April 2010

Gordon Haber

features

Untitled Gordon Haber Essay

Titles are hard. You spend weeks or months or years on your work, and somewhere along the way youíre expected to encapsulate it in a few pithy words. Itís kind of draining, when you think about it. Maybe thatís why Mark Rothko used the word ďuntitledĒ so often -- not because he wanted to leave interpretation to the viewer, but because he put so much effort into the art itself. After a long day of painting huge colored squares, who has the energy for titles?†

But I would posit that titles are hardest for filmmakers and writers. They need to suggest something with their titles. Itís a kind of marketing. Thus they canít resort to Untitled (although Iím sure itís been done), and Krzysztof Kieslowski cornered the market on colors and numbers. †

When I asked around, I found out that I was right. Amanda Church, a painter, told me that ďa title can make or break a painting.Ē And Ruth Boerefijn, an installation artist, said that ďsometimes a title comes to me out of the blue -- and it is right.Ē Now, these remarks donít suggest that titling is easy, but they were nowhere near as fraught or self-deprecating as the responses I got from the filmmakers and writers. Novelist Lauren Grodstein compared her ďtitle senseĒ to her ďsense of fashion -- a little off, and not in a hip way.Ē And documentary filmmaker Robin Hessman referred to the process as ďexcruciating.Ē †

Considering all the agita, we might forgive those who take the easy way out -- by using title templates or patterns. We might forgive some of them, anyway. Really thereís no excuse for using the most common pattern, Participling the Proper Noun, as exemplified by Searching for Bobby Fischer, Saving Private Ryan, Finding Nemo, Killing Zoe, and ten thousand other movie titles. †

We canít blame it all on Hollywood. Martin Amis, who usually knows what heís doing, has a nonfiction collection called Visiting Mrs. Nabokov. But the pattern does show the symbiotic relationship between screenplays and other forms of writing. Crossing Delancey and Driving Miss Daisy started out as a plays; Looking for Mr. Goodbar and Leaving Las Vegas were novels. The latest novel from one Elizabeth Aston is called Writing Jane Austen -- a name with cachet in the movie business, to the point where Austen herself is a character in Becoming Jane, which (stay with me here) was based on the nonfiction book, Becoming Jane Austen. †

Two important points about Participling the Proper Noun. First, the participle is not a gerund, which is when a verb becomes a noun. (Trainspotting is a gerund; Being John Malkovich is not.) Second, with Samuel Beckettís Waiting for Godot, there is at least one unimpeachable use of the pattern. I think itís fair to say that this title arose from the play itself, not from an attempt to make it sound like a movie. And who cares, anyway? The play would still be good even if it were called Irritating Estragon.†

Of course this isnít the only title pattern. Another (noticed by the astute Michael Schaub) is The Occupationís Relative. In this case, the relative is usually the distaff spouse, as in The Zookeeperís Wife, The Senatorís Wife, The Astronautís Wife, and so on. This convention, I think, is used to emphasize that we still sees wives as mere appendages to their husbands -- and husbands as defined by their professions. Interestingly, the occupations can become quite abstract, as with the novels The Kitchen Godís Wife and The Time Traveler's Wife. Perhaps with the advent of gay marriage, we might see more permutations of the pattern -- The Stylistís Husband or The PE Teacherís Wife.†

Regardless, The Occupationís Relative is not limited to spouses. The Farmerís Daughter is the title of a 1947 movie, a novel by Jim Harrison, and innumerable jokes about horny salesmen. With Senatorís Son, author Luke Larson drops the definite article, presumably following the elision of the Creedence song, Fortunate Son. Then thereís The Accordionistís Son, by Bernardo Atxaga, who writes in his native Basque tongue. Iím guessing that the novelís original title, Soinujolearen seme, translates directly into English, but my Euskera is rusty.†

A title pattern can define an entire career. Consider The Ludlum Protocol, named for the suspense novelist who awkwardly roped a proper noun to a noun, as in The Osterman Weekend, The Bourne Identity, and The Icarus Agenda. I suppose that the pattern sounded good to Ludlum. It also made his novels instantly recognizable on a paperback rack. But again, before we sneer, we should note that the Bourne movies were fun. And that when Ludlum did deviate from his own template, the results were not enticing. The Road to Omaha may be suspenseful, but it sure doesnít sound like it.†

More recent patterns are looser, less grammatically stringent, perhaps as a reflection of uncertain times. One current literary pattern is The Lyrical Instruction Manual, wherein the title suggests a poet trying to explain something vital while doing bong hits: Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing, Eat When You Feel Sad, How to Be Alone, How to Leave Hialeah (which, Google informs me, is near Miami, so the best way to leave is via I-95). †

In a similar vein, thereís the We Are Vaguely Included pattern, which always uses a pronoun with an unspecified referent, and often an inclusive pronoun: Most of Us Are Here Against Our Will, Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever, Here Is Where We Meet, Things We Didnít See Coming, Things You Should Know. (That last one hits a kind of duofecta, as it could also be classified under The Lyrical Instruction Manual.)†

We Are Vaguely Included seems to show the influence of Miranda July, who has demonstrated talent in numerous genres while consistently formulating vaguely inclusive titles. July has a performance piece, Things We Donít Understand and Are Definitely Not Going to Talk About; a film, Me and You and Everyone We Know; and a story collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You. Just typing these titles makes me feel like Iím at an extremely cool party where everyone, at some point or another, mentions their therapist.†

Even more lyrical vagueness can be seen in the What Is Unspecific pattern, wherein a title seems to be referring to something concrete but probably isnít: What We Are, What Becomes, What Was Lost, What We Keep, and, moving into Zen-koan territory, What is the What. Beyond that the only alternative is nonsense, like Tao Linís Eeeee Eee Eeee. Or maybe weíve come full circle. Itís only a short step from the title of Joshua Ferrisís latest, The Unnamed, to no title at all, aka, Untitled.

Maybe itís unfair to insinuate that writers use these patterns only to reflect a kind of hipster ontology, or out of sheer laziness. Certainly itís unfair to present the issue completely unsympathetically. Most writers, myself included, know how difficult it can be to come up with an interesting, original title. So perhaps the answer is to find a way around the whole business by using only one-word titles, like the writer and performance artist Andrea Kleine. Or to be lucky, like author Peter Manseau, who says that for him titles are ďthe easiest part.Ē All I know is that I felt immense relief when I started writing journalism, where titles are the editorís problem.