Are Movie Titles Too Literal?

I. In which I introduce the premise.
Ever since ‘Snakes on a Plane,’ goes the argument in this essay at Slate, movie and TV titles have become too literal, serving as spoilers for the content. Other current and recent examples: ‘Tower Heist,’ ‘Bridesmaids,’ ‘Cowboys and Aliens,’ ‘The Social Network,’ ‘Step Brothers,’ ‘Wedding Crashers,’ and ‘The 40-Year-Old Virgin.’ (The author might also have mentioned ‘Drive,’ ‘The Muppets,’ ‘The Smurfs,’ and ‘A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas.’) Such titles, the article argues, are a triumph of marketing over content and indicate a severe lack of creativity on the part of our filmmakers. To which I have to respond with a giant, “Yes, but…”

For one thing, this isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. Now, as in decades past, movie marquees offer a variety of titles, some simplified for marketing reasons, some still ambiguous and literary. Also, without meaning to, the Slate author has hit upon a particular genre of comedy, spearheaded by Judd Apatow, in which the bluntness of the title (’40-Year-Old Virgin’ and ‘Bridesmaids,’ as well as ‘Knocked Up’) is part of the joke. It actually echoes the content of the movie, as if to promise that the humor contained within will be equally blunt and frank. So let’s leave those out of the discussion. OK? Let’s continue.

II. In which I note that ’twas ever thus.
The Slate piece implies some golden age of more creative movie titles, but Hollywood started simplifying titles to make them more market-friendly decades ago. In 1957, Warner Bros. changed ‘The Sleeping Prince’ (as Terence Rattigan’s play was called) to ‘The Prince and the Showgirl’ to emphasize box-office draw Marilyn Monroe’s presence. There are plenty of classic movies with blunt, ordinary titles: ‘The Gold Rush,’ ‘The Champ,’ ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,’ ‘The Ten Commandments,’ ‘An American in Paris,’ ‘The Killing,’ ‘Judgment at Nuremberg,’ ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.’ Many directors made films with both kinds of titles. Western king John Ford did ‘Stagecoach’ (duh) and ‘My Darling Clementine’ (which gives no hint that it’s about the shootout at the OK Corral). Alfred Hitchcock made ‘Psycho,’ ‘The Birds,’ ‘To Catch a Thief,’ and ‘Lifeboat,’ but he also made ‘Shadow of a Doubt,’ ‘Strangers on a Train,’ ‘Vertigo,’ and ‘North by Northwest.’

Conversely, there are plenty of contemporary titles that are more evocative than informative: ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,’ ‘In the Land of Blood and Honey,’ ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene,’ ‘The Interrupters,’ ‘The Tree of Life,’ ‘Crazy, Stupid, Love.’ Granted, most of these are art-house movies, meant for audiences with a taste for ambiguity.

Nonetheless, you could argue that some titles can be too reductive, to the point where they’re unmemorable. ‘Warrior’ might have done better with a less generic title. Same with ‘Shark Night,’ ‘Our Idiot Brother,’ ‘Abduction,’ and ‘In Time.’

Still, Slate has a point when even art films go the simplified title route. How is ‘Carnage’ a better title than the original ‘God of Carnage,’ except for its brevity? Why else shorten ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’ to ‘Hugo’? (Too French, maybe?) And ‘J. Edgar’? Was Clint Eastwood worried there wouldn’t be room on the marquee for Hoover’s last name?

III. In which I do an about-face and try to blame the Internet.
Slate suggests that movie titlers have been influenced by YouTube, where the titles are purely descriptive and user-friendly, but perhaps we should take this idea one step further. Doesn’t it seem like these utilitarian movie titles were designed not just by marketers but by SEO experts? (Search Engine Optimization.) It’s like they have to make sure they get the keywords in there so that the movie titles will get picked up by search engines. (After all, that’s how you find videos on YouTube of piano-playing cats or smoking Indonesian babies.) This even applies to the non-spoiler-y titles. The only way an incomprehensible title like ‘Quantum of Solace’ makes marketing sense is that there’s no other event on the Internet likely to put those two nouns together in the same phrase.

Oh, also, the Internet has helped ruin our attention spans, so we don’t have the patience for long, poetic titles. Plus, the short ones are easier to text.

IV. In which I ponder the notion that the movies themselves are so forgettable these days that it’s much more interesting to analyze their marketing than their content.
Well, yeah, there’s that.

V. In which I try to make some current movie titles more oblique and mysterious by using Babelfish to translate them into Japanese and then back into English.
Wouldn’t you be more intrigued by a multiplex marquee listing the following movies:

Damage of Dawn
Immortal Person
Burglar of Tower
Lass of Boots
Like Insanity
Ram Liquor Diary
Steel Iron of Substance
My Week of the Mali Phosphorus

Alas, this trick didn’t work on ‘Drive,’ ‘The Artist,’ ‘Shame,’ or even ‘Happy Feet Two,’ all of which came back unaltered.

VI. In which I poll the readers.


[Photos: FilmDistrict, Disney, Lionsgate]

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