist the temptation to undo your nothingness, you’re still in control.

  1. Those who engage in an eisegesis (the subjective reading into a text, not the exegetical reading out from it) of Exodus can arrive at alternately tensed translations of God’s self-reflexive response to Moses, such as “I am what I will be” or “I will be what I will become” (in old Hebrew, tenses were implicit). Such eisegeses inevitably present an imperfect God, one who needs to become something because his present state is lacking. []
  2. The Gutenberg Project offers a free text of Ambrotoxhere. []
  3. Particularly in the names given animals retained for household usage. []
  4. Benjamin Jowett’s standard translation is availablehere. []
  5. Choose your name — I won’t say pseudonym — carefully. I once saw on a “dating” game show a musician-contestant of Paleolithic intelligence who called himself “Evolve” — it was unclear whether this was meant as a command to others or a personal aspiration. []
  6. Formerly gendered as “Man of the Year.” []
  7. Most notoriously, 2006’s choice of “You.” []
  8. The silliness of the exceptions prove the rule: if you’re ever on Bleeker Street in Manhattan, look for a store called “This is Murray’s Cheese Shop.” Though Murray’s understanding of linguistics isn’t as sophisticated as Magritte’s, he has accomplished something — the title’s tautological character and passive verb tell exactly what it is, no more, no less (though part of the shop may technically belong to the bank, or his wife, etc.). []
  9. Abraham Veinus says of Spohr’s symphony: “The symphony was set to a poem by Pfeiffer which, Spohr instructed, was to be read aloud prior to performance of the music, or else printed and distributed to the audience for the improvement, no doubt, of their immortal souls.” Veinus, Abraham. The Concerto. New York: Dover Publications, 1964. Page 160. []
  10. Compare Sergio Martino’s Torso to Juan Piquer Simón’s erotophobic chainsaw horror Pieces (1982). 1970s trailers for Torso repeatedly exclaim “Torso! Torso! Torso!”, while in an ’80s television ad for Pieces the announcer yells “Pieces! Pieces! Pieces!”, before reassuring us, “It’s exactly what you think it is!” Also compare Torso to Deodato’s eyeball-gouge thriller Eyeball aka Secret Killer (1975), whose original Italian title, Gatti rossi in un labirinto di vetro (Red Cats in a Glass Maze), evinces the giallo thriller’s usual purple-prose allegory and animal imagery. []
  11. My thanks to Robert M. Grossman for his insights into the German language (insights I’ve no doubt muddied), as well as his comments on and suggestions for various sections of this essay. []
  12. Elias begins his famous The Civilizing Process by drawing a lengthy distinction between the English word “civilization” and the German “culture.” []
  13. “The problem of the idealization of culture.” []
  14. Had Freud been Skinner, our civilizations would be better places indeed. []
  15. Very literally, “Crazily Running from [the] Flower Street,” where “flower” is a Chinese euphemism for virginal sexuality (as in “deflower”). []
  16. The Internet Movie Database lists nine films entitled Crush, in fact. []
  17. The Internet Movie Database lists a total of twelve films entitled Caught. []
  18. Not to mention the recent Bugs of 2002, 2003, and 2006. []
  19. As one enters Newark, New Jersey, a looming sign announces that “Jesus is Lord of Newark.” While I can’t attest to any affiliations Christ may have with Newark, the city could use a few carpenters. []
  20. The trend toward puns in porn is an American phenomenon — European and Asian pornographic titles far less often need to camouflage their sexual anxieties. Asian porn titles, especially, tend toward a kind of stunned honesty; the Hong Kong Movie Database once listed a Chinese porn literalistically translated as Illegal Violate Tits 4. Japanese porn titles, meanwhile, straightforwardly and formulaically include words such as “rape,” “deviance,” “anal-hunter,” and so on. []
  21. See here. []
  22. See here. []
  23. See here. []
  24. Though not structured as an adjective-noun dyad, Body of Evidence (1993) is a similar legal cliché; an unfortunate double entendre, the title refers to star Madonna’s “body.” []
  25. A few exceptional films, predating this formula, are more than their unfortunately generic titles — for instance, Inadmissible Evidence (1968), an uncinematic, well-acted (by Nicol Williamson) adaptation of John Osborne’s play. Michael Anderson’s stiff, competent Conduct Unbecoming (1975) is a lesser example. []
  26. I’ll except Japanese variants, of course. []
  27. One noun conspicuously absent from my Chinese-menu list of English-language action titles, you’ll notice, is “Brothers,” a word that continually makes its way into the English titles of Chinese action films, as with Sworn Brothers (1987), Heroic Brothers (1991), innumerable films entitled Blood Brothers or Bloody Brothers, and the unintentionally homoerotic Flaming Brothers (right, 1987). Clearly, the Confucianist “brothers” substitutes nicely, if conservatively, for imperialist abstractions like “force” or rank individualisms like “instinct” and “motive.” The English translation of “brothers” is perhaps influenced historically by Pearl Buck’s translation of the Water Margin as “All Men Are Brothers.” []
  28. Yet I can sympathize (albeit spinelessly) with authors who wander somnambulistically into received and internalized patterns, since I often find myself writing the same sentence structures over and over. Should I judge harshly novelist Stephen L. Carter, author of the novel The Emperor of Ocean Park, for (unconsciously?) plagiarizing the structure of The King of Marvin Gardens? []
  29. Name-dropping, however, can allow no ambiguity: the title of a 1990’s made-for-TV film about H. P. Lovecraft was changed from the tautological Lovecraft when network executives feared audiences would confuse it with The Love Boat. I, too, am not immune to small uncertainties: when I first saw the title “Copland” printed in Variety, I was shocked that Hollywood would today bother with a film biography of Aaron Copland. When I again saw the title, the typo had been corrected, and I realized Cop Land (1997) was a Sylvester Stallone movie. []
  30. Compare to the Ozu documentary I Lived, But . . . (1983) Is this a more or less tragic title? []
  31. My favorite Discovery Health Channel capsule description: “A man without a nipple gets one . . . “ []
  32. From Per Skans’ liner notes to the Olympia CD release (OCD 598) of Popov’s suite from the film. I haven’t seen the film itself, which is extremely rare. []
  33. The English vulgarity is not Haneda’s; the original Japanese is Fukkuto-on Mozart. []
  34. Yet we can, I believe, approve of an audio cassette I saw once in Toronto entitled Young Boys’ Organ Music, whose cover image featured a priest laying his hands on a choir boy’s tender shoulders. []
  35. Cardenal, Ernesto. “Toward a New Democracy of Culture.” The Nicaragua Reader. New York: Grove Press, 1983. Page 346. []
  36. I remember it being Dragon Inn (1992), absurdly overpriced at $80 — at a time, about 15 years ago, when Hong Kong films were in vogue and still uncommon. []
  37. I remember it being a pan-and-scan version of Meet the Hollowheads (1989). I will not comment on the title. []
  38. No doubt I was fooled because marquee headlines — or any kind of public sign — are rarely heartfelt. I recall the sign of a highway Burger King expressing the most egregiously misplaced sentiment: “Welcome Back Fish Filet” — an inordinately emotional form of address for what is likely a pad of machine-pressed pike, not a red-lunged doughboy escaped from the trenches of the Somme. []