Bright Lights Film Journal

The Visual “Finding,” the Linguistic “How,” and the Interrogative “Talk”: Three Examples of Early 21st-Century Rhetoric

“Soon enough, America’s purported indie filmmakers will regale us with a ‘Remonstrating Cody,’ a ‘Defibrillating Schnitzler,’ a ‘Rehumidifying Allison,’ or a ‘Macerating Tennyson.’ Long live the present participle!”

I find that my spirit suffocates whenever I try to discuss trends — I must not merely bow to the trendsetter’s triviality but depend on his blindness for my inspiration. Wrapped in a passing trend, I become acutely aware of my mortality; my commentary, doomed to frivolity, becomes as ephemeral — as disposal — as the trend itself. Yet a fairly recent trend I’d hoped would disappear is more resilient than I expected: it taunts me, rubs my face in its banality, absolutely refuses to die, and in the process tramples the possibility of my even approaching certain films. How can a single trend, no matter how unreasonable, so cripple the spirit? My unnerving begins and ends with finding, a word that has weaseled its way into too many film titles. As soon as I see the word, I run. Yet it is the title that eventually finds me.

In antiquity, names portended and pretended to the holy powers of gods and demons, and in the romantic era titles carried forth a noble totemism, even when the named object was trivial — Beef Wellington, Melba Toast, Joan of Arc Trout.1 Today, proper names, not entirely rid of old Manichean conjurations, are more likely curses: Obamacare, Romneycare, and Reaganomics are the ultimate in ad hominems, the names themselves coupled to demonic cults of personality (even if part of a portmanteau that — like a word suffixed with “care” — professes benevolence). While all of this cursing and conjuring constitute the myth of naming, the real attraction and danger of names are their mortifying inadequacy. Burdened with meanings too macroscopic for a few frail words to bear, titles wield their smallness as metaphoric majesty, ready, willing, yet unable to signify a totality we, the audience, have yet to fully taste, let alone digest. When titles have no accountability (because they always fail), they unsurprisingly fall into pessimistic patterns, expedient clichés, and semi-explicable, semi-arbitrary trends.

Currently the trend in titles is grammatically progressive. The use of the present participle disproportionately (dis-)graces the titles of films that presumably desire the ideal of continuous, unbounded, unframed action.2 The use of a progressive “-ing” verb in a title is certainly precedented, as in Educating Rita, Eating Raoul, Chasing Amy, Being There, or Being John Malkovich (though the passive “being” undoes the implication of extra-diegetic continuity). But the recent trend doesn’t exploit just any progressive verb — it fixates upon “finding.” Apparently filmmakers no longer trust us to understand that narratives inevitably trade in the stuff of discovery and transformation; this idea now must be broadcast in the title. A search on the Internet Movie Database reveals three hundred and twelve film titles that begin with the word “Finding,” the vast majority of them two-word titles (a verb plus a direct object) made in the past twenty years (or about fifteen “Finding” films per year, on average). I will try your patience with only a partial recounting of the list:

Finding Amanda (2008)
Finding Graceland (1998)
Finding North (1998)
Finding Kate (2004)
Finding Nemo (2003)
Finding Christa (1991)
Finding John Christmas (2003, television)
Finding Kelly (2000)
Finding Kraftland (2007)
Finding North (2012)
Finding Rin Tin Tin (2007)
Finding Bigfoot (2011, television series)
Finding God in the City of Angels (2010)
Finding Relief: Pain Management for Older Adults (2008, television)
Finding Mr. Destiny (2010)
Finding Interest (1994)
Finding Me (2009)
Finding Atlantis (2011, television)
Finding Electra (2003)
Finding Faith in Christ (2003, video)
Finding Gauguin (2010)
Finding Hulk Hogan (2010, television)
Finding Jack Kerouac (2002)
Beautiful Me(s): Finding Our Revolutionary Selves in Black Cuba (2008)
Finding B.C. the Biker Chick (2009)
Finding Billy! (2011, video)
Finding Billy (2012)
Finding Brave (2011, televison)
Finding Bryon (2005)
Finding Candy (2003, video)
Finding Carlton: Uncovering the Story of Jazz in India (2011)
Finding Chance (2008)
Finding Charlie (2006)
Finding Dennis (2010)
Finding Diane (2008)
Finding Eddie (2009)
Finding Eleazar (2004)
Finding Ella (2012)
Finding Emily (2012)
Finding Eric (2011)
Finding Eve (2003)
Finding Fathers (2011)
Finding Father’s Toe (2007)
Finding Godot (2012)
Finding Milton (2011)
Finding Purpose in Peaches (2009)
Finding Shakespeare (2011)
Finding Sight (2009)
Finding Solitude (2011)
Finding Spencer (2011)
“Kids Spooky Movie”: Finding Grandpa’s Gold (2011, video)

Between Finding Hulk Hogan and Finding Gauguin, there is admittedly ample sunlight. Nevertheless, all of this rampant “Finding” has some kind of irrepressibly adolescent anxiety in it — it’s no accident that the trend has coincided with jumpier camerawork, more metallic color palettes, and increasingly youthful voice-over announcers. The “finding” fad is the ultimate result of decades of fiction-writing workshops preaching unceasing self-discovery and the chronic present-ness of literary experience. From self-discovery, it’s a short step to discovering the other — all you need to do is omit the subject (there aren’t any “I Am Finding” titles) and add a direct object. If your pursued noun boasts mythic cachet, all the better — Finding Electra, Finding Atlantis, or Finding Some Famous Direct Object Whose Mythic Pedigree I Can Exploit. The heroic quest — a la Jung or Joseph Campbell or the screenwriting instructor at your corner community college — becomes a quick “Finding,” and we, the first person, happily vanish into a lacuna, an empty universalism. The cinema’s usual procedures of objectification take care of the rest.

Indeed, Joseph Campbell would need instant reduction — we’re not dilatory Odysseuses but time-strapped suburbanites. Our discoveries have time only for two words, not for laborious quests, sedulous Holmesian deduction, or even a full paragraph. Even if we haven’t a clue whom or what will be “found,” it hardly matters, for we know a nudging score of either pop optimism or epiphanic minimalism will herald the film’s climactic discovery.

In his famous essay on detective fiction, Auden saw the existential gumshoe as the antithesis of the Greek tragic hero who merely “discovers…or bring[s] to pass the inevitable,”3 rather than finding truths through freely willed deduction. Inserting the word “finding” into the very title seems to obviate this distinction; the inevitability of fate and the humanism of (self-) discovery implicitly blur together, making diegetic discovery as generic as the titular trend. Overall, these titles ultimately find each other more than their objects, much as worshippers, according to Durkheim, really pay homage to one another rather than God. (If you don’t believe that such trends betray misguided religious underpinnings, consider that between 2003 and 2012 no less than eleven films were entitled Saving Grace and thirty-one were simply entitled Grace.) But perhaps more honest than a “Finding Rembrandt,” “Finding Rossellini,” or Finding Arbitrary Fetish Icon is the grammatically disastrous “Kids Spooky Movie”: Finding Grandpa’s Gold” (above), whose title returns to detection rational, straightforward deduction and reduces the fetish object from a puffed-up, spiritual wish-fulfillment to a comprehensibly capitalist enterprise.

Apart from fetishized direct objects, these titles’ sought nouns range from the pseudophilosophical (Finding Godot) to the quaintly bourgeois (Finding Purpose in Peaches) to the emptily capricious (“Finding Someone’s Name”). I was unsurprised to see there are a Finding Shakespeare and a Finding Milton, though Milton could well be someone’s cute goldfish (just as Fixing Pete [2012] might concern a romantically impaired bachelor or a dog anticipating castration). Finding Father’s Toe at least introduces a possessive adjective, yet still assumes people finding things is inherently clever. The self-interested Finding Me (2009) unfortunately reverses the more nuanced Beautiful Me(s): Finding our Revolutionary Selves in Black Cuba (2008), which, in communistic fashion, posits a holistic or multiplied selfhood. More instructive is the difference between Finding Billy (2012) and Finding Billy! (2011): one can only assume the exclamatory latter is meant for children. Every Hollywood blockbuster should come likewise equipped with cautionary punctuation.

We’ve focused on but a single word that vaguely claims sort kind of existential hipness other verbs supposedly lack. But titles everywhere brandish irritating progressive verbs filmmakers (or their marketers) somehow believe are shrewd.4 I won’t even comment on Undertaking Betty (2005). Soon enough, America’s purported indie filmmakers will regale us with a “Remonstrating Cody,” a “Defibrillating Schnitzler,” a “Rehumidifying Allison,” or a “Macerating Tennyson.” Long live the present participle!

The “Finding” is prearranged for the visual medium and the camera’s ocular hunt for truth. But what about other media? Book publishing has invented a complementary trend, perhaps coinciding with the moment that authors no longer write books but “do” them (as if books need only exist, with or without writing). It seems a new rule that every nonfiction bestseller come equipped with a “How” title or subtitle; just as the cinematic “Finding” too obviously predisposes one to and thus neuters visual discovery, the nonfiction “How” prefaces and short-circuits processes usually disclosed by reading a whole book. We no longer have time for slowly mounting climaxes — we need to get the “How” not by reading to the end but by glancing at the title. The greater the book’s objectifications, the greater its “How.” Thus the word appears conspicuously in countless nonfiction books about liberalizing China, still so mysterious to Americans that processes of “how” must be clarified with infantilizing, insultingly long subtitles: For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History (2011), How China’s Leaders Think: The Inside Story of China’s Past, Current and Future Leaders (2011), Doing Business in China: How to Profit in the World’s Fastest Growing Market (2008), Managing the China Challenge: How to Achieve Corporate Success in the People’s Republic (2011), Fat China: How Expanding Waistlines Are Changing a Nation (2010), China’s Economic Supertrends: How China Is Changing from the Inside Out to Become the World’s Next Economic Superpower (2012), and so on. The list and the insult continue with a commercial abandon that would do China proud. The epitome of “How” was likely achieved with Dov Seidman’s How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything (2011). It might as well be Why: How Why We Do Everything Can Mean Anything.5

There is yet another anti-discursive trend, equally alarming, this time in speech. I’ve noticed increasingly how journalists when giving interviews simply begin by saying “Talk about X.” There is no longer a lengthy question qualified by subordinate clauses and foreshadowed with counterargument. The interrogation begins tactlessly and thoughtlessly, as if research were an old poison: “Talk about your role in the Syrian uprising” or “Talk about working with Meryl Streep.” Paradoxically, the exhortation takes on a cast of unexpected sycophancy, as if any unqualified “talk” delivered by the interviewee were automatically golden and unchallengeable. Expectedly, I’ve noticed the imperative to merely talk come from the moderate cum emasculated left, from the likes of NPR, Charlie Rose, and others who confirm more than defy, who are willing to tolerate prepared monologues without rudely interrupting. How can one invite a wealthy entrepreneur to one’s table and not passively bask in his wisdom? Does his very breath not innovate?

The uncritical Talk of oligarchs becomes indistinguishable from the superexplanatory How of authors and the predetermined Progressives of filmmakers. For all of this Finding, in each instance we are left increasingly passive, ever more dependent on explanations for which we did not ask.

  1. Now a rarity, Truites a La Jeanne D’Arc are trout filets marinated in vinegar, onion, and parsley, rolled in bread crumbs and broiled over a fire — a perverse homage to immolatory sainthood. Traditional garnish of veloute or hollandaise likely sanctifies further. []
  2. I had previously remarked on this trend at http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/55/titles.php []
  3. Auden, W.H. “The guilty vicarage: Notes on the Detective Story, by an Addict.” Harper’s Magazine. May 1948. []
  4. There are, of course, many other “-ing” trends in titles. Dozens of titles oddly begin with the verb “Raising,” perhaps in imitation of Raising Arizona (1987). []
  5. Grandly apocalyptic or curious hows and whys appear more frequently with each passing day. Compare Fred Guterl’s The Fate of the Species: Why the Human Race May Cause Its Own Distinction and How We Can Stop It (2012) and Lawrence Krauss’ A Universe from Nothing — Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing (2012). []