Monday, September 9, 2013

Regarding Titles

It's regularly remarked that movie trailers are often better than the movies they promote. Personally, I feel that a trip to the cinema is almost wasted if I don't arrive in time for the trailers. The cynical explantion of this phenomenon is that all the best moments in the movie are shoe-horned into the trailer and the rest of the running time is just filler, more or less. This might sometimes be the case, but I think there is a more interesting explanation. I think the very format of trailers gives them an appeal that movies can't have, since a two-hour long trailer would be unbearable.

Typically, what a movie trailer seeks to convey is a sense of excitement, since it is trying to get you excited about seeing the movie itself. This it achieves by various devices: a rapid succession of scenes, images of people and things in motion (ironically, often in slow motion, which simply makes it more dramatic), brief and often intriguing snatches of dialogue, unusual camera angles and lighting, and in general by a kind of exaggeration of ordinary cinematic techniques. What you are left with is a sense of compression, of concentration, which it is impossible for a full-length film to achieve, by its very nature.

I think this fact about trailers also applies to a rather similar art-form-- that is, the art of the title. By "title", I mean the titles of movies, books, stage-plays, music albums, paintings, computer games, and so forth. But mostly I am thinking of the titles of books and movies. (I took movie trailers as my point of departure, because I thought my remarks would make more sense that way.)

I think the titles of books and movies, just like trailers, often have an appeal quite distinct from, and sometimes superior to, the works that they "promote".

In his much-underpraised Autobiography, G.K. Chesterton asserts that every wilderness looks bigger when seen through a window. Our own Patrick Kavanagh, in a phrase that is well-known in Ireland because it comes in a poem featured on the English syllabus, said that "through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder". I think both of these claims are very true. And I think that good titles, just like good trailers, are windows through which the landscape outside looks bigger, narrow chinks which let in floods of wonder.

But-- and this is an important point, and one which motivates me to write on this subject-- good titles don't just excite us about the books and films that they label. Good titles excite us about life itself, and do so in a manner different from anything else in the world. At least, I have always found that powerful titles have this effect on me, and I suspect that they have it on other people, as well. I have often found that, at times when I feel dull or uninspired, or when the world itself seems dreary to me, some evocative title will come to my mind and give me a new zest for existence.

I will have to start giving examples, won't I?

Well, this being a Catholic blog, I think I will be unpredictable and choose (perhaps) the most unlikely of titles out of the hundreds that suggest themselves. I work in a university library, and we hold copies of the academic theses submitted to the various departments of the university. One of these theses caught my eye, because I liked the title so much. (Quite a few have snappy titles, actually.) This one concerned the experience of gay teachers in Ireland, and it bears the magnificent title Echoes Down the Corridor.

Now, I don't know about you, but that title makes me shiver with pleasure. I think it almost defies analysis, but here goes, anyway.

First of all, it is dramatic. It not only takes a moment from the flux of everyday life, but it takes a particular evanescent and fleeting moment. The moment it evokes is almost ghostly. And something inside of us thrills to words like echo, whisper, shadow, phantom, ghost, silhouette, rumour-- words whose very vagueness or faintness makes them, paradoxically, all the more vivid.

(Incidentally, I should admit that the word "corridor" is a word that I find very exciting. After all, a corridor is an exciting place. Anybody could walk down it at any moment. It seems to invite whispered conferences, chance meetings, glimpsed figures turning a corner. If you think this is a far-fetched idea, ask yourself why "the corridors of power" is a much more powerful phrase than "the halls of power" or "the chambers of power".)

Now, imagine if the writer of Echoes Down the Corridor had chosen a more prosaic title instead. Imagine if he had used his sub-title, An Examination of the Lives of Gay Teachers in Ireland, as the main title. In that case, wouldn't his work seem strangely diminished in importance? It would seem business-like, dutiful. But the lyricism of Echoes Down the Corridor seems to raise the whole thing to a higher level, to lend it a larger significance.

And this, I think, is true of all acts of naming, and of bequeathing a title. Adam in giving names to all the animals, we dimly feel, somehow shares in God's creative power. Giving a name to a child is an act of immeasurable significance and poignancy. Parents who choose to give names to their babies when those babies don't survive birth are making a very touching declaration of love. Giving a name to a season of a particular year-- The Summer of Love, the Winter of Discontent-- gives them an air of heightened importance, and even (I would claim) a heightened reality. In the famous line from Shakespeare, the poet is said to "give to airy nothing a local habitation and a name."

Naming does not only identify. It creates. It exalts.

Here are some of my own favourite titles. Many of them are titles of books I've never read and films I've never seen. Sometimes I've hated the book or the film but loved the title.

Porterhouse Blue, by Tom Sharpe. (A great book that I only read because I was attracted by the title. The book itself is a bawdy farce, and an excellent one, but a million miles away from the contemplative novel of ideas that the title seemed to suggest.)

Ice Cold in Alex. Cider with Rosie. Goodbye to All That. A Dry, White Season

No Tigers in Africa! (a memoir by a producer of a famous Irish TV documentary series, which often went to Africa for its stories.)

Like a Tree Planted (a biography of an Irish priest). Snow Falling on Cedars. The Growing Summer by Noel Streatfeild. A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin. Take a Girl Like You by Kingsley Amis.

The Jungle is Neutral by Freddie Spencer Chapman. Sex, Lies and Videotape. The Wonder Years. The Breakfast Club.

On Golden Pond. The Philosopher on Dover Beach by Roger Scruton. All the Way to Bantry Bay by Benedict Kiely (a travel book on our shelves at home.) Postcards from the Edge. Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.

My Dream of You by Nuala O'Faolain. Who Will Love Polly Odlum? (a chick-lit book I saw a colleague reading once). Not Without My Daughter. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

The Road to Wigan Pier. Stay Me with Flagons (a book about wine; the title is drawn from The Song of Songs). Never Say Never Again. A Man for All Seasons. A Prayer for Owen Meaney. Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. Love and the Russian Winter (a Simply Red album).

Writing out that list (and it could be expanded indefinitely), it occurs to me that there are several things that can make a title stick in your mind.

First of all, and perhaps most fundamentally, a title is rarely appealing if it is not memorable-- which usually means that it should avoid the obvious. Books or movies that take their title from the main character of the story, or describe the subject matter in some very straightforward way, are unlikely to give any special pleasure. Indeed, I've often thought what a wasted opportunity it is, not to give a book or movie some more imaginative title. (Of course, titles that seems straightforward may be subtly ironic or significant-- for instance, Orwell's dystopian novel 1984 seems to have a very mundane title until you read the book and realise that it may not be set in 1984 at all-- that the Party have twisted truth so much that nobody really knows what year it is for sure. But you don't know this until you read the book, so it is not intrinsic to the title.)

Hitting upon a memorable and poetic title, however, is not as simple as coming up with something outlandish. There is a danger of going too far, a danger of falling flat on your face and choosing a title that seems irritating or smug rather than evocative. Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmie Dean, Jimmie Dean comes periously close to doing this-- but it has just enough poignancy to save it. But titles like The Possibility of an Island, The Sun Also Rises, The Englishman Who Went up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind do (I think) fall into this pit.

(Sometimes a title is so audacious it gets away with it-- for instance, Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why is He Saying These Terrible Things About Me?, a 1971 Oscar-nominated film starring Dustin Hoffmann.)

I think a good title often tends to use simple and vivid imagery. A Dry White Season is such a vivid description, and so devoid of explanation, that it satisfies the part of our mind that enjoys haikus or still-life painting. The same is true of Snow Falling on Cedars.

A title is often good because it is rather mysterious-- though there is a big difference between mystery and obscurity. The Postman Always Rings Twice is mysterious, but we feel that it means something and we are intrigued. A title like Blood Simple or No Present Like Time is simply annoying-- we don't know what it means, and we don't care. The difference, I think, lies in the poetry of the first title and the lack of poetry in the other two. In the same way, if we saw a woman with a mysterious medallion hanging around her neck, we would be deliciously intrigued-- but a code made of random words and letters on a cardboard box would leave us cold.

Soem titles are powerful because they are poignant. Goodbye to All That is one such-- in fact, I think that any title that begins with "Goodybe" or Farewell" is automatically poignant. Tuesdays with Morrie is a poignant title, as is Life with Father or Cider with Rosie.

Titles that address somebody or contain an imperative are also evocative-- Take a Girl Like You, Throw Momma from the Train, Cathy Come Home, Save Me the Waltz.

I think that this subject is a very important one, obscure and trivial as it may seem. In fact, it is a subject so important to me personally that I struggle to find words adequate for it. And, though I am not simply using book and movie titles as a point of entry, the subject is really much, much bigger than those.

So much for titles.

My deeper subject-- my deeper theme-- is one that can only be approached indirectly, as I have done here. I don't approach it indirectly out of craftiness, or reverence, or subtlety. I do so because of its very nature it can only be thus approached. I am not ultimately talking about movie titles or books titles per se. I'm talking about the kind of poetry, the kind of beauty, that you find specifically in such titles-- but that has analogues elsewhere.

It is similar to the beauty of imagined pictures in a flickering fire, or the spirit that we hear in a street vendor's cry-- "Get your apples and oranges!". It is similar mental sensation that we so often try to describe by saying "it was like trying to remember some half-forgotten song".

It is seen in horizons. It is heard in myths, and legends, and skippping chants, and in nursery rhymes and ghost stories.

It is the feeling that makes every child, at some time or other, day-dream about the world behind the mirror, or the upside-down landscape that they see past their reflection in a puddle.

It occupies the margin between dreams and waking life.

It lives in a snow-globe, in an old wooden street-sign, in a music box. It haunts empty theatres and deserted cinemas. It's heard in music that is softly playing in the background of a restaurant or a shopping centre, music that seems overheard rather than heard.

It is the reason nobody ever forgets Plato's Allegory of the Cave once they've encountered it.

It is a beauty, perhaps even an ecstasy, so fugitive that it cannot be glimpsed except for the briefest of moments, and even then, not directly. It is never on the surface, never in focus, never to be found in our ordinary stream of time and place-- though it may be seen, or half-seen, in the slow rhythm of decades and centuries, or in the twinkling time-outside-time of sunlight glinting on the ripples of a river on a summer's morning.

Perhaps it has never been expressed more perfectly than in the words of St. Paul: "We see now through a glass, darkly."


  1. I wrote this response that got erased shortly after I wrote it. Anyway, the short of it is that I agree with you on the importance of titles, especially in written work. Some of my favorite titles are as follows: "In Time of Silver Rain" (Langston Hughes), "Their Eyes Were Watching God." (Zora Neal Hurston), "I, Too" (this title is actually very descriptive, especially after reading the poem, but the title still makes me wonder - "You, too what??" this one is also by Langston Hughes). "The House of Falling Leaves" by William Stanley Braithwaite. Anyway... those are a few titles that have intrigued me.

  2. I'm sorry your first response got eaten. Interesting to hear the titles you like. My favourite is "I, Too" which I'd never heard of before. I have to admit that Their Eyes Were Watching God (which is heavily borrowed in the library where I work) always bothers me because it's not like their noses or ears could be watching God. Then again, that's the pedant in me. Thanks for your comment!

  3. i disagree on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but maybe just because it's one of my favorite movies. one deliberately mundane title that i think works quite well because its use of the simple is Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

    1. I wouldn't say Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is mundane at all! If it was called The Investigation it would be mundane. I also agree it's a great title. It was also the occasion of the biggest laugh I've ever heard in a cinema. I used to attend the Ormonde Cinema in Stillorgan, Dublin. A lot of teens went there so it always had a 'peanut gallery' air to it. There was a particularly full house for Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and they were particularly giddy. I don't know if you remember a part where Val Kilmer's character shoots a gun through the groin of his trousers and Robert Downey Jr.'s character says: "Thank God you had a gun in there. I thought it was a gay thing, like you guys could do that." It brought the house down. Never heard anything like it before or since.

      We'll have to agree to disagree about Eternal Sunshine, both the title and the movie!