Mark Twain nailed it, of course, when he said The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. If you've ever seen a lightning bug, you'll understand just how ugly, misshapen and wrong the wrong title can look to a writer.
My friend Nan has been on a title search for -- well, it's gotta be a few months. She started out by borrowing a Hank Williams song title for her screenplay that seemed more than serviceable at the time, but as time's gone by... nuh-uh. It's not just that the title no longer serves her movie, it's driving her crazy by its blatant wrongfulness. For Nan, bless her tormented Texan heart, living with that title on her script every day is equivalent to what it would feel like to drive her truck every day with a lightning bug squashed smack in the center of the windshield.
I'm sure one day the perfect title will just bop her right on the head, in proper lightning bolt style. But meanwhile, the goal of titling, in moviedom? Ideally, your title should be saying "what the movie is" -- in a wonderfully succinct, smart and catchy way. A great title is like that old saw about pornography -- you may not be able to define it exactly, but you know what it is when you see it.
When I asked the Nanster what principles she might have formulated in her long trek across the valley of bug carcasses, she was as honestly perplexed as ever. One thing we agreed on is that this titling business is trickier than most people acknowledge, and it's even tricky to ascribe any rules and regulations to it. Though there are people who do this for a living (producers routinely hire freelancers to come up with lists of possible titles for movies in title trouble), most people seem to go at the process haphazardly and capriciously. In fact, the one general truism Nan was able to come up with was: Everybody knows what's not a good title.
Case in point, a certain play that went through a substantive sea change when it was adapted for the screen.
Lightning bug: Everybody Goes to Rick's
Lightning bolt: Casablanca
In this case, I doubt anyone would argue for bug over bolt. Now when you think about it, wouldn't Casablanca still be the great movie it is, even if saddled with such a suckass title? Yes, but it would seem subtly diminished, somehow -- you'd speak the name of the movie with an implicitly indulgent smile, perhaps in the way you might admit to a love for Invasion of the Body Snatchers (great genre movie, kinda silly genre title).
And meanwhile, the city name "Casablanca" would lose its aura of romance. The relationship between movie and movie title is mystically symbiotic: one affects the other, and context is crucial (i.e. the title Casablanca largely seems a great title to us because the movie is great). Once you start down this slippery slope (and caution, it can be a mind-messer) I think you'll find that it's extremely hard to separate a title from its implicit movie associations, especially if you've already seen the movie.
Take for example The Silence of the Lambs. Pretend, if you can, that you've never heard the phrase before, nor ever met Hannibal Lecter. Looked at objectively... what the hey, eh? What up with this oddball phrase? Kind of intriguing, perhaps, but could you honestly have sussed out its weirdly, by now almost mythically iconic power, if you'd seen it slapped on a cover sheet?
However, if you'd seen a spec called The Silence of the Chickens, chances are good you'd have recognized a stinker, and/or probably thought you were looking at a comedy (see: words with "k" in them are funny). Nan's law of title-picking: Everybody knows what doesn't work.
Beyond that? Anybody's guess. The corollary to Nan's Law is that titling is one wildly subjective endeavor. Do I think Johnny Guitar is a great title because I love the movie? No, because the first time I heard it, I laughed -- there's so many delicious little frissons of subtext implicit in that name (i.e. tweaking the grand tradition of such generic names, from Nick Danger to Johnny B. Good) that the fact that the movie actually is about a Johnny who carries a guitar instead of a gun is gravy. But you may think it's a dumb title, period.
And what do we really mean when we say "great," anyway? Again, tough call. I think most everybody would agree that The Usual Suspects is a classic great title (speaking of Going to Rick's), for obvious reasons. But Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Arc is only "great" in that it so perfectly captures the spirit of the genre it's embodying and sending up. It's so bad, it's great... in its own context.
All I could manage to come up with, when I got all kung-fu analytical on this shit, was the beginnings of a category system. There are a multitude of specific types of movie titles, this much is clear. What complicates the issue is that every single category has its own exception that proves the rule. For example, place-names: Chinatown and Sunset Boulevard are titles that work. But it doesn't follow that all geographical titles sing. For every Mullholland Drive (bolt), there's a Mullholland Falls (bug). Here's a few other popular categories.
Names: Dr. Zhivago, Forrest Gump, Tom Jones... (Mr. and Mrs. Smith -- bolt or bug?)
Adjective/Nouners: The Big Sleep, The Last Detail, The Virgin Suicides...
One-word: Titanic, Scream, Memento... (Bug: It -- Bolt: Them)
Common Catch-phrase: from A Room With a View and Lost in Translation to the mediocre A Perfect World.
Spoken commands: Play It Again, Sam... Wait Until Dark... Love Me or Leave Me...
I's: happening -- I Want To Live, I Know What You Did Last Summer, v. not happening: I Eat Your Skin.
And so on. As with all writing, specificity is king. This is true whether you're going literal (Gladiator, a movie about a guy who's um, a gladiator) or a little more metaphorical(Goodfellas, a movie about Mafia mooks). In fact, the one generalization I can add to Nan's, not that it's necessarily profound, is that a "great title" is memorable, and it's axiomatic that memorability is largely proportionate to specificity. For example, check out dueling bank heist pics Inside Man (adequate but easy to forget) v. Dog Day Afternoon (brilliant and indelible).
Which brings me, cautiously, to my candidate for Most Effective Title Category: the unique. I find that most of my favorite movie titles are sui generis -- they fit no one category easily, or they overlap a few; their characterization is that they can't be characterized. They're like mini-haiku poems that "do not mean, but be":
Run Lola Run
The Year of Living Dangerously
Again, subjectivity runs rampant on this turf. Seance on a Wet Afternoon over-promises and under-delivers as a movie, so the title strikes me as okay but not fabulous. Would I love the title if the pic was great? I'm a fan of Pick-Up on South Street, not that I can tell you exactly why (something about its pulpy-noir tone), but I'll never think Death to Smoochy is a great title, sui generis though it surely be.
At any rate, to get to the blog post goods at last (there was supposed to be a point to this ramble, wasn't there?) here are two links for the Title Maniacs among us (welcome, and sign in with block caps, please) and a neat little movie title meme-game I just made up.
First link is this truly existential labor of love or madness, a film made by a movie title collector that purports to contain every title ever, or some such hyperbole. I can't figure out if it's genius or merely annoying, so... your move.
Second, a truly fantabulous "thank God somebody took the time to put this together" site that's a veritable Orgy of Movie Titlemania: Steven Hill's Movie Title Screens Page. This obsessed, lovable lunatic has assembled, for our pleasure, captured stills of the titles of thousands of movies -- you've been seeing samples of them scattered throughout this post, and it's a fascination to scroll around with Steven, so knock yourself out... title inspiration abounds.
Finally, when I took a shot at listing my favorite titles and looked at the result, I had to smile, because it's me all over:
Only Angels Have Wings
Wings of Desire
History is Made at Night
In the Realm of the Senses
sex, lies and videotape
Days of Heaven
Trouble in Paradise
Trouble in Paradise
Murmur of the Heart
Strangers On a Train
The Last Picture Show
Clearly the portrait of an urban romantic. Listing a dozen movie titles you love creates a virtual rorschach test of your personality -- and it operates on an unconscious level. To do this right, you have to disassociate yourself from the movies themselves; these aren't your favorite movies, these are your favorite movie titles. For example, North by Northwest came to mind, but I realized that's because it's one of the most entertaining movies ever made; the title on its own is near-nonsensical, despite its Shakespearian origins ("I am but mad north-north-west / When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw," Hamlet).Try it out, those of you who are still with me here at what really should have been titled The Longest Post. And by all means, chime in and do tell which movie titles float your boat, and why.