This weekend marks the release of I Love You Phillip Morris, an offbeat-looking movie about an imprisoned con man (Jim Carrey) whose romantic relationship with a fellow inmate (Ewan McGregor) leads to both hilarity and sorrow. From the title alone, it sounds like a story about tobacco conglomerates – something in the vein of Thank You For Smoking. Not so, as the trailer indicates.
Potential viewers who are not in the know about the film’s content will probably react in two basic ways upon reading the title on a marquee or in the show listings. Those uninterested in the cultural debate over cigarette companies may sidestep it and never be the wiser. Those who feel otherwise will investigate, and no doubt be surprised. Perhaps it is a coincidence of naming that never occurred to the screenwriter. Nonetheless, I Love You Phillip Morris definitely constitutes a misleading movie title.
The best line on this subject comes from Nelson Muntz of The Simpsons, in the episode “Bart On The Road.” After sneaking into a screening of David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, he unhappily reflects, “I can think of at least two things wrong with that title.”
While a movie’s title may be completely literal – I’m thinking of Full Body Massage, My Dinner With Andre, and Sharktopus, three of the least ambiguous titles in film history – it is by no means appropriate all the time. Having a cool and unusual name to hook your viewers is a good creative choice. However, it can misfire. Sometimes the title appears to be a secret known only to the writer. Sometimes it is based on a very subtle detail in the story, which only becomes clear after multiple viewings. Sometimes a flaw in the film’s execution simply fails to bring out the significance of the title. And sometimes movies just have stupid titles. This week, William Bibbiani and I (Dan Fields) meditate upon the sticky subject of Movie Naming.
Sorcerer (dir. William Friedkin, 1977)
Sorcerer! What else could this be about except wizards and magic? Well, trucks. In this remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages Of Fear, Roy Scheider leads a cast of rough-hewn lowlifes on a suicidal trucking mission. They must transport two rigs full of highly unstable explosive through the hazardous terrain and weather of South America, in order to help extinguish a massive oil well fire and make enough money to get the hell out of town.
This was the beginning of a long career slump for William Friedkin, who directed The Exorcist and The French Connection, and not much else of note. This movie is passable, and even manages to improve on the extremely weak ending of the otherwise-excellent Wages. Scheider’s descent into near madness on the harrowing journey is dynamic and convincing. Tangerine Dream provides a great soundtrack. From rocky mountain passes to collapsing river bridges to unfriendly assailants, Sorcerer throws every hardship imaginable at these poor dudes until we wonder whether a single one of them could possibly finish the trip.
So why the name? Apparently, it’s the name of one of the trucks, which doesn’t figure in any important way. Friedkin also reportedly cited “the sorcerer of fate” as a major theme in the story. It is indeed a fatalistic tale, but it’s not a very intuitive metaphor. You may wait as long as you like for magical intervention. It will not come. Nonetheless, Sorcerer is a pretty gripping and entertaining adventure for most of its running time.
Sexy Beast (dir. Jonathan Glazer, 2000)
What are you supposed to make of a title like Sexy Beast? To be fair, once the opening scene plays out, it makes a little more sense. We first see Ray Winstone lounging poolside, thinking lazy thoughts in a smooth Cockney growl. Anybody in a place like this would feel quite the sexy beast indeed.
Still, it does little to prepare us for what awaits. Winstone’s character is a retired criminal from London who soon learns that his trade does not allow permanent retirement. He has everything he wants – a villa, a good woman, best friends over every night for drinks and dancing. But one of his old mates want him back, and this guy doesn’t take “no” for an answer. Ben Kingsley plays a seething, unstable, positively monstrous man who arrives to demand that the sexy beast leave his pad and return to England for a complicated and risky bank job.
Many surprises lurk around the corner, as Winstone has to call up some of the ruthless temperament that once made him the best in the business. Again, the title makes sense in the context of his character’s situation, but sight unseen, the title Sexy Beast suggests something along the lines of werewolf babes. There is a beast or two in the film, but none of them particularly sexy. At its core, it is a crime caper with a twist. Like Performance without the slow parts, with a little Guy Ritchie thrown in for good measure. Don’t expect to be disappointed, because this movie absolutely rocks. Just expect to be surprised.
Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince (dir. David Yates, 2009)
As the Harry Potter books became more lengthy and plot-heavy, the various writers and directors adapting them to film had to make larger and larger cuts from the text. Backlash and outrage on this point vary from film to film, and often from viewer to viewer. It generally comes down to who finds their favorite supporting character or minor plot line excised or changed for purposes of narrative pacing. Overall, the adaptations have been spectacular, and the director of the last four films, David Yates, seems to have the best handle of all on the material. If personal preference will help fellow Harry Potter fans place me on the critical spectrum, I believe that part five, The Order Of The Phoenix, wins so far in both the book and film adaptation categories.
Nonetheless, I too have my own petty grievance with the series. The title of the sixth chapter is, as most of you know, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Just who the Half-Blood Prince is, and how he figures in the larger story, is a central plot thread of the book. Some criticized this movie for dwelling inordinately on angst-ridden teenage romance. That in itself is not so much a bother – the young actors have the comic sensibility to make it all quite entertaining – but it requires the sacrifice of nearly the entire Half-Blood Prince storyline. If memory serves, Harry and pals comes across the name “Half-Blood Prince” mysteriously inscribed in a book. Later on, brainy little Hermione insists that Harry needs to figure some things out about this Half-Blood Prince chap. And at the end of the film, a major character (I shan’t say who) strides up and proudly declares, “Yes. I am the Half-Blood Prince.” No further explanation. Those who have read the book already know what’s up with that. Others will angrily cry, “What’s up with that?”
Half-Blood Prince is still a fun coming of age adventure, but writer Steven Kloves hacked off a few too many limbs to bring it to the screen. Had the movie been called Harry Potter and the Disappointments of Puberty, or simply Harry Potter and the Rapidly Worsening Circumstances, who could say a word against it?
Extreme Prejudice (dir. Walter Hill, 1987)
This is not such a puzzler for anyone who watches action or war movies. The phrase “terminate with extreme prejudice” became fairly common knowledge when Martin Sheen got the order at the beginning of Apocalypse Now. Still, if you haven’t got massive shootouts on your mind, you might be taken aback by a film simply titled Extreme Prejudice. Out of its normal context, it reads like a sobering study in race relations.
You may imagine any number of scenarios – perhaps a classic like To Kill A Mockingbird or In The Heat Of The Night, or a grittier piece of drama like Mississippi Burning or A Time To Kill, all the way up the ladder to the searing and unsettling American History X. But you’d be wrong. This is an all-out gunslinging slugfest courtesy of Walter Hill, one of America’s great unsung directors. Nick Nolte and Powers Boothe star on opposite sides of the law. Between them is a woman who loves them both (Maria Conchita Alonso) and a major drug operation. Meanwhile, Michael Ironside, William Forsythe, Clancy Brown and several others complicate matters by getting involved in all the violence and mayhem.
For anyone who enjoyed The Expendables, this is one movie it borrowed from, and probably the one you’ve never heard of. The climax revolves around a major siege on drug lord Boothe’s compound, an antique Mexican villa converted into a fortress. For those still concerned about the title, know that destruction comes to just about everyone in the film, regardless of race or creed. This is one of those delightfully amoral pictures in which the good guys are just as rotten as the bad guys. The double crosses and heavy ammunition just keep piling higher and higher in this one, so sit back and get a hold on your chair.
The Brown Bunny (dir. Vincent Gallo, 2003)
This title probably falls under the category of “deliberately misleading,” given Vincent Gallo’s reputation for making bizarre art. Nonetheless, no matter what you’ve heard about this film, you’re probably not going to guess where it’s headed. Leaving aside its much-publicized and very graphic sex scene, it is at heart a very troubling drama about a very troubled man.
You won’t catch on to this right away, though. At first Gallo’s character seems like a pensive drifter who likes driving in his van and kissing emotionally vulnerable women. In fact, he does so much driving that many people found this picture quite boring. If you’re in the right mood though, it’s good space-out material. Gordon Lightfoot provides a pleasantly mellow soundtrack, and if you wait around long enough, the dark secret of the story begins to unravel.
There is a brown bunny in this film, but its significance is left comfortably vague. In all fairness, I’m not sure what a better title for the film would be. Again, it’s probably meant to be perplexing for its own sake. There are some clever touches to this production, and for those who like the excruciating pace of films by Pasolini or Herzog, knock yourself out. I did. But it’s not a must-see movie, or even a great one. It is merely interesting to the right kind of weirdo. The most important thing is that parents not be fooled by the title. It is not a story about bunnies. It is about sad people, and if you don’t want your kids to see Vincent Gallo with his wang out – believe me, you don’t – just pass this one by.
North by Northwest (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1959)
Ah, North by Northwest. For many it remains the quintessential Hitchcock thriller. (I’m more of a 39 Steps fan myself, but whatever… they’re both classics.) Cary Grant stars as the charming but ill-fated Roger O. Thornhill, who falls victim to a serious case of mistaken identity after enemies of the state (James Mason and Martin Landau) confuse him for a secret agent. He ends up on a merry chase across America, pursued through cornfields by homicidal crop dusters and finally climbing across Mount Rushmore itself in a mad dash to reclaim his identity, stop the bad guys and get the very sexy girl played by Eva Marie Saint.
He does not – and let’s make this perfectly clear – travel north by northwest. West, surely, maybe even a smidgeon north, but “north by northwest” means halfway between northwest and north, and nobody could accuse Roger of going anywhere near that direction. What do they think we are… stupid?
Oh sure, he was originally supposed to go northwest, maybe even by north. One of the original titles for the film was In a Northwesterly Direction, which wasn’t a very good name at all really, but at least it accurately described the protagonists’ original journey from New York to Alaska. After the script was changed (culminating now on Mount Rushmore), another proposed title was the somehow more awful The Man on Lincoln’s Nose. That title remains one of the worst alternate titles for a genuinely exceptional film I’ve ever heard, right alongside The Evil Dead which reportedly came very close to being named These Bitches Are Witches. Classy.
Hitchcock claimed that the North by Northwest title is a reference to a line from “Hamlet” that goes as follows: “I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.” Ah, but of course. Now it all makes sense. Frankly North by Northwest, with its self-referential storyline and sly sense of humor, may just have a vague name as a lark, but whatever. They lied to us. I’ll never trust another human being again.
Debbie Does Dallas (dir. Jim Clark, 1978)
Debbie Does Dallas has one of the most famous titles in film history. Certainly it’s the most famous title in pornography. It just goes to show that you should never, ever underestimate the power of alliteration. The film’s original title was going to be “The Games People Play.” It’s certainly hard to imagine anyone writing about the film decades later without the Triple-D’s. But I digress.
Like many a red-blooded male, I had heard the title of Debbie Does Dallas in my youth and looked forward to the day when I, too, could see this so-called “Debbie” so-called “do” so-called “Dallas.” And like many a red-blooded male, I was a little bit disappointed when I finally got to see it. Certainly it’s not a very good film (I’ve seen worse… in fact, I’ll be talking about Clash of the Titans in just a few short paragraphs), but hey, I’m not naïve. I didn’t expect Last Year at Marienbad. No, I just expected Debbie to, I dunno… do Dallas at some point. And she doesn’t. She never even gets there. What. A. Rip-off.
Debbie Does Dallas stars Bambi Woods as Debbie, a cheerleader with a dream to be a Dallas Cowgirl, or rather, since the Dallas Cowboys probably wanted nothing to do with this film, a “Texas Cowgirl.” Her parents are unsupportive, but Debbie’s cheerleader friends are eager to help fund Debbie’s trip to Dallas. However, they quickly discover that there’s no way to legitimately raise the money necessary in time. (Seriously? How much is bus fare in Texas?)
There’s a scene in many youth-oriented films that can be best described as: “How can we ever make that much money?” Usually, the solution is either to win a contest or, my personal favorite, “put on a show.” Since the movie is called Debbie Does Dallas, the protagonists take a decidedly more adult path to financial gain. There are, shall we say, adult “situations” which are paid for, and by the end of the film they have indeed earned enough money to get Debbie to Dallas for that audition, but Dallas itself remains undone. I guess the film still has its charms, but to quote Lionel Hutz, “This is the most blatant case of false advertising since my suit against the film, The Neverending Story.”
Clash of the Titans (dirs. Desmond Davis and Louis Leterrier, 1981 & 2010)
My hatred for (the otherwise talented director) Louis Leterrier’s abysmal Clash of the Titans remake is a matter of public record. In contrast, my ambivalence towards the original film hasn’t exactly set the internet afire. Both films play extremely fast and loose with “actual” Greek mythology and are, at best, entertaining on an ironic level. There. That’s out of the way. Now, what’s the problem with the titles you ask?
There are no Titans in either film, nor do they ever actually “clash.” Ordinarily we’d accept the expression as a metaphor (note the absence of Remember the Titans on this list), but in the world of the film Titans are very real indeed, and conspicuously absent.
You see, both Clashes of the Titans tell the story of Perseus, a demigod who gets dicked around by the Greek gods of yore into doing things like killing Medusa and hauling around an embarrassing robotic owl. But the thing to focus on here is the “Greek gods” part: The Greek gods killed all the Titans before the dawn of mankind. That’s how they rose to power. But both films take place Zeus knows how many eons after the death of the last Titan. So basically, all of the Titans are dead before the beginning of the film. There may be a lot of monster fights and godlike shenanigans, but nary a Titan in sight.
To put it another way, imagine Oliver Twist, a wonderful novel/movie/musical about an orphan. Now imagine it was called Oliver Twist’s Mother instead. She dies before the start of the story, damn it. Her death has an effect on the events of the film, but it’s not a very accurate descriptor is it? Oliver Twist’s Mother Is Dead would be more accurate, but really the problem here is that you’re bringing up characters in the title that you’ll never see in the story. It’s false advertising. It’s hard to imagine a wholly accurate title for Clash of the Titans that doesn’t have the word “disappointing” in it somewhere, but really… would it have killed them to read their own scripts? Where I come from, “No Titans” equals “No Clash of the Titans.” And at least as far as the remake is concerned, “No Clash of the Titans” would have been a big improvement.
Blade Runner (dir. Ridley Scott, 1982)
Blade Runner is one hell of a movie. Ridley Scott’s masterpiece (particularly in its various director’s cuts) tells the story of a future in which robots are so sophisticated that they are indistinguishable from humans. But some of these robots, or ‘Replicants,’ have been made so intelligent that they rebel against their programming: for you see, each Replicant is only designed to live for a few short years. These robots go rogue and track down their designers in search for “more life,” and it’s up to troubled detective Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) to stop them before they kill and kill again.
There are no blades to speak of. And you’d find about as much running in your typical romantic comedy. So what gives?
First, the obvious: Philip K. Dick’s original story title – “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” – isn’t exactly what you’d call “punchy.” It makes sense to change it for marketing purposes, but why “Blade Runner?” Well, it turns out that The Bladerunner is the name of a book by writer Alan Nourse, which had been adapted into a screenplay by no less than William S. Burroughs. Ridley Scott apparently bought the rights to the name, but not the actual story.
Huh? Does this mean that he’d planned to use it for any ol’ movie? Maybe. Maybe if A Good Year had been called Blade Runner it wouldn’t have tanked at the box office.
Oh wait, Blade Runner tanked at the box office too. I guess it’s a silly idea either way. The film – which again is really rather brilliant – makes a passing reference to the act of “Blade Running.” Apparently it’s the colloquialism for people who hunt replicants. Why that would make any sense whatsoever is left entirely to the audience’s imagination.
Paprika (dir. Satoshi Kon, 2006)
Satoshi Kon, who until this year qualified as my favorite living director (and he only lost that title because he died), has never made a bad film. Perfect Blue, Tokyo Godfathers and Millennium Actress are all exceptionally brilliant movies (and his television series “Paranoia Agent” is one of the great artistic accomplishments of the new century), but his last completed film, Paprika, is what we’re hear to talk about today. It’s about a new device called “The DC Mini,” which sounds like a sporty compact car but is in fact a means of entering another person’s dreams a la Dreamscape. The protagonist is a psychologist specializing in the device who gets wrapped up in a web of murder and intrigue.
At no point does anyone eat paprika.
Actually, this title makes a tiny modicum of sense, since one character is kinda-sorta called “Paprika” during the film. But like Blade Runner, which also has a flimsy justification for its unusual title, it doesn’t actually explain very much. Psychologist Chiba Atsuko appears in her patient’s dreams as “Paprika,” an extension of her subconscious with a personality of her own. The film plays fast and loose with the nature of this alternate persona, and the film never adequately explains why she manifests herself in dreams as an entirely different person. The ending hints at a complicated backstory but Satoshi Kon seems completely comfortable letting any actual explanation slide. As a result, nothing in this reality-warping murder mystery is more mysterious than why, exactly, anyone would call it Paprika. What were they trying to evoke with such a non-specific title?
I don’t know. Maybe they were just trying to spice things up a bit.
Thank you and good night!