by Christopher Campbell
Sometimes I really wish David Bordwell’s blog permitted comments. Mostly it’s better that it doesn’t, but the man’s last post has made me want to discuss the art of movie titles for a whole week now. And it didn’t help that coinciding in time with Bordwell’s post was another one of those sidebars in Entertainment Weekly pointing out some new movies with misleading titles. Yes, Lakeview Terrace does sound like a period romance, as do many other badly titled films (Elizabethtown and Wicker Parkcome to mind).
This weekend also sees two new movies employing the method of borrowing song titles, which are typically not appropriate (Ghost Town seems more like a horror western hybrid, while My Best Friend’s Girl actually fits its plot).
Well, fortunately for me (and hopefully you), I can bring the discussion over to SpoutBlog, though not quite as in depth as Bordwell. I’ll be more than happy to have a conversation in the comments section regarding the more general topic of movie titling, but for now I’ll kick things off with a list of what I find to be the most interesting movie titles of the past decade. It’s been a time when studios and filmmakers have been very loose with ill-fitting and overlong titles, as well as some that are too plainly literal (Snakes on a Plane), but the following selections have the benefit of featuring clever, well-chosen and more meaningful monikers.
All About My Mother (1999)
This Pedro Almodóvar film has a very telling title, one that goes along with Bordwell’s acknowledgment of titles that speak for the character. Yet the character spoken for here is Esteban, the kid who dies in the beginning. Or does he? The title actually refers to a story Esteban has written for school and is inspired by the film All About Eve, which he has just watched. Esteban doesn’t so much die in the film as he does in his own story, which is depicted within the film. Also, the word “Mother”; in the title doesn’t so much refer to his actual mother, Manuela, as it does his (made-up) transvestite “father”, Lola, who we learn all about.
Amores Perros (2000)
Although improperly translated as “Love’s a Bitch”; that phrase does at least apply on some level to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film. As does the more acceptable translation of “Love is Dogs”; which references the film’s canine companions, each of which parallels its owner. But there is also another translation that’s more like “Goodness Wretchedness”; referring to a phrase on the film’s website that basically translates as “If your story turned out well, put it down to ‘amores’; If bad, put it to ‘perros'”; The fact that you can interpret the meaning of the title multiple ways, and therefore you can interpret its meaning to the film multiple ways, is the reason that it was so important to release the film in the U.S. with its original Mexican title.
The Perfect Storm (2000)
Although the title comes from Sebastian Junger’s book, the name took on a whole new meaning for the film, which is, in my opinion, completely about the attempt to perfectly create a storm on a computer. Sure, there’s a plot within the film, too, but nothing more attended to than the perfectly rendered storm. In fact, the film’s storm may have been too perfect-looking, as the film lost the Visual Effects Oscar to Gladiator. While the title was clearly not intended for such purpose, and I had planned to ignore titles that inadvertently become more ironically meaningful upon release (Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed; Disaster Movie), I think the filmmakers at least meant to produce a spectacular storm more than a good story, so I believe it more qualifiable for the list at hand.
Shanghai Noon (2000)
This title doesn’t necessarily add anything to the meaning of the film nor does it really have multiple layers of meaning by itself. But it features the most cleverly punned title of the last ten years, in my opinion. The sequel’s title, Shanghai Knights, isn’t too bad, either. But just as the movie isn’t nearly as good as the original, neither is the title.
This title may actually be my favorite of all time due to its consisting of only a single word, which can be lent to the film in a multitude of ways. The title refers to the adaptation of a book to a film, the adaptation of a plant to its environment, the adaptation of a screenwriter character to his assignment, the adaptation of the same character to the events of his environment and, finally, the adaptation of the film itself to fit the mold of a certain kind of film that fares well in the present environment of the movie biz (ironically it’s this adaptation in the end from a smart film to a silly action movie that fails in execution, even though the joke more fittingly works perfectly on paper).
Bad Company (2002)
Even awful movies can have titles with multiple meanings, and this lame Joel Schumacher effort is a good example of such. Because “Company”; means the CIA in addition to companionship, the title may refer to any of the following: an incapable member of the CIA (Chris Rock’s character); an incapable CIA in general (this was a time when the organization was called into question); a defective spy or untrustworthy spy; or simply the bad buddy team-up of Anthony Hopkins and Chris Rock (diegetically and extradiegetically). The same title had been used previously for a bad 1995 movie dealing with the CIA, so its multilayered usage here was not that inspired, but it is nevertheless a good title, in my opinion, and perhaps it will one day be put to better use.
National Treasure (2004)
The same goes for this movie, which should have and could have been a lot better. The title, which is a well-played mix of figurative and literal meaning and seems more thoughtful than most blockbuster Hollywood titles, would have you believe there was once some smarter writing to be found within the film itself.
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
For a short while, I thought the title of this comedy didn’t really appropriately fit the film’s story. Shaun isn’t of the dead, I reasoned, because he never “dies”; I accepted the title, though, because it was a nice play on the title Dawn of the Dead. Eventually I decided that it does indeed fit, because the general theme of the movie is that Shaun has been living his life as if he were a zombie. Before the real zombies show up, the “dead”; of the title refers to all the people living in this spiritless way, Shaun included. Yet while the rest of these “dead”; become undead creatures, Shaun proves that he is capable of living more fully and is able to survive the (allegorical) outbreak.
Wong Kar-Wai loves to play with the idea of Hong Kong’s transition from British territory to Chinese (which occurred in 1997), and the title partly refers to the final year in which Hong Kong is allowed self-regulation before becoming fully integrated into mainland China in 2047. In the film, the numerical title literally references both a hotel room and the future year, which is employed in a science fiction story being written by the main character. Some people also like to interpret the title as reading “two-oh-four-six”; meaning “to owe for sex”; Though there are prostitute characters in the film, this meaning is less likely the intention of Wong. But the additional interpretation makes for a richer title anyway.
There Will Be Blood (2007)
Why not retain the title of Upton Sinclair’s source novel, “Oil!”? Well, besides all the changes made to the story, it could be because Paul Thomas Anderson’s new title has more possible meanings. The word “Blood”; in the title may refer to the actual oil, or the blood shed for the oil (as in drilling accidents then and wars now), or family, especially actual blood relatives (of which there aren’t actually many in the film). Mostly, though, the title allows for and acknowledges a connection between the film’s setting and the current events it appears to be commenting on.