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