CHAPTER HEADINGS IN THE CINEMA: A SLIGHT CASE OF SUBTITLE ENVY?

Valhalla Rising (2009)

Valhalla Rising (2009)

In The Brothers Bloom, writer-director Rian Johnson bends over backwards to let us know how literary he is, not just with that Joycean title, but with flagrant references to Melville (Herman, not Jean-Pierre, alas) and Greek mythology. And then there are the chapter headings, as in “Bloom meets Penelope”, preceding a sequence in which, yes, Bloom meets Penelope. Hey, why just show when you can show and tell?

Melville’s satirical allegory The Confidence Man, acknowledged by Johnson as an inspiration for his film, contains some amusingly prolix chapter headings (for example, “In which the last three words of the last chapter are made the text of the discourse, which will be sure of receiving more or less attention from those readers who do not skip it.”), though Johnson is content to play with snappier captions such as “The Set-Up”, perhaps in deference to that other classic conman tale, The Sting. In George Roy Hill’s film, the viewer is guided through each stage of the elaborate scam by headings such as “The Wire” or “The Shut-Out,” each accompanied by a pastiche of a Norman Rockwell’s illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post.

This division of the scam into acts reflects the theatrical nature of the swindle, and echoes the nine stages as laid out in David Maurer’s The Big Con, a hugely influential book which is sometimes cited as a source for David S. Ward’s Oscar-winning screenplay for The Sting. (And I’d be very surprised if David Mamet hadn’t read it, since its shadow looms large in several of his films, from House of Games onwards.)

stingsetup (1)

The Sting (1973)

stingwire

The Sting (1973)

The-Sting-The-Hook1 (1)

The Sting (1973)

thesting8 (1)

The Sting (1973)

There’s something old timey and a bit snobbish about chapter headings, as though film-makers are keen to siphon off some of literature’s cultural kudos to lend gravitas to their enterprise. Nowadays, chapter headings are a sure sign of directors who want to be taken seriously as auteurs – if not authors, such is their evident love of the printed word.

I sometimes wonder if it’s not a sort of subtitle envy. It’s an accepted convention in the English-speaking world that subtitles are a signifier of an art movie. So for Anglophone film-makers who can’t go that extra mile without making their films in Aramaic or Latin, the addition of some extra bits of onscreen writing is a surefire way of positioning one’s film as arthouse nutrition as opposed to multiplex popcorn. Though I daresay it makes life easier for DVD menu planners as well.

These thoughts first occurred to me in the year 2009 when, if to compensate for the absence of subtitles, two mad Danish auteurs, Lars Von Trier and Nicolas Winding Refn, each made a film in English – and then added chapter headings. In each case, the headings became increasingly ominous as the stories turned darker and more disturbing. You only have to read the words, “Part V – Hell” in Valhalla Rising to sense events are about to take a downward turn. As for Antichrist‘s “Chapter 4 – The Three Beggars”, I haven’t been so dismayed by a chapter heading since the time the words “Circle of Shit” came up midway through Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.

Antichrist (2009)

Antichrist (2009)

despair

Antichrist (2009)

three-beggars

Antichrist (2009)

Chapter headings are also a smart way for film-makers to align themselves with revered artists such as Jean-Luc Godard, whose Vivre sa vie is a “film en douze tableaux”. Other illustrious practitioners include Lindsay Anderson, who offers ironic counterpoint to If… with captions like “Crusaders”, and carves up the nation into “West,” “North” and “South” in O Lucky Man!

And Stanley Kubrick must have found chapter headings a useful aid in reducing W.M. Thackeray’s The Memoires of Barry Lyndon, Esq to plain old Barry Lyndon, since he recycled the device in The Shining. In the case of his adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, of course, the headings perform a useful function in indicating the passage of time and advancing the story in big leaps (“8am”, “CLOSING DAY”, “A MONTH LATER”, “WEDNESDAY”) rather than showing the changes actually taking place on screen, though I daresay they are plenty of Kubrick fans who wouldn’t say no to watching hours of footage of Jack Nicholson going mad in tiny increments.

The only famous old Hollywood classic with chapter headings I could find was Meet Me in St Louis (1944) which is divided into seasonal segments, each illustrated by an elaborate title card. I’m surprised I couldn’t track down other early examples (if you know of any please don’t hesitate to suggest them in the comments). But there’s no shortage of them nowadays, where they’ve become a regular fixture of American indie productions. Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Todd Solondz and Quentin Tarantino have all used them more than once. Wes Anderson, in particular, sometimes gives the impression of conceiving his films as novels.

Sometimes, though, I can’t help thinking chapter headings are a bit of a cheat. Much as I enjoyed (most of) Inglourious Basterds, I did wonder whether its division into chapters with titles such as “Operation Kino” and “Revenge of the Giant Face” was just a way for the film-maker to paper over the fact that what he’d written wasn’t so much a flowing narrative as a series of tenuously connected sketches strung together, like segments of a Richard Curtis rom-com.

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Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Version 3

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Version 4

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Version 5

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

magnolialightshowers

Magnolia (1999)

magnoliapartlycloudy

Magnolia (1999)

tenenbaums chapter2

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

royal-tenenbaums-chapter-five

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

vivre-10

Vivre sa vie (1962)

vivresavietableau4titlebaja

Vivre sa vie (1962)

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

budapestsociety

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

This piece was first published in the Guardian in May 2009. It has since been edited.

 

 

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7 thoughts on “CHAPTER HEADINGS IN THE CINEMA: A SLIGHT CASE OF SUBTITLE ENVY?

  1. This is going to be mostly unverified speculation, until I’ve had a bit of a proper think about it.

    Is there a gulf in the use of screen titles immediately after the introduction of sound in cinema as film makers try to distance themselves from old silent movies? Only returning years later, by film makers looking for some way to force a definative scene shift?

    There are film ideas that play with chapters in a very literal way, a shot of a book being opened- zoom into the image on the page which by the magic of cinema comes to life. Particularly in childrens films/nursery stories. (Does ‘The Princess Bride’ do this?)

    Another gimmick is the spinning headline, which almost has a similar function to a chapter heading in setting up the action to follow. (I’m fairly sure ‘Citizen Kane’ and lots of others use this.)

    Animated sequences also pop up from time to time, ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ has some wonderful examples.

    I’d better stop there, this is degenerating into a list of bullet points. And do some more thinking, on what is a strangely interesting idea you have opened up.

  2. Thanks for that! Neatly summarises lots of topics I wanted to broach but which were left out for reasons of space (in the original piece, that is – I could have totally rewritten it for the blog, but… well, you know.)

  3. I’m not sure spinning headlines are the same as chapter headings. They’re ways of summarising events rather than dividing the story up. Probably something to be written about their relationship to the montage. In fact, montages in general.

    • ooh thanks! Must read that. Love what I’ve read of Gogol, but always had problems finding decent translations of the Russians. Do you recommend any in particular? (I could probably manage French as well as English.)

  4. Haven’t read it, sorry! But I did see that production a couple of years ago (there’s a Russian TV version on youtube but no subs). It’s his least produced play but it is very House of Games and I’m sure Mamet will have come across it. This is the director talking about it:

    For the Russians in general Pevear and Volokhonsky are the bosses of course.

  5. Pingback: WHY DOES EVERYONE HATE GWYNETH PALTROW? | MULTIGLOM

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